Deep Problems with the Wegman Report

On May 6th, 2010, climate skeptic Christopher Monckton testified before the US House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The hearing was supposed to be on The Foundations of Climate Science. Democrats on the committee invited 4 leading scientists from major US scientific institutions to testify; Monckton was the only witness on the Republican side. Commitee membership is listed online and includes James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin as the ranking member on the Republican side, who presumably was responsible for selecting Monckton. It's hard to believe the Republicans were even taking the hearing seriously with that choice. Nevertheless, many climate scientists and other observers were quite disturbed by the misinformation provided as testimony by Monckton to the hearing. A comprehensive rebuttal of Monckton's claims was recently put together by leading climate scientists, with sample comments from them including "very misleading", "profoundly wrong", "simply false", "chemical nonsense", and "cannot be supported by climate physics".

HockeyStick.png Unfortunately, this is far from the first time congressional Republicans have perpetrated this sort of stunt. An example with far worse implications is the story of the "Wegman Report", supposedly an analysis of the science underlying scientist Michael Mann's early work on reconstruction of historical temperatures, the so-called "hockey stick" (to the right), which showed that temperatures now are warmer than they have been for many centuries, and getting hotter very fast. Mann's results have been repeatedly reproduced with differing methods by himself and other researchers. A 2006 review by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences determined that, according to data and methods available at that time:

  • It can be said with a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries. This statement is justified by the consistency of the evidence from a wide variety of geographically diverse proxies.
  • Less confidence can be placed in large-scale surface temperature reconstructions for the period from A.D. 900 to 1600. Presently available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900. The uncertainties associated with reconstructing hemispheric mean or global mean temperatures from these data increase substantially backward in time through this period and are not yet fully quantified.
  • Very little confidence can be assigned to statements concerning the hemispheric mean or global mean surface temperature prior to about A.D. 900 because of sparse data coverage and because the uncertainties associated with proxy data and the methods used to analyze and combine them are larger than during more recent time periods.

This NAS report, chaired by Gerald North of Texas A&M University, was actually requested by a congressional Republican - Sherwood Boehlert of NY, who was at the time chair of the House Science Committee. He has since retired - one of the last sensible Republicans in congress.

But other congressional Republicans were not interested in what field scientists had to say, and came up with an alternative report on the "hockey stick". Representatives Joe Barton and Ed Whitfield requested a separate report from statistician Edward Wegman, and had Wegman and colleagues testify to congress about the results. The Wegman report seemed to raise a lot of questions about the "hockey stick" and climate science in general. People who have examined the report in isolation may have been quite impressed by some of its claims - just as those lacking expertise might be impressed by Monckton's song and dance. Now, 4 years after its release, computer scientist John Mashey has done an in-depth study of the report and found a large number of indicators of shockingly low academic quality, and further indications that the report was actually tailored as part of a public relations campaign orchestrated by the usual anti-global-warming suspects (conservative and libertarian think tanks, sponsored by fossil fuel concerns).

Among Mashey's findings:

  • Of 91 pages, 35 are largely plagiarized text, often injected with errors, bias and changes of meaning. 3 pages are a mathematical appendix that seems to be the only contribution of the report's 2nd author (David Scott). 7 pages are a padded bibliography (see below). That leaves barely half the report as actual original material from Wegman and Said.
  • A sketch of central England temperatures for the past 1000 years from the first (1990) IPCC report was highlighted in the Wegman report, but the report's version was altered, at least by shifting the time axis and truncating the recent temperature rise (already truncated at 1975 in the original). An unaltered version of the same sketch can be found in the NAS report; until now nobody seems to have noticed that Wegman (or a source or associate) had distorted the graph.
  • Of 80 references in the bibliography, 40 are never cited in the report.
  • Many of the science papers in the remaining 40 are, while cited and sometimes summarized, otherwise ignored in the analysis
  • Wegman sent the report to a few statisticians; all known to him. Some were given only a few days to comment. Some gave strong advice that was simply ignored. This was claimed as peer review by Representative Whitfield
  • Some commenters were surprised to be listed as reviewers
  • Wegman and Said promised to publish their analysis in the peer-reviewed literature, but other than one paper in a journal where Said was associate editor (accepted 6 days after receipt), none have appeared
  • Incriminating documents associated with Said have disappeared from websites in recent weeks

Additionally Mashey notes the coordinated publicity the report received in reliably pro-business media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal. Mashey's analysis raises a number of very serious and disturbing implications about the integrity of all the parties involved in compiling the Wegman report. Much less significant cases of plagiarism have brought down academics before, but I find the graph distortion equally egregious - in fact much of what Mashey has uncovered is truly beyond the pale for somebody claiming to be involved in scholarship. It reeks, as Mashey suggests, of something quite different: public relations dressed up in academic clothes.

This was a considerably more sophisticated campaign than the Monckton shenanigans. Will the promulgation of Wegman's report continue to succeed in duping media and the public, or is Mashey's analysis enough to prevent further damage?

[Note - comments are disabled here. Please comment on the thread at DeepClimate.]

[Update: Apparently Wegman is under investigation by GMU, something initiated back in March or April this year. Much more in the blogosphere.]