climategate

Book Review: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

The following is my review of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by Michael Mann - I read the Kindle edition (and sent him a few corrections for typos here and there).

As I was reading this first-person account of some of the most maddening episodes in modern times, I wondered to myself - what audience is this written for? How will some of the different players and bystanders react? Is Dr. Mann bringing on himself here yet another round of baseless attack from those who side with the most powerful entities human civilization has ever known?

I have no doubt the attacks will continue to intensify. If you hear about this book from some of the people, foundations and corporations that Mann names in it, please remember they have a very strong agenda: they don't want you to read it. If you find yourself sympathizing with one of these powerful entities, that means you need to read it, more than anybody else.

The nothing that was Climategate

Joe Romm has an excellent perspective on the last year, since "Climategate" - focusing on the developments in the science of climate that make our situation only that much more alarming. The real story of "Climategate" is not the frank discussions between climate scientists revealed in stolen emails, and at least so far not the Watergate-like computer break-in whose perpetrators and sponsors have still not been revealed (though I am sure one day that will prove a very interesting story). As Romm emphasizes, the real tragedy of "Climategate" is the media circus that chased this shiny new conflict-driven nothing of a story when there were far, far more momentous issues regarding the reality of climate at hand. If even one of the 9 scientific claims of the past year reviewed by Romm holds up under further research - and in my judgment very likely at least 4 or 5 of these, possibly 7 or 8, are real - the future for my children will be a far less happy place than I had anticipated even just a year ago.

Andy Revkin's coverage of the climate email hack at the NY Times, for example this early Dot Earth post, was an unfortunate example of the herd mentality among journalists on the subject - I've gone back and forth myself on whether Revkin was to some extent responsible for leading the herd. It was around that time I decided his "Dot Earth" blog, which largely launched my interest in climate science, was just not worth my time any more. But even the usually science-friendly George Monbiot thought what was revealed by the emails was serious. Other than the possibly illegal freedom-of-information suppression request by a flustered Phil Jones (who I'd never heard of before), it was not, as Monbiot later confessed.

The strongest lingering widespread meme raised by "Climategate" seems to be along the line of climate scientists being cliquish and "mean", saying nasty things about their critics. But all of science is like that "under the covers" - science is a relentlessly tough intellectual endeavor, and scientists don't waste their time being polite to people who they see as wrong. I work for research journals and see communications between scientists criticizing one another on their science day after day; a lot of this seems very harsh, some hardly the dispassionate image we have of the objective scientist. I looked through a random sample of such commentary recently, selecting a few relatively generic comments (i.e. leaving out the criticisms that were very specific to a particular piece of scientific work) and have posted them below - if the climategate emails seem overly harsh, well, we get just as bad day in, day out, around here!

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:

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:

It's only the thought that counts

Discovering truths about the world is not a simple thing. Much of our understanding depends on context - what we already know. One of the central facets of human existence is our relationships with other people, and to the degree we accord others respect and trust, we also assign a higher likelihood of truth to the knowledge of the world that they share. This trust in people is not wrong or irrational - it's a perfectly valid way to economize on the time we need to spend trying to understand. Collectively we are far more intelligent then we would be if we tried to find everything out completely for ourselves. But too much trust in others is also what most frequently leads us astray. In the end, for scientific truths, the only thing that matters is the idea in itself, not the people who came up with it.

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