Trust me, I’m an expert: researching a climate commentators expertise

"I say!"

Who can you trust?

In a debate as complex and technical as this one you need to have confidence in the experts. These are the individuals whose job is to help the general public navigate the torturous, and esoteric debate around the science.

However, in the climate debate not all is at it seems and not everyone is who they say they are. So how can you trust an expert? Luckily there is a wealth of resources and databases out there that can provide you information on the more prominent deniers out there whose job it is to mislead.

Biographical information: where to start looking

Always start by profiling the individual. There are some handy – and free – resources out there that can help you determine their expertise:

Sourcewatch

Sourcewatch is an excellent “wiki” style database developed and supported by the Centre for Media and Democracy. It’s mission is to “profile[s] the activities of front groups, PR spinners, industry-friendly experts, industry-funded organizations, and think tanks trying to manipulate public opinion on behalf of corporations or government. We also highlight key public policies they are trying to affect and provide ways to get involved…”

It has a great deal of information, including individual biographies of high profile individuals in the denial movement with some good links to other resources. A quick look at the page on Anthony Watts – of “Watts up with that” fame – gives you a good idea of the information they produce. I use this as my first port of call for researching individuals.

DeSmogBlog Information Database

The guys at DeSmog Blog have put together a great list of the most prominent “sceptics” in the climate change debate. It is not a search-able database, but is arranged alphabetically by the surname of “climate change sceptic”. The have good profiles which gives you basic biographical details (education, professional career etc.) and some notable facts.

Profiles that contain the most relevant information

University and research department websites

You’d be surprised just how much information the average university website has. Not only will it give you the  qualification of a scientist, but also a list all their publications. It also is a means to qualify their expertise: if an individual claims to be a scientists at a specific institution, go their website and look for proof!

More often than not there will be a searchable database of academic staff. Many of these sites also make available the full text of their publications, an added bonus to dedicated researchers.

Compare and contrast qualifications with profiles on the web

The home pages for right-wing institute and think tanks associated with the denial movement are worth visiting. Normally they will profile their experts and try and “sell” them as qualified to comment on the science. Checking this sources does two things:  it qualifies the claims of the individual and allows you to see how they are attempting to present themselves.

Let’s look at our old friend Richard S. Courtney again. . On his profile for the Heartland Institute it is claimed:

“He is an expert peer reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and in November 1997 chaired the Plenary Session of the Climate Conference in Bonn. In June 2000 he was one of 15 scientists invited from around the world to give a briefing on climate change at the US Congress in Washington DC, and he then chaired one of the three briefing sessions…”

As we have already discovered, the claims to being a scientist and a “expert reviewer” for the IPCC are simply false. This is not just misleading, they’re outright lies.

Wikipedia: a launch pad for research, not the end

I will use Wikipedia as a handy tool to help brief me on general concepts, and then dive into more specific research papers, reports and links. Indeed, the most valuable section in most Wikipedia entries is at the end of the page where it will list the sources consulted.

Don’t stop at Wikipedia, go to the resources it cites for further clarification.

This is where the real gold is...

Google: some search tips

Ah Google, my very good friend and bitter rival! You are the gateway for to the universe of knowledge. And yet the danger is that anyone with a website, blog or  YouTube account can publish and become an instant “expert”.

Treat everything you encounter you find on Google with a high degree of scepticism:

  • Pick your search terms – plugging in the term “climate science” will obviously wield millions of results. If want to understand what “global warming is”, then use search terms such as “climate change” and “understanding”. Google also has advanced search feature that will allow you to filter your results by date, media type and even country.
  • Start with scepticism – the first rule for using sources on Google is don’t trust them. Don’t start reading the website/blogs content uncritically. Read the section called “About” to get an understanding of the author/s intent and point of view.
  • Apply some filters – what is the authors expertise? Where have they published? Blogs are usually the strict opinion of the author and should taken as such (including this one). A blogger that purports to take apart climate science, and who lacks scientific traditional in the area is an enthusiastic amateur. They have no expertise, it’s just arm chair theorising. A scientist conducting research in that area usually as a far greater understanding of the real issues.

I hope this helps anyone out there wondering just how “expert” some of those familiar names are in the climate debate. Scepticism is a powerful tool to find the truth, not simply the oppurtunity to disagree.

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5 thoughts on “Trust me, I’m an expert: researching a climate commentators expertise

  1. John R T says:

    ¨In a debate as complex and technical as this one [sic] you need to have confidence in the experts. These are the individuals whose job is to help the general public navigate the torturous, and esoteric debate around the science.¨
    Actually, our confidence relies on impartial observers and investigators who may be considered ´expert.´ Their ´job´ is NOT ´to help´ any public, general or other, navigate.

    ¨… out there [sic] that can provide you information on the more prominent deniers out there [sic] whose job it is to mislead.¨
    ´In here´ reside most skeptics.

    re DeSmogBlog
    ¨…The/They have good profiles which gives/give you…¨

    ¨…and some notable facts.¨
    This blog offers few facts.

    re University sites
    ¨…but also provides/lists/a list [of] all their publications. It also is a means to qualify their expertise: if an individual claims to be a scientists/scientist at…¨
    Awkward construction – clean it up.

    re Google
    ¨…You are the gateway for to the [sic]…¨
    One preposition is adequate.

    Your offerings will attract competent observers, once you clean up your statements. There are too many difficult constructions: I will look again, later.

    [- Noted, and thanks for your suggestions John]

  2. Jim Prall says:

    Hmm, the above was supposed to be my second post, following up to one that seems to have failed to stick (I assumed it just went to moderation…)

    Anyway, what I tried to post first was simply that my website also tries to address the issue of relative credibility of mainstream climate scientists versus climate contrarians (skeptics, deniers). I collected the names of authors of IPCC AR4 working group 1, plus names of signers of some 20 activist letters or declarations calling for action to cut carbon emissions, and for comparison, the signers of some 17 declarations saying we don’t really know if carbon is a problem, it’s all too confusing.
    I link to each person’s academic home page if found, and show the stats from Google Scholar on how much they’ve published on climate and how widely cited their work is.
    Looking at the top few hundred names ranked by number of publications on climate, my figures confirm that:
    * the IPCC wg1 drew on the top sources
    * a strong majority of the top names have spoken out on the need for action, either through the IPCC and/or in signing statements
    * only a tiny fraction – maybe 2.5% – have stated the opposite by signing any of the 17 contrarian / inactivist letters
    That fraction matches quite well with the independent results from Doran and Kendall-Zimmerman’s 2009 survey of earth scientists which found 97% of active publishers on climate agree with the basic tenets of the mainstream view.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Thanks Jim, some great pointers. I’ll look to beef up my own content with this kind of material.

  3. Jim Prall says:

    One other point that stands out really clearly from the data I’ve collected: most of the contrarian / denialist statements have only a handful of people with any publication record on climate; they reach one or two hundred signers by welcoming all kinds of people who’ve never published any peer-reviewed work on climate at all.
    For instance, the median number of matches on “climate” on Google Scholar for the 619 contributing authors to IPCC AR4 working group 1 was 93; for the 495 signers of contrarian statements I’d compiled at last count, the median was … two. This page lists just the contrarian signers, ranked by number of GS hits on “climate”:

    http://www.eecg.utoronto.ca/~prall/climate/skeptic_authors_table_by_clim.html

  4. […] for a complete change of topic: how do you know if an expert is credible? This primer from Mike at Watching the Deniers is a good start: it’s mostly about climate change, but if […]

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