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Assessing the Credibility of CFI’s Credibility Project

Article

Gary Posner

Volume 34.1, January / February 2010

The September/October 2009 Skeptical Inquirer carried the commentary piece “Can a Reasonable Skeptic Support Climate Change Legislation?” by Stuart Jordan, a senior staff scientist (emeritus) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and science advisor for the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy (OPP) in Washington, DC. The article begins, “Skeptics are rightly challenged to assess claims made by all parties when an issue of major public importance arises. ... Questions related to global warming ... represent such an issue today.” Dealing more with the political debate surrounding proposed climate-change legislation than with specific scientific facts about global warming, Jordan later notes:

Both sides have made significant efforts to establish scientific credibility with the public... . Those favoring action rely heavily on the IPCC-2007 science report [by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change].... In contrast, [the office of dissenter] James Inhofe…the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works ... has issued a ... report titled United States Senate Minority Report on Global Warming.... As of January 2009, the number of ... individuals identified [in the Report] as scientists who allegedly dissent over [man-made global warming] claims ... was 687 [including] some quite well-known scientists.

Jordan then discusses the efforts of CFI’s OPP to “vet the list [of 687 dissenting scientists] carefully to establish how credible it is overall.” Though he doesn’t mention its official name in the piece, the OPP dubbed this endeavor the “Credibility Project.” And, as Jordan relates, its findings appear devastating for the dissenters.

After thus laying the groundwork for the following ostensible no-brainer, Jordan ends by rhetorically asking “the skeptic who is not acquainted with the relevant science where he or she thinks the most credible scientific assessment lies—with the scientists whose published research is reported in the IPCC-2007 science report or with the much smaller group of scientists collected for the Senate minority report.”

Some background: In May 2009, CFI’s OPP had disseminated a “Dear Citizen” announcement about its upcoming July 18–21 Second Annual Civic Days at the Nation’s Capital (see inset). From its introductory paragraph: “You will hear about ... an OPP-sponsored project exposing fake ‘scientists’ who oppose global warming.” But two months later, in an invitation to the Credibility Project’s July 17 press conference at the National Press Club, the OPP no longer referred to the dissenting scientists as fake. When I inquired as to whether this reflected “an evolution on CFI’s part,” OPP executive director Toni Van Pelt replied, “It is true, Gary, that your many e-mails [I routinely copy her when corresponding on this subject] influenced my decision to commission this research.”

Because I harbor my own doubts about the existence of a man-made global warming crisis, I anxiously awaited the details of the Credibility Project’s assessment of the skeptical scientists. Its most significant finding constitutes the deck of Jordan’s piece: “CFI vets list of 687 ‘dissenting scientists’ in Senate minority report; 80 percent haven’t published peer-reviewed climate research.” Largely for this reason, in its July 17 press release, OPP concluded that its findings “expose a lack of credibility among dissenting scientists challenging man-made global warming.”

But in my follow-up to Toni, I explained why “it simply does not logically follow that [those skeptical scientists] necessarily lack the credibility to speak to the issues at hand,” any more than I lack the legitimacy to critique, for example, medical studies touting prayer and healing, as I have done in CFI-sponsored magazines despite never having published studies of my own in the peer-reviewed literature.

Speaking further to Jordan’s key point that “80 percent haven’t published peer-reviewed climate research,” Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer e-mailed a letter to the editor (see page 64), which was copied to other interested parties (including Jordan and myself), pointing out that OPP also should have vetted the list of IPCC scientists, since perhaps as few as 20 percent of them have had any professional dealings with climate, much less published in the peer-reviewed climate literature.

In his e-mailed reply to Sheaffer (et al.), Jordan advises:

One of the favorite tactics of global warming deniers is to refer to the [IPCC’s summary] report for policymakers, which summarizes [their separate] science report [authored by 2,000 real climate scientists]. There [in the summary report] it is true that the majority are not climate scientists, because they are presenting a summary, that is based upon the science report, to government officials, in the language of policy recommendations. Clearly this is comparing apples and oranges. The IPCC-2007 report titled “The Physical Science Basis” is a true science report, written by and summarizing the work of approximately 2,000 real scientists.

However, Sheaffer’s letter compares apples to apples—he does not reference the “summary” report, authored by fifty-one members of the IPCC. In an addendum offered after Jordan’s initial response, Sheaffer points out that OPP apparently also failed to ascertain how many of the “2,000 real scientists” actually contributed to the writing of the science report (620), and how many of those have published in the relevant literature.

Thus it seems that the Credibility Project, conceived by CFI’s Office of Public Policy for the purpose of “exposing fake ‘scientists’” who dare dissent from the prevailing climate of climate-change alarmism, has some credibility problems of its own. After polishing the project’s clouded lens, as one again examines Jordan’s question about whether “the most credible scientific assessment lies ... with the [IPCC] scientists ... or with the ... scientists collected for the Senate minority report,” the answer doesn’t appear to be such a no-brainer after all.

Gary Posner

Gary Posner, M.D., is founder of Tampa Bay Skeptics and a CSI scientific consultant. His website is gpposner.com.