June 2010

More climate change basics

The following is a collection and rearrangement of some of my comments on how we know about the radiative effects of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and how big they are, made on another blog. I'm posting these here as in working things out to my own satisfaction to try to respond to some rather egregiously wrong claims by the blogger there, I believe I clarified a few things in a way that's worth preserving.

The starting view here has to be the Kiehl-Trenberth diagram of Earth's energy flows, even though in some ways (which I'll get to below) it may be slightly misleading.

Steven Mosher: even Fuller of it

[UPDATE - June 24, 2010: the following text has been slightly modified following some discussion at ClimateAudit and in particular a detailed explanation from Steven Mosher of what he did wrong. Changes are indicated by strikethrough for deletions and bold for additions].

When people are obviously wrong it doesn't take much time or effort to dismiss their claims. When Joe Barton apologizes to BP we know he's spouting nonsense. When Gerhard Kramm gets simple integrals and averages confused it doesn't take much effort to convince anybody other than Kramm where he went wrong. When Tom Fuller blusters about quantitative meta analysis, Gish Gallops, and alternate universes you can tell he has trouble with logical coherence.

But the tricky cases are those who are much more subtle in their nonsense. Making stuff up is easy. Making stuff up that on the face of it looks somewhat plausible does take a bit more skill. Figuring out that the "plausible" stuff is just as much nonsense as the obviously wrong takes considerably more work, and some of these actors tend to make a lot of work for those of us trying to defend real science. One of the most skilled in creating plausible nonsense is Christopher Monckton. Prof. John Abrahams is the latest of us to take on Monckton's fabrications, and collectively thousands of hours have surely been spent tracking down the ways in which Monckton has misrepresented science.

Brian Angliss has recently put a lot of effort into tracking down the basis of some of the claims regarding "climategate", in particular looking at the implications of malfeasance on the part of the scientists whose emails were stolen. Many of these the conclusions Angliss examined were claimed at the website ClimateAudit, and in particular in a book published by Steven Mosher and Tom Fuller. There followed an extensive thread of comment including from Fuller and Mosher, and a response from Steve McIntyre at ClimateAudit that clarified some of the claims prompting Angliss to revise his article to attempt to correct his own mistakes.

The first discussion point in Angliss' review of the claims and in the ClimateAudit back and forth with Mosher and Fuller is the meaning of the "trick" to "hide the decline" phrase found in the stolen emails. This has been adversely interpreted in a couple of different ways but the actual meaning has been clearly identified as the process of creating graphs that do include tree-ring-based temperature "proxy" data only up to 1960, or 1980, a point where they start to diverge from temperatures measured by instrumental thermometers. There is nothing scientifically nefarious or "wrong" about this - the "divergence problem" has been extensively discussed in the scientific literature including in the text of the most recent IPCC report. If you have reason to believe a particular collection of tree ring data is a good measure of temperature before 1960 but for some still uncertain reason not after that point, then it's perfectly legitimate to create a graph using the data you think is reliable, particularly if these choices are all clearly explained in the surrounding text or caption.

Figure 2.21 from IPCC TAR WG1

Figure 6.10b from IPCC AR4 WG1

What's definitely not legitimate is presenting a graph that is specifically stated to be showing one thing, but actually showing another. That might happen just by accident if somebody messed up in creating the graph. But the ClimateAudit discussion and Mosher/Fuller book appeared to claim that in one figure in the 3rd IPCC report (TAR WG1 figure 2.21, 2001) and in one figure in the 4th report (AR4 figure 6.10b, 2007) there was a real instance where "the scientists had actually substituted or replaced the tree ring proxy data with instrument data" deliberately, for the purpose of "hiding the decline". As Angliss cited, McIntyre definitely uses the word "substitution" (but Angliss was apparently wrong that McIntyre did this in the IPCC context), and Fuller highlighted a portion of the Mosher/Fuller book using the word "replaced". McIntyre later clarified that his claim was not related to these IPCC figures but rather something else. However, Steven Mosher in comment #7 on Brian's article at June 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm stated very clearly that he knew what the trick was and that this substitution/replacement was used for the IPCC figures:


My previous post, titled "Steven Mosher: even Fuller of it" was, as the title suggests, focused on a claim by Steven Mosher, made in a comment at the website "Scholars and Rogues" and apparently also in his book about "climategate" co-authored with Tom Fuller. One should be able to tell that the post is about Mosher since I refer to his name 16 times in the article, not to mention the title and tags. The fact that I refer to the IPCC at least 20 times (and AR4 10 times) is an indication that my concern was with content of the IPCC reports and specifically the most recent one, AR4. If Mosher was right, IPCC had made a (not large, but verifiable) error in the latest WG1 report. It turned out Mosher was wrong.

Where's the fraud?

In previous posts I have discouraged discussion of Michael Mann's work since I had not investigated it at all myself - but inevitably it came up anyway. There were a couple of interesting comments from Steve Mosher and AMac that I am highlighting in this post. If commenters here agree that the Tiljander case is the closest thing anybody has come up with to show consistent misbehavior by climate scientists (following the basic "fraud-like" criteria I set out) then I commit to looking into it myself and trying to understand why scientists and bloggers seem to be disagreeing about it. AMac's denial of "fraud" while calling it an "honest mistake" seems odd to me - if it's really an "honest mistake" it should be acknowledged, not repeated.

Or if folks here think the Tiljander case is not a real problem but some other hockey stick "trick" or feature is definitely fraudulent, I'll look there. Tell me what your best case is!

