Climate: Mistakes or Prevarication?

By Frank Hagan | Related entries in Climate Change

Climate science is a technical field. Modern measurements, reaching back only a few decades, provide us with a degree of precision not found in historical records (yet even modern measurements have problems). To calculate the tiny changes that may be the beginning of global warming we need modern precision for past ages as well. So scientists develop historical temperature records based on things like tree ring growth, ice core samples, and sediment at the bottom of lakes. These physical artifacts act like a proxy for a precision thermometer. At least in theory.

The scientific method requires that after the hypothesis is proposed, a period of testing ensues to prove the hypothesis. We tend to have a romantic view of science as dispassionate and reasoned, with white-coats and pocket protectors and mutual respect all around. We forget that Einstein called Monsignor Georges Lemaître a moron before finally accepting Lemaître’s hypothesis of the primeval atom (or, “Big Bang”). Scientists often protect their data and become entrenched in their positions long past the time the evidence indicates they should move on.

You can ignore the hysterical non-scientific accounts and the deconstructing of them as inconvenient hysteria. It doesn’t matter if former VP Al Gore got much wrong; he’s not the one doing the research. But when the ones publishing the data find they have major errors they … sometimes grudgingly … admit it and go back to the data for a re-write. Or not.

Work by statistician Steve McIntyre at ClimateAudit.com has resulted in an admission that much of the work going into one series of past temperature records (tree ring data) was inadequate and should not be used. Predictably, like Einstein, the supporters of the data at RealClimate.org are calling McIntyre a moron. But the original scientist compiling the data, Keith Briffa, has a much more reasoned (and scientific) response. Basically, “oops, don’t use this data yet”.

Now we find yet another past-temperature “proxy” has problems: sediment at the bottom of lake Korttajärvi cataloged by Finnish scientists. It seems that McIntyre and others first caught the error, and it has been confirmed by the original scientists: the data is sometimes presented “upside down” showing a warming trend when it shows nothing of the sort. Dr. Atte Korhola, at the University of Helsinki, is an expert in lake sediment studies:

Some curves and data have been used upside down, and this is not a compliment to climate science. And in this context it is relevant to note that the same people who are behind this are running what may be the world’s most influential climate website, RealClimate.

H/T to the Air Vent blog.

Science is often messy, with emotion and angst, recriminations and entrenched positions defended vigorously. That’s the way it works. Some prefer to accuse others of prevarication, but it hardly matters. The only thing that matters is whether or not the hypothesis is true, and proving that often takes years.

Before we begin to formulate public policy, adding burdens like Cap and Trade to our economy, we should be sure the consensus view is actually true.

Because in science, the consensus view is always wrong, until it is finally right.

Cross posted to FrankHagan.com


This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 and is filed under Climate Change. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

28 Responses to “Climate: Mistakes or Prevarication?”

  1. frankhagan.com » Climate: Mistakes or Prevarication Says:

    [...] Cross posted to Donklephant [...]

  2. Nick Benjamin Says:

    Did you actually read the Realclimate article?

    The article was not written to vindicate the Yamal study. It was written to point out that the Yamal study is not a major part of the data proving global warming. McIntyre’s statistical model is only relevant if you also disprove all (or most) of those other graphs they posted. Except the Gavin one.

    What appears to have happened is simple:
    Climate science is cutting edge research. Mistakes are inevitable. A clever ideologue found one of those mistakes, and his fellow ideologues are attempting to use to justify their political position on cap-and-trade.

  3. kranky kritter Says:

    How do we distinguish major and minor parts of the data that comprise this “proof?” Was the data now in question considered important before it was found lacking? Or has it always been included with the caveat that it was not a major part of the proof of global warming?

    Or is it only now being called “not a major part” after its been found to be iffy?

    there’s enough questionability in all the climate data to wonder how good a grasp we have of the extent of this warming. And when it come to issue of what the cause is, don’t even get me started.

    Cap and trade is NOT going to pass, by the way. Blue dogs won’t support it.

  4. AMac Says:

    Nick Benjamin wrote –

    > Climate science is cutting edge research. Mistakes are inevitable. A clever ideologue found one of those mistakes…

    I’m no climatologist or statistician, but I’ve looked into the question of the use of the Lake Korttajarvi sediments in the Mann et al (2008) paper.

    I agree with your point 1, climate science is cutting edge.

    I agree with point 2 on mistakes being inevitable.

    I can rephrase point 3 so that we agree on that, too. Steve McIntyre found one of those mistakes.

