AGW Observer

Observations of anthropogenic global warming

The Skeptical Scientist

Posted by Ari Jokimäki on February 11, 2010

Recently, I made an announcement of our translations of Skeptical Science articles and even more recently, I announced that we have started a new climate science blog in Finnish. In that new blog, as it is the home also of the translator team, the Skeptical Science translations were announced. To accompany that announcement, I interviewed John Cook of Skeptical Science briefly about relating subjects. Here I offer the interview also to English reading world:

Ari: “Who is John Cook and how he became interested in climate science?”

John: “I started out studying physics at [University of Queensland, Australia]. After graduating, I spent my honours year focused on astrophysics (which is why I appreciate that the most popular skeptic argument is about the sun). However, after completing honours, I went into the workforce and while keeping a keen interest in science, didn’t pursue it professionally. However, a few years ago, a family member who was skeptical about global warming handed me a speech by Senator James Inhofe. After reading through it and researching the science, I was surprised at the weakness of the arguments against human caused global warming. So I started looking into the matter more deeply.

Being a compulsive data collector with an obsessive interest in plotting graphs and tabulating results, I began a database of skeptic arguments and how often each argument was used. I noticed there were a few other websites that systematically looked at skeptic arguments but often the answers referenced other websites rather than the peer review science. So I started researching what the peer review science said about each argument. And as I learnt the science, a pattern emerged. Each skeptic argument focused on a narrow piece of the puzzle while ignoring the broader picture. I set about trying to present the broader picture through the peer review science. Thus Skeptical Science was born.”

Ari: “Did you ever publish anything on astrophysics?”

John: “I haven’t published any peer reviewed papers. All I have published was a thesis on solar fraunhoffer line widths. The main achievement of that work was to point out the flaws in the PhD student’s thesis on the same subject – debunking even back then!”

Ari: “Being a newcomer in this issue, I never saw the Skeptical Science version 1. Was it similar to today with argument-meters and all? What was the initial response to your new website, instant success?”

John: “The initial ugly version was never meant to be seen by public eye – it was basic stuff. But somehow, someone saw it because I saw people refering to it on sites like Real Climate so at that point, I hurriedly asked my wife to come up with a web design (the current design) – at that point, the argument meters were all added. At that point, the site gradually grew – not an instant success. The biggest traffic jump was actually the climategate period.”

Ari: “With climate scientists like the people at RealClimate noticing and referring to your articles, how did/do you feel about that?”

John: “Once, I was reading a Real Climate post about the PMOD vs ACRIM debate and they mentioned that a good overview was found at Skeptical Science. That was somewhat cool firstly because I’d forgotten about that post and secondly because the Real Climate authors are actual climate scientists who have been working in their field professionally for decades. These are the guys working in the trenches, furthering understanding of our climate – I’m just a blogger trying to summarise their research in a way that us ordinary laymen will understand.

The more I read about climate science, the more I become aware of how much more there is to know. The Dunning-Kruger effect is rampant in the climate debate with many people with no scientific expertise thinking they know better than climate scientists who have been studying these matters for decades. I confess in the early days, I was just as susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, thinking I had a clearer understanding of climate than I actually did. As time has progressed, I’ve realised how subtle, nuanced and complex climate is. Consequently, the website has evolved to put even more emphasis on the peer-reviewed science.”

Ari: “So, what are your thoughts on Skeptical Science today, especially considering what you originally thought it was going to be?”

John: “I didn’t really have much thoughts on what Skeptical Science might be at the beginning – it was more just the compulsion I have to sort and categorise things into neat little databases. At this point, I’m still not sure where Skeptical Science is heading – things are changing so quickly and the goal posts get moved from week to week. The basic principle is still the same though. Almost all skeptic arguments and tactics involve distracting people from the scientific realities of global warming. If it’s a science based argument, it involves focusing on narrow, cherry picked data. More commonly of late, it’s a focus on discrediting scientists and the IPCC. Either way, the best response is to point people back to what the peer review science is saying. So I continue to concentrate on that goal but the issue of how to communicate the science better to the general public is something I think about a lot.”

Ari: “Now there are people translating your articles to other languages. Being one of the translators I have seen how much work you have devoted just to make our work more pleasant, implementing new features to the translation system and repairing the glitches it has. I and I’m sure all the other translators thank you for the effort you have put in. There are now translators of several languages working on your articles. Your thoughts on all the translation projects?”

John: “The translation project is an exciting and unexpected development. It just kind of happened out of nowhere – initially, I was contacted by a Czech reader offering to translate some pages. We discussed where to put the translations and I offered to host them on my site. At that point, the idea came to me of multiple translations so I decided to create an admin system where any translator could login and add translations of any skeptical argument they chose. It was inspired somewhat by the Real Climate where a few of their posts have flags at the top of the page linking to translations. The system really took off when you and your team of Finnish translators really put the system through its paces and has grown steadily since then. As far as I’m concerned, the more people we can communicate the science to, the better.”

Ari: “We have seen from your articles that it’s not the sun and it’s not the clouds and it’s not the albedo and it’s not the cosmic rays and so on. What is it then?”

John: “What’s causing global warming? Initially I took the mindset of a process of elimination, ruling out sun, cosmic rays, clouds, etc. But gradually the light dawned that climate isn’t a simple mechanism ruled by one driving factor. You need to factor in all the different influences. Carbon dioxide, methane, internal variability, solar changes, etc. These all influence climate. And when you consider them all together, it becomes apparent that the forcing from carbon dioxide is currently the most dominant forcing. More disturbingly, it’s also the forcing that is changing faster than any other forcing – growing steadily. So many factors are influencing climate but the most dominant forcing is carbon dioxide.”


2 Responses to “The Skeptical Scientist”

  1. Nic said

    Thank you ,Ari,for this fantastic web resource,and for helping to publicise Skepticalscience,which has set a benchmark for clear exposition (and sensible moderation) since its inception.

  2. Ari Jokimäki said

    It’s my pleasure, thank you. 🙂

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