Thursday, November 26, 2009

Massive Climate Data Scam?

OK, so I respond to the comment on the previous post claiming that climate change data are phony and rigged to achieve a predetermined conclusion. The principal reason that this is unthinkable is that hundreds climate data have passed the peer review system by which anonymous experts opine on the veracity of data and conclusions in any scientific paper. Anonymity means that the authors are not told the identity of the reviewers who are then freer to criticize without fear of professional retribution. Now, the peer review system is highly imperfect – the reviews themselves are frequently wrong or contradict each other, and thus rubbish gets published, including in the very top journals. We’ve had famous examples of that, even from respected professors, such as the water memory/cold fusion affairs, and, in the other direction, future Nobel-prizewinning science has been initially rejected. Furthermore, peer review, and the funding process, does not fully protect against cronyism and gatekeeping: a paper or grant proposal challenging orthodoxy is more likely to be rejected (unless clearly irrefutable) as the editor and reviewers are more likely to support the mainstream. But this is natural: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Further, these papers can be resubmitted and, if they are of some merit they will likely eventually appear in some other peer reviewed journal, where they will then likely attract unusual subsequent attention. The nature of science is such that these published results can be objectively tested independently, and by this process the truth normally is established. Further, scientists in any field LOVE to prove each other wrong because it is a great holier-than-though schadenfreude feather to have in one’s cap. I have a colleague who spent almost his entire illustrious career doing that. Science is highly egotistical and competitive – we work against more than with each other.

In the case of climate change, there are large uncertainties and unknowns in the science. However, the critical point is that we are not just talking about one set of data or a single paper, but a large collection of observations and calculations: 928 papers between 1993 and 2003, for example, none of which disagree with the consensus. If the data supporting the general warming trend were to be mostly ‘phony’ and ‘rigged’ then there would have had to have been a fraud of absolutely unprecedented proportion. Thousands of brilliant, accomplished and respected scientists, reviewers and editors from all over the world, working for many different disparate, independent organizations, would have had to have conspired to create an enormous, insulated, fantasy world of rigged publications. If ever that happens public mistrust will be such that society may well give up science altogether and go back to the days of pre-enlightenment irrationality: a state of affairs in nobody's interest. Even had there been a political incentive for a massive scam, which there was not, it would have been unworkable.


  1. You are wrong about cold fusion. See:

  2. No, not wrong. The "cold fusion affair" refers to Fleischmann and Pons work in 1989, of course, which was (i) not replicable, and (ii) they were shown to have not actually detected nuclear reaction byproducts. Therefore, it is a good example of the peer review failure I meant.

    The field never really went away, though, and a few reports exist by mainstream researchers in peer-reviewed journals. However, there are considerable theoretical obstacles to cold fusion and the vast majority of experts remain unconvinced: had this been otherwise we would hardly be spending 10 billion Euros on ITER now, would we? I do find consideration of the origin of the excess heat in these "cold fusion" experiments potentially interesting, even if the answer is probably that it is not nuclear fusion.

  3. ..something I forgot to mention above. Under pressure from the University of Utah, Fleischmann and Pons made a public announcement of cold fusion even before their paper was peer reviewed and published. The announcement created a storm. So, to correct myself, initially rather than being a failure of peer review it was an example of the problems scientists create when they circumvent the peer-review system altogether and go straight to the public with 'discoveries'.

  4. But science is not 'demosratic', nor should it be. There is indeed a majority that supports the idea of climate change and the human role in this change. I agree with you that it pretty much eliminates the possibility of a conspiracy, but it does not make this hypothesis a "truth". Altough I admitt I can't think right now of a major scientific hypothesis/discovery/concept that was at first rejected by a large majority... THe problem here is also that the majority includes scientists that have absolutely no expertise in this field

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  6. Mr. Smith--

    Thanks for your thoughts. Please permit me to offer some feedback:

    A common tactic among AGW "alarmists" is to accuse "skeptics" of being "deniers"--in other words, to claim that the skeptics deny that the earth has warmed in the face of the "large collection of observations and calculations" to the contrary. Your primary purpose for the above post seems to be to challenge the conclusions of such deniers by proving (via reference to multiple lines of evidence) that global warming is still real, even if the primary model that purports to describe it is falsified. That's fair enough, but respectfully, it does little to address the arguments of most skeptics.

