Monday, May 16, 2005

Benny Peiser as the next John Lott?

John Lott is a conservative, anti-gun-control researcher with a reputation for dishonesty. Benny Peiser is a global warming denialist who conducted an easily-refuted study (UPDATE: also see here for more refutation) disputing proof that scientists have reached consensus that human-caused global warming currently exists.

Now it's one thing to defend your work with weak arguments, or even to ignore flaws in your work that have been pointed out to you. You cross a line, however, when something you've said is proven to be refuted, you've read the refutation, you refuse to address the issue in front of an audience that knows of the refutation, and then, in front of a new audience not aware of the refutation, you reassert the original statement. At that point, you're the next John Lott.

The chronology is below, but if you want to skip it, here's the summary: Peiser asserted in comments on Tim Lambert's blog that he used the same abstracts as a study he was refuting in order to show the flaws in that study. Other comments on the same Lambert post proved him wrong. Peiser continued to post in the comments, which is nearly-absolute proof that he read the refutation, but he ignored the refutation and failed to repeat his assertion to that narrow audience that was aware of the refutation. Several days later, he repeats the assertion on a different website, where people are not aware of the refutation.

In short, Peiser doesn't try to stand by his argument where the audience is aware that it is wrong, and then repeats the argument to a different audience while being aware that it is wrong. That is dishonest (at the bottom of the post, I try and think of excuses, but I'm not satisfied).


1. Early on May 6 or late on May 5, Tim Lambert posts 33 of the 34 abstracts that form an important part of Peiser's argument that there is no consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). (The date listed for the post is May 6, but it may reflect the updates Lambert added.)

2. In the hours following the posting, I and other Lambert readers go through the 33 abstracts (and a 34th added still later), and post in the comments section our conclusion that the vast majority do not support Peiser's position as contradicting the consensus view.

3. May 6, 8:30 p.m., A major news website,, discusses Peiser's work at the Cosmic Log:

Although the exercise may be politically satisfying, it does little good to try to resolve scientific debates by calculating how many wheelbarrows' worth of published papers support your view, as the backers of standard evolutionary theory did this week in Kansas, or as climate researchers did recently in the journal Science. (Check British social anthropologist Benny Peiser's Web site for updates on his feud with Science over those global-warming claims.)

3. May 7 at 1:58 a.m., Peiser posts the 34th abstract at Lambert's website in the comments section, and defends his own work. He claims the study by Naomi Oreskes that he is challenging gave a wrong total number of abstracts dealing with climate change. This is the key issue now for purposes of examining Peiser's honesty.

4. May 7 at 2:29 a.m., commenter Meyrick quotes and refutes Peiser:

Peiser: "she was wrong about the overall number of ISI abstracts"

So is Peiser. He gets the 1247 by including the social sciences and humanities indicies, but this was about consensus in the scientific community. (P.S. I consider myself to be a social scientist, so this is not about a scientists elitist bias)

5. May 7, 7:27 a.m., I write:

Peiser didn't take Oreskes' abstracts, he changed the search.

6. May 7, 5:34 p.m., Peiser writes:

Let me correct another canard, the claim that “Peiser didn't take Oreskes' abstracts, he changed the search”: I used exactly the same data bank (ISI Web of Science) as Oreskes, and selected the same period of time (1993 – 2003). Everybody with access to ISI can confirm that a key word search for “global climate change” will produce 1,247 documents (of which only 1117 have abstracts). I repeat: Oreskes got her figures wrong.

7. May 7, 10 p.m. Meyrick writes:

Think I’ve finally worked out how to replicate Oreskes’ search. There are 2 fundemental differences between Peiser search and Oreskes.

1. Oreskes excluded the “Social Sciences Citation Index” and the “Arts & Humanities Citation Index”, Peiser does not.

2. Oreskes set the search limits to include only “Article”s, whereas Peiser set the search limits to include “All document types”.

Using Oreskes search you get 929 documents (her article says 928, close enough?), where as with Peiser’s search you get 1247 documents.

8. May 8, 4:33 a.m: Peiser posts the next comment following Meyrick; his post ignores Meyrick's refutation and makes a new argument. While evasive, this is not dishonest.

9. May 8, 6:48 a.m, commenter Connelley posts:

On the 1247/929 question: BP got a different # to Oreskes. Did he stop and work out why? Did he ask Oreskes? It seems not: he just assumed she was wrong. Yet Meyrick seems to have found a rather sensible solution to get the "right" number.

