The heart of the matter: those CRU files!

November 24, 2009

This letter to Andy Revkin of the New Times, DotEarth, is an excellent statement of the genuine issues raised by the CRU “hacked” emails.  The issues are serious.  Highlighting is by me.  I found this text at Jeff Id’s blog, The Air Vent, but it is linked in many places.

Oh, and if you want to jump to a really juicy email instead of reading this long letter, check out this one.  Seems they weren’t so confident in their long-term projections after all, nor in their repeated denials (are they the denialists?) that the models had failed to predict a current sustained stalling of temperature rise.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Mr. Revkin,

I am writing to you to express my concerns with the content of the emails and documents that were recently obtained and released from the University of East Anglia. In my opinion, many of the comments in the blog articles about this incident have taken extreme positions that cloud the importance of the information that is contained in the documents and emails. With that in mind, I would like to take a moment to describe what I feel are the critical lessons that can be learned from this incident.

So that you understand my perspective, I have been labeled as a climate change skeptic, a contrarian, anti-science, and denialist. I have been referred to in a derogatory fashion (and have even been the subject of an entire, somewhat condescending post on RealClimate concerning analyses I had done on the Steig Antarctica paper) because I have questioned the results of several influential articles on climate change. I feel these characterizations are unfair, as I believe that humanity is contributing in a meaningful fashion to the observed rise in global surface air temperatures. I have witnessed several of my contemporaries being labeled in similar fashion in spite of the fact that they, too, believe the same.

 This illustrates the polarization of the climate change debate that is a dangerous impediment to the science. It appears that unless one believes that catastrophic consequences will necessarily result unless a certain set of draconian measures are taken, that one is dismissed as a crackpot, a liar, and is insinuated or directly accused of having been paid off by corporate interests. This produces a destructive environment for discussing the science of climate change.

As a skeptic, I can say in no uncertain terms that the emails and documents from the University of East Anglia do not show that AGW is a falsehood or hoax. Claims that “global warming is dead” (as I have seen) are not supported by those documents. On the other hand, claims that “the science is settled” are shown to be an exaggeration.

While vocal skeptics such as Steve McIntyre have been vilified by several influential scientists, the content of the emails demonstrate quite clearly that many of the concerns were legitimate and that this was known by the scientists who repeatedly and publicly denied the veracity of those claims. These include, but are not limited to:

· The concern that the significance statistics for MBH 98 were benchmarked to an inappropriate type of noise. Despite public claims to the contrary, Dr. Mann states clearly in email 1059664704.txt that the calibration residuals were “significantly red” for at least two cases. This validates the McIntyre & McKitrick criticism that the confidence intervals and benchmark significance statistics were incorrectly calculated and that MBH claimed greater statistical significance for their reconstruction than was supported by the data.

· The concern that the WMO 1999 main graphic, MBH 98, and several other reconstructions included in the IPCC spaghetti graphs had inappropriately spliced instrumental temperatures onto the end of the reconstructions. Despite Dr. Mann publicly stating that “No researchers in this field have ever, to our knowledge, ‘grafted the thermometer record onto’ any reconstrution. It is somewhat disappointing to find this specious claim (which we usually find originating from industry-funded climate disinformation websites) appearing in this forum,” on RealClimate, it is quite clear that this is exactly what was done in emails 0966015630.txt and 0942777075.txt.

· The concern that without either stripbark foxtails, bristlecones and/or the Yamal chronology that the hockey stick shape in the 20th century was greatly reduced. Despite pre-publication discussion and disclosure of review comments of the Wahl & Ammann and Ammann & Wahl defenses of MBH in which the McIntyre and McKitrick claims were dismissed as “total crap”, none of these individuals checked WA and AW closely enough to see that they performed not a single reconstructions that did not include at least one of the offending chronologies. They also express concerns that there are methodological problems with MBH, but were more concerned with defending MBH than disclosing factors that they know may partially undermine the result or increase the uncertainty of the result. This may be seen in emails 1102956446.txt, 1108248246.txt, 1122669035.txt, and others.

· The concern that the Yamal selection used in Kaufman 2009 and other papers was only a subset and, if the full chronology is used, that the answer changes in a non-trivial fashion. In a string of emails, it can be seen how several of the most influential scientists begin discrediting this concern before they had even researched the claim to see if it is legitimate. As it turns out, it is a legitimate concern, though claims of fraud by some bloggers do not seem substantiated. Rather, confirmation bias seems far more likely. These are in emails 1256760240.txt, 1256735067.txt, 1254756944.txt, and others.

As you may be aware, this is only a partial list.

