Friday, January 04, 2008

Credential Inflation: A Favorite Tactic of Denialists

One of the favorite dishonest tactics of denialists of all stripes is credential inflation. Credential inflation is the process by which those with little proficiency or knowledge of an area, or people with marginal credentials, are touted as experts. In this way, denialists can argue from authority, hoping that no one will challenge the credentials of their spokesmen.

Here are two recent examples of credential inflation. On the climate change denialist blog of far-right Senator James Inhofe, Christopher Monckton is described as a "UK climate researcher". In fact, Monckton is a former British journalist who apparently has no training in any relevant field, such as chemistry or atmospheric science. (His degrees were in classics and journalism.) He has not published a single peer-reviewed paper on climate change or environmental science. Monckton also has a public record of dishonesty, with a false claim that he is member of the House of Lords and a phony claim that he had to sell his ancestral home to pay off a puzzle prize.

I contacted the author of the Inhofe blog piece, Marc Morano. (Morano is a far-right hack who was involved in spreading the false Swift-boat claims about John Kerry.) Morano claimed in e-mail to me that "Lord Monckton has written many research papers on climate change", but was unable to substantiate this claim, producing instead a list of articles that appeared in newspapers such as the Telegraph and the Frontiers of Freedom website.

I then asked Morano about Monckton's training in climatology. He replied as follows:
"As far as I know Lord Monckton is not trained in climatology. But why do you only ask about climatology. The current global warming issue involved so many different disciplines, ie. Mathematics, economics, statisticians for modeling, Geologists for Earth's history, Astrophysicists for solar linking, oceanographers to understand CO2 emissions from oceans, etc."

To which I replied "You're right. Does Lord Monckton have any formal training in mathematics, statistics, geology, astrophysics, or oceanography?" To which Morano replied, "I do not know his entire educational background, but I do know that he has conducted climate research and even, I understand, got he UN to make a few corrections after he alerted them. That certainly qualifies as a "climate researcher." Maybe not peer-reviewed as you would like, but it still qualifies."

Shameless. I've pointed out mistakes in chemistry books, but that doesn't make me a chemistry researcher.

Here's another example of credential inflation. In a recent article on a Focus on the Family website, intelligent design advocate and evolution denialist William Dembski is described as a "leading scientist and mathematician". Now this is a claim that is easy to check. A real leading scientist or mathematician would have published at least a few very influential papers or books, receiving dozens of citations in the scientific literature. So I went over to the ISI Web of Knowledge (formerly Science Citation Index) website, to see how many citations Dembski has received. For a comparison, I chose Paul Vitányi, a colleague of mine who works in a similar area (information theory) and has the advantage of a fairly distinctive name.

I searched for "Dembski, W" using the "author finder" option. I then chose "WA Dembski" to search on (there is another researcher, W. J. Dembski, who actually has one paper that received more citations than all of Dembski's papers). According to ISI, Dembski has 5 items that have received citations. The total number of citations to his work is 5. I then asked for a citation report, and the following graph appeared.

Now, I did the same thing for Paul Vitányi. I chose "PMB Vitanyi" to search on, and found 60 papers cited a total of 358 times. Here's the same graph for Vitányi:

Examine the graphs carefully; the vertical scales are quite different.

So who, exactly, is the "leading scientist and mathematician" here?

Next time you see a denialist touting their expert, be suspicious. Credential inflation is one of their main tools.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame that Monckton should have to get by without a few advanced degrees, since they are so readily available via mail order (i.e. the Kent Hovind route).

Eamon Knight said...

I especially love the ones who make a point of mentioning that they're Mensa members.

Anonymous said...

Monckton is a British peer. His other claims are phony.

Bob Carroll

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Bob C:

Not according to Wikipedia, which states, "Although he has in the past stated that he is "a member of the Upper House of the United Kingdom legislature," Monckton has never been a member of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. The 1997 reform of the House of Lords ended the right of all but 92 hereditary peers to sit in Parliament, with the remaining 92 being elected by fellow peers within their party caucus. Monckton was an unsuccessful candidate for a Conservative seat in the House of Lords in a March 2007 by-election caused by the deaths of two peers. "

Anonymous said...

The IPCC's latest ramblings say, "The CO2 radiative forcing increased by 20% in the last ten years (1995-2005)." However, in that period the CO2 concentration increased by just 5%, from 360 to 378 ppmv, and the radiative forcing from this increase in concentration was 5.35 ln (378/360) = 0.26 watts per square meter, or a little less than 1% of the 27 watts per square meter total radiative forcing (see Kiehl & Trenberth, 1997) caused by the presence of natural and anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere. The IPCC's latest assessment report is full of climate-sensitivity inflation of this kind, where a 1% increase in radiative forcing from CO2 becomes 20%. Not one of the 2,500 "scientists" who contributed to the report noticed the error, which remains uncorrected to this day. Commentators like Lord Monckton (who is indeed a Peer of the Realm notwithstanding the notoriously inaccurate Weakipedia) are valuable because they have the courage to point out errors like this, compelling policymakers to adopt a more cautious and sensible approach when deciding whether to do anything about "global warming".