10. May 8, 7:23 a.m., I wrote:

Dr. Peiser,

You quoted me as having stated the "canard" that “Peiser didn't take Oreskes' abstracts, he changed the search”. Given Meyrick's research here, do you retract that description of my statement being a canard, and do you retract the statement you've made here and doubtless repeated elsewhere that you did not change the search? You appear very interested in having Science magazine correct any misrepresentations it has made - the principle should be universal.

11. May 8, 8:43 p.m., Peiser posts another comment making additional arguments and ignoring the refutation to his original claim the he used the same abstracts. To defend Peiser (slightly), the number of abstracts was only one of several issues being discussed in the comments, but still he was being evasive.

12. May 8, 10:55 p.m. Meyrick posts:

Dr Peiser

1. You have failed to replicate Dr Oreskes work and have failed to admit this.

13. May 9, 1:19 a.m., Peiser posts:

OK folks. Let's call it a day. I acknowledge your denial of the reality of scientific scepticism in the global warming debates and its presence in the scientific literature.

(note: all the quotes above are excerpts - full quotes are here.)

14. Sometime between May 6 and the evening of May 10, I notice the report citing Peiser, and send a critical email. I didn't keep a record of this, so I don't know the exact time.

15. May 10, 7:50 p.m., Cosmic Log posts my email on their website:

"When publishing Benny Peiser's attack on the global warming consensus position, you should also publish how easily he's been refuted. ... Peer review and consensus have something in common: quality control. Peiser challenged the consensus position, refused peer review, and ended up with material that supports the opposite of his position. When 99 percent of the experts agree, they may still be wrong, but anyone who relies on that possibility in order to do nothing is foolish indeed."

16. May 11, 11:50 p.m., Cosmic Log posts Peiser's response to my email:

"Naomi Oreskes claims to have analysed 928 abstracts on global climate change. She claims that 75 percent either explicitly or implicitly accept the view that most of the recent warming trend is man-made and concludes: 'Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.' I'm afraid none of her claims are correct. I have analysed the same set of abstracts. Not only are there a few abstracts that explicitly reject the alleged consensus; the vast majority of abstracts does not even mention anthropogenic global warming. Her claim that the consensus is supported by 'all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members' expertise bears directly on the matter' has also been shown to be bogus.

"I am sorry to say that Mr. Schmidt's claim that '99 percent of the experts agree' is just as fictitious, as a recent survey among 500 international climate scientists has shown: 'These results seem to suggest that consensus is not all that strong and only 9.4 percent of the respondents "strongly agree" that climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes' (PDF file).

"So much for universal agreement among the climate research community."

(Emphasis added for the bolded statement.)

My apology for the long chronology, but I want to give the details for anyone interested. I think Peiser's failure to address the argument with an informed but small audience is an important indication of his credibility. It would have been understandable, if not entirely acceptable, had Peiser simply walked away from that argument that he analyzed the same abstracts, but reasserting the argument where he was not likely to get caught is a serious breach of honesty.

It takes a great leap of imagination in my opinion to come up with a non-dishonest explanation. I can't believe he didn't read the refutation, so at best he had some kind of cognitive failure that kept the refutation from sinking into his head. Such a failure would make future work from him pretty unreliable, though.

Final notes:

1. I'm not a scholar, and haven't repeated Meyrick's search that refuted Peiser, but I have no reason to think Meyrick is wrong.

2. I assume Peiser did not know who I was when he attacked my argument at the Cosmic Log, but even if he did, I could imagine him repeating his original reckless assertion there, and hoping to get away with it.

3. The "99 percent" figure I stated was a general assertion based on Oreskes' finding of consensus with no-to-virtually-no disagreement in peer-reviewed science articles. I don't have another explicit source for that assertion. If it's at all incorrect, I suspect it's nowhere nearly as incorrect as Peiser was about analyzing the same abstracts, and in any event I would stop using it if proven wrong.

4. Peiser's final reference to a survey of 500 climate "scientists" refers to work that is even worse than his own, and is refuted again by Lambert here.

5. I'm going to have to email this to Peiser. I'll let him say what he wants here, if he feels like it, and if he proves me wrong, I'll correct it or remove the post, as he wishes.

