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Scientific American editors slam science deniers Patrick Michaels and George Gilder for misusing their unscientific online poll

By Joe Romm on November 18, 2010 at 7:57 pm

"Scientific American editors slam science deniers Patrick Michaels and George Gilder for misusing their unscientific online poll"

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SciAm “horrified” by “the co-opting of the poll” by users of “the well-known climate denier site, Watts Up With That”

Memo to media, science museums, homo ‘sapiens’: Enough with the online polls!

Just how weak is the case of the anti-science disinformers?  In his written testimony for the recent House hearing on climate science, leading science denier Patrick Michaels of the pro-pollution Cato Institute, devoted two pages to the most unscientific ‘evidence’ possible — an online poll.

Michaels, who recently said Big Oil funds some 40% of his work, based a key part of his testimony on the ‘results’ of an online poll by Scientific American that was gamed by the deniers themselves, as SciAm has documented.

Please put two head vises on — from ear to ear and from chin to pate — before reading this excerpt.

Remember, Michaels is trying to make the most persuasive and credible case he possibly can to members of Congress:

Testimony Objective #3: The definition of science as a public good induces certain biases that substantially devalue efforts to synthesize science, such as those undertaken by the IPCC and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP).

Visitors to the website of Scientific American have been invited to participate in an ongoing survey on global warming. This survey finds””despite the general environmentalist bent of its readership“”that only a tiny minority (16%) agree that the IPCC is “•an effective group of government representatives, scientists, and other experts”–. 84% agree, however, that it is “•a corrupt organization, prone to groupthink, with a political agenda”– (Figure 9).  The concordance between the IPCC and the bizarre one-sidedness of the CCSP Synthesis would compel the respondents to say the same about it, if asked.

I’ll spare you the figure, one of two (!) from the poll that Michaels relies on as evidence in support of his “testimony objectives” (see pages 11 and 13 here).

I asked SciAm editor-in-chief, Mariette DiChristina, to comment on what Michaels did.  She replied:

The testimony of Patrick J. Michaels demonstrates the climate-skeptic strategy of systematically selecting portions of a number of actual scientific studies, not just this poll, to make an argument that is counter to the prevailing body of scientific evidence about climate change. The use of an Internet poll that was clearly not scientifically conducted””and made no claims to be””is in keeping with that deceptive practice. The portrayal of graphs and other scientific-looking images are known to improve receptivity to arguments by listeners/viewers. I personally deplore such misrepresentations of science and was dismayed to see Scientific American‘s good name put to that purpose.

More broadly, if this country invested more uniformly in quality science education starting in the youngest grades, its citizens would be better equipped to grapple with complex topics in the face of such obfuscation.

And this isn’t even an isolated instance of the pro-pollution crowd grasping at this particulars straw in an effort to deceive the public.  The Wall Street Journal did the same on their op-ed page.

Philip Yam, Online Managing Editor for SciAm, debunked that in a post earlier this week titled, “Do 80 percent of Scientific American subscribers deny global warming? Hardly.”

Readers of the Wall Street Journal may have been surprised by an editorial that appeared Tuesday. We editors at Scientific American certainly were.

In his opinion piece, techno-utopian intellectual George Gilder takes California’s Silicon Valley to task for its green initiatives to create jobs. At one point, he makes this sloppy claim:

“Republican politicians are apparently lower in climate skepticism than readers of Scientific American, which recently discovered to its horror that some 80 percent of its subscribers, mostly American scientists, reject man-made global warming catastrophe fears.”

First, fewer than 10 percent of our subscribers are scientists. Second, the 80 percent climate denial number is not to be believed.

For that 80 percent figure, I’m guessing Gilder relied on a poll that we created for an October 2010 article on Judith Curry. Question number 3 in particular asked visitors, “What is causing climate change?” The poll results show that 77.8 percent responded “natural processes”; only 26.4 percent picked “greenhouse gases from human activity.”

Ignore for the moment that this poll was not scientific (nor was it meant to be) and that it was open to all who have access to the Internet, not just to our subscribers, as Gilder implied.

Rather, the big problem was that the poll was skewed by visitors who clicked over from the well-known climate denier site, Watts Up With That? Run by Anthony Watts, the site created a web page urging users to take the poll.

It sure worked. Our traffic statistics from October 25, when the poll went live, to November 1 (the latest for which we have data on referrals) indicate that 30.5 percent of page views (about 4,000) of the poll came from Watts Up. The next highest referrer at 16 percent was a Canadian blog site smalldeadanimals.com; it consists of an eclectic mix of posts and comments, and if I had to guess, I would say its users leaned toward the climate denier side based on a few comments I saw. Meanwhile, on the other side of the climate debate, Joe Romm’s Climate Progress drove just 2.9 percent and was the third highest referrer.

