Meteorologists: Less Support of Global Warming… why?

Global Warming denialism is a favorite hobby on the right. And a favorite hobby of mine is countering such ignorance. I’ve come to a formulaic response.

I point out that the IPCC is the most respectable international scientific institution that focuses solely on climate change. It’s a very conservative organization. It looks at all the peer-reviewed research and takes years to assess it before putting out a report. It’s conservative because the research is done more quickly than it’s process of assessment and so most of the research it bases its conclusions on is research that has been thoroughly discussed among climatologists. The climatology researchers who submit their work to the IPCC do so without getting any payment and so the climatologists aren’t getting rich off of it.

What conclusion does the IPCC come to? The IPCC concludes that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is supported by the research.

The denialists love ignorantly dismissing the IPCC. So, I sometimes skip even mentioning the IPCC. I often go directly to the data on scientific consensus. Basically, the consensus increases the more that scientists know about climatology research. So, around 80% of all scientists in all fields support anthropogenic global warming, climatologists in general support it even more strongly (I forget the exact percentage), and climatologists who are active researchers who do most of their research directly on global warming have 97% support.

There is, however, new data I came across. Someone mentioned that only 60% of meteorologists support anthropogenic global warming. At first, this seems to cast massive doubt on the scientific consensus. Yes, 60% is still a majority but not a strong majority. This seems like damning evidence. I mean, afterall, shouldn’t meteorologists be some of the scientists who would be most well informed about climatology?

I’m not one to ignore evidence that undermines my own views. I value truth above all else. So, if many meterorologists question anthropogenic global warming, I should take it seriously. But, first, I had to ascertain if this 60% was correct. Yes, it appears to be true as this national survey does show the weak support. Before jumping to conclusions (as a denialist would do), I wanted to understand the possible reasons for this difference between meteorologists and climatologists, this difference between meteorologists and most scientists in general. At the top of the websearch results, I came across the the following article (included below is some excerpts from the article and three helpful comments). To summarize, there are fewer meteorologists supporting anthropogenic global warming because many of them have never studied climatology and many weathermen (and weatherwomen) have no formal scientific education.

Are meteorologists climate experts?
Columbia Journalism Review asks “Why don’t TV weathermen believe in climate change?”

Meteorologists are not required to take a course in climate change, this is not part of the NOAA/NWS [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service] certification requirements, so university programs don’t require the course (even if they offer it). So we have been educating generations of meteorologists who know nothing at all about climate change.

[ . . . ] 

And yet weathermen remain trusted by the public in spite of their lack of actual qualifications:

In the fall of 2008, researchers from George Mason and Yale universities conducted the most fine-grained survey to date about what Americans know and think about climate change….

When asked whom they trusted for information about global warming, 66 percent of the respondents named television weather reporters. That was well above what the media as a whole got, and higher than the percentage who trusted Vice-President-turned-climate-activist Al Gore, either of the 2008 presidential nominees, religious leaders, or corporations. Scientists commanded greater credibility, but only 18 percent of Americans actually know one personally; 99 percent, by contrast, own a television. “Meteorology benefits from the fact that we’re just about the only science that has an individual in people’s living rooms every night,” says Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “For many people, it’s the only scientist whose name they know.”

There is one little problem with this: most weathercasters are not really scientists. When Wilson surveyed a broader pool of weathercasters in an earlier study, barely half of them had a college degree in meteorology or another atmospheric science. Only 17 percent had received a graduate degree, effectively a prerequisite for an academic researcher in any scientific field.

This is but one reason — among many — about why the public, especially conservatives, remain uninformed and disinformed about global warming (see “No wonder polling shows more people don’t know the scientific evidence that humans are warming the Earth has grown stronger”).

And yet, for all the misinformation and disinformation they are exposed to, the public still want very much wants government-led action to curtail greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. gmo says:

    It is worth mentioning again that not all “weathermen” are “meteorologists”, as in not everyone who presents the weather in the media has studied the science like in getting a degree in meteorology/atmospheric science. I did not check into the details of the linked studies, but I had thought the numbers were higher for degreed meteorologists and so was a bit surprised. Still many indeed do “get it”, but it is depressing since so many do not, and such people may be the only connection to many in the public with atmospheric science.

