Sunday, November 15, 2015

Exxon Climate Revelations Are Just Part of a Long History of Science Misinformation - by John Cook

Measure of scientific disagreement about climate change (Credit: Shwed & Bearman, 2010) Click to Enlarge.
A recent investigation by Pulitzer Prize winner Inside Climate News has uncovered damning activity by fossil fuel company Exxon.  Long before they supplied millions of dollars to conservative think-tanks who misinformed the public about climate science, Exxon’s own scientists informed them of the scientific consensus that fossil fuel burning would cause disruptive climate change.

This echoes past activity of the tobacco industry, who knew from internal research about the health consequences of smoking but nevertheless funded misinformation casting doubt on the link between smoking and cancer.  The same misinformation tactics employed by the tobacco industry are used by the fossil fuel industry.

Even the same spokespeople defending tobacco have also attacked the science on climate change.  Given the obvious parallels between the activities of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, the New York Attorney General has issued a subpoena further investigating Exxon’s activities regarding climate change.

Measuring scientific consensus
Research published in 2010 by Uri Shwed and Peter Bearman offers further insight into one aspect of the tobacco and fossil fuel misinformation campaigns. 
Their study was concerned with the question of scientific consensus – how do we know if and when a consensus forms?

The authors looked at how scientific papers reference other papers, known as citations, in order to construct a network of scientific research.  Scientists mostly cite papers they agree with.  Consequently, a network of papers where there is scientific consensus will look quite different to a network where there is still ongoing debate.

When the scientific community is undecided about an issue, the published literature will show different “communities” of papers citing each other.  In network terms, the community shows higher modularity (in other words, it’s “clumpy”).  As scientific consensus forms on an issue, the structure of the community evolves from distinct groups into a single, united community (and the “clumpiness” smooths out).

With the assumption (based on empirical research) that papers mostly cite papers they agree with, Shwed and Bearman took a purely mathematical approach to quantifying consensus, without having to read the content of all the published research.  This eliminated the need for domain experts to manually categorize scientific research, as well as removed any possible bias from people who are manually analyzing the content.

They looked at the evolving consensus on several scientific issues but we’re interested in two in particular:  the consensus linking smoking to cancer and the consensus linking human activity to climate change.

The consensus on climate change followed a “spiral” trajectory where scientific agreement on the major question of human causation was initially settled in the early 1990s.  From that point, scientific investigation narrowed (or spiraled) onto more specific questions (for example, the behavior of clouds in a changing climate or better understanding of regional climate change).

Read more at Exxon Climate Revelations Are Just Part of a Long History of Science Misinformation

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