    This is a far more straightforward telling of the tale than you’ll read on prominent pro-AGW-consensus blogs that have discussed the matter (e.g. Stoat), so good on you for clarity of thought.

    Next question. When a mistake in recently-published scientific work is discovered, what should happen next?

    a. Correct the error.

    b. Not so fast. Let’s figure out the policy implications first.

    c. Scientists have better things to do than “correct” “mistakes”.

    d. Vet the ideology of the person reporting the problem.

    e. Look over there! A pony!

    Just to be clear: in my own view, Mann et al’s mistaken employment of these “varve” proxies doesn’t invalidate the entire paper. It covers a lot of ground, most of which doesn’t rely on this data’s proper use.

  5. Adam Says:

    Umm, did you read the Briffa link and follow through to the update?….your implication that Briffa is supporting McIntyre is wrong

    From the abstract: (http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/people/briffa/yamal2009/)

    “McIntyre’s use of the data from a single, more spatially restricted site, to represent recent tree growth over the wider region, and his exclusion of the data from the other available sites, likely represents a biased reconstruction of tree growth”

  6. Nick Benjamin Says:

    @kk,

    Most of the models RealClimate posted did not include this data. The one that did also included many (11 IIRC) other data-sets.

    I personally haven’t been paying extensive attention to the climate debate, but I do pay some. I’d heard of ice cores being used. As well as computer models, and satellite data. I had not heard about fossilized tree rings.

  7. Jim S Says:

    I would hate to get KK started because it’s obvious he doesn’t understand what he’s writing about, much like Frank Hagan.

  8. Trescml Says:

    Trying to model climate change is one of the more difficult problems out there. The real question is what do we do while we are getting improving the models and what is the impact of keeping the status quo. This is not only a science question but a risk question as well. If we wait 25 years for the perfect model only to find that we are screwed and can’t reverse the effect, then we didn’t do the right thing. Killing jobs for no benefit also has it own associated risks.

    I agree with KK that C&T is going nowhere but we should have a response to climate change that keeps our options open based on where the science takes us.

  9. the Word Says:

    One side has representatives that says that science doesn’t matter and that only God will decide and he sits on a committee to generate policy. Some might think that is a partisan view. Since it is a fact please address that if you feel a need to respond.

  10. Frank Hagan Says:

    Adam – I didn’t say Briffa is “supporting” McIntyre; I said he has a much more reasoned and “scientific” response to the issue. I did read the article linked, and the link from that article that is a longer response after studying McIntyre’s work. In that longer article, Briffa states: “The evidence does not support a conclusion that our previous work was in any way seriously flawed. The last 8 years of our chronology ARE based on data from a decreasing number of sites and trees and this smaller available sample does emphasise the faster growing trees, so this section of the chronology should be used cautiously. ” (see http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/people/briffa/yamal2009/). He also backs away from his prior statement that McIntyre implied that Briffa purposefully skewed the data (commenters on McIntyre’s blog did so, not McIntyre).

    I think there could be a bit of selection bias at work in some of the studies. Inverting a few graphs so that they show what you think may be happening anyway doesn’t seem impossible, even for the most well-intentioned science guy. But before we raise taxes on energy, with the unintended consequences (including lost jobs and increasing malnutrition of the nation’s poor children), perhaps we should make sure the data is correct. They could start by publishing all of it, and not waiting years for the Royal Society to demand it.

  11. kranky kritter Says:

    Jim.

    I studied research methods as an undergrad, and I know plenty about math, the scientific method, modeling and predictions, and more than a little about climate science.

    Your baseless insult shows you to be a jerk. An insult which is no more than a little tit for tat that you richly deserve. You invited it.

    It’s the arrogance of jerks like you that practically guarantees that cap and trade won’t pass. Which is good news.

  12. Adam Says:

    Frank,

    Tks for the explanation – I had gone to the link expecting a far more obvious (to a non-scientist like me!) confirmation of McIntyre

    I would also add the perspective that we should also factor in the potential cost of not acting should climate change forecasts prove anywhere near accurate, as well as the cost of acting.

    An interesting example is down here in Australia where the National Party (a party specific to rural interests) is firmly opposed to climate change/carbon costing/etc because of the potential near term costs, whereas the longer term (a few decades) impact on the rural sector will be absolutely devastating if the forecast changes wrought by global warming materialise.

    cheers!

