September 13th, 2017
Readers will no doubt be familiar with the oft-quoted statement that ’97 per cent of scientific studies conclude that climate change is real and humans are causing it’.
You may have also wondered about the remaining 3 percent. As some have argued, perhaps they are the last bastion of independent science, faithfully standing up against the flawed and biased scientific majority?
That line of thought may delight conspiracy theorists and, arguably, could even be the premise for a good movie. It is also the type of argument various outspoken climate denial organisations have used in the past.
Unfortunately for them, it simply isn’t the case. According to a new study published in the Journal of Theoretical and Applied Climatology, these studies are flawed and unreliable.
Not replicated, not a chance
The authors of this work attempted to replicate the results of 38 of the most well-known and cited studies within this ‘3 percent’ category.
Experimental replication is a basic tenet of scientific research – the results of an experiment by one scientist should clearly be repeatable by another. If not, there is a problem.
Rasmus Benestad, climate physicist from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and lead author of the paper, created a tool in R – an open source programming language – that allowed them to replicate the methods and results their selected papers.
They found that the vast majority could not be replicated and had errors of some sort. The errors found ranged from cherry-picking of data or omitting important contextual information, inappropriate ‘curve-fitting’ when constructing models and a lack of understanding of physical principles.
“Every single one of those analyses had an error—in their assumptions, methodology, or analysis—that, when corrected, brought their results into line with the scientific consensus,” wrote Katherine Hayhoe – well-known climate scientist and communicator and co-author of the paper – in a Facebook post.
So not only were they flawed to begin with but when corrected they actually agreed with the what the vast majority have been in agreement about for years.
Shoddy science gets found out
The scientific method is designed to ensure that each hypothesis and experiment can be, and is, rigorously tested. Any new idea, whether it causes raised eyebrows or excitement, must stand up to this rigour.
As with all groups of people, it is not surprising that not all scientists agree. At any one time, droves of scientists are debating and disagreeing about something.
Demonstrating a scientific truth and proving this to your expert peers around the world is a tough task and can take years, decades even. With this, some careers are made and some are lost.
Eventually consensus builds and sciences moves forward, irrespective of the individual bruised egos and damaged reputations. More importantly, it is irrespective of disingenuous, agenda-driven attempts to prevent basic truths reaching the wider public.
The tragedy is that these flawed climate papers were used by organisations with anti-climate agendas to dispute the causes of climate change in public discourse. This caused confusion among the lay public and policymakers and made our window to mitigate climate change even smaller.
This new research is important because it demonstrates to the public that virtually all scientists agree about the causes of climate change and have so for a long time. It also shows that shoddy science is found out sooner or later.