    Besides the weatherman (even the one with the solid science background) not necessarily being well-educated on climate in general, I think many meteorologists conflate weather prediction and projections for climate similar to how many in the general public do. Weather prediction has been steadily improving, but there is still plenty of uncertainty, and I believe many meteorologists simply incorrectly sort of assume that there cannot be much certainty in climate projections.

    It may be like if a sailor doubted rising sea levels simply because he spends all his time on oceans with storms, swells, waves, and still water – as those are what he well knows, he simply did not bother to think that there are other ways to know sea level is rising than by looking over the edge of the boat.

    It makes some sense that the public trusts the weatherman on climate (yes, even in spite of all the “only job where you can always be wrong” quips) like was noted more than any politician, even Gore. It would be nice to be able to utilize that trust. That points toward a strategy of highlighting the lack of credibility of the lost like John Coleman and hopefully getting those who understand the science to teach it at least some.

    Meteorologists who think they will lose credibility talking about climate change because it is politicized should consider that if they explained it then it may become less politicized. Also, their not talking about it can lend credence in people’s minds that it is not a relevant issue.

  2. To best understand television, you must know about the consulting services of Frank Magid Associates – just about every TV station will get consulting from them. Until Magid says it is OK to talk climate during the weather segment, it is not going to happen.

    http://www.magid.com/ consulting/ local_television/ index.asp
    TV weather forecasters are professionals that serve a highly competitive broadcasting business model. The TV business pulls in advertising from so many businesses that are connected carbon consumption – every automobile ad, oil company ad, even travel are all vested heavily in the lie. They are required to ignore the science, it is just a business decision.

    That is just the way it is.

  3. 32. Dean: “To paint the majority of meteorologists with a broad brush as buffoons who are incapable of udnerstanding climate science is a bit harsh.”

    It is unclear to me that that is what is happening above. Pointing out the irrefutably obvious point that a meteorologist lacks the expertise to pontificate on the subject of climate science is scarcely the same thing.

    Persons who lack expertise but insist on making declarative announcements that are predicated upon an authority that they do not possess are committing an informal logical fallacy, the argumentum ad vericundiam or “argument from false or misleading authority” http://www.fallacyfiles.org/authorit.html.

    As the article above fairly clearly describes, there is a significant body of persons with a background in meteorology who pose that background as a basis of authority upon which the are authoritatively qualified to pass legitimate judgments upon the scientific findings of climate researchers. Their doing so is a bald-faced argumentum ad vericundiam.

    Now, I’ve taken graduate level courses relating to differential geometry, but that does not make me a researcher in physical cosmology. At best it qualifies me to accurately report what real researchers in the field have come up with. (A qualification which a very few people in the peer-review process agree with, since I’ve actually published on the subject. I’ve some legitimate authority in the areas of logic, critical thinking, and philosophy of science.)

    However, an undergraduate class in physics (of which I’ve had a few) does not make me a physicist. By the same token, an undergraduate class in climate science — WHICH IS MERELY AN OPTION, NOT A REQUIREMENT for students of meteorology — does not qualify said students as experts. It would not qualify them as experts even if said class was a requirement. (And, of course, it is still not, in general, even required.)

    So yes, any thoughtful person with integrity can, with varying degrees of success, accurately report the facts as established by actual researchers — Al Gore is a nice example of this, both for his successes and his failures. But no such person, with no more established expertise than what you describe, is in any position to pass a scientifically legitimate judgment on the subject.

    But such illegitimate judgments are exactly what we are seeing, from persons who will pose as experts on a subject in which they have no legitimate authority what-so-ever. This is not a blanket condemnation of meteorologists; it is a blanket condemnation of poseurs, some of whom use their standing as a “meteorologist” to mask their ignorance with a veil of authority that they do not possess and have done nothing to genuinely earn.

Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)

In a recent post I mentioned a discussion I was having with a rightwinger in the comments section of an Amazon.com book review.  The person seemed somewhat reasonable and intelligent, but didn’t offer much evidence to support his arguments.  I’m fine with that as long as someone isn’t making extreme claims and that is where I finally took issue with this person.  I explained, in one of my comments, my criticism of the anti-intellectualism that has become popular with some conservatives, and then this person provides a perfect example of this rightwing anti-intellectualism.

I wanted to use this example because it’s too easy to think of anti-intellectual types as backwards and stupid.  That may sometimes be the case, but not always.  The particular person in question, although no intellectual giant, is able to present himself in a reasonable manner in most of his comments.  He can put together a coherent thought and articulate it with some clarity.  He does even offer some meager evidence.  However, his response to my evidence seems perplexing from a rational perspective.

My comment:

There was a study done in 2009 at University of Illinois by Peter Doran and Kendall Zimmerman which appeared in the January 19 publication Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. From around the world, 3,146 earth scientists were surveyed which included experts in academia and government research centers.

The questions were checked by a polling expert to ensure there was no bias. There were two questions that are directly relevant to our. One question was about whether the mean global temperatures had risen since before the 1800s. And another question was about whether human activity had been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures.

Around 90% of scientists thought that mean global temperatures had risen and 82% thought human activity was a significant factor. Just considering climatologists who are active in research, 97.4% thought human activity was a significant factor. Even petrolium geologists were almost evenly split with only 54% disagreeing with the majority of climatologists.

Doran also noted recent poll data about public opinion. Gallup poll shows 58% of the public agrees with climatologists that human activity contributes to global warming. However, most Americans are misinformed about actual scientific consensus. Only 52% think most scientists agree that temperature is rising and only 47% think most scientists agree that human activity is contributing. However, a World Bank international survey found that most people in most countries thought that scientists agree that climate change is an urgent problem that is understood well enough that action needs to be taken.

From the Wikipedia article “Climate change consensus” (with cited and linked sources):

“The majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is primarily caused by human activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. The conclusion that global warming is mainly caused by human activity and will continue if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced has been endorsed by more than 75 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the International Union for Quaternary Research, and the Joint Science Academies of the major industrialized and developing nations explicitly use the word “consensus” when referring to this conclusion.””

And:

“A 2004 essay by Naomi Oreskes in the journal Science reported a survey of 928 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers related to global climate change in the ISI database. Oreskes claimed that “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position. … This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies.” Benny Peiser claimed to have found flaws in Oreskes’ work, but his attempted refutation is disputed and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peiser later withdrew parts of his criticism, also commenting that “the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact. However, this majority consensus is far from unanimous.””

The other person’s response:

Sorry Steele; the science just isn’t there. You think it is because there is a conspiracy of sorts. It’s not a deal where everyone set down and plotted, but the ball got rolling and everyone jumped on for their own gain. And there is a leftist move to redistribute wealth this way. Gore has multiplied his wealth many, many times just since promoting this issue. He has a vested interest and if he was a government official would probably be violating conflict of interest. As Dr. Gray says its all ocean currents. He also says the CO2 is good for the plants as we know from biology class. There are many scientists against this and many more who won’t speak out because of political correctness. Oh well, the left has only a few months left in power. Still haven’t read all your stuff; I’ll get back to you.

I only listed part of the data that shows consensus among climatologists.  A survey of the data is presented in the Wikipedia article “Scientific opinion on climate change“.  A number of respected organizations have referred to scientific opinion on this issue as a consensus: American Association for the Advancement of Science, US National Academy of Sciences,  American Meteorological Society, Network of African Science Academies, International Union for Quaternary Research, and Australian Coral Reef Society.

It takes some major balls for a non-scientist to deny the consensus of thousands of scientists who are experts in the field of climatology.  The climatologists who are the most active researchers are in fact the ones who show the highest agreement, but even the non-active scientists agree (and so presumably they aren’t receiving funding to bias their opinions).  The person I was having the discussion with obviously hadn’t really considered the science in any depth and possibly thinks that scientists are part of the liberal elite trying to take over the world.