  13. Jim S Says:

    “there’s enough questionability in all the climate data to wonder how good a grasp we have of the extent of this warming. And when it come to issue of what the cause is, don’t even get me started.

    It is that sentence, particularly the part that I emphasized that earned you my comment. Claims about your studies don’t impress me. Hagan worships McIntyre, who is an ideologue with ties to industries that reflexively criticize climate change research. In addition Hagan claims that McIntyre’s critique has resulted in an admission of how bad the data was. This was based on his own writing that referred to a tech blog called the Register, which in turn referred to McIntyre again. There was no such admission. Hagan also produces this gem which bears no resemblance to reality: “Because in science, the consensus view is always wrong, until it is finally right.”. The realclimate article does more than be snarky about McIntyre and his followers. It explains why they deserve it so richly.

    “So along comes Steve McIntyre, self-styled slayer of hockey sticks, who declares without any evidence whatsoever that Briffa didn’t just reprocess the data from the Russians, but instead supposedly picked through it to give him the signal he wanted. These allegations have been made without any evidence whatsoever.

    McIntyre has based his ‘critique’ on a test conducted by randomly adding in one set of data from another location in Yamal that he found on the internet. People have written theses about how to construct tree ring chronologies in order to avoid end-member effects and preserve as much of the climate signal as possible. Curiously no-one has ever suggested simply grabbing one set of data, deleting the trees you have a political objection to and replacing them with another set that you found lying around on the web.

    The statement from Keith Briffa clearly describes the background to these studies and categorically refutes McIntyre’s accusations. Does that mean that the existing Yamal chronology is sacrosanct? Not at all – all of the these proxy records are subject to revision with the addition of new (relevant) data and whether the records change significantly as a function of that isn’t going to be clear until it’s done. ”

    I think the real jerk here is the one who abandons whatever science they might have studied the instant they decide for whatever political, religious or psychological reason they might have that it no longer fits what they want to believe. I suggest the use of a mirror, KK, if you want to see him.

  14. Jim S Says:

    BTW, here’s a little challenge for you. The fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas has been known since the earliest days of physical chemistry. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing for decades. Explain how it can’t contribute to warming.

  15. Nick Benjamin Says:

    IMO the costs of cap-and-trade are exaggerated. Germany’s doing it, Germany has a large manufacturing sector, and the German economy is doing better than ours.

    OTOH the costs of doing nothing tend to be ignored. It’s true most of those costs will be paid by folks who live close to the equator. And that, by and large, ain’t us. But if those people don’t like us our security is directly threatened.

    And think about this from their point of view. They are poor. In most cases fully half their population can’t afford food. And the UN scientists say they’ll all turn into deserts unless the richest country in the world, with the most advanced technology in the history of history, can’t put some damn solar panels up, trade in a few SUVs for subcompacts, and live with a room temperature of 75 F.

    Then those same people come to you with a reasonable request: arrest a local priest (thus angering millions of your own people) who may be planning terrorist attacks in their country. But he may just have a big mouth.

  16. Frank Hagan Says:

    Jim S – I ‘worship’ McIntyre? Do you ‘worship’ Mann?

    Adam – re: the cost of “not acting”; you can apply that concept to nearly anything, often with disastrous results. In this country, removing all the cars from the road would have much less impact than shifting from coal-fired power plants to cleaner technologies (wind, solar, nuclear). I’m much more interested in obtaining the dual goal of reducing pollution and dependence on foreign oil through development of those technologies than heavy-handed tax policies that punish the American middle and lower classes.

  17. Jim S Says:

    No, I don’t worship Mann. OTOH, neither do I reference him incessantly and claim he’s proven something when in fact he hasn’t. You do both when it comes to McIntyre. McIntyre is not a scientist. He has an open political agenda. And before you try it, any claims that every climatologist whose work McIntyre tries to discredit also has a political agenda doesn’t fly.

  18. Frank Hagan Says:

    Jim S – you are given to hyperbole, aren’t you? Words like “incessantly” seem a bit out of scope for a nice gentlemanly conversation, don’t you think? There, to prove you wrong, I wrote two sentences without mentioning my object of worship.

    FWIW, I haven’t stated my opinion in the great GCC debate here, only my opinion to politician’s responses to it. You can read my opinion at http://www.frankhagan.com/blog/2009/10/08/of-mice-and-hockey-sticks/, unless you care to remain ignorant, and therefore free to sling ad hominem attacks my way.

