Scientific Apophenia

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


apophenia_definitionapophenia_definitionScience, as a whole, advances or fails to advance in large part in a direct relationship to the presence or absence of bias in its research efforts.  There are many types of bias, and these have been discussed in the pages of various Climate Science blogs and publications over the years. [ see the short list at the end of the essay ].

One of the most common biases that skew research and slow or even stop the progress of science is Confirmation Bias:

A distinguishing feature of scientific thinking is the search for falsifying as well as confirming evidence. However, many times in the history of science, scientists have resisted new discoveries by selectively interpreting or ignoring unfavorable data.  Previous research has shown that the assessment of the quality of scientific studies seems to be particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias. It has been found several times that scientists rate studies that report findings consistent with their prior beliefs more favorably than studies reporting findings inconsistent with their previous beliefs.

Confirmation bias may thus be especially harmful to objective evaluations regarding nonconforming results since biased individuals may regard opposing evidence to be weak in principle and give little serious thought to revising their beliefs.  Scientific innovators often meet with resistance from the scientific community, and research presenting controversial results frequently receives harsh peer review.” — Wiki

Confirmation Bias itself is a special form of apophenia:  there are varying definitions, but generally:  ”Apophenia (/æpoʊˈfiːniə/) is the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things.” And in more recent times  “Apophenia has come to imply a universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information”.  In the present instance, I will be looking at the concept: Scientific Apophenia.

The concept is discussed in some detail in the paper Scientific Apophenia in Strategic Management Research — Goldfarb & King   (2013), leading with this explanation:

Scientific Apophenia: “The term apophenia has been used in clinical psychology to mean the “perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena.” In our context, we use it to define not a type of cognitive disorder but a potential dysfunction in the way scientists find meaning in data. We define “scientific apophenia” as the assigning of inferential meaning when limited statistical power should prevent such a conclusion or when the data are actually random.”

Not long ago, I wrote a two-part essay titled Why I Don’t Deny: Confessions of a Climate Skeptic — Part 1 and Part 2.   After confessing that I accepted [almost] all of the proofs and evidence presented by the IPCC in support of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, I found that I still was left with this conclusion:

“I would … say that the evidence offered up by the IPCC, in their hundreds of pages of painstakingly reviewed and re-reviewed reports, does nothing more than present a case for the possibility that the hypothesis could be true. “

“The IPCC and the Climate Science community have, so far, failed to rule out the CO2 driven global warming hypothesis —  nothing more.” 

And thus, we find that we have a rather odd scientific situation surfacing in this month’s news about climate science:  the IPCC has issued a new report which says “Governments around the world must take ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ to avoid disastrous levels of and global warming” warns that we have only 12 years to massively change the way human populations power their societies. The general public reaction?  “Ah, yes, well, thank you.  We’ll take that under advisement. [stifled yawn]”.

What is the problem here?  When the world realized that it had only ten years to fix a serious problem in much of the world’s software that ran in banks and stock exchanges and routed airplanes and almost everything, the Y2K problem, we buckled down, hired back a lot of retired and laid-off COBOL programmers and fixed the code.

Why aren’t the governments of nations calling out the National Guards to build millions of acres of solar-panel power stations, erecting millions of wind turbines, dismantling coal fired power plants, re-fitting abandoned hydropower stations, restricting the sale of gasoline-powered autos — all in a last ditch effort to save the planet and all of humanity?

I posit that it is because, as a whole, we don’t believe them.  We don’t believe the IPCC as a body of experts, we don’t believe Climate Science as a purveyor of physical truth.

There are a lot of theories as to why “we don’t believe them”.  My opinion is that the general public looks around and sees that things are as they always have been, as far as the weather and the climate are concerned.  People in New Orleans know they got flooded badly by Hurricane Katrina, but haven’t forgotten their grandparents telling them about the biggest flood of them all, Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.   Houston residents bemoan the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey, but know that they have built their homes on flood plains and are thankful that they were spared the destruction of the great Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

The Climate Scientists try to tell the people that their present day problems — hurricanes and floods, wild fires, heat waves  — are caused by Anthropogenic Climate Change [caused by humans burning fossil fuels].  Why?

Because, this is how the Climate Scientists see it:

We’re scientists. We know the climate’s changing. And we know why.

Now, the question being debated is why the climate is changing. … Though there may be a public debate, there’s no debate among scientists like us — decades of research have demonstrated that human activities, primarily the emission of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, are driving the climate change we are experiencing.”

 — Andrew Dessler  and Daniel Cohan

Reading Dessler and Cohan’s article in the Houston Chronicle will not tell you anymore than is contained in the paragraph above — the “decades of research” they detail to support their conclusion is [with apologies for bluntness] scientifically infantile:

If the Sun has been getting brighter, then that could explain the warming. The Sun, however, has an airtight alibi — we have direct measurements of the output of the Sun from satellites, and we observe that the Sun has not gotten any brighter. One suspect down.”

“Another possibility is the orbit of the Earth. We know that ice ages are paced by small wobbles in the Earth’s orbit, …Earth’s orbit changes too slowly and is now in a phase that should be slowly cooling temperatures. Another suspect down.”

“Volcanoes can cool the atmosphere for a year or two. But that can’t explain decades of warming. Another suspect down.”

“There is an entire list of suspects that scientists have looked at, and they have not identified a single viable one. With one exception — greenhouse gases.”

That’s it — that’s their scientific evidence for greenhouse gas driven warming.  Two of the items proffered are cooling effects and would be unlikely to be causing warming.  Dessler and Cohan casually dismiss hundreds of journal papers implicating the Sun in climate change and contradict the IPCC statement in AR4.

How is it that these two Climate Scientists see “proof” of Anthropogenic Global Warming and Climate Change in those simplistic statements?  That is the question we’re looking at in this essay.

The “Experts” see AGW,  the general public, however, just sees what is in front of them and what has gone on in the past.

Scientific Apophenia:

The Climate Scientists are looking for evidence that supports the AGW hypothesis — and because they are looking for it, they see it in everything.

It was the same for my Great-Aunt Mildred, who saw evidence of spiritualist phenomena in the daily events in her life — ghosts, haunting spirits, and friendly garden pixies.  A vase falling off the mantel was proof positive of poltergeists (and not the fault of the minor earthquakes experienced nearly daily in southern California).

Both Great-Aunt Mildred and the Climate Scientists “mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things.”

Let’s suppose for a moment that the AGW Hypothesis had never captured the minds of atmospheric and oceanographic scientists, meteorologists, and those studying the Earth’s various Koppen Climate regions.

These men and women, at a great gathering of the world’s geophysical scientists, attend a lecture on past and present climate and see a PowerPoint slide of generalized temperatures over the last 2,000 years.  It might look like this:

Cool_Warm_WarmerCool_Warm_WarmerImage Source:  See End Note.

Do you think that these brilliant minds would arise as one and shout for immediate and drastic changes to human society,  demanding that energy production, civil and social organization and even economic systems must change immediately in order to prevent global disaster?

Would they see catastrophic anthropogenic global warming in that graphic?

Or would they see that the Northern Hemisphere, at least, is finally warming back up from an unusually cool period to a more comfortable and sustainable level for human society? — a temperature almost up to the idealized expected average surface temperature for an Earth-like planet, 15°C.

If they had not convinced themselves in advance that rising CO2 concentrations would cause run-away dangerous warming, would they see that danger in the chaotic climate data of today?

If today’s IPCC Climate Scientists were not looking for impending climate disaster, would they see it in any of the following climate metrics?




Honestly, I wouldn’t see existential climate change disaster in any of these, the  most-commonly-used measures touted to illustrate what is characterized as a planet threatening problem.

The problem arises when Climate Scientists, who are predisposed to, and trained to, accept the  CO2 Global Warming Hypothesis as fact, see all climate metrics through the lens of:


Rather than this:


This graph of geological-time CO2 Concentrations and Global Temperatures shows a non-linear (possibly chaotic) relationship that does not support the CO2-driven Global Warming Hypothesis.

The question then arises:

Is the whole field of IPCC Climate Science suffering from Scientific Apophenia?is the field collectively  assigning … inferential meaning when limited statistical power should prevent such a conclusion or when the data are actually random.” 

Clearly, the world is generally warming, apparently coming up out of the Little Ice Age that ended in the mid-1800s (possibly a bit earlier) and entering a generally (but not spatially universal) warmer phase,  but it is only dangerously warming if one already believes it to be so.

Some climate measures are changing but they are only look to be dangerously changing if one already believes it to be so. (In fact, for mankind, many are actually getting better.

 The evidence, so far, simply does not support the inference that the Earth’s climate is changing dangerously.    Only persons suffering from Scientific Apophenia see dangerous climate change in the chaotic, random patterns of long-term climate metrics.

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Note:  The first temperature graph is adopted from Mann et al. (2008). It is meant to be illustrative.   It depicts a series of temperature reconstructions.  IPCC projections of future temperature have been removed, along with y-axis degrees (as 0.1°C ticks are not appropriate for reconstructions).  On the far right, UAH NH Lower Trop. (red trace) has been added as a proxy of present temperatures. The 15°C line (yellow) has been added for reference.

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Some Links on Bias in Science:

Industry funding and bias

Tackling human biases in science

Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

Is federal funding biasing climate research?

The Bias of Science

Playing the Cognitive Game – The Climate Skeptic’s Guide to Cognitive Biases

Lewandowsky’s Competing Theories for Source of Bias in Scientific Research

On the Biases Caused by Omissions in the 2014 NOAA State of the Climate Report

“No bias here” says Aust Energy Market chief while planning 100% for unnecessary, pointless renewables transition

The lure of incredible certitude

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Author’s Comment Policy:

Yes, thanks for asking.  I do believe that CliSci’s Scientific Apophenia is self-induced — through a Feynmanian self-delusion that necessitates fooling one’s self in order to be accepted in the field of Climate Science.  There are many brave exceptions, and many more joining the ranks of Climate Science Pragmatists every day.

Nearly 15 years ago I told one of my children,  then a brand-new parent of a lovely little baby girl, that we’d have to wait another 10 years or more to let science get done before we started worrying about global warming destroying the planet (which was their fear).  The more time that passes, the less likely it is that dangerous climate change will take place during the next century.

Climates will surely change on a regional basis as they have always done.  Florida, the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean will continue to have hurricanes; California and the American Southwest will experience droughts; and elsewhere major rivers will overflow their banks flooding foolishly located and under-protected modern cities.  That’s the old normal and the new normal — nothing major has changed, just the details.

Let me see your opinions on “assigning … inferential meaning when limited statistical power should prevent such a conclusion or when the data are actually random.

If you start your comment with “Kip…” I’ll know you expect a response.

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via Watts Up With That?

November 2, 2018 at 01:21AM

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