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Doran/Zimmerman global warming poll has become influential despite damning criticisms from survey respondents

A poll performed in 2008 by Professor Peter Doran and then-graduate student Margaret R.K. Zimmerman at University of Illinois at Chicago has become a crucially important source for speeches by United Nations officials, government leaders and activists worldwide. Its findings have become de rigueur talking points for educators and media and arguably have had more influence on the global warming debate than any other project of its kind anywhere.

Yet it has been repeated demonstrated that the poll makes no sense. And, now ICSC discovers that hundreds of scientists told the survey coordinators during the polling process, that the poll was fundamentally flawed and could be easily misinterpreted. Some even said they could not do the poll because of the mistakes. One scientist respondent complained:

"I cannot evaluate unquantified, qualitative statements like 'major,' 'important,' or 'significant' and disapprove of their use in scientific discussions/conclusions.”

Comment from scientist respondent during the Doran and Zimmerman global warming poll.

Yet, despite the criticisms, the survey results were summarized in a major paper published in January 2009 in the science journal EOS, accompanied by a prominent news release from the university.

    As discussed in a blog OpEd posted on the Frontier Centre for Public Policy Website, the thesis in which these findings were described includes appendices that give samples of the feedback from scientist respondents. In the below list ICSC shows 34 of the comments from scientists concerning the problematic use of the word "significant" in questions in the Doran/Zimmerman survey such as the following:

    Q2. “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”
    (The possible answers were, “Yes”, “No”, and “I’m not sure.”)
    Q3c. “What makes you unsure if human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing global mean temperatures?”

    Sample comments from scientists being polled:

    1. “climatic changes are driven by numerous factors. Human activity has a role, but your use of 'significant' needs to be defined more specifically“

    2. “First of all, 'Significant' is undefined, and to achieve the statistical parameters of sigificance is much of what the debates are about. More importantly, there have been many substantial global temperature changes in times well before humans that we cannot account for. The bigger question is, 'How much [warming] does human activity add?'”

    1. I assume you mean 'substantial' rather than statistically 'significant.' I'm not sure how I would answer this if you meant statistically significant. Warmer global temperatures occurred during the hypsothermal when human populations and their influence on the environmental per capital were likely smaller Consequently, I am uncertain about how much of the change in the last 100-200 years are a result of human activity. It is possible that we have provided 5-10% of the change, but I am not sure if that is what you would define as 'substantial.'

    1. “I believe human activity is a contributing factor, it's the term 'significant' I'm unsure about.”

    1. “I do not know what you mean my significant. I believe humans are affecting the climate, I am not sure how and to what level.”

    1. “I don' know how to distinguish the effect of human activity from other controls, and I don't know how you define 'significant'.”

    1. “I think human activity is a significant component, but I do not know if it is 10%, 25%, 50% or more.“

    1. “I have no doubt that it is a factor, and part of my answer relates to the vagueness of the word 'significantly'. Certainly natural variability is significant. I don't think we are yet able to ease out the fraction of warming that is anthropogenic from the fraction that is natural. If the anthropogenic factor is not yet 'significant', however one chooses to define that word, I have little doubt that we are moving toward a time when it will become significant.“

    1. “I think it is a factor, but the question is HOW significant a factor? I find much disagreement among knowledgeable people on this question and it is obvious that anthropocentric blame for warming has become a mantra. I know that climate is a very complex, multivariate proposition, so am cautious about assessing the magnitude of 'our' contribution. That said, however, I have long argued that pumping various pollutants into the atmosphere is a bad thing and we should clean up our 'act' regardless of how much we contribute to warming; we know we contribute to general polluting of the atmosphere with various gases and particulates.”

    1. “It depends on your definition of 'significant. Is human activity a factor? Yes.”

    1. “Personally I have no doubt that human activity is a contributing factor to increased average MGT, but I cannot evaluate unquantified, qualitative statements like 'major,' 'important,' or 'significant' and disapprove of their use in scientific discussions/conclusions.”

    1. “Significant is a loaded term. Human activity has contributed to the increase in temperature, but how much has this activity impacted the global mean temperature? Additionally, how can one differentiate between human induced warming and the natural rise in temperature following the last glacial maximum? Ultimately, global mean temperatures have risen, with human activity being a likely contributor, but how much of the recorded increase is a direct result of anthropogenic CO2 is unknown.”

    1. “'Significant' is a relative term. To me, significant means that most of the changing temperature would be attributable to human activity. I'm not sure that can be demonstrated. 'Significant' is a word that is open to multiple interpretations.”

    1. “Significant is the key word. it has made a difference, but I am not sure if it is a significant difference or just adding to a natural change in temperatures.”

    1. “That the humans are a contributing factor is clear, as to 'significant' is debatable. I base that decision on the variable quality of our dataset and the relatively limited time coverage (e.g. relatively good data in the last 50 years, marginal or 'corrected' prior).“

    1. “The atmosphere is a complex system and I am not sure we are accounting for all of the necessary feedbacks that would kick in from human activity. I believe human activity is likely doing something, but I hesitate to say it is 'significant'.”

    1. “The key word here is 'Significant'. It seems to be well established that human activity has contributed to CO2 increase (and by implication global warming). What seems to be less well known is the effect of solar variability on the overall heat input to the earth, the CO2 uptake potential of the oceans and what a 'Normal' climate change perturbation is. (The younger Dryas for example) Without a doubt, if we keep moving in the direction we have been, we very well may prove out that we are a significant factor in global mean temperature. To say it is a certainty now implies a level of confidence in our understanding of earth and atmospheric processes that I am not sure we truly have. I would clarify, however, that I am answering this from a purely scientific standpoint. i.e. how confident am I in the state of our understanding as to the significance of the human input. From a sociological standpoint, I think we should all we can to try and reduce our footprint from pollution and population st”

    1. “The key word is significant. There have been cyclic warm and cold periods since man has been on earth. The last 10 years the mean temperature has been rather flat, and we have a downward spike this winter. I'm not sure of all the factors going on. I mainly focus on short and medium range forecasting. I am eager to learn more about climate change.”

    1. “The term significant is somewhat ambiguous particularly in comparison to climate changes ithroughout geologic history.“

    1. “The use of the word significant makes me unsure. I know that climate fluctuations are normal, and I'm not convinced that humans are making current temperature changes significantly different.”

    1. “The way that you phrased the question implies that human activity has to be a significant contributor. I think that the data indicates we are contributors but I'm not sure that we understand the background cycles/changes well enough to know how small or how huge our impacts are.“

    1. “There are many natural causes of global climate change, and while humans may impact MEASURED temperatures through actions such as burning fossil fuels and urbanization, it is not clear that these play a SIGNIFICANT role in the climate change that we currently see.”

    1. “Does 'significant' mean perceptible or outside the 'normal range' of observations. If you choose the latter, then compared to natural processes, peturbations to natural systems that can be attributed to mankind are probably too short term to be geologically significant.”

    1. “What defines significant? If 1-2 degrees F is considered significant then I would agree that human input is significant“

    1. “what do you mean by significant? Statistically? A player in the total rise? sure we are! How much? I am not sure.“

    1. “What is meant by significant? A major contribution, yes, but what is human activity compared with increased solar activity. So far, it is lost in the statistical models.“

    1. “Your use of the word 'significant'. It seems clear that human activity has caused an increase in CO2 levels. That, in theory, might have caused an increase in global temperature. However, did it? If so, was it the only cause? If it was a cause, was it a significant cause?”

    1. “Tried, but could not use the provided selection of answers to the 2nd question, "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperature?" The answer is "probably" or "Very Probable". That's neither "yes", "no", nor "I'm not sure". I am sure that human impact is very probable. Anyone who is "sure" of either "yes" or "no" is either ignorant or fibbing. "I'm not sure" is equivalent if I know nothing whatsoever or if I know a lot.”

    1. Once again, I find this imprecise and impossible to answer. For example, what level of significance do you mean? If something is unstable or metastable, it may take only a small push (and thus a small contribution) to push the process one direction or another. It this process tips, the contributing factor may seem to be relatively small but may have a large resulting impact. I found it impossible to complete your questionnaire due to these problems.

    1. I responded to your survey. However without defining what is meant by significant, you may get a wide range of responses that agree. I personally believe that humans are influencing climate, that they augment change, and that climate will continue to change irregardless of what humans do. I study glaciers. Earth has had hundreds of continental scale glacier events during its history. Glaciers will continue to experience cycles where they expand and then contract, and then expand again, as they have done many times before, prior to humans evolving. They will also continue to do so long after our species is extinct.

    1. Q2 then asks if I think that humans are "a significant" contributor to warming temperatures, but I can only answer yes or no. I happen to think that we are one among many contributing factors, so I answered yes, but I couldn't explain this. The third question then asks me why I think humans are a major contributor, but is phrased in such a way that it's implicit that I'm now listing them as THE significant factor. They are not the primary cause, but I had to stop the survey at this point because it was forcing me to answer queries about why I think they are. As constructed, your responders will be unable to indicate that there are multiple causes to climate change, that climate change is the norm on Earth and has been going on throughout geologic time, and that there is strong evidence to indicate that climate change not only occurred before humans existed, but also was probably more extreme than the event we are living in today.

    1. “I have answered some questions from your survey and some I have not answered because they are vague.”

    1. Your first question is ill-posed in that it does not define the periods for temperature that need to be compared. Pre-1800's leaves 4 billion years to consider. I answered anyway.

    2. Just filled out your survey and I have a suggestion. You need a question that asks to what degree we think human activity has influenced climate. I am pretty sure our activities have had a significant effect but not convinced that all of the warming we see is directly attributable to anthropogenic activity. To me that is a somewhat different answer than what you will get by just looking at my answers to your questions.

    To read a larger sample of the comments by the earth science experts polled, see the Appendices C, D and E in the Masters thesis, "THE CONSENSUS ON THE CONSENSUS: AN OPINION SURVEY OF EARTH SCIENTISTS ON GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE" by MARGARET R. K. ZIMMERMAN, M.S. here.