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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Do 80 percent of Scientific American subscribers deny global warming? Hardly

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Readers of the Wall Street Journal may have been surprised by an editorial that appeared Tuesday. We editors at Scientific American certainly were. 

In his opinion piece, techno-utopian intellectual George Gilder takes California's Silicon Valley to task for its green initiatives to create jobs. At one point, he makes this sloppy claim: 

"Republican politicians are apparently lower in climate skepticism than readers of Scientific American, which recently discovered to its horror that some 80 percent of its subscribers, mostly American scientists, reject man-made global warming catastrophe fears."

First, fewer than 10 percent of our subscribers are scientists. Second, the 80 percent climate denial number is not to be believed.

For that 80 percent figure, I'm guessing Gilder relied on a poll that we created for an October 2010 article on Judith Curry. Question number 3 in particular asked visitors, "What is causing climate change?" The poll results show that 77.8 percent responded "natural processes"; only 26.4 percent picked "greenhouse gases from human activity."

Ignore for the moment that this poll was not scientific (nor was it meant to be) and that it was open to all who have access to the Internet, not just to our subscribers, as Gilder implied.

Rather, the big problem was that the poll was skewed by visitors who clicked over from the well-known climate denier site, Watts Up With That? Run by Anthony Watts, the site created a web page urging users to take the poll.

It sure worked. Our traffic statistics from October 25, when the poll went live, to November 1 (the latest for which we have data on referrals) indicate that 30.5 percent of page views (about 4,000) of the poll came from Watts Up. The next highest referrer at 16 percent was a Canadian blog site smalldeadanimals.com; it consists of an eclectic mix of posts and comments, and if I had to guess, I would say its users leaned toward the climate denier side based on a few comments I saw. Meanwhile, on the other side of the climate debate, Joe Romm's Climate Progress drove just 2.9 percent and was the third highest referrer. 

So we were horrified alright---by the co-opting of the poll by Watts Up users, who probably voted along the denier plank. In fact, having just two sites drive nearly half the traffic to the poll assuredly means that the numbers do not reflect the attitudes of Scientific American readers. 

I'm not sure what the poll numbers ultimately mean. (The poll also showed that 68 percent think science should be kept out of the political process--when did we officially go back to medieval thinking?) Given how the poll has become meaningless and skewed, I have taken it offline. 

We certainly took our lumps from all sides about this online poll, and we learned from the criticisms and will aim to do better next time. 

And George, if you must know, in another poll of 21,000 readers we conducted earlier this year, 40 percent of respondents said that over the past year they became "more certain that humans are changing climate"; 46 percent said their views were "unchanged" and only 14 percent were "more doubtful that human activity is affecting the climate."

 

Philip Yam

Managing Editor, Online

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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