Climategate 2.0: How To Tell When an Expert Exaggerates

The newly-released climate scientist emails (called Climategate 2.0) from University of East Anglia (Phil Jones) and elsewhere (Michael Mann and others) show that top climate scientists agree with me. Like me (see my posts on global warming), they think the evidence that humans have caused dangerous global warming is weaker than claimed. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they kept their doubts to themselves: “I just refused to give an exclusive interview to SPIEGEL because I will not cause damage for climate science.”

This is a big reason I have found self-experimentation useful. It showed me that experts exaggerate, that they overstate their certainty. At first I was shocked. My first useful self-experimental results were about acne. I found that one of the two drugs my dermatologist had prescribed didn’t work. He hadn’t said This might not work. He didn’t try to find out if it worked. He appeared surprised (and said “why did you do that?”) when I told him it didn’t work. Another useful self-experimental result was breakfast caused me to wake up too early. Breakfast is widely praised by dieticians (“the most important meal of the day”). I have never heard a dietician say It could hurt your sleep or even a modest There’s a lot we don’t know. My discoveries about morning faces and mood are utterly different than what psychiatrists and psychotherapists say about depression.

As anyone paying attention has noticed, it isn’t just climate scientists, doctors, dieticians, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists. How can you tell when an expert is exaggerating? His lips move. There are two types of journalism: 1. Trusts experts. 2. Doesn’t trust experts. I suggest using colored headlines to make them easy to distinguish: red = trusts experts, green = doesn’t trust experts.

17 Responses to “Climategate 2.0: How To Tell When an Expert Exaggerates”

  1. dearieme Says:

    I tended to rate my colleagues partly by how often the words “I don’t know” passed they lips. Often = good.

  2. Joseph Buchignani Says:

    Re depression, I wanted to note that deranging my Circadian by taking Vit-D morning and night produced a severe but brief depressive episode. I also experienced nausea.

    Back to 100% mood after shifting to taking VIt-D in teh morning only.

    This was on back to back days.

  3. Joseph Buchignani Says:

    Connected with this, I believe early breakfast deranges the Circadian, causing a similar effect that is masked by food intake producing an energy/pleasure swell.

    It seems far more natural to experience a period of morning fasting before satisfying hunger.

  4. Joseph Buchignani Says:

    This, of course, presupposes a healthy diet. Dietary composition greatly affects fasting dynamics.

  5. Txomin Says:

    It is even simpler. Anything you cannot independently verify on your own, consider it belief. It will hurt at first. After all, how many of you can design a scientific experiment that demonstrates the Earth is round? Few, if any. The lesson here is that your ignorance does not imply anything regarding the shape of Earth. Your ignorance is only telling you that all you have is belief, not knowledge.

    In order to achieve intellectual maturity, it is crucial to acknowledge that different critical mechanisms apply when working with knowledge and beliefs. Those people that apply the same critical methodologies to both scenarios are hopelessly lost and at the mercy of their gullibility.

  6. Why experts exaggerate — The Endeavour Says:

    [...] Seth Roberts writes this morning: How can you tell when an expert is exaggerating? His lips move. [...]

  7. Glen Raphael Says:

    That earth’s shadow on the moon is round implies the earth is too

  8. Chuck Currie Says:

    The shadow only implies that the earth is circular, like a ring, but not necessarily round, like a ball. Also, how do you know that the shadow you see on the moon is actually caused by the earth? Isn’t this fun?

  9. ARaybould Says:

    You have picked a bad example to generalize, as there are special circumstances in that case that do not apply to all areas of expertise. Specifically, there is what amounts to a well-funded industry devoted to sowing doubt, confusion and denial over every issue related to anthropogenic climate change, by any means that works. As the science does not indicate doubt of a sufficient degree and scope for their purpose, the workers in this industry have created a bold and impressive array of deceitful techniques, up to and including simply lying. Given this situation, who can blame a scientist for being careful with his doubts, knowing that they will be exaggerated beyond all reason, and that he will have no effective course for redress, as his antagonists have the best possible access to the media – they own a significant part of it?

  10. Seth Roberts Says:

    there is what amounts to a well-funded industry devoted to sowing doubt, confusion and denial over every issue related to anthropogenic climate change, by any means that works.

    As far as I know this does not describe Steve McIntyre, who has been the most persuasive critic. He is not an “industry” nor is he “well-funded”. Nor do I have any reason to think whoever leaked the Climategate emails is “well-funded”. Leaking those emails cost very little.

