Who Counts as a Climate Scientist?

A recent study published in Environmental Research Letters, “The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists,” offers encouraging data, while at the same time perpetuating many of the errors that plague the public understanding of climate science.

First, the good news. The paper reports the results of university science faculty polling:

Most respondents (93.6%) believe that mean temperatures have risen and most (91.9%) believe in an anthropogenic contribution to rising temperatures. Respondents strongly believe that climate science is credible (mean credibility score 6.67/7). Those who disagree about climate change disagree over basic facts (e.g., the effects of CO2 on climate) and have different cultural and political values. These results suggest that scientists who are climate change skeptics are outliers and that the majority of scientists surveyed believe in anthropogenic climate change and that climate science is credible and mature.

That’s all good to hear, though hardly the first time an overwhelming consensus about the reality of climate change has been demonstrated.

So why am I grumpy about this? Let tackle the problems one by one:


1. “Belief”

This paper repeatedly describes scientists’ views on climate science as beliefs. Here’s how the paper put it:

  • “Approximately 97% of active, publishing climate scientists believe in anthropogenic climate change.”
  • “The results show that scientists across disciplines nearly unanimously believe in anthropogenic climate change…”
  • “Most respondents believed that humans are contributing to the rise in temperatures.”

The problem with using “belief” in place of “accept” or “recognize” is that the word belief implies opinion, implies faith, implies that people think something for reasons other than rational consideration of evidence. Word choice matters, as NCSE’s Glenn Branch explains here and here. We at the NCSE have struggled for decades against creationists who attempt to undermine acceptance of evolution by arguing that scientists’ “belief” in evolution is just one among many equally-valid opinions. But one does not “believe” that atoms exist or that dinosaurs went extinct long before humans; these are simply facts. By using “belief” in this way, the authors have rhetorically invited the Lebowskis of the world to counter, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like your opinion, man.”


2. Misuse of “skeptic”

On the heels of the Associated Press’ blunder in changing their language about climate change deniers (for which the AP was taken to task by NCSE’s Josh Rosenau, NPR, and Slate), this paper labels denialists as skeptics, giving unwarranted credence to their crank ideas about climate science. Here’s how the paper puts it:

  • “...scientists who were climate change skeptics tended to be from older generations”
  • “These results suggest that scientists who are climate change skeptics are outliers…”
  • “Scientists who are publicly skeptical about climate science…”

Use of “skeptic” here is wrong. For the sake of consistency, those who deny the legitimacy of climate science must also then reject the methods of science itself; they must dismiss how we learn about the natural world. Rewarding such full-fledged divorcement from reality with the term “skeptic” is inappropriate. It is not advocacy or politics to call things what they are—we’re facing denialism, not skepticism.


3. Who was polled

The more one digs into this paper, the stranger it seems. The authors used questionnaires to poll 2000 randomly selected “biophysical science faculty” from just twelve universities, all in the US Midwest.

The contacted “biophysical” faculty were in “biological sciences, natural sciences, physical sciences, earth sciences, agriculture, environmental sciences, natural resources, and other geosciences.” But the project’s goal was to assess views about climate from “non-climate scientists.” While I can see how one could exclude these disciplines because the degrees do not say “climatology,” in practice climate science is much more than just climatology or atmospheric physics; climate science is very multidisciplinary and integrates fields of knowledge involving not only current changes on earth, but the entire history of earth’s dynamic climate. That means you need researchers who do work as varied as measuring glacial retreat to studying changing migration patterns and struggling marine life to measuring isotopes in gases from delicate air bubbles in cores of ancient ice. It’s as if this paper was set up without much thought to what “non-climate scientists” meant.

Let me give an example by pointing to just one major climate research institution: the University of Colorado Boulder’s INSTAAR (Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research). INSTAAR is a research powerhouse in the earth sciences, claiming on its website that it publishes “more papers in the geosciences—and generate[s] more citations to those papers—than those at any other university in the world.”

A survey of recently published INSTAAR-affiliated papers turns up titles such as “A review of volume-area scaling of glaciers,” “Are anthropogenic changes in the tropical ocean carbon cycle masked by Pacific Decadal Variability?” and “Climate-driven variability in the Southern Ocean carbonate system.” This is real, current climate change research by scientists from a variety of disciplines that would be considered “non-climate” according to the methodology of this Environmental Research Letters paper. A survey of INSTAAR faculty reveals disciplines as varied as geology, geophysics, geography, paleoclimatology, glaciology, hydrology, ecology, evolutionary biology, environmental studies, oceanography—all fields that in this study are “non-climate” disciplines (and all strangely lumped together as “biophysical,” though biophysics is a distinctly different discipline). Clearly, there’s a problem with who seems to count as a climate scientist.

Another major, glaring omission involves adjunct faculty. The paper stated, “Research and adjunct faculty were excluded from data collection because their listing on websites was inconsistent.” But adjunct faculty make up as much as 70% of US college faculty. So to arbitrarily exclude them from this study means it’s missing almost three-quarters of the people involved in this line of work, and whose thoughts about climate change are just as interesting to know as their more-tenured colleagues.

Clearly there are methodological problems with this paper’s very narrow definition of “climate scientist”; indeed, almost half of the “non-climate” participants described climate research as “some” or the “majority” of their work. It might prove interesting, if one really wanted to assess views on climate from non-climate scientists, to assess only the views of faculty who self-reported that their research focus had no intersection with climate change.


4. Maturity and trustworthiness

One of the questions assessed was “Compared to my field, climate science is a mature science.” Respondents were also asked to rank the trustworthiness of climate science. In both cases, respondents seemed to indicate less maturity and less trustworthiness for climate science.

But the problem is in the questions themselves. Juxtapose any discipline against someone’s field, and that person will likely be able to find something critical to say about the other, while bolstering his or her own work. That’s just human nature.

And what does “mature” mean, anyway? Is there a set number of years a discipline needs before it can be considered mature? How many years? Do different disciplines mature at different rates? When do we start the maturity clock of the biological sciences—in 1859, with the Origin of Species, or 1953, when the structure of DNA was discovered? Is genetic testing somehow less scientific or less valid because it is so new? Questions about how “mature” a science is lead not to answers, but to further questions.

Raising the issue of “trustworthiness” is a loaded question; the majority of respondents judged their own field to be “about equally trustworthy,” but the structure of the question forced all other respondents to rank climate science as less or more trustworthy. Unsurprisingly, very few respondents volunteered their field to be untrustworthy.

And why single out climate science on the question of trustworthiness? Is there something specific this question is getting at—the fake scandal of “Climategate,” perhaps? I am unsure of the value of such questions, except to imply a non-existent problem and plant in the respondent’s mind the idea that there should be a reason why climate science cannot be trusted.


In short, there are many encouraging things about this study, and its results are consistent with similar studies showing overwhelming consensus on the topic of climate change. But I would be interested in seeing studies about climate change acceptance that more accurately reflected, and respected, the diversity of scientists involved in climate research.


Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.