Systemic misuse of criticism of climate science

I thought that those familiar with the climate debate might be interested in the latest saga. About a year ago, Roger Pielke Jr and Justin Ritchie wrote a paper called Systemic Misuse of Scenarios in Climate Research and Assessment, which I briefly discussed in this post. They also promoted this in Issues in Science and Technology, in an article called How Climate Scenarios Lost Touch With Reality.

Yesterday, Issues published some responses to the claims made by Pielke and Ritchie. The authors include Marcia McNutt (current President of the National Academy of Sciences), Chris Field (co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group II), Kate Marvel (climate scientist at NASS GISS and Columbia), Gavin Schmidt (Director of NASA GISS and Senior Climate Science Advisor to the NASA Administrator) and Peter Jacobs (Strategic Science Advisor, Earth Communications, NASA GSFC).

I think the resonses are very good, although I don’t entirely agree with McNutt and Field that it is still 100% accurate to regard RCP8.5 as a business-as-usual pathway. I think most now agree that this is not a good descriptor for this pathway and that maybe we should avoid using this desriptor altogether.

I did particularly like the ending of the response by Schmidt & Jacobs

Thus, assessing the worth of scientific contributions by counting which scenarios are mentioned is like assessing honesty by counting the number of times the word integrity is used in an article; it is both pointless and misleading.

The response on Twitter from Roger Pielke Jr was rather predictable. He complained that some of the responses were lying about their work. Some of the responses suggested that Pielke and Ritchie were claiming that the “use” of these scenarios was a failure of scientific integrity, when what they were really suggesting was that the “misuse” was a failure of scientific integrity. Of course, they also suggest that there is systemic “misuse” of scenarios, so it’s not entirely clear when their “use” isn’t “misuse”.

Roger also suggested that the reason climate scientists are mad with him is because he’s spent many years writing about the conflicts between the special interests of the climate science community and the broader social responsibilities of this community, rather than because he’s spent decades criticising climate scientists in ways that have provided ammunition for those who either dispute AGW, or its significance.

Climate science is a complex science and there are certainly valid criticisms that could be made about the development of scenarios, the modelling choices, and how some of this work has been presented publicly, to name but a few. However, I suspect that measured, constructive criticism will produce far fewer headlines than claims that there has been systemic misuse of scenarios, and that this is a failure of scientific integrity. It also won’t appeal nearly as much to those who dispute that dealing with climate change requires urgent action, but far be it for me to suggest that this might have been a motivation behind the Pielke and Ritchie critique.

For those who are familiar with the climate debate will realise that this is just another example of same ol’ same ol’. As Gavin Schmidt pointed out on Twitter, it’s not as if Roger doesn’t have form.


Systemic Misuse of Scenarios in Climate Research and Assessment — Article by Pielke & Ritchie.
How Climate Scenarios Lost Touch with Reality — Issues article by Pielke & Ritchie.
Climate Scenarios and Reality — Response from McNutt & Field, Marvel, and Schmidt & Jacobs
Poor Roger — post I wrote about some of Roger’s contributions to the climate debate.

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24 Responses to Systemic misuse of criticism of climate science

  1. Jim Hunt says:

    Sadly Roger Jr. is evidently “incapable of having coherent discourse and debate”:

  2. Chubbs says:

    Yes Roger is misusing RCP85 or to put it another way ignoring the implications of its demise. Since RCP85 was developed. solar, wind, battery EV have flourished under a mild climate policy. Now we can have stronger climate policy at relatively low cost and countries are beginning to sign up for net zero. As more countries sign up, new energy technologies will grow even faster, further improving their competitive position vs fossil fuels.. The iron law has rusted and Roger will be among the last to notice.

  3. Chubbs,

    The iron law has rusted and Roger will be among the last to notice.


    You also highlight something I was thinking of. A consequence of Roger’s critique is that anyone who works with a scenario that might illustrate what would happen *if* some kind of action isn’t taken, can then be accussed of a failure of scientific integrity if they continue to use this scenario when some others regard sufficient action as having been taken. Ultimately, it’s a bizarre argument.