    While there are no doubt many people who deny warming altogether, most skeptics I know (including even noted amateurs like of McIntyre and Watts) concede that the earth has warmed. However, they are far less certain than the consensus alarmists as to:

    1) How MUCH it has warmed over that time;
    2) How much HUMANS have contributed to that warming;
    3) The amount of positive feedback inherent in our climate and therefore the amount of "net" damage warming is likely to cause in the future; and
    4) How much of our money and our freedom we should be prepared to sacrifice to counter the "threat."

    It is exactly to these four points that the the leaked CRU emails and documents speak. They show pretty conclusively that the primary computer model used to make predictions of future warming (for instance, by the IPCC) is unable to account for known HISTORICAL periods of warming and cooling, did not predict and cannot account for the cooling over the last decade (to the great chagrin of its creators, we now know), and was populated with "adjusted" data (never subjected to peer review) designed to exaggerate recent warming. They also show beyond any doubt that design of the CRU climate model was motivated as much by political considerations and gamesmanship as by a sincere effort to advance the cause of science.

    Consequently, the model is now shown to be scientifically unreliable in forecasting future temperatures, and claims of alarmist that rely upon its forecasts are therefore suspect too. All science can say with any degree of certainty at this point is that the earth has warmed over the last 100 years, and that future warming may be significantly and materially MORE OR LESS than the CRU model predicts. Unfortunately, none of the "large collections and calculations" that you mention can predict future average temperatures with any more certainty than the now discredited CRU model.

    So, citing the "large collection of observations and calculations" demonstrating a "general warming trend" is a great way to slay the "denier" straw man, but it does little to address the concerns of the most knowledgeable skeptics who concede the earth has warmed but question the extent, the cause(s) and the consequences. As a result, appeals to proof of a "general warming trend" are largely useless in informing policy decisions, as is the once-vaunted CRU model itself.

    In short, it seems that science is, at present, unable to provide sufficient guidance on THE political question of our age--what are the cause(s) of global warming, what damage will it do, and how extreme should be the countermeasures. And THAT is the sad and enduring legacy of climategate.

  7. Sean, thanks for your comments, and I will add a link to your frequently-updated local blog.

    I have so far refrained from supporting a policy position. However, I will now.

    Whether or not one believes anthropogenic global warming is a serious problem, given that:

    (i) Since 1985, US domestic crude oil production has been declining while oil product consumption has been increasing, resulting in a growing reliance on imports and in 57% of American oil in 2008 was imported. The US now, incredibly, sends close to half a trillion dollars a year abroad for foreign oil, mostly to countries who "don't particularly like us" (53% of the imports in 2008 were from OPEC countries). Domestic production cannot close this gap significantly.

    (ii) there are appalling environmental problems with coal production, such as mountaintop removal, mercury pollution and others.

    then reducing energy consumption coupled with investment in US-produced renewable energy technology will be critical for our economy, energy independence, national security and future quality of life. The alternative, again even assuming that global warming won’t be a problem, is a well-documented high risk of potential catastrophe. Far-sighted research and planning are needed to mitigate this. However, given the short-term nature of the construction of our financial markets (in which, for example, the great majority of CEOs are forced to state that they cannot make an investment assured of long-term profitablility if it would harm the next quarter’s profits) I don’t believe market forces will respond sufficiently until it is too late.

    The above is part of the motivation why our lab is researching cellulosic ethanol production and mercury bioremediation. (We would also like to do carbon capture research if we could get the funding - could help clean up fossil fuel production).

    Anyway, enough of this .... I need to go and prepare my lecture for UT physics department on Monday......

  8. Thanks Jeremy. I agree wholeheartedly on most points, though I have more faith in markets (or rather, more faith in markets than I do in governments). In my view, implementation of any alternative that is truly an alternative shouldn't require government mandates.

    All government action is inherently coercive, and because energy is pervasive throughout society, government control over energy results in de facto government control over most everything. Even if we knew with certainty that more government could solve our energy problems sooner, it's worth considering whether the cost is too steep. There are many problems that governments can solve if we are willing sacrifice sufficient liberty.