  19. fert Says:

    I think Freeman Dyson would agree with FH to a point. Cap and trade could be like putting a tourniquet on your arm when your leg’s gushing blood. Maybe land management reform (as Dyson suggests) is what’s really needed…. But Dyson would then smack Hagan upside the head for believing that climate change isn’t happening.

    As with KK I’d really like to know how much this affects the body of evidence. My default reaction is that removing Briffa’s data is but a small ripple… can someone change my mind?

    (McIntyre’s work could be much like the Monty Hall caveat debunking some studies ‘proving the existence’ of cognitive dissonance but there is so much other evidence that no textbooks were rewritten)

  20. kranky kritter Says:

    And when it come to issue of what the cause is, don’t even get me started.

    Jim, this is a general statement of my belief that its extraordinarily difficult to show that current climate trends are the result of human agency, and not other factors. We know for a fact that Earth’s climate has varied quite substantially over time, even in times prior to the existence of humans.

    I am sorry that you have some sort of obsessive priapism about one of these writers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about, and it doesn’t mean that there just isn’t very much in the way of conclusive evidence that current climate trends are primarily due to human activity.

    The fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas has been known since the earliest days of physical chemistry. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing for decades. Explain how it can’t contribute to warming.

    You can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that CO2 doesn’t contribute to global warming. Neither can anyone else. I don’t know if it is. Even if it really and truly were the case that CO2 is NOT a contributing factor, no one could conclusively prove this.

    I am utterly delighted to acknowledge that its quite possible that CO2 is contributing to global warming. Just as I am utterly delighted to acknowledge that its quite possible that the recent record of a small warming trend on Earth could be due to factors that have little or nothing to do with human activity.

    And just as I am delighted to acknowledge that if Earth continues to warm, we really don’t know that the consequences will be entirely or even substantially negative. I have no basis for believing that the climatological state of the last several centuries is optimal or especially desirable in the first place.

    I think the real jerk here is the one who abandons whatever science they might have studied the instant they decide for whatever political, religious or psychological reason they might have that it no longer fits what they want to believe.

    Spoken like a total jerk, Jim. You have cast the aspersions first in all cases here. My policy is to return them. My opinions on this matter are based on my studies in the scientific method, and what they have taught me about how much evidence is needed to prove a hypothesis which if true, demands drastic changes in behavior. The greater the prescriptive changes demanded, the higher the level of proof I want. That’s extremely fair.

    I have not been presented with sufficient evidence to suggest we ought to make drastic expensive changes. I’m not a conservative, or a republican. I voted for Obama. I’m not a big business apologist. I just have higher standards than you when it comes to scientific proof. And I do not believe that current circumstances constitute anything resembling a crisis. I have lived through the rise and fall in fashion of a bunch of drain circlers clubs. As a result of seeing so many earnest hand-wringers be wrong, I don’t scare so easy.

    I am all for a continuation of both vigilance and patience, and for making sensible changes. Conservation, for example, is a virtue all by itself.

    Maybe in 10 or 20 or 30 years I’ll be convinced that global warming due to human agency is an undeniable fact for all sensible reasonable folks. I’m not there right now, and there are lots and lots and lots of non-ideological but naturally skeptical folks who feel the same way. Casting further aspersions upon us will not make us change our minds. It will make us dig in our heels. That’s how skeptics roll.

  21. Jim S Says:

    KK, given that your reading abilities are so impaired that you apparently did not notice that I was not the first to use the word jerk it’s not surprising that you don’t believe there is enough science to support AGW. Hagan was the one I was referring to since he has obviously chosen ideology over examination of the evidence.

    You say you cannot prove a negative. Please. Is your understanding of science and logic really that weak? Let me re-phrase. I stated a known fact. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. I stated a corollary, that since it is a greenhouse gas, increased levels of it must result in warmer temperatures. Therefore unless you can provide a viable mechanism that would cause the corollary to the known fact to break down you have no basis for denying that CO2 contributes to a warming climate. This is not a request for you to prove a negative. It is simply that if you are going to say it’s wrong you have to provide an explanation of why it would be wrong.

    As far as your claim of superior standards of scientific proof, I assume your claim also applies to the American Chemical Society, the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute for the Biological Sciences and the many other scientists that agree with my position and not you, Hagan, McIntyre or other contrarians.

  22. Frank Hagan Says:

    Uh, guys … where did I ever say I didn’t accept that anthropogenic climate change could be happening?

    Criticizing particular studies should be allowed … this is science, not religion.