    As I think others have pointed out, it’s quite common to consider a range of scenarios, even those that might be regarded as unlikely. Suggesting that doing so is some kind of failure of scientific integrity is nonsensical. Of course, Roger’s arguments might be regarded as a nice example of stealth advocacy in action, but since I’m not a fan of suggestions of “stealth advocacy” maybe I shouldn’t make such a suggestion 🙂

  4. gator says:

    Is RP Jr still relevant? It looks like his complaint paper was published by SSRN, which seems to be an Elsevier version of arXive, i.e. non-peer reviewed preprints. This doesn’t seem like a scientific criticism, it seems like twitter politics, i.e. advocacy.

  5. gator,
    That’s a fair point.

  6. gator,
    I hadn’t actually realised that SSRN was a pre-print server. I had thought that there was some kind of review, but maybe there wasn’t.

  7. gator says:

    To be fair it is really difficult to understand what SSRN is. I didn’t find a clear statement. This gives some insight though:
    “Your Paper’s Journey”
    Note step 2: “Process: Our team of processors checks for completeness and relevance.”
    Doesn’t sound like peer-review to me.

  8. Maybe I should have published my corona truth wars paper there. I may check if I still can.

  9. gator says:

    Click to access SSRN_PAPERSUBMISSION_FINAL.pdf

    You absolutely still can. SSRN calls itself a repository, not a traditional publisher. They don’t seem to care where the paper has appeared previously, or in what form, as long as it doesn’t cause copyright issues.

  10. Jim Hunt says:

    Fame at last Ken!

    How might someone (Roger Jr. for example?) go about peer reviewing your latest publication?

    What with one thing and another my Arctic alter ego might be tempted to submit a paper of my own to SSRN on the topic of “peer review” in the cryodenialosphere:

  11. Joshua says:

    gator –

    > Is RP Jr still relevant?

    Despite being such victim and being so traumatized by so many bad actors for so mamy years, RPJr. has persevered and still has a pretty powerful platform from which to fight his good fight as a champion for scientific integrity and non-stealth advocacy and honest brokering.

    And as it goes in this business, any slight or limitation to his stature in the scientific community is only further proof of the vast conspiracy to deny him his just reward.

  12. Joshua,
    It was fascinating to see RPJ promoting on Twitter that a British MP who is strongly associated with the newly formed netzerowatch (a rebranding of the Global Warming Policy Foundation) was aware of RPJ’s work. Maybe I misunderstand the concept of stealth advocacy, but this might seem to be an example. Also, it was being promoted by an MP strongly associated with an organisation that is regarded as promoting climate denial and RPJ wonders why he ends up on lists of climate deniers/sources of misinformation. 🤦

    Just to expand on this a bit. Someone writes a paper suggesting that there is systemic misuse of scenarios in climate science and that this is a failure of scientific integrity. The person promotes this on social media and in the MSM. Someone else associated with an organisation that is arguing against net zero picks this up and highlights it in support of their position. The original author seems pleased. Stealth advocacy?

    Someone complains publicly about being included on lists of climate deniers and sources of climate misinformation, but seems pleased when their work is promoted by someone associated with an organisation regarded as promoting climate denial. Hmmm?

  13. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    In my book, The Honest Broker, I argue that “stealth issue advocacy” occurs when scientists claim to be focusing on science but are really seeking to advance a political agenda. When such claims are made, the authority of science is used to hide a political agenda, under an assumption that science commands that which politics does not.

    Imo, this definition is entirely subjective, and effectively unfalsifiable whether it is being applied or being refuted if someone else applies it.

    But maybe not. Let’s look under the hood.

    RPJr. goes on at that page to cite an explanatory example of stealth issue advocacy (which I defy anyone to distinguish from his own work on objective terms).

    Here are the main clues Sherlock Pielke Jr. uncovers:

    “There is a well-orchestrated and fairly successful effort under way to confuse and sometimes cherry-pick information,” Lubchenco said.


    “I don’t view our role as trying to convince people of something,” she said. “Our role is to inform people.”