  9. Mr. King's list of climate change "skeptics" issues/questions is excellent in its coverage and completeness. However, the extent to which it is comprehensive is, perhaps, what serves to betray the skeptics...

    Starting from the bottom of the list: how much money and freedom should be "sacrificed" to counter the threat. This seems to me to be a question that reasonable beings can be expected to have a range of opinion regarding, and, therefore, the answer is just plain hard.

    Moving up, Item 3: how much does the coupled, non-linear nature of climate serve to confuse and obscure the ultimate effects of warming on climate. This is a serious and, frankly, exciting scientific question. Therefore, as in Item 4, the outcome is determined: LOTS of people are working on this. It is among the most active particular fields in climate science because it is important and hard. As Dr. Smith pointed out, the hyper-competitive nature of modern science works amazingly well to sharpen produced results to a fine edge. For people with an abiding "faith in markets": imagine competing in a market where you were compelled to reveal every single step in your production, distribution, and marketing plan every single time you brought a product to the market.

    That leaves the first two items: how much is the warming and how much of it is anthropogenic? Here's where "skeptics" understanding of science (or, rather, complete lack of it ) really comes to the fore. We know the world is round, hot water will cool if left alone, and that things fall off tables with a calculable acceleration for EXACTLY the same reasons and by using EXACTLY the same methods that have brought about the present understanding of AGW. Data are meaningless without an understanding of systematic errors. That doesn't mean they have been fudged. Climate computer codes are subject to awe-inspiring validation campaigns, much more than the codes that were used to design the last brand-new bridge you drove over, for example. Nevertheless, bugs and subtle effects are present (if they weren't, the code would no more useful than an Excel spreadsheet). The "rough" talk in the CRU emails is preposterously mild: Again, referring to the antagonistic nature of modern science, no one called anyone a name that couldn't be uttered on network TV and no one threatened anyone with serious bodily harm. I have, **MANY** times, experienced both of these phenomena in the course of scientific debate, often in person. Also, I have no publications in climate science, but I (a) can think scientifically, (b) understand viscerally how science is "done," and (c) have ample training to read and process peer-reviewed literature in any scientific field. Most "skeptics" *CANNOT* make these claims with any degree of plausibility.

    My point is that the list of skeptic problems is a stretch. They start with a reasonable premise (i.e. all of us should be engaged in the discussion regarding what to do about it), but quickly race into fantasy and silliness by trying to throw stones at science without understanding what science is.

  10. I don't meant to take over Mr. Smith site, so I will keep this short, but I do want to address a couple of points by the last anonymous commenter.

    First, I have several questions about the assertion that "climate computer codes are subject to awe-inspiring validation campaigns, much more than the codes that were used to design the last brand-new bridge you drove over". My questions are as follows:

    1) Who performs such "validations" or audits?

    2) Where can I find a copy of such validations or audits with respect to the code leaked in the Climategate scandal that generated the Hockey Stick graph?

    3) Can anyone please cite for me a single specific example of the CRU's computer code being audited or validated?

    I ask because, from what I can tell, the code is a complete and utter mess. And, it's not just skeptics who think so, but the actual programmers hired to write the code to begin with. See, for instance:

    Also, others are suggesting that it is common within scientific circles for people to publish the output of computer models without anyone ever peer-reviewing the model. See, for instance:

    Having no experience with such things, I'm not positioned to know who is telling the truth, but I do know that the "skeptics" have offered specific examples while you have not.

    I could challenge more of the above statements, but out of respect for Mr. Smith I shall only challenge one more: The assertion that "no one threatened anyone with serious bodily harm". Perhaps this is true within the leaked documents themselves, but the fact is that many prominent warmists have made a wife variety of public threats against "skeptics". See, for example:

    And, even within the leaked emails themselves we find comments like this one from one American academic writing to Prof Jones: "Next time I see Pat Michaels [a climate sceptic] at a scientific meeting, I'll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted."

  11. Additional evidence suggesting that "climate computer codes are [NOT] subject to awe-inspiring validation campaigns":

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