Just because scientists are human - that is biased, inconsistent, lazy, argumentative, make mistakes, argue, play "politics", etc. etc. does not make some piece of science a fraud. Scientists in their natural state are fiercely competitive with one another - recognition for solving some problem or being first to discover some new truth about the world is all that matters. Tearing down somebody else's work, if you're right, is always grounds for praise. As long as there is some collection of predictions about the world from a piece of science and measurements to verify those predictions, then no matter what the biases or mistakes of the scientists involved, as long as they are not being deliberately fraudulent, the truth will prevail. Of course, without that check and balance from nature, even without fraud, science can get wildly speculative (*cough* string theory *cough*).

Human frailties can mar any piece of scientific work, and this shouldn't surprise anybody. The worry is that some pieces of work that people have come to respect and rely on have been, in some manner, fabricated and are themselves wrong. But fraud is hard to perpetuate in science - it almost always turns up later when others try to do the same experiment or analysis over again and consistently get some different result. On the other hand, if there has not been any actual fraud, what's the problem? The science is still right, even if the scientists behaved abominably (and I've personally witnessed some pretty abominable stuff from people who received great honors...). That's sort of the beauty of the objectivity that the intrinsic competition and reference to nature of science forces on you: personalities really don't matter, only the truth does - it's only the thought that counts as I wrote some time ago.

But - there have been cries of fraud. Let's try to get to the bottom of them. Here are 5 objective criteria for clear continuing fraud that I posted here in a comment the other day:

Towards an "Identity Ecosystem"?

The US Department of Homeland Security issued a draft report proposing a National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace this past weekend. I found the document intriguing in the context of some of my thoughts on trust and identity, and my own recent participation in the ORCID project to create an identity standard for authors and other contributors to scientific research publications.

The draft report comes with a call for public commentary, and there are already some interesting comments that have made me think a little harder about what we're all trying to do here. The time seems ripe for some sort of digital identity standard, but there are an awful lot of concerns that need to be addressed. There are solutions that can be imposed from above (say a government-issued physical id token that connects to trusted infrastructure to identify who you are) but they all have somewhat draconian police-state implications anathema to a free society. We do all have social security numbers or something like that of course (drivers license numbers, credit card numbers, passport numbers, ...) - but the number isn't sufficient. Anybody who knows a valid number can use it, whether it's there's or not - identity theft is a real problem. Digital identity as it stands right now consists of many disjoint associations like those many different numbers associated with a given individual, each with its own set of risks and burden in upkeep.

So the scheme proposed in the draft report for a more open "identity ecosystem" was something I found very interesting and encouraging.

Michael Mann's errors

[UPDATE July 1, 2010: Penn State just today issued a final report on their investigation into allegations of misconduct by Dr. Mann. Note their criteria for misconduct were as follows:

(1) fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other practices that seriously deviate from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research or other scholarly activities;
(2) callous disregard for requirements that ensure the protection of researchers, human participants, or the public; or for ensuring the welfare of laboratory animals;
(3) failure to disclose significant financial and business interest as defined by Penn State Policy RA20, Individual Conflict of Interest;
(4) failure to comply with other applicable legal requirements governing research or other scholarly activities.
where "research misconduct does not include disputes regarding honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data, and is not intended to resolve bona fide scientific disagreement or debate."

The report concludes "there is no substance to the allegation against Dr. Michael E. Mann"; the worst they could say was that he was somewhat "careless" in sharing unpublished manuscripts with colleagues. However, this was a pretty high-level review, and seems it did not get into the "Tiljander" issue. So we'll see where that goes here.]

Deep Climate has a new post up concerning the IPCC TAR Figure 2.21 "hockey stick" curves prepared by lead author Michael Mann for the 2001 report. This follows up on my post looking into similar questions regarding the AR4 Figure 6.10b "hockey sticks" in the latest (2007) report. Despite Steven Mosher's claims that the same rather subtle "trick" of padding the Briffa curve with instrumental temperatures was used in both figures, my analysis showed it could not have been in the AR4 case. Deep Climate has now shown that it's possible this padding was used for the Briffa curve in the TAR figure, but it makes essentially no difference (0.01 degrees over about 10 years, almost imperceptible in the full graph). The Mann curve in the TAR figure ("MBH") clearly was padded from 1980 with instrumental temperatures in the end-point smoothing, while the Jones curve in that figure clearly was not. The details of Mosher's (and McIntyre's, in this case) accusations about Mann and Briffa also seem to be contradicted by the actual record as DeepClimate shows, but that's another matter.

In any case, there definitely was an issue with the way Michael Mann was doing end-point smoothing in several of his early published papers, and in at least one of the curves in this IPCC report. As noted in the previous discussion, Mann admitted to this several years ago and indicated it wouldn't happen again, and it doesn't seem to have. So, an error, with minor impact on a couple of curves, since repented of.

In my last post, I called for the best examples of anything close to fraud by climate scientists, in particular Mann. There certainly are a number of cases where he has made similar errors that seem to have not substantially effected the results, but still were indicative of a certain carelessness, and sometimes stubbornness in recognizing the problem. And there are other examples of minor errors by other groups, for example several glitches in the GISS instrumental temperature analysis over the years that caused minor shifts in historical temperature numbers, particularly regionally.

Of course the worst case of unacknowledged errors in climate science was probably the UAH satellite analysis, which for 26 years was substantially under-reporting warming due to an algebra error in the analysis.

People make mistakes; as long as they correct them when the error is detected, it's really not such a big deal. The question I raised in my "Where's the fraud?" post was whether there was any substantive error of some sort that had not been admitted or corrected after exposure.