    Then he summarizes his applied criteria:

    Now someone will have to explain that last sentence to me, because it makes no sense. Of course Lubchenco wants to convince people of something. In the first highlighted passage she is referring to an “effort underway to confuse.” She doesn’t specify who that is doing the confusing, but I have a good idea who she is referring to (and I am sure, so do you).

    So here it is apparent that trying to convince someone of something is the first, and underlying criterion for identifying stealth issue advocacy.

    Lubchenco wants to counter an unnamed well-orchestrated campaign, but she doesn’t want to convince people of something? Right.

    Waging a political battle through science is a losing proposition for advocates to begin with — not admitting that is your strategy, when it obviously is, makes things even worse. Why not just admit the obvious?

    So all RPJr. has to do to avoid stealth issue advocacy is to (1) state that he isn’t waging political battle, which he can easily prove by pointing to his testimony numerous times in Congress at the behest of Republican policians who of course are never political and, (2) state that he’s NOT trying to inform people in contrast to convincing them.

    Indeed, RPJR. has always been clear that his goal is to convince people, not to inform them.

    See? Easy peasy.

  14. Joshua,
    Yes, my issue with the idea of “stealth issue advocacy” is that it can almost be applied in any circumstance. My issue with RPJ in this context, is not so much that he might be trying to influence, it’s that he seems to object to others doing precisely what he seems to be doing.

    Also, if something isn’t stealth advocacy, because the authors are open about their advocacy, then it’s “issue advocacy” which is also bad. Win-win.

  15. Joshua says:

    Of course I screwed up the html tags, as I always do as a matter of course when commenting on my phone. If you fixed it, that would be great (end blockquote after “…is to inform people.”).

    But no big deal either way… anyone actually interest can I’m sure figure it out.

  16. Joshua says:

    Already done!

    Yes. And then we have Judith’s position.

    Her advocacy isn’t advocacy because all she’s doing is championing non-corrupted science, such as criticizing motivated reasoning in a way that’s clearly not influenced by her own cognitive biases.

    Sometimes I just have to sit back and look at the lack of insight an introspection and just marvel.

  17. Joshua,

    Her advocacy isn’t advocacy because all she’s doing is championing non-corrupted science

    Indeed, which is very like RPJ’s claim that he isn’t claiming that the use of climate scenarios is a failure of scientific integrity, only the misuse.

  18. Dave_Geologist says:

    When I see something that looks like a duck, walks like duck and quacks like a duck, my Duck Identification Meter is set to indicate Duck, even if it claims to be a swan acting as an honest broker between ducks and hunters.

  19. russellseitz says:

    Had RPJ done more research he might have chosen a title more relevant to his book’s content than The Honest Broker

    Nothing in it suggests much acquaintance with the two words that most clearly distinguish honest brokers from less disinterested ones:

    “Don’t trade”

    Activists and inactivists are too often reflexive in defending their political playbooks by self citation

  20. afeman says:

    To build on gator’s point, what leaped out at me is the asymmetry in the prominence of the responders in Issues compared to RPJr.’s corpus. 538 rolling out Kerry Emmanuel to reply about hurricane risk was pretty funny in a combination Marshall Macluhan in “Annie Hall”/”Bambi vs. Godzilla” kind of way, but I wonder if it’s time to delegating Roger-wrangling to underlings. Then again, I suppose Gavin loves his job. I do note with pleasure that Roger doesn’t seem to get much engagement on twitter any more.

  21. It seems like RPJr. exists and thrives in the realm of alternative facts. I would love to say he (and JudithC) is irrelevant, but the realm of alternative facts punches way above its weight in the US and we ignore that at our own peril. Paying attention to the realm of alternative facts seems like a bad idea because presenting facts just seems to harden the positions in the realm of alternative facts. I can’t figure out any way to resolve the conflicts that arise from adherence to alternative facts. The landscape is quite Orwellian.

  22. Willard says:

    Alternative facts are untrue. Alternative interpretations of facts are neither true nor false. Since Junior’s main strategy is to provide alternative interpretations while whining that he’s portrayed as presenting alternative facts, the distinction matters.

  23. Pingback: The science-society interface | …and Then There's Physics

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