    Although you seem to think climate scientists are different from other experts — better, apparently — I can’t think of any reason they would be. Nor do you explain why that would be so. I say: Climate scientists are like other experts. I give several examples. You say: (a) There is a well-funded industry sowing doubt, confusion, etc. You give no evidence or examples. (b) Climate scientists, for no stated reason, are better than other experts. My claim strikes me as a lot more plausible.

  11. Josh Says:

    Your blog is predominantly red, I suppose we know where you stand.

    Dun nun nun!

  12. Seth Roberts Says:

    Fortunately the title of my blog is white on red rather than red on white.

  13. ARaybould Says:

    As this is the only part of my reply that you have taken issue with, I trust we can assume that you agree with my central point: the author you quoted at the end of your first paragraph has reason to be guarded in what he says to certain parties, in order to protect himself from misrepresentations against which he has no effective recourse.

    There are a couple of reasons for us to assume that you have no disagreement. The first is that the specifics you take issue with make no difference: even if you would not personally regard the opposition to anthropogenic climate change (ACC) as an “industry” and have not noticed that it is well-funded (more on that below), it does not follow that the researcher in question lacks reasonable grounds for worrying about being misrepresented. An example of misrepresentation: Forbes presented Roy Spencer’s recent remote-sensing paper as “blow[ing] a gaping hole in ‘global warming alarmism’” when the contents of the paper neither claimed nor supported any conclusion remotely so sweeping.

    Furthermore, no conceivable evidence with regard to Steve McIntyre’s personal funding leads to the conclusion that there is no well-funded opposition to ACC claims. When a senator who is well-funded by the oil industry uses a novelist to address a Senate committee in order to debunk ACC, the only reasonable responses are of astonishment and cynicism. Then there is the way the Fox channel presents the issues, and Forbes, as mentioned above… I’m sure you could deny every case I could find, but that will merely leave us with an unresolvable disagreement to which Steve McIntyre’s funding has no relevance, so there is little point in continuing this line.

    Therefore, one wonders what the paragraph referencing Steve McIntyre is doing in your reply at all. Is it a non-sequitur, not actually referring to the previous paragraph or anything else I wrote, but placed perhaps to give the hasty reader the impression that there is an actual argument there? Perhaps you are trying to exploit the fact that I failed to explicitly state that not all the opposition is well-funded or indifferent to the facts, but if so then your resort to this splitting of hairs reveals the weakness of your case.

    You demand proof from me over the funding question, one that is not central to the point – a much-used rhetorical ploy. At the same time, I notice that the standard that you set for yourself on the whole issue, in your last sentence, is mere plausibility – something of a mismatch, it seems.

    Another well-used ploy repeated here is to make claims, about what I have written, which are unsupported by my words. I invite you, and any other reader who is still with us, to examine what I wrote and notice that nowhere do I assign any level of credence to climate scientists, either absolutely or relative to any other expert (the ‘special circumstances’ are, as should be quite clear, the nature of some of the opposition to ACC, not some special credibility of climate scientists.) Furthermore, even if I were to hold that view, it would have no relevance to my point.

    This strikes part b) from your last paragraph, leaving us disagreeing as to whether there is a well-funded opposition to mainstream ACC research. I am comfortable with leaving third parties to make up their own minds on this.

  14. Txomin Says:

    Like I said, there is no need to panic.

    The shape of the Earth is not dependent on anyone’s beliefs.

    Only the scientific method guarantees factual knowledge and, exclusively, to the extend of its currently accepted paradigms. Belief, in contrast, has no correlation (or need to correlate) with knowledge whatsoever.

    That is the reason why it is crucial that we learn to distinguish what we know from what we belief and that we develop separate critical mechanisms to deal with these different cognitive phenomena. If we can’t, we are dependent on “authority” and “people say” in order to manage our perception of reality… a dangerous proposition as history repeatedly demonstrates.

  15. Seth Roberts Says:

    That’s interesting, thanks. I agree, you didn’t say that climate scientists are better than other experts. I should have phrased my comment differently.

    If by “well-funded industry” you mean Senator Inhofe, Fox News, and Forbes, I agree, they are well-funded. By “well-funded industry” I thought you meant specific to climate science. Perhaps CFACT is well-funded. I have not studied Forbes but, like you, I don’t trust Inhofe and I don’t trust Fox News. I mentioned McIntyre because, as far as I can tell, he has been by far the most persuasive and effective critic.

  16. Rubashov Says:


    A while back when you were ragging on macroeconomists I thought about replying that they do exactly what climate scientists do: generate predictive models of complex systems based on long runs of time series data. And like Climate scientists, they express more certainty than they should. Reading your critique of climate science here, however, makes me think that I underestimated your criticism of macroeconomics.

  17. Andre Says:

    The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know – too many people are too uncritical.