These serve to illustrate not that the scientists involved are engaged in fraudulent behavior for personal gain, but rather that they feel that it is their right or duty to be the gatekeepers of what information is allowed to be seen. I think it is clear that the scientists believe that they are correct. I think it is clear that they use this belief to justify actively engage in censoring their own results (and pressure others to censor theirs) to prevent full disclosure of the uncertainties involved in the methods they employ. I think it is clear that they use this belief to justify attempts to discredit legitimate criticisms, in some cases with the knowledge that those criticisms are accurate. I think it is clear that they use this belief to advocate suppressing free expression on the internet. I think it is clear that they use this belief to attempt to manipulate the peer review process to present their results in a way that lends more credibility to their conclusions than otherwise would be the case. This is advocacy, not science. It in no way invalidates AGW theory, but it does call into question the certainty with which these scientists claim to understand the magnitude of the AGW effect – and, by extension, the magnitude and timing of the anticipated consequences.

This naturally leads into another important lesson: the insular nature of this relatively small, yet incredibly influential, group of scientists leads them to believe that it is their right to decide who should be privy to data and code. As a party to several of the FOIA requests of the University of East Anglia and CRU, I find myself appalled at the cavalier manner in which several key individuals handled FOIA requests. Some of the most telling emails are 1106338806.txt, 1212009215.txt, 1212063122.txt, 1214229243.txt, 1219239172.txt, and 1228412429.txt (among others) which indicate coordinated activities to prevent release of the data due to who was requesting it rather than the legitimacy of the request, to delete or destroy relevant data, and collusion with the FOIA officers to deny requests without properly examining whether the request was legitimate. While I do not believe that this activity should result in any kind of criminal prosecution whatsoever, I do believe that it should result in some form of corrective and/or disciplinary action by the appropriate institutions.

It is my hope that the above issues, not the unsubstantiated claims that AGW is “dead” or AGW is a “hoax”, are the issues that have traction. Otherwise, it is possible that these irresponsible claims – which are easily dismissed – will drown out the very real need for reforms to make climate science more open and accessible. Conversely, it is possible that these irresponsible claims could derail grants for additional research and damage support for many important mitigation activities that to this point were seen as not controversial (such as increased recycling efforts, development and increased commercialization of alternative energy, and similar efforts).

This letter is not intended for you to publish (though you may, as long as you do not quote it out of context). It is intended to provide you with a perspective from a “skeptic” who feels that the important lessons of this incident have not been well-carried by either the blogs or the media coverage. I write to you specifically because, although we may differ in our opinion of whether AGW is a presently a “crisis” and what the ideal mitigation/prevention activities might be, I have read enough of your column to believe that you are honest and forthright, and that you welcome hearing multiple sides of the climate debate. I enjoy your work (even when I disagree with your conclusions) and wish you continued success.

“Ryan O”

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Hack, hack, hackin’ back to the USSR!

November 23, 2009

Were those emails from CRU in the UK “hacked” from the system?  People I talk to who know a thing or two about network security say it’s a given that nearly all hacked material is actually taken by insiders who have access to passwords and network storage locations.  So, most likely, a disgruntled person at CRU spilled the beans.

As a result, we have the spectacle of true believers foaming at the mouth, always edifying, as it shows more reasonable people how they most certainly do NOT want to behave.  Consider this comment on Andrew Revkin’s blog:

Comment 358 – Michael May – Chicago
November 23rd, 2009 – 1:26 pm

It’s not clear from what’s been published that any attempt to subvert honest science by the men involved in these exchanges has been made. What is clear is that when you put someone under attack, they start to behave in a paranoid manner. In this case, they have reason to. They’re up against an opposition that will take every possible effort to subvert their work, to discredit them personally and professionally and to use any stray thread to try to pull the entire quilt apart.

I have italicized the part that is really interesting to me.  Somehow, I thought I had heard this sort of thing before, complaints about nasty, irreconcilable foes who won’t get with the Great Program:

It is true that we are rude and impolite sometimes, driving from our ranks and scientific enterprise all those ‘wreckers’ and skeptical forces in our midst – those forces that are using all their intelligence and media savvy to hold us back and to maintain a carbon-based society among us…

I just changed a few words from a quotation from Anna Smirnova, Moscow factory worker, from the communist Daily Worker of Nov. 10, 1933.  Uh…that was about the time that Stalin was busy protecting the Soviet state from those counter-revolutionary forces that had assasinated Kirov…or did he do it?  Better not to have asked.

You can read the actual text here.

Those climate models…

November 22, 2009

Finding out what's in the black box!

I often wonder why the global warming doom-gloom-soothsayers have so much traction in the world.  Like right wing conservatives, they like to claim that they are victimized by a hostile establishment press, but the NYTimes, a pillar of the establishment, is certainly with them.  Check out the 230 comments on Andy Revkins DotEarth blog regarding the recent email disclosures from the CRU.  The Editors’ Selections, with the purpose of

…highlighting the most interesting and thoughtful comments representing a range of views.

includes 4 posts, all firmly in the camp of “How dare they publish this!  This is just normal science. Face it, global warming is a fact!!” So much for a range of views…but no matter.

