Category Archives: Dunning-Kruger

A very modern climate crank: Monckton tries to shut down the BBC exposé, fails badly

[Hat tip Open Mind]

Good lord, but doesn’t climate sceptic (*cough* denier *cough*) Viscount Christopher Monckton have a glass jaw?

Monckton has just lost a High Court challenge trying to prevent the BBC screening an expose of the climate sceptics:

The BBC has fought off a High Court challenge to tonight’s broadcast of a documentary about climate change skeptics.

 Lord Monckton had applied to Mr Justice Tugendhat for an injunction stopping the programme being shown until it included his right of reply.

He said that he felt he had been “unreasonably treated and misled” and complained of breach of contract.

He told the judge in London that he wanted the programme, Meet the Climate Sceptics, to include his 500 words or three minutes which, he said, was proportionate in the context of a 60-minute film almost exclusively about him.

“What I’m not trying to do is extinguish the BBC’s right to freedom of speech.

“I was for many years myself a journalist and it is not appropriate to say a programme should not be broadcast. I am merely asking for a right to reply to which I say I am entitled.”

He said it was the least remedy that would meet the case as the damage to his reputation would otherwise be “grave”.

It would seem a camera team followed Monckton for a year filming his activities, and now he isn’t happy:

The programme filmed Lord Monckton over [the] past year as he travelled across Australia and the United States challenging the proposition that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes climate change and global warming.

I wonder what they saw and filmed…

Clearly it has the Good Lord panicked.

Given parts were filmed in Australia, I wonder if our friends Joanne Nova, Andrew Bolt make cameos.

Note to self: must watch.

Monckton: flailing, failing and falling flat on his face

Just who is “Lord” Monckton?

Some salient facts.

 He is a journalist by training, with no scientific qualifications. He has a classics degree and spent a couple of years as an “advisor” in Thatcher’s cabinet.

Mostly he tours the world spreading misinformation.

Monckton likes to claim an association with the House of Lords, but last year the House of Lords wrote to Monckton asking he stopped associating himself with them.

Professor John Abrahams – an actual scientist – decisively rebuked his arguments. Turns out Monckton pretty much lied.

Peter Sinclair’s two-part video showcases Monckton’s cheap tricks, and should alert you to just how dishonest this man is.

Maybe we should consider the fact Monckton took over $100,000 from Australian climate sceptics eager to hear him pontificate. While Monckton likes to attack “greedy scientists” he is charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to spread disinformation.

And Monckton is concerned this documentary might do damage to his reputation now!

Oh my!

A very modern climate crank 

Monckton is the very definition of a modern climate crank.

NOT Monckton, but you get the idea...

 So let us honour Monckton with his own song:

I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General climate crank   

Monckton shares the same cognitive bias with a great deal of many “sceptics”: the “Dunning-Kruger” effect.
It is the sincerely held belief their expertise in one areas allows them to speak authoritatively on everything. The trap is, they can’t recognise just how limited their own skill set and knowledge is.
There is a profile for these “modern major generals”: male, older, Anglo-Saxon and with some form of tertiary education. They believe they have the “skills” to take down an entire scientific discipline. 

Copy of High Court decision: not yet available

Copy of decisions made by the High Court (Queens Bench) can be found here, however it appears the Monckton one has not been posted. Details are:

Monday, 31st January 2011, At half past 10 Before MR JUSTICE TUGENDHAT
IHQ/11/0042 Viscount Monckton of Brenchley v British Broadcasting Corporation

As soon as it has been made available I’ll post a link.

When facts fail: study notes that facts can reinforce false beliefs

[Hat tip to reader Helen from Scotland]  

A recent study in the journal Political Behaviour provides some fascinating – and worrisome – insights into how people treat facts that challenge erroneous beliefs.  

Titled “When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions” [1] it clearly demonstrates the fact that people will cling desperately to a misconception despite overwhelming evidence that contradicts that belief. As the abstract notes:

“…An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

Upon reading this paper my immediate thought was “Climategate”.   