    Well, maybe its science …

  23. Nick Benjamin Says:

    I have not been presented with sufficient evidence to suggest we ought to make drastic expensive changes. I’m not a conservative, or a republican. I voted for Obama. I’m not a big business apologist. I just have higher standards than you when it comes to scientific proof. And I do not believe that current circumstances constitute anything resembling a crisis. I have lived through the rise and fall in fashion of a bunch of drain circlers clubs. As a result of seeing so many earnest hand-wringers be wrong, I don’t scare so easy.

    The thing you have to keep in mind is that these are not hugely expensive changes.

    For example steam engines, a technology the Greeks had, work because steam can turn a turbine generating power. Most smokestacks are hot enough to turn water into steam. It does not take a genius to figure out that we could probably generate a whole bunch of power if we simply put boilers and turbines on the top of a bunch of our hottest smokestacks.

    It’s called co-generation. Without the monetary incentive provided by cap-and-trade it accounts for 8% of US electricity production, and advocates believe it could go up to 20%.

    Windmills are older technology. Buildings that stay the same temperature even when it’s freezing outside with minimal power have been around since people moved to Europe.

    If you want proof that this stuff is not terribly expensive just look at modern Europe. They are doing it as we speak. They implemented a cap-and-trade program in 2002, and their economies are doing better than ours today.

  24. Jim S Says:

    Criticizing particular studies is one thing. But people like McIntyre and those who follow him do things that prove that isn’t the point they’re aiming towards. McIntyre’s initial work was hailed as “debunking” the hockey stick. He and those who follow him still claim that he was right in virtually all of his points in spite of the numerous follow up examinations that have shown his critiques don’t change the overall analysis done by Mann and his co-authors. Here is the Wikipedia article on the hockey stick controversy. It’s well notated and easy to follow up on. Those who want to be respected as honest skeptics need to note the problems with some of the others making the same claim. If McIntyre and McKittrick want to make that claim maybe they shouldn’t have ties to the Marshall Institute. Maybe they should also quit referring to the Medieval Warming Period as a global phenomenon when it wasn’t one.

  25. Frank Hagan Says:

    Jim S – I don’t think I’ve ever seen McIntyre take an actual position on warming; he routinely gets slammed for comments left on his blog by others who are more partisan in their approach to the issue. Even Briffa accused him of “intimating” that he selected cores with an end result in mind, but that wasn’t in McIntyre’s article, but in the comments by others (Briffa clarified this in his second, more detailed response). McIntyre has been frustrated by the reluctance of some authors to release data that can be checked; sometimes there are good reasons for that, and sometimes it just gives the appearance of stonewalling. When huge public policy questions are at stake, openness and transparency are very important. The Finnish “mud” controversy adds to the perception that there’s a certain amount of sloppiness in the research, and a closer look needs to be taken.

  26. Jim S Says:

    Actually, McIntyre accuses real scientists of fraud directly while his defenders say he doesn’t. See this article at Deep Climate on the back and forth. McIntyre explicitly accused Briffa of cherrypicking data. He also accused Briffa of withholding data that not only wasn’t his to give, but in fact McIntyre had already acquired the data from the original Russian researchers even as he was accusing Briffa of refusing to provide it.

  27. frankhagan.com » Climate Email Hacked Says:

    [...] of the emails, I am shocked, shocked to find there is emotion in them! As stated in our post Climate: Mistakes or Prevarication, scientists are surprisingly human underneath those white smocks with pocket [...]

  28. Donklephant » Blog Archive » Climate Email Hacked Says:

    […] of the emails, I am shocked, shocked to find there is emotion in them! As stated in our post Climate: Mistakes or Prevarication, scientists are surprisingly human underneath those white smocks with pocket […]

Leave a Reply


NOTE TO COMMENTERS:


You must ALWAYS fill in the two word CAPTCHA below to submit a comment. And if this is your first time commenting on Donklephant, it will be held in a moderation queue for approval. Please don't resubmit the same comment a couple times. We'll get around to moderating it soon enough.


Also, sometimes even if you've commented before, it may still get placed in a moderation queue and/or sent to the spam folder. If it's just in moderation queue, it'll be published, but it may be deleted if it lands in the spam folder. My apologies if this happens but there are some keywords that push it into the spam folder.


One last note, we will not tolerate comments that disparage people based on age, sex, handicap, race, color, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry. We reserve the right to delete these comments and ban the people who make them from ever commenting here again.


Thanks for understanding and have a pleasurable commenting experience.


Related Posts: