Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Science, Ethics, and Climate Change

Robert Tracinski covered the "Climategate" issue from the start, and his summary of the situation is still the best one - albeit made with a jaundiced eye.
In early October, I covered a breaking story about evidence of corruption in the basic temperature records maintained by key scientific advocates of the theory of man-made global warming. Global warming "skeptics" had unearthed evidence that scientists at the Hadley Climatic Research Unit at Britain's University of East Anglia had cherry-picked data to manufacture a "hockey stick" graph showing a dramatic-but illusory-runaway warming trend in the late 20th century.

But now newer and much broader evidence has emerged that looks like it will break that scandal wide open. Pundits have already named it "Climategate."

A hacker-or possibly a disillusioned insider-has gathered thousands of e-mails and data from the CRU and made them available on the Web. Officials at the CRU have verified the breach of their system and acknowledged that the e-mails appear to be genuine.
These e-mails show, among many other things, private admissions of doubt or scientific weakness in the global warming theory. In acknowledging that global temperatures have actually declined for the past decade, one scientist asks, "where the heck is global warming?... The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." They still can't account for it; see a new article in Der Spiegel: "Climatologists Baffled by Global Warming Time-Out." I don't know where these people got their scientific education, but where I come from, if your theory can't predict or explain the observed facts, it's wrong.

More seriously, in one e-mail, a prominent global warming alarmist admits to using a statistical "trick" to "hide the decline" in temperatures. Anthony Watts provides an explanation of this case in technical detail; the "trick" consists of selectively mixing two different kinds of data-temperature "proxies" from tree rings and actual thermometer measurements-in a way designed to produce a graph of global temperatures that ends the way the global warming establishment wants it to: with an upward "hockey stick" slope.

Confirming the earlier scandal about cherry-picked data, the e-mails show CRU scientists conspiring to evade legal requests, under the Freedom of Information Act, for their underlying data....

I haven't looked at all the e-mails, though there are now searchable databases of them on the web. There's a lot of data there. But I've looked at enough to form some conclusions.

The majority of them admit an innocent explanation. Even some of the ones most publicised as egregious evidence of misconduct.

I can even accept as plausible, even most probably true on the balance of probabilities, that the data excluded from some of the graphs due to artificial date cut-off points was genuinely misleading, painting a faulty picture that would have been seized in by political rather than scientific opponents.



You then explain *why* the data isn't comparable, what the systemic errors are, their source and an estimate of what the true situation is. You don't suppress inconvenient facts.

There appears to have been a culture of scientific corruption. They already knew what the answer absolutely had to be, based on years of experience, not all of which is easily explainable (and they may even be correct). They knew that any appearance of a situation contrary to the one they knew had to be the case would be misused to muddy the waters, purely for political reasons. They knew this. Absolutely. Totally certain. So they omitted this misleading data, because it was important. Because Large Issues were at stake.

And that is wrong. Because no scientist can ever be sure. If your theory is so wonderful, it must be able to withstand challenge. If the data is ratty, you publish it anyway, along with your explanation of why it's misleading. You don't "lose" it, nor suppress it, nor attempt to stop it from falling into that hands of those who would misuse and misinterpret it. Because *you may be wrong*. Those who you think are scientifically dishonest may actually be correct, and the data that you have is the only Truth there is. That thus and such a measurement was recorded (possibly incorrectly) from such and such a location (which may not be the actual one), at such and such a time (which again may be mis-recorded). That is the data. If it gives a misleading picture, you say why, and also propose an experiment which would show that your contention of a systemic error is correct.You don't just pretend it doesn't exist.

On my blog, I am a strong advocate for a particular position regarding biological sex and gender. In the process of elucidating this position, I've come across a few articles, a few data points, that apparently contradict a position I *know* to be true. So what do I do? I publish them, along with an explanation of why they are misleading. Well, mostly I do. Sometimes I can't come up with an explanation for them which is very probably true, or even true on the balance of probabilities. Then I *change my opinion to fit the facts* and publish.

This can be painful. It can complicate a lovely, simple, beautiful picture I've spent years painstakingly building up. But that is what we have to do, like it or not. In fact, we should be *more* sceptical of data supporting our position, and *less* sceptical of that which undermines it, just to try to balance our inherent bias towards "our position" because we're human.

They failed at doing this. Rather than being sceptical scientists, they became unconscious advocates of a view they knew to be true, regardless of the facts. They became exactly what they accused others (possibly with considerable justification) of being.

They became a horrible example of how easy it is to descend the road to perdition. A lesson to us all - and me in particular. I can easily imagine myself falling into the same trap.

That's why I give links to all the data I base my conclusions on. So that others can check. Because when it comes down to it, my trust in myself is - has to be - limited.


Lloyd Flack said...

Some, at least, of the FOI stuff was talking about requests that had been rejected on legal grounds that sceptics were persisting with.

Similarly some of the email deletion refers to emails sent in confidence that were exempt from FOI requests.

Lloyd Flack said...

Also the use of "gate" after any scandal grates. Cant people use a bit more imagination?

Lloyd Flack said...

The graph incident is a good illustration what is wrong with both sides.

Firs it is extremely obvious from context that trick refers to some stuff that was added in for the sake of clarity. Deniers are trying to force a nefarious interpretation on it when it obviously meant "a neat way of doing it". They are exposing their dishonesty there.

Now the hide remark does show what was wrong at the CRU. While the truncation of the series was covered in the text They either should have used a different series without this divergence problem or mentioned the truncation in the graph subtitle or highlighted the part of the series that was contaminated by a non-temperature signal. I think this was for some presentation rather than a paper, and they were trying too hard to convince.

Zoe Brain said...

Exactly. The "trick" e-mail that has been made so much of appears to be entirely above-board. The graph on the other hand... and it's not an isolated example.

And I get the irrits from the -gate suffix too.

Actually, the data I've seen makes me marginally more likely to accept the AGW hypothesis. But I continue to say that there is nowhere near enough data, we need more, and the climate models are all ... sub-optimal. Often due to political reasons, e.g. the cooling effect of SO2 emissions from dirty acid-rain producing coal-fired smokestacks has been ignored.

Lloyd Flack said...

No the effects of sulphate aerosols have not been ignored. That is is precisely what the slight cooling in the 60s and 70s is attributed to. Cleaning up emissions was what unmasked the warming trend in the 80s.

Zimbel said...

Unless I mis-understand, this is referring to a controversy resolved in 2006. If you have access to Nature, you may want to look at:

Academy affirms hockey-stick graph

Or you could just look at a more modern paper than the MBH98 reconstruction, such as:


Or the later reconstruction using a similar methodology to MBH98, but with more data, and with fewer problems than the original study: Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia

If you spend 10-15 minutes, I'm certain you can find other papers.

None of these papers are perfect, but with the Arctic becoming more navigable with each passing decade and global water levels rising measurably, I think it's well past time for us to think about how we can reduce the rate of warming, and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (see Anthropogenic ocean acidification over
the twenty-first century and its impact on
calcifying organisms
for why).

I think that these are true even if we're having a smaller than expected impact on the Earth's temperature according to, say, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007

Zimbel said...

My apologies; it appears that this is a more recent set of issues.

I haven't been able to access what's claimed to be the originating site.

Lloyd Flack said...

There has been a lot of criticism over their handling of Freedom of Infrormation requests. It is not clear yet whether there was any obstruction of this requests that they were obliged to respond to.

There were a lot of requests that were rejected but which people persisted with despite the rejection. Some of the emails refer to handling what were seen as vexatious requests that they were not obliged to respond to. One of the main reasons for rejecting requests was that some of the original data had been obtained from national metrological services on the condition that it was not to be passed on to third parties. There were various reasons for this but a common one was that the meterological services wanted to be able to sell the data.

While this was only a small part of the data it would have been costly to identify and separate it out. And they were not prepared to go out of their way to help what were seen as insatiable vexatious arseholes. Probably rightly. Certain people had forfeited their claim to any good will.

Some of the other discussion seems to have referred to other rejected FOI requests.

Zoe Brain said...

Here is one account of an FOI request - and how it was obstructed.

As far as I know, I am the person who made the original Freedom Of Information Act to CRU that started getting all this stirred up. I was trying to get access to the taxpayer funded raw data out of which they built the global temperature record. I was not representing anybody, or trying to prove a point. I am not funded by Mobil, I’m an amateur scientist with a lifelong interest in the weather and climate. I’m not “directed” by anyone, I’m not a member of a right-wing conspiracy. I’m just a guy trying to move science forwards.
I would like to obtain a list of the meteorological stations used in the preparation of the HadCRUT3 global temperature average, and the raw data for those stations. I cannot find it anywhere on the web. The lead author for the temperature average is Dr. Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit.

Many thanks, Willis Eschenbach

I got no response from Phil Jones or anyone at CRU or UEA. So I filed a Freedom of Information act request for the data.

Now at this point, let me diverge to what was happening at CRU during this time. The first reference to Freedom of Information in their emails is from 2005, before they had received a single request. Immediately, they start to plan how to evade requests should some come in....

I fail to see how this could be vexatious. I also fail to see how anyone could possibly check and replicate the findings without such data.

kevin said...

The strong possibility of dangerous climate change can't be ignored and its prudent from a risk management perspective to take action. The IPCC is a consensus process, as you know and increased c02 has all sorts of other implications. Nothing in the emails is a big deal.