This is the example par excellence of a misconception (that scientists have acted fraudulently to “manufacture” global warming) that has no basis in reality. It’s a belief in which large numbers within the denial community still cling too despite overwhelming evidence that no fraud took place.  

While many of us are surprised that so many individuals can continue to believe in a massive conspiracy, this paper provides some valuable insight into “why” this may be the case.  

Do corrections matter? Not according to this study…  

The authors looked at how individuals filtered information – based on their ideological preferences – on a number of issues: the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the effectiveness of tax cuts as an economic stimulus; and the “banning” of stem cell research.  

Groups were given a mock news report followed by another one that “corrected” it. The results were interesting:  

“…The experiments reported in this paper help us understand why factual misperceptions about politics are so persistent. We find that responses to corrections in mock news articles differ significantly according to subjects’ ideological views. As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

Most of what we know about climate change is filtered via the mainstream media. The situation is not helped by the media who use the “he said/she said” formula of presenting both sides of an argument. The authors of this study note this as well:  

“…people typically receive corrective information within “objective” news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions—a view that is consistent with a wide array of research…”

Such “balanced” views actually distort the debate. By giving such prominence to climate “sceptics” the media helps feed the misconception that there is still debate over the facts of global warming.  

Climategate: the denier response  

As a recent poster on this blog with denialist tendencies said of the various inquires that found no evidence of conspiracy, data manipulation or fraud:

How come Phil Jones got to chose his own papers for the so-called “independent” Oxburgh enquiries?

Do they think we are stupid?

The above poster is representative of the majority of the denial community… “Of course its a conspiracy…” says the denier “Just look at the results of the Lord Oxbourgh’s inquiry!  

The above study shows why people continue to cling to false beliefs. It has nothing to do with intelligence: cognitive biases, ideology and prejudices build up a solid wall of denial that no facts, reasoned arguments or truths will breach.  

People such as this have (a) little real understanding of the science and (b) filter information based on their political views. I’d also suggest that the Dunning-Kruger effect is very much at work (i.e. the tendency for incompetent people to overestimate their abilities).  

The truth is supposed to set you free, when actually it can backfire  

The authors of the paper note that corrections can often have a “back fire” attempt:

“However, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views. Instead, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—what we call a “backfire effect.”

Within the denial movement Climategate is an established narrative. The various inquires that have cleared scientist have only served to further entrench the view within the denial community that there is a massive conspiracy.

Indeed, most “deniers” believed the results were a foregone conclusion: of course “they” cleared the scientists. What else could one expect when “they” are also in part of the conspiracy. Facts only serve to strengthen their belief global warming is not real.  

This is Climategate’s “backfire” effect.  

It also means the impact of the denial machine’s disinformation campaign are even more insidious.   

Not only are they free to lie, distort and construct fabrications, but the average person who falls for their misinformation becomes increasingly impervious to the truth. The strange logic of denial dictates that any and all information from “warmists” and “alarmists” is tainted, and thus inherently suspect.  

As the authors note in the conclusion:

“…The backfire effects that we found seem to provide further support for the growing literature showing that citizens engage in “motivated reasoning.” While our experiments focused on assessing the effectiveness of corrections, the results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs—an empirical finding with important theoretical implications.”

Before anyone rushes to say that it’s not fair to pick on “deniers” I’d note the study finds no one is free from such biases: those with either conservative and liberal worldviews are prone to making the same tendency to disregard factual corrections.  

So, we should give up then? Here’s the good news  

Despite the tendency for individuals to disregard conflicting information, the authors of the paper do note that over time it is possible for an individual to “correct” their misconceptions:

It’s important to note that the account provided above does not imply that individuals simply believe what they want to believe under all circumstances and never accept counter-attitudinal information. Ditto and Lopez (1992, p. 570), preference-inconsistent information is likely to be subjected to greater skepticism than preference-consistent information, but individuals who are “confronted with information of sufficient quantity or clarity… should eventually acquiesce to a preference-inconsistent conclusion.” The effectiveness of corrective information is therefore likely to vary depending on the extent to which the individual has been exposed to similar messages elsewhere. For instance, as a certain belief becomes widely viewed as discredited among the public and the press, individuals who might be ideologically sympathetic to that belief will be more likely to abandon it when exposed to corrective information.

One of the key driver of a persons acceptance of a fact (or belief) is its popularity.  

This is the reason why the denial machine works so hard to flood the internet and mainstream media with disinformation.  

Its also the reason why the comments field on every online news item is quickly flooded with the comments of deniers. They are working hard to create the impression that large numbers of people share their world view in the hope this has a cascading effect. The more that doubt global warming, the more will follow their lead.  

Which is why the continual, sometimes exhausting and seemingly never-ending work of correcting the falsehoods of the denial movement is vital. By providing an antidote to their campaign of misinformation, we will eventually neutralise their effectiveness.  

More importantly, clearly articulating the basics of climate science and explaining it to the general public will make an enormous difference. As I’ve already noted we have not paid sufficient attention to this issue:

Thus I’ve come to the belief that we need a body of similar scope and ambition to the IPCC that will help educate the public. And yes, in saying this I understand just how complex it would be to establish such an initiative. So I’m speculating, thinking “big”…

The IPCC materials are publically available, but they are not easily digestible. They are intended for a specific audience, and are a masterful synthesis of the science. However they are not readily accessible to a lay audience, let alone people without access to the Internet. The IPCC materials target an elite audience.

It has taken me months to read them, understand and educate myself on the basics of the science. And I have access to the internet, the benefit of a post-graduate education and the time to devote to this interest. How does my opportunity compare to the average farmer in China? Or the slum dweller living on Jo’Burg?

We need to broaden the audience of the IPCC from policy makers to a global scale… The scientists can’t do it alone, it needs to be part of a broader initiative. The remit of the IPCC could be broadened. It could be a multidisciplinary body comprising not just scientist but sociologist, historians, psychologists, communications experts and politicians that would examine communications strategies for the various demographics and “audiences”.

Sure, I’m quoting myself here: but I stand by these comments.

[1] When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in Political Behaviour 30 March 2010 (10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2)

Nova versus Glikson: finally, we see how empty her claims are

Perth’s Jo Nova is a key figure in Australia’s denial movement, and one of the few to have a science background. That her degree in limited to an undergraduate degree in microbiology does not seem to stop her holding herself as a climate change “expert”.

DeSmogBlog provides a good overview of her career to date:

Joanne Nova holds a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology from the University of Western Australia. She also has a Graduate Certificate in Science Communications from the Australian National University. After graduation, Nova joined the Shell Questacon Science Circus, a Shell-sponsored program that employs university students to travel around Australia teaching interactive science programs to children. Currently, Nova works as a professional speaker, the Director of Science Speak, and the writer and creator of the blog, JoNova.

In short, Nova worked for an oil company in a “science circus”. Yes, I saw the obvious pun there as well… basically, its the Wiggles meets science. [1]

Nova has no experience outside her undergraduate degree and has published nothing via the peer review system. And yet this former science “entertainer” believes she can take on the scientific community?

Thankfully, we now have plenty of evidence demonstrating her complete misunderstanding of climate science. Normally Jo does not like to tackle “da science” so openly, as it obviously exposes her deep misunderstandings. However we now have some wonderful evidence of what she constitutes her “arguments” against the science.

And yes, they contain the expected howlers.

At this very moment she is engaged in a debate with Dr. Andrew Glikson of Australian National University (ANU) being facilitated by the rather right-wing magazine Quadrant. That Quadrant would adopt the knee-jerk “scepticism” is no surprise. However, the debate is fascinating as we finally have some very good evidence at what constitutes Nova’s argument against climate science.

Continue reading

The Dunning-Kruger effect: deniers may “take down” what they don’t understand but at heart they are curious

Abstract: The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias, whereby individuals with limited skills – but with an overconfidence in their skill set – overestimate their abilities. I would contend the denial movement is rich with such individuals, who may be highly competent in other areas, but display a remarkable lack of understanding of science and the scientific method. I tested one such “denier community” for signs of Dunning-Kruger with positive results. While not an actual piece of research, I believe the responses I gathered tend to support the idea that many in the denial movement exhibit cognitive biases such as the Dunning-Kruger effect.However I also learnt that many of the “deniers” are articulate, curious about the world and actively engaged in trying to understand some of the science.

I have a confession to make: I am not qualified to discuss the intricate, technical details of climate science.

It’s beyond my capability.I can grasp the essentials, and even make sense of (some) the actual peer-reviewed research that I read. However I am very conscious that I have large gaps in my knowledge, and that crucially I am not qualified to critique the work of science.In order to have a real understanding I’d need to pursue a Bachelor of Science and post-graduate degrees to be able to speak authoritatively on climate science.

Like an avid footy fan, I understand many details of the game, but I’ve never played. However, what I’ve noticed about many deniers is their incredible confidence in being able to not only understand the science but critique it authoritatively.

Indeed, you’ll often find in both forum discussions and in person they can state with complete confidence that they have read the research, understand it and see “several crucial flaws” in it. Do they have a special insight that many of us lack? I suspect not, however there is a very good explanation for their apparent confidence.

Dunning-Kruger: how people overestimate their own abilities

The “Dunning-Kruger effect” is a form of cognitive bias which – put simply – states that unskilled people overestimate their own abilities. First published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999, the author’s hypothesis is best summed up on Wikipedia:

  • Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  • If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

The paper can be found here (the abstract is free, though you will have to pay for the article in full):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability

I believe that is sufficient to explain what Dunning-Kruger effect is. The question is, do we have examples of it from climate change deniers?

The answer is, we do.

My own experiment: Jo Nova’s blog

Jo Nova, the Perth based denier has quite active discussions on her blog site. They provide rich examples of conspiracy theories, vicious attacks on climate scientists and technical discussions on climate science.

I entered these boards to see how readily the denier community centered around this board potentially exhibited the Dunning-Kruger effect.

For my own variation of testing the Dunning-Kruger effect I engaged several posters in a discussion on the “evidence” for the relationship between the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature. The science itself is well established, and can be easily found on the Internet.

I posted links to several peer-reviewed papers as “evidence”: in fact, this was demanded by Jo Nova and several posters.  The papers I provided this community with were sourced from AGW Observer, and relate specifically to “the correlation between carbon dioxide concentration and temperature.”

Very quickly, the forum was alive with comments. Indeed, many posters felt they could dismiss the research in a quick and easy manner:

Mike #21, I can’t look at all your articles but this one caught my eye:

A Bayesian Statistical Analysis of the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect – Tol & De Vos (1998)

In particular they provide a regression equation (2) and a graph Figure 1 that goes up to 1990 and would be interesting to apply the same equation to the years from 1990 to 2009 and see how badly it diverges.

Unfortunately, they don’t actually specify the coefficients of the FIR filter that they use for CO2 values (see Appendix B), I could take a reasonable guess at that one. They also attribute the Dust Veil Index to Lamb (from the CRU at East Anglia) and the Lamb data file is here:

This is not in a suitable format (not yearly samples) and many values are missing, does not even go up to 1990. Mike Mann provides his version of the DVI here:

Which does go past 1990, but not as far as 2009. Maybe this was the file the Bayesian analysis actually used? Note that the Mann file contains values for earlier years that Lamb had no values for. Also I stumbled onto this:

So other people have already noted the strangeness of DVI values.

This is a typical problem with trying to reproduce even basic equations and plots in these papers — chasing up the many bits of data that are not tightly referenced and difficult to get hold of. Their conclusions were very strong probabilities of several degrees of temperature sensitivity, however their main cooling factors were DVI and ENSO and in recent 15 years I doubt that would account for the actual observed global “mean” temp, ENSO has not been spectacular in any direction and not a whole lot of volcanic dust in the air either (but there has been some).

Also, their regression between 1870 and 1990 has bigger problems if you look at the Greenland ice cores that show a brief warm period approx once every 1000 years (e.g. Roman warm period, Medieval warm period). How good is a regression that takes a little sample of time in a longer and far more complex time series? The regression can only use what it has, it can’t know there is a peak every 1000 years.

My gut feeling is that this article is flawed, but with up to date data series I could solidly prove it was flawed by observing whether their regression equation predicted the recent cooling. Maybe you can help find the data and we can nail this one good.

There’s allot to take in here, and the author of this post sounds authoritative. However, what is worth noting is how confident he is in proving how flawed a highly technical piece of research is.

I will pay that poster credit: he/she is trying to find other sources to confirm or deny the conclusions of the paper.

Most comments where more akin to this:


mike at 9.15pm:You haven’t read the papers your referred to have you? None of them have empirical evidence of CO2 causing temperature increase. It’s too difficult to provide empirical data, which usually means it’s the wrong theory. We have plenty of ice core data showing no relationship between temperature and CO2 except for the CO2 rising in response to a temperature rise.

In this instance no sources or counter evidence is provided, just a confident dismissal of the science.

These people are not stupid, they’re curious

The first poster accepts the papers are talking about CO2 concentrations and temperature rises: they simply reject the papers conclusions. The second poster does not think contain any evidence, and easily dismisses them.

Do I regard these individuals as “stupid”, “incompetent” or “completely unskilled”? No, not at all! Actually, I did not expect them to be any of those things. The heart of the matter is this: too many people think they are qualified in areas they are not.

I came away with the conclusion that many members of this community are articulate, engaged with the debate and intellectually curious.However, like me they lack a full understanding of the science.

Untested assumptions

I will admit that I ignore several key variables in my little “experiment ” which I readily admit:

  • I do not know the educational or professional background of the posters, however the likelihood that they lack expertise in climate science is very high
  • It’s a very random sample, and in no way qualifies as actual research

In doing this have I also exhibited the Dunning-Kruger effect? Well. there’s a good question!

I will say that as a piece of research, what I’ve done is basically meaningless.Perhaps it was no more than a quasi-scientific excuse to act as a forum troll.

However, I was curious to see how this particular denier community would respond when exposed to genuine science. The results where as I expected: denial.

A long time ago I recognised the limitations of my own knowledge and understanding. I will defer to experts on highly technical subjects. What I do see in many deniers is an overconfidence in their own abilities and a complete dismissal of the abilities of climate scientists.

So, should we give up on deniers?

No we shouldn’t! I don’t believe deniers are “stupid” or “ignorant”. Many display a keen desire to understand the science and engage in discussion. Most are polite, and will happily chat to those “on the other side” of the debate.

Nor should we say to them  “just trust the scientists”. They don’t.


At heart many “deniers” claim to be curious individuals. I think there is some truth to that.

Helping them understand just how fiendishly complicated the science that supports climate change actually is may engender more respect for the work scientist do. I also think those in the denier community might enjoy the opportunity.

Perhaps we should be less concerned with bombarding the deniers with the results of research, but engaging them with how the science works. I actually think many of them would be fascinated.

Otherwise many of these individuals are left to the mercy of the peddlers of conspiracy theories and pseudo-science.

As Dunning-Kruger suggests:

…If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill

Perhaps scientists should be reaching out to the denier community and giving them an intimate insight into the scientific method and how they arrive at their conclusions.

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