Jeffrey Shallit said...


You offer no proof or evidence that Monckton is seated in the House of Lords. Nor do you offer any evidence that pointing out an error (if indeed it is) requires courage. Scientists love to point out errors of other scientists.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Jeffrey, he is a British peer. He may be an obnoxious one, and now that the upper house reforms were put in place we are spared his sitting in the House of Lords, but as a holder of a viscount's patent his claim to be a British peer is a valid one. You don't have to sit in the House of Lords to be a peer, and you couldn't sit in the House of Commons if you were one (hence the spectacular history of Tony Benn), so Wikipedia in this case needs to be interpreted carefully. English heraldic history is gloriously arcane and complicated, I fear.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Monckton *is* a peer and *is* entitled to be called "Lord Monckton", but does *not* sit in the House of Lords.

(Hereditary peers don't get to sit in the House of Lords unless they are elected. Monckton put himself forward for election to the House of Lords but wasn't successful.)

Anonymous said...

Christopher Walter Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, is no member of the Upper House of Parliament, although he claimed it en passant in his text "Uphold Free Speech about Climate Change or Resign":
Finally, you may wonder why it is that a member of the Upper House of the United
Kingdom legislature, wholly unconnected with and unpaid by the corporation that is the
victim of your lamentable letter, should take the unusual step of calling upon you as
members of the Upper House of the United States legislature either to withdraw what you
have written or resign your sinecures.

Nevertheless, as being a viscount since 2006, he is a peer...

Jeffrey Shallit said...

OK, I've changed the text to reflect the suggested correction.

Anonymous said...

Herein we see the favored tactic of the Kool Aid drinkers: Don't listen to reason, but instead discredit the source.

If Adolf Hitler appeared and said "Anthropogenic Global Warming doesn't make much sense because CO2 increase trails temperature increase by about 800 years," I'd have to agree that he had a point. That would neither make me a Nazi nor Hitler a scientist, but the statement still holds up.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


You miss the point entirely.

The deniers use credential inflation to make their points. Monckton is simply not a "UK climate researcher", no matter how much the deniers jump up and down.

In your example of Hitler, I'd respond, "Sorry, Adolf, but the folks at have already explained why your argument is a non sequitur".

Why do the deniers think they can get away with this stuff?

Anonymous said...

No one has commented on Dembski yet...

His article that received 4 citations was published in the journal 'Nous', described as "one of the premier philosophy journals today. In its commitment to a broad, pluralist, non-doctrinal approach..." on the JSTOR webpage.

The article that received 1 citation was published in 'Zygon', a Journal of Religion and Science that "focuses on the questions of meaning and values that challenge individual and social existence today. It brings together the best thinking of the day from the physical, biological, and social sciences with ideas from philosophy, theology, and religious studies." from Blackwell publishing.

He also has a publication in the SCOTTISH JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY that has received 0 citations.

Hardly the track record of a "leading scientist and mathematician"

Anonymous said...

I honestly don't understand why supposedly well-informed people still use the "historically, CO2 levels lag temperature increases" argument, as if several hundred climate researchers completely forgot about that.

To me, that's an indicator of missing the argument much like the classic "if humans descended from apes, how come there are still apes?" chestnut that 'well informed' creationists still use.

There's nothing wrong with trying to pick holes in scientific theories, but it would help to go after the actual theory instead of a strawman.

s. wright said...

I just watched a video last night that featured Monckton giving a lecture on global climate change at St. paul. The evidence that he provided completely decimated the global climate change due to human activity theory. The science was undeniable, face the facts.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mr. Wright:

I just watched a video last night that featured Monckton giving a lecture on global climate change at St. paul. The evidence that he provided completely decimated the global climate change due to human activity theory. The science was undeniable, face the facts.

I find your comment a fascinating example of how credential inflation works on the rubes.

Why would you take Monckton's word for anything, given that he is an admitted liar, and that he has no professional training in the area? And why would you take his word over the word of professional climate scientists?

You've watched Monckton's video; now go watch this one.

Mona Albano said...

You know you can set the scale on the Dembski citations graph to be the same as for your colleage: just right-click on the X axis and change it from Autoscale to 50, 55, 60, or whatever the second graph settled on. Then they will be comparable. People are easily misled by some visual cues such as area so it's important to give them the same impact.