As an aside, I suppose it is a good sign that CP readers didn’t waste as much time as WUWT readers trying to skew what was transparently an unscientific poll.  At the time, I thought a result skewed by the science deniers would be bad, but who could have guessed that the antiscience crowd would embrace the unscientific so wholeheartedly?

Yam continues:

So we were horrified alright—by the co-opting of the poll by Watts Up users, who probably voted along the denier plank. In fact, having just two sites drive nearly half the traffic to the poll assuredly means that the numbers do not reflect the attitudes of Scientific American readers.

I’m not sure what the poll numbers ultimately mean. (The poll also showed that 68 percent think science should be kept out of the political process–when did we officially go back to medieval thinking?) Given how the poll has become meaningless and skewed, I have taken it offline.

We certainly took our lumps from all sides about this online poll, and we learned from the criticisms and will aim to do better next time.

And George, if you must know, in another poll of 21,000 readers we conducted earlier this year, 40 percent of respondents said that over the past year they became “more certain that humans are changing climate”; 46 percent said their views were “unchanged” and only 14 percent were “more doubtful that human activity is affecting the climate.”

Philip Yam, Managing Editor, Online

Readers know I was highly critical of this poll last month (see “Scientific American jumps the shark).  Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) also criticized the SciAm piece and poll.

Former SciAm editor John Rennie had a prescient critique:

And for SciAm to do an online poll about site visitors’ views on a contentious subject like global warming? Sheer folly. Nothing good could come of it. The likelihood that SciAm‘s name would be associated with gamed results that nobody really believed but that would be trotted out embarrassingly hereafter would border on a dead certainty.

In my October post, I urged the editors to stop using online polls.  In my email interview of DiChristina, I asked her, “In the light of this testimony, and the widespread criticism of Scientific American for using such unscientific polls, including by the former editor in chief, will you state for the record that SciAm will discontinue the practice of using such polls?”  She replied:

As I have said publicly [http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=misreading-climate-change-on-scient-2010-10-28], polls are a way to interact with readers, and they are used for that purpose by all consumer media. Scientific American has not claimed that such polls are “scientific” or anything more than a poll of self-selected respondents. In fact, we said they were not scientific. After this experience, we at Scientific American have learned a lot in a hurry about how such polls can be manipulated by groups who have an agenda; a climate-skeptic site encouraged voting and accounted for 30 percent of the total traffic to that poll, as Scientific American reported yesterday [http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/observations/]. We have removed the poll from the site.

It may interest you to know that another nonscientific poll [http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=in-science-we-trust-poll] conducted earlier this year, with 21,000 respondents, showed very different results: 40% of respondents said they became “more certain that humans were changing climate” in the past year, 46% said their views were “unchanged” and a mere 14% were “more doubtful that human activity is affecting the climate.”

In any case, I don’t think we will make the same mistakes twice with an editorial poll about such a highly charged and important topic. But I cannot say Scientific American editorial will never run any poll ever again. That would be like saying you will never write opinions again in your blog after you’ve found that one of your posts (such as the one that speculated that Scientific American has “jumped the shark” on its acceptance of anthropogenically induced climate change) was, in hindsight, not correct. The nature of blogs is to include opinions, and the nature of magazines and consumer media is to include some level of reader engagement and ongoing conversation with the audience, using a variety of means.

Zing!

I am honored to have my ‘not correctness’ compared to a mistake by perhaps the most distinguished of the science-popularizing magazines (and I am the third to acknowledge that I need a new phrase for “jump the shark”).

I am delighted that the magazine that has led the way in informing the public of the dangers of human-caused global warming (and the myriad cost-effective solutions) will continue in that vein.  One of the things I have been most impressed about SciAm over the years was that it was an early and consistent champion of energy efficiency.

But I retain the right to say I “told you so” to any science-based publication or body that uses an unscientific, easily gameable online poll.  As I wrote back in March (!):  “Memo to media, science museums, homo ‘sapiens’: Enough with the online polls!“  Nothing good can come from them!

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27 Responses to Scientific American editors slam science deniers Patrick Michaels and George Gilder for misusing their unscientific online poll

  1. David B. Benson says:

    I hope Scientific American has learned its lesson.

  2. jcwinnie says:

    Uh, you were expecting fairness, SciAm, really and truly? So, as a measure of your good intentions, you are giving back the money paid to conduct the survey, right?

  3. Steve Metzler says:

    Takeaway from this episode: if you feel the need to conduct a poll on a contentious issue, limit it to your readership via snail mail and publish the results afterwards. Or, for paid on-line subscribers, you *could* do it on-line by e-mail invitation, not visible to the public.