But why do intelligent and scientifically literate people, including some who are quite reasonable, e.g., Andy Revkin, feel so confident that the AGW hypothesis has been established beyond doubt?  Frequently – check out those Selections – references are made to mountains, avalanches, piles…etc. of data that prove the point.  I think something is missing here:  I think it is the global circulation models (GCM) run on super computers that clinch it.  But there is very little peeking into those models – they are essentially a black box for most people:  numbers go in, Apocalypse comes out!

Without the models, there would be no terrifying scenarios, disturbing graphs showing steeply rising temperatures over decades to come, no tipping point doomsday model runs.  There would be some hard data (CO2 rising), a mountain of ice core, satellite, and surface data from which some would infer a clear trend, correlation, and causal mechanism;  there would be an interesting hypothesis about positive feedback amplifying the otherwise manageable temperature rise that might be caused by CO2 increases and that might or might not happen; there would be the same endless scientific haggling and argument over the way the numbers are handled by statistical routines and whether this or that presentation of the data is appropriate and meaningful; there would be no consensus.  The advocates of AGW would be a determined and inventive bunch, but they would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the rest of the world should abandon the null-hypothesis, i.e., climate and CO2 have always fluctuated- what’s so different now? –  and adopt their hypothesis.  Computer models change all that.

The GCMs give the AGW crowd the cover to say that they can predict (not with certainty, of course…) the future trend of the climate.  It gives them the supposed justification for stating that they have uncovered the “forcing function” that precisely quantifies the impact of CO2 concentrations on the climate.  It provides them with a rationale for assserting that their understanding of feedback mechanisms is corrrect and that their predictions are reliable.  This role of computer models is not often examined, rarely questioned, certainly not in the popular press.

It’s worth taking a look at the writing of Daniel Botkin, a scientist who was present at the creation of computer modeling in ecology, and who has a lot to say on the role of models in scientific investigations.  His basic point is that models are valuable tools for understanding a natural system, for trying out ideas of how changes in one thing may affect another, but they are not very good for making predictions.  His essay, Science and Soothsaying, is a good starting point.

Another critical view of computer modeling is the Pilkeys’ book Useless Arithmetic.  Orin Pilkey (not to be confused with the climate scientists father and son, Pielke Sr. and Pielke Jr., also with a jaundiced view of modelers’ work) is most known for his controversy with the US Army Corps over its penchant for pouring millions of dollars into pouring sand on eroding beaches.  These wasteful projects are often supported by very impressive computer modeling.

In thinking about this topic, I keep returning to a book published almost twenty years ago, Ice Time.  In its chapter, The Machine’s Eye, the author makes the point that the study of climate had become, in large part, the study of climate models.   He traces the rise of supercomputing in the investigation of climate, and notes that it has become “big business.”   The author is relatively uncritical of the use of the models, but he focuses more on their use to understand the mechanics of the climate system rather than to predict the future.  The chapter is the only extended discussion in layman terms that I have ever seen of just what computer models of the climate do, and how they are put together.  For that, it remains a very useful discussion.

Late Note on Revkin’s Blog:
Here’s some interesting comments following the controversy-click the number for link to full text
:

From a physicist who values scientific culture:   265. Frederick  UK

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm

… I cannot say whether AGW is a valid theory…What I can say is that Mann & co. have so undermined the scientific process that their results lack credibility. This has been a dark period for science. It seems that politics and science do not mix.

We need to put this behind us and get serious scientists who are not afraid to have their methods and results questioned. At the end of the day, there is nothing more convincing than facts and proper results. We need transparency but what we have here is a travesty!

From a true believer distressed at Andy Revkin’s lack of faith:  269. Wayne Hamilton Springdale, UT

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm
Your Dot Earth blog has changed since I started reading and contributing several years ago … I thought it functioned very effectively in describing the threat of anthropogenic climate change.But in recent months… you’ve become increasingly even-handed in balancing the opinions of AGW skeptics and proponents… You now seem to give equal time and credence to the knowledgeable and to the ignorant.
I’m sorry to report that your latest article on the CRU hacking gave me the impression that you no longer believe in the consensus of international science and the importance of that fact. It makes me sad to say this, but I’m no longer interested in following your Dot Earth blog. Good bye.

Also this one, with a potent warning for Revkin that goes to the heart of “he said, she said” journalism (emphasis added)261 John M.   San Francisco

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm

Hi Andy,

Comparing your NYT article on the controversy to the raw data, I find you are slanting the story, minimizing it, acting more like a press agent than an independent, hard-driving reporter. For example, you write:

“Some skeptics asserted Friday that the correspondence revealed an effort to withhold scientific information.”

The emails themselves clearly reveal an effort to withhold information, but you are describing this only as an assertion by skeptics.

Your article makes no mention at all of the obvious, and possibly illegal, effort to evade requests made under UK Freedom of Information laws.

A far better analysis can be found here: http://www.powerlineblog.com…

Andy, you are risking your credibility here.

John M.