It’s fine if you have criticisms (assuming they’re based on critical thinking).  Scientists can be wrong and the scientific method takes into account the errors of individual scientists.  That is why we have peer-review, but the meta-analysis of the peer-review articles also shows support for anthropogenic global warming.  Scientific consensus is based on the known facts.  Some of those facts may turn out to be wrong or misinterpreted, and if that were to happen then scientific consensus would change.  But it’s the worst kind of anti-intellectualism to dismiss both the known facts and the scientific concensus because they disagree with your preconceived ideology.

There are intelligent criticisms.  As an example of a slightly more intelligent discussion between two skeptical non-scientists, watch the following video:

The obvious weakness of that discussion is that neither person is a climatologists or even a scientist.  The person being interviewed is a journalist and does seem to be at least somewhat informed.  It’s fair to criticize specific measurements and how accurate they might be.  It’s fair to criticize how large the actual effect is on climate.  Most climatologists aren’t fear-mongering about the end of the world.  Even though there is a concensus about anthropogenic global warming, many scientists debate and disagree about the exact mechanism of global warming, the exact influence of human activity, and the exact influence on the climate in the near future.  Nonetheless, the consensus remains.

The major failing of the discussion in the above video is that it doesn’t take into account the 97% of experts who do support anthropogenic global warming.  It isn’t clear how much the journalist disagrees with the consensus itself or merely the conclusions extrapolated from that conclusion.  I don’t understand the science well enough to fully understand the data he is referring to.  All I know for sure is that only 3% of experts are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming.  I think it’s fairly weak when skeptics refer to scientists within that 3% in order to “disprove” the conclusions of the 97%.  If this non-expert journalist disagrees with 97% of expert scientists, then I think I’ll go with the consensus of the experts.

A maybe more important failing of global warming skepticism in general is that it supports the dismissal of the global problems we face.  Even if humans don’t cause global warming and even if global warming doesn’t exist at all, we still are destroying entire ecosystems and poisoning ourselves.  If you’re concerned about the issue of diseases, poverty, and human rights, then you should be concerned about pollution and environmental destruction.  You can argue about the policies that should be implemented, but to ignore the problems themselves is insane.

Skepticism is good as all scientists strive to be skeptical.  There, however, has been a failure of our education system and a failure of our media in teaching intelligent skepticism.  I heard an interview on public radio with one of the scientists involved with Climategate.  I thought the scientist was fairly humble and defended the science in a reasonable manner.  The scientist pointed out an important issue.  The media has failed in explaining the actual science of climatology.  The reporters weak response was “So, you’re attacking the messenger.”  The scientists was correct.  The media just likes conflict and often does little to resolve conflict by intelligent reporting.  The problem is most reporters don’t understand science to any great degree.  Reporting done about science by a non-scientist isn’t likely to have much depth of analysis.

There is even support for the allegation that the media and the education system aren’t informing the public.  I thought it quite significant that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is so extremely high and yet most Americans don’t think there is a scientific consensus.  How does such a disconnect happen between public opinion and scientific knowledge?  Furthermore, even when I’ve presented this data to global warming denialists, they act as if it’s of no significance what most scientific experts think.  I’ve even seen a denialist claim that consensus has nothing to do with science and therefore the 3% of dissenting scientific opinion is somehow equal to or greater than the 97% of scientific consensus.  So, if there is any scientist who disagrees with a consensus, then that consensus automatically becomes false and anyone who promotes it is morally inferior for supposedly trying to silence the minority who disagrees.  The faulty logic of this style of thinking not only is a failure of public education in teaching critical thinking skills but also a failure in teaching the scientific method.

This post was more about the issue of anti-intellectualism than climatology, but if you want to read more about the issue of global warming and Climategate I’ve written about it previously:

Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry

Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

Head in the Sand Syndrome

And some reasonable videos showing the scientific support of anthropogenic global warming: