2010-02-23

The deniers grasp at straws

I just saw this great post on ClimateSafety [LINK], and had to direct others to it. Some conclusions about sea-level rise have been retracted, and it is being reported as another instance of 'those-wacky-climate-scientists' getting something wrong. Cries of alarmism. Seeds of doubt about global warming. Et cetera. Well, the retraction is because they upper limit the original conclusion stated (for sea level rise this century) is not actually the upper limit; the actual upper limit (until better constrained) is much higher.

A terrific example of terrible science reporting, and the desperation of climate change deniers.

2010-02-21

Arguments about how to smooth a timeseries

When considering the arguments of climate change deniers, my preferred approach is give the benefit of the doubt first, try to understand what they are saying, and evaluate the science. This approach, of course, usually fails immediately because most of the denier arguments are not based on science at all. There are a few of them, though, that claim that science is on their side. One of these guys is Willie Soon, an astrophysicist who has been claiming that the sun causes climate change for the last two decades [LINK].

Background on Willie Soon

The deniers love Soon because he's a real scientist. He's been able to actually publish climate-related papers pretty consistently, too, which gives him a lot of credibility (compared to other prominent deniers). I've been looking into Soon's publications, just for fun, and have noticed a few important aspects of his publication record. I haven't actually found a CV for Soon, but he does have a URL that has a directory called myownPapers-d, which I assume is his archive. This assumption might be wrong, since (1) there are quite a few non-reviewed papers in there (magazine articles and denier-think-tank "reports") and (2) there is at least one paper not credited to Soon by to Richard Mackey. So one thing that is a red flag is that most of the climate papers that Soon has published are in a journal called "Climate Research [LINK]." Why is this of note? Well, because this journal has pretty much been blackballed by the actual climate research community because of the number of dodgy papers that have gotten through "peer review" and published in CR. Now, a lot of the controversy about that journal is related to Soon himself [cf.], so maybe we should give him a pass there. (side note: the typography of CR is pretty nice, even if the content isn't) Well, except that he's also publishing in the notorious Energy & Environment. And the unknown Physical Geography. And New Astronomy. These are not what one would call mainstream science journals. But, in browsing that directory, I also found two papers in GRL, which is a mainstream journal. The second trend in these papers that I noticed was a proclivity to use 'wavelet' analysis; I'm not sure what to make of this, as it is a reasonable approach to time series analysis, but it is more complicated than other methods which are just as valid.

Soon et al 2004 versus Mann 2004

One of the GRL papers that Soon has is from 2004 and has the title: "Estimation and representation of long-term (>40 year) trends of Northern-Hemisphere-gridded surface temperature: A note of caution." [DOI] I am not going to try to simplify their analysis, since it is dead simple to understand. They take a global average temperature record (HadCRUT) and apply three kinds of smoothing using 40-year windows/intervals (running average, Hanning-window, and wavelet). They get different answers for the different methods, and then consider the difference of their estimates compared to other published estimates. They can't match the temperature anomaly at the end of the IPCC TAR at the end of the record (nor the Mann papers), so they try a few ad hoc adjustments to their filtering. They conclude -- and I am not misinterpreting or misrepresenting them -- that since they can't get the same answer then the IPCC must have misreported their methods and that the magnitude of global warming is very sensitive to the method of smoothing.

These results seemed preposterous to me. First, there is nothing novel or interesting about the results, which is a prerequisite to publish in GRL. They show nothing other than that they can't duplicate other people's graphs, which could be interesting if they had done a robust analysis and shown that the previous work had errors. Their point that different smoothing methods gives different answers is very well known, and trivial.

Later that year, Michael Mann published a paper in GRL that is basically a repudiation of the Soon et al work. The paper is titled: "On smoothing potentially non-stationary climate time series." It is more technical than the Soon et al paper, but also easier to understand. The point is to show that there are objective measures for smoothing techniques. He shows one such measure, which was used in his previous work, and shows that it captures the non-smoothed times eries better than the other methods (including the one used in Soon et al 2004). The conclusion is bolstered by comparing to a frequency-domain approach; the two methods agree well. Another example is given, applying the same smoothing methods to a different time series (a measure of the cold season North Atlantic Oscillation). In this case, the method that is best for the northern hemisphere temperature anomaly is the worst match. The point is that this time series does not appear to be as non-stationary (i.e. not such a strong trend at the end of the time series) as the other series, and that an objective measure of the smoothing gives a simple way to evaluate whether the smoothing is appropriate.

The Mann paper makes some interesting points about how to smooth time series that could be non-stationary. More important than that, it explicitly shows that an objective criteria needs to be applied to make any judgements about these kinds of analyses, which essentially blows the Soon paper out of the water because their argument was essentially, 'different methods give different answers, so there's no way to know what is right.' Finally, from reading these two papers (which I encourage you to do), we see the basic difference between doing science and trying blindly to poke holes into science. While the Soon et al paper tries to evoke scientific doubt, it ultimately fails because the methods are sloppy, no hypothesis is actually tested, the conclusions are not robust, and the points they try to make are clearly exaggerated. The Mann paