Friday, April 5, 2013

Do Most Experts Believe in Global Warming?

James Taylor from the Heartland Institute has recently written in Forbes about a new peer-reviewed study that he says demonstrates no:
Don’t look now, but maybe a scientific consensus exists concerning global warming after all. Only 36 percent of geoscientists and engineers believe that humans are creating a global warming crisis, according to a survey reported in the peer-reviewed Organization Studies. By contrast, a strong majority of the 1,077 respondents believe that nature is the primary cause of recent global warming and/or that future global warming will not be a very serious problem.
 I personally find it hilarious that Taylor led in with that idiom: Don't look now.  It's almost as if he didn't want us to go read the paper.  This is from the abstract:
This paper examines the framings and identity work associated with professionals’ discursive construction of climate change science, their legitimation of themselves as experts on ‘the truth’, and their attitudes towards regulatory measures.
Well that doesn't sound like an opinion survey. Why would you want to know about professionals' legitimation of themselves as experts if you just want their opinion? Why are you surveying people who might not be experts on climate science anyway? I don't go to my dentist to get his opinion on my house's electrical wiring.

The abstract concludes:
By linking notions of the science or science fiction of climate change to the assessment of the adequacy of global and local policies and of potential organizational responses, we contribute to the understanding of ‘defensive institutional work’ by professionals within petroleum companies, related industries, government regulators, and their professional association.
This isn't an opinion poll.  The authors clearly state that they're trying to elaborate on defensive institutional work by professionals in various industries or agencies; if I may phrase it this way, it's a psychological analysis, not a polling.

Need some convincing still that this is not a poll? From their methodology section (my italics):
Since 1999, climate change had been debated among professionals in APEGA in over 150 articles and letters to the editor that had appeared in the association’s monthly publication The PEGG. [...] Given this debate, APEGA initiated a broad survey of its 40,000 members (as of 2007) concerning their beliefs about climate change, sources of knowledge, and opinions about the appropriate roles for individuals, industry, APEGA, and government. The first author was engaged by APEGA to develop the survey and analyze the results. The survey questionnaire contained closed- and open-ended questions and was published in The PEGG and on the website in October 2007. A total of 1077 completed surveys were received and 12 respondents emailed or mailed in additional comments.

There are two reasons in this paragraph why there's no need to go further:

1) Taylor's claims can be dismissed just on the very basis that the results from this survey were not random; there is absolutely no way to account for non-response bias.  This is a huge failing from an opinion polling POV – you cannot be certain that you have a representative sample if you have a fully open survey, because it may very well be that those who have one viewpoint are much more vocal about it than those that have a different viewpoint.  Perceived threat to status quo, perceived importance, perceived self-interest, etc.: each of these can influence whether a person will respond to a survey, and can all be influenced by ideology.

In defense of the study, the survey methodology may not be very relevant for their purposes.  If they want to do a psychological analysis of sorts on each of the subpopulations, then so long as they have enough from each group to generalize to the subgroups as well (not quite guaranteed by the open survey format, still), they can probably do their analysis.  It's like me wanting to find out how the Westboro Baptist Church members frame religious questions; they're a very small minority, but I don't need to interview them as a proportional subset of a much larger group of people.

2) This survey was conducted only on a very narrow sub-population of professionals, members of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta. This group very likely has a negligible number of climate scientists in its membership, and is very disproportionately populated by scientists that work with one of the most active anti-climate-science industries on the planet, the fossil fuel industry.

We can see from the responses from all of the sub-groups too that these people are not experts in matters of climate science:
"Absolutely! 1000%. [The Kyoto Protocol] is the only effective way to curb pollutions[...]"
"If you think about it, global warming is what brought us out of the Ice Age."
"It is a mistake to think that human activity can change this… It would be like an ant in a bowling ball who thinks it can have a significant influence the roll of the ball."
Quoting the paper: "They are most likely to speak against climate science as being science fiction, ‘manipulated and fraudulent’. They are least likely to believe that the scientific debate is settled, that IPCC modeling is accurate, and oppose all regulation ‘based on the incorrect assumption that greenhouse gases cause climate change’."
"This present hysteria on 'global warming' is purely political and has little to do with real science."
"Kyoto is simply designed to transfer large sums of money from the wallets of citizens of mostly Caucasian countries to the Swiss bank accounts of third world dictators."
"This is obviously a left wing/liberal survey… You folks were probably calling out the sky is falling when Ozone was the latest left wing craze [this was a real issue BTW]… The earth ‘weather’ has always been changing. Now you want to blame me and my gas furnace, big house, two cars, etc. Well get over it."
"It is only reasonable to assume that we are changing our environment and climate, all you have to do is look out your window to see it."
 These aren't statements from people who are climate experts. These are the statements of non-experts, or ideologues, or both.

If James Taylor wants to tout around the views of non-experts as evidence that global warming is not real, then by all means he may dig his grave (maybe he can join Rush Limbaugh, who also recently saw it fit to reward a 13-year-old caller for his library "research" demonstrating that global warming is a scam; the kid, of course, did not give any of this evidence he supposedly found while he was on the line).  We'll still hold on to actual peer-reviewed opinion polling of actual experts, such as Doran et al 2009 and Anderegg et al 2010, or maybe even take in mind analysis done on papers from the Web of Science by James Powell.  For those that are not so fecklessly reckless as Taylor is though, be sure to learn from his mistakes. I would personally recommend, for starters, reading the sources you cite.

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