UPDATE: Dr. Peiser responded to my email. Excerpt below:

4. Did I use a wider search than Oreskes? I don't know. From what
little she says about
her methodology, I understood that she used an ISI databank search of
abstracts on "global
climate change". I did exactly the same. But whatever search strategy
Oreskes may have
employed - and she hasn't clarified this problem as yet - her figures
simply don't add
up. She claims she analysed 928 abstracts. But she also claims that
"some abstracts were
deleted from our analysis because, although the authors had put
'climate change' (sic) in
their key words, the paper was not about climate change."
At least he's civil about it, but this doesn't suffice for me, and I still don't know if he's changing his public claim. I responded:
Your saying:

"Did I use a wider search than Oreskes? I don't know."

differs substantially from your public statement
published on the MSNBC website:

"I have analysed the same set of abstracts."

Saying "I don't know" leaves much to be desired in my
opinion, as I believe it has been shown you did use a
wider search. Still it represents an improvement over
what you said previously, and I obviously think you
should stop saying you analyzed the same set.

UPDATE 2: Peiser cuts off communication with me (see my May 17 post above this one).

UPDATE 3: In accordance with Dr. Peiser's wishes, I'm posting his full email below, which I've also posted in the May 17th entry above. I had only posted the excerpt above because I was not sure if he wanted me to post the entire email, but felt justified in posting the only part that I believe was responsive to the issue I raised publicly. My May 17th post discusses the parts of Peiser's email other than the part excerpted in the first update.

Dear Mr Schmidt

I'm afraid you are missing the point. I have tried to show that the
'study' is flawed in a number of ways:

1. Oreskes claims that "none of the papers disagreed with the consensus
position." This is simply incorrect, or at least grossly misleading, as
a few abstracts actually reject the "consensus" as defined by Oreskes

2. Oreskes claims that "all major scientific bodies in the United
whose members' expertise bears directly on the matter" have endorsed
consensus. This is incorrect, or at least grossly misleading, as most
open-minded observers of the debates know that both the American
of State Climatologists (AASC) and the American Association of
Geologists (AAPG) remain decidely sceptical of the "consensus".

3. Oreskes claims that "75% either explicitly or implicitly accept the
view." My analysis, however, shows that the vast majority of abstracts
does not
deal with anthropogenic global warming. In fact, I could only find 13
that *explicitly* endorsed the "consensus". This falsification of her
is true even if Oreskes may have used slightly fewer abstracts (928)
than I did
(1117) from the same ISI databank.

4. Did I use a wider search than Oreskes? I don't know. From what
little she says about
her methodology, I understood that she used an ISI databank search of
abstracts on "global
climate change". I did exactly the same. But whatever search strategy
Oreskes may have
employed - and she hasn't clarified this problem as yet - her figures
simply don't add
up. She claims she analysed 928 abstracts. But she also claims that
"some abstracts were
deleted from our analysis because, although the authors had put
'climate change' (sic) in
their key words, the paper was not about climate change."

I also found that some 10% of documents in the ISI databank on "global
climate change" did
not include any abstracts. Whatever the case, the fact of the matter is
that Oreskes 'study'
lacks any coherent methodology, which is rather strange given her
emphasis on peer-review.
I cannot recall any other study published in Science that lacked *any*
clear method. All
she says in her essay is that she "analyzing 928 abstracts, published
in refereed scientific
journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the
keywords "climate
change" (sic). Why 928 and not 929? What happened to all those
abstracts that were "deleted
from the analysis"? Why don't any of these figures add up?

To conclude, the scientific community is far from any global warming
consensus. Not only
are there many open questions about the balance between human and
natural drivers of
terrestrial climate; even less agreement exists about whether or not
the anthropogenic
contribution to climate change poses any long-term threat to the
stability and health
of our global village.

The reality of disagreement was confirmed by a recent survey among some
500 international
climate researchers. The survey, conducted by Professors Dennis Bray
and Hans von Storch of
the German Institute for Coastal Research, found that "a quarter of
respondents still question
whether human activity is responsible for the most recent climatic
changes." It simply
confirmed what a previous survey, conducted in 1996 and published in
the peer-reviewed
literature showed: that there is a sizeable body of scepticism within
the scientific community.
To deny its very existence seems rather futile to me given that
'sceptical' research papers
continue to being published all the time.

BTW: I'm not a climatologist and would not want to voice any strong
opinion on the complexities
involved in trying to attribute climate change to any of the countless
factors. The *real* problem, as I see it, is how we, as individuals and
as a society, deal with scientific doubts and uncertainty on such and
other controversies. All I am arguing is that science requires freedom
of thought, freedom of debate and freedom to doubt. If we lose these
liberties because
climate alarmists think it is crucial to silence any doubt, or deny its
very existence, you
can forget science.

I hope this clarification is helpful.

With best regards
Benny Peiser


keywords: science, global warming, Peiser, debunking

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