    Second best is to do like Twitter does with their annual awards: you have to be a signed up and be an active poster for a certain period of time before you are allowed to vote. But it’s possible to game that too, if a lot of ‘sleepers’ sign up and wait a year :-(

  4. How “horrified” can Sci.Amer. be when they still have Shell Oil ads on the same page as their apology, and when everything was timed to coincide with Patrick Michaels’ usual lies to Congressional committees and an article using the survey in the Wall Street Journal?

    An apology after the harm is done does nothing to undo the harm caused, and is just an attempt to assuage many angry subscribers (and some who cancelled their subscriptions).

    Water under the bridge.

    The guy even speaks of future surveys to be done better.

    Give me a break.

  5. Arthur Smith says:

    Alternatives to “jump the shark”, hmm? Well, there’s “jump the couch” I guess (Tom Cruise). Or “nuke the fridge”. But I think we need something new for this in the context of science-policy communications… can we just name it after a Pielke, perhaps? Scientific American really Pielkied it this time. Too hard to spell though.

    Maybe just being straightforward on what it’s doing would be best – how about “manufactured doubt”.

    SA really manufactured some doubt on this one, no doubt about that…

  6. Steve Metzler wrote in 3:

    Takeaway from this episode: if you feel the need to conduct a poll on a contentious issue, limit it to your readership via snail mail and publish the results afterwards. Or, for paid on-line subscribers, you *could* do it on-line by e-mail invitation, not visible to the public.

    Its been done:

    The 2003 survey was conducted as an on-line survey. The existence of the survey was posted in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the Climlist server, and was sent to institutional lists in Germany Denmark and the U.K. As an effort to prevent general access to the survey, the survey was password protected. The password was contained in the informative message distributed according to the above.

    The result?

    However, the information about the survey was reposted (mail list membership required to read link) to the climatesceptics mail list by Timo Hämeranta on Sep 20 2003…

    Useless on-line survey of climate scientists
    Category: Global Warming
    Posted on: May 1, 2005 9:27 PM, by Tim Lambert
    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2005/05/bray.php

  7. David HS says:

    I looked at the poll but was thoroughly irritated by the silliness of the questions so I did not enter a full set of answers. Thus of course my vote was “spoiled”. i imagine many others reacted in a similar way.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m with Tenney, #4, in suspecting Scientific American may be protesting too much. After all advertising, from any source whatsoever,is the life-blood of publishing. I imagine that Scientific American,like all capitalist business, sees profit maximisation as the central obsession of its management and ownership. As for Michael’s ‘admission’ that he gets 40% of his blood money from ‘Big Oil’-I suspect that he is being disingenuous. I’d say that the other 60% comes from Big Coal, Big Rightwing zealots and other familiar types, all allied in the cause of human destruction, sacrificed on the altar of profit maximisation.

  9. Esko Pettay says:

    Something positive came out of this. The deniers made fools of themselves again (on the record). Unfortunately the 80% claim might end up circulating the blogosphere for years.

  10. John Mason says:

    It came as no surprise to most of us of course that such a poll would get the WUWT crowd mobilised. That was as predictable as the sun rising every morning and setting every evening. But often it strikes me that the media do not fully understand how the denial machine works – even though the answers are staring them in the face pretty much constantly. I hope this has been a salutary lesson for Sci-Am and one that reaches out further into the media again.

    Cheers – John

  11. Stephen Watson says:

    “As I have said publicly … polls are a way to interact with readers, and they are used for that purpose by all consumer media.”

    I would think that their web site itself allows them to “interact with readers”. What beneift to either side does the extra “interaction” of an online poll offer? Will DiChristina enlighten us …

  12. Steve Metzler says:

    6. Timothy chase:

    Not quite what I meant. With a single password, it’s *always* going to be leaked by some contrarian. I meant that if the users all had *paid* on-line subscriptions to SciAm with individual accounts, that it could work. And, of course, each account is only allowed to vote once.

    The subscriptions have to be paid subscriptions too, obviously. And active for a certain period of time before the poll. Harder for the deniers to game that, but nothing is impossible to crack.

  13. Esop says:

    Only a gullible fool would post such a poll and not expect the denialiati to go nuts on it. Big oil has full time employees paid to do stuff like commenting with denier drivel on online news articles, etc, so it would be a shock seeing a poll like this not being dominated by deniers.

  14. darth says:

    I fully expect the 80% claim to end up circulating the blogosphere for years. Has it been repeated by the Rush, Beck, Hannity chorus yet? I expect it will be very very soon. Of course the editor’s comments will not be repeated by them.

    I suggest to those who run debunking sites to get this on their pre-emptively before it gets going. Also I hope the twitter-bot guy adds it to his database quickly!

  15. john atcheson says:

    It was stupid of scientific american to publish a poll on this — as it would be on anything that involves using the scientific method to discern the most likely “truth” about a phenomena. Period,

    Implying that answers to complex questions can be arrived at through a popularity contest is a one-way ticket to the Medieval times.

    Opinion polls about whether we should have a manned spaceflight program? Sure. Of course. That is a choice and a policy with many valid answers.

    Opinion poll on whether gravity is real? whither the earth is flat? whether it is 6000 years old? Absurd. in the extreme, and if the editors don’t understand the difference, they should retire.

  16. Chris Winter says:

    Scientific American should publish a brief report of the statistics around this poll, both in print and online — and it should stay online. That would make it harder to game any polls they might choose to run in future. (I would also hope such future polls are better designed.)

  17. Bill W says:

    I hope Ms. DiChristina also sent her email to each and every member of Congress who heard Michaels’ testimony, and asked that it be entered into the Congressional record (if such a thing is possible).

  18. MarkB says:

    An anti-science hack using and abusing an unscientific poll. No surprise at all.

  19. Jose says:

    The crowd at Small Dead Animals are rabid deniers. Environmentalism is a death cult and all that. [snip]

  20. Jose says:

    Oh and they bomb online polls.

  21. Lou Grinzo says:

    Dear SciAm: Did you know that if you look up “gullible” in the dictionary, it has a reproduction of your magazine’s logo? Really! Go check for yourself.

    Everyone else: This is another “own goal” for those pushing a reality-based view of the universe. It does not matter one bit whether the deniers made fools of themselves, as someone mentioned upthread. They want one thing, and one thing only from these encounters: Talking points they can rehash until the sun burns out, and thanks to the stunning naivete of SciAm, they just got a gem. Given their long, sordid history of cherry picking data, telling half-truths, and outright lying, does anyone here think they will have any trouble at all using this incident to their advantage?

    We have to drop this bizarre addiction to “being nice” and any notion that “the truth will win in the end”, etc., and instead think and act like James Carville after about his 6th shot of tequila. This stopped being about science a long time ago. The deniers and their fossil fueled backers turned it into a brass-knuckle political campaign, and most people on our side haven’t even figured that out yet.

  22. Joan Savage says:

    My trust in SciAm is shot and my skepticism about Congress is reinforced.

    The online poll would have failed the strict criteria for conducting a scientific human survey with federal funding. Maybe Congress needs a heads up about refusing to accept such flawed submissions in a hearing.

  23. Jim says:

    Sad, very sad. I decided to chip-in my two cents’ worth, not imagining it’ll get posted but at least I spoke my piece.

    First, a classic confusion of the alarmists is that “if they ain’t with us, they’re pollution-spewing oil-grovellers!” Wrong – utterly wrong; you are trying to equate CO2 with pollution, and it IS NOT. A major fact against your credo is that every dollar spent on combatting global warming, is a dollar that’s NOT spent on combatting pollution – and it ain’t CO2 that’s birthing all our kids with asthma and environmental respiratory complications.

    Second, HOW DARE you point a finger at the “deniers” for cherry-picking evidence to support their cause? Refer back to the leaked CRU e-mails – and “Hide the Decline – and the infamous Hockey-Stick Graph – that’s been the primary warmist method since Day One! The difference is, you can read about it from the “deniers”; warmists move Heavan and Earth to avoid revealing their sources.

    Finally, just why was it that only “deniers” found-out about, and answered the Scientific American poll? One to ponder…

  24. mitchel44 says:

    2.9% eh

    really big stats for such a powerful blog site

    not enough people here that care?

  25. Tom says:

    I’ve cancelled my subscription over this.

  26. Chris Winter says:

    Surprise, Jim — your post was not deleted! (Not that having it up will do you much good.)

    Jim wrote (#23): “Finally, just why was it that only “deniers” found-out about, and answered the Scientific American poll? One to ponder…”

    Here’s the short version of the story you apparently failed to read: Finding they could vote as often as they wanted, a bunch of people who don’t accept the science of climate change used that ability to skew the results of the poll. (People who like Sarah Palin are doing the same on the viewer poll for “Dancing with the Stars” to keep her daughter Bristol in the running. They even boast about it.)

    So-called skeptics stuffed the ballot box. So much for their integrity.

    One bit of advice: drop the protests about SwiftHack (aka Climategate). Nothing about it disproves the measurements that tell us human activities are affecting the climate. It’s not the game-changer you think it is. That was obvious to most of us from the first. Now several investigations have nailed its coffin shut.

    It’s dead, Jim!

  27. John says:

    Just why was a poll of any sort taken? Since when has fact (what science is supposed to be about) been determined by popularity? This alone shows that politics has invaded science, and gone way overboard on this issue.
    Global cooling lost its popularity fairly easily. Global warming has been hung on to longer, but not for scientific reasons. The faction that thinks they have found a way to bring in another huge tax/revenue stream are hanging on for just that purpose. Isn’t that enough to put it into question? The ice caps grow, the temperatures fall, and they hang on to global warming for reasons completely unrelated to the fact.