99 and 44/100ths Percent Pure Guesswork

by Greg Walcher on May 9, 2016

University of Delaware climatologist Dr. David R. Legates recently wrote that he felt the same pressure as many colleagues who disagree with the supposed consensus that climate change is both manmade and dangerous. He mentions the usual professional criticism by environmental pressure groups, and also what he calls harassment from media, government, and his own university.

None of that is new. But he claims hundreds of scientists now find it difficult to express honest opinions on the topic, especially in light of recent reports about Attorney General Loretta Lynch threatening to prosecute “climate deniers” under racketeering laws. He writes that meaningful scientific discussion is being obscured by politics.

That should no longer surprise me, or anyone, but I am astonished at the extent to which some advocates try to silence people who disagree with their point of view. We have seen this in the often-heated debates surrounding environmental issues for years, but it always struck me as slightly irrational, especially so when leaders on both sides tend to exaggerate their claims.

There was an old joke in which someone exaggerating would be told, “You have been told billions of times not to exaggerate.” No issue lends itself more to such exaggeration then the ongoing debate over climate change.

Even the President of the United States once fell into that trap, famously tweeting to his 31 million followers, “97% of scientists agree: Climate change is real, manmade and dangerous.” The 97 percent figure has been repeated often since then by environmental activists, as evidence that the science is “settled,” as Al Gore continually asserts, and as proof that anyone who disagrees is uninformed, and therefore discredited. One letter to the editor of the Sentinel actually upped the number to 98 percent recently in responding to one of my own columns (which, ironically, was about intolerance in this discussion, not about climate change).

ivory_old_1954The statistic reminds me of the old Ivory Soap slogan claiming the product was “Ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent pure.” That was pure advertising, of course, started in 1881 when Harley Procter, son of the Procter & Gamble co-founder, needed a new angle. People have always been impressed by scientists, so he hired a lab to test Ivory and prove it was “purer” than other soap. Most soap was made of fatty acids and alkali, and Ivory had trace amounts of other minerals totaling 0.56 percent. So it was 99.44 percent pure. As if floating wasn’t enough to sell it.

I don’t think anyone has even proven that 1881 lab test wrong, but the slogan fell out of use eventually, because it just seems far-fetched to claim such a high number. That’s true in almost anything we debate. So where do global warming activists get their 97 percent figure? That is not a rhetorical question.

There is no organization to which all the world’s scientists belong, nor is there any group that has ever claimed to ask all of them those questions: is climate change real, is it caused by humans, and is it dangerous? So how do we know what they all think? Nobody has ever asked even a fraction of the world’s scientists their opinion on that.

The “factoid” originated in 2004, when a Harvard professor claimed to have examined the abstracts of 928 scientific papers and found a 100% consensus that the “Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities.” No argument here. Very few competent students claim humans have no impact on climate. But the professor then interpreted that same evidence as meaning “most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” That was, of course, not what all 928 scientific papers said, and one of those authors called her on it. So she and some of her colleagues decided 97 percent was more credible, so that was the published conclusion, repeated ever since.

Another analysis by a University of Utah biologist in 2010 concluded that “97–98 percent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field” believe “anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for most of the unequivocal warming of the Earth’s average global temperature.” To get there, he compiled a database of 908 “climate researchers” (not necessarily scientists at all) who published frequently on climate topics, then identified any who had “signed statements strongly dissenting.” The 97–98 percent figure was simply those who had not signed such dissents.

Keep in mind that “scientist” is a far broader term than “climate scientist” or “climate researcher” or “climatologist.” The Obama claim is that “97% of scientists agree.” Except only a miniscule portion of the world’s “scientists” have published anything at all on climate. Most of them work in other fields: biology, geology, anthropology, zoology, and so on. If President Obama means to include only climate experts, he should say so. But that is a problem, because a large portion of the UN’s own “scientists” and other academics who get government grants to publish studies on global warming are, in fact, not “climatologists,” but people trained and educated in various other fields.

It’s difficult to have it both ways. Either 97% of all scientists agree – a statement for which there is no survey – or just those publishing government-funded studies. If the latter is the case (as it seems to be), their defenders ought to choose their words more carefully. Either way, to use bogus methodology to come up with such statistics and then use that to stifle any other research and stop all debate is disingenuous.

I don’t know the real answer to the question – I’m not a scientist of any kind. But even Einstein once said “a single experiment could prove me wrong.” That’s why we have to keep studying, not silence all other opinions.

An abbreviated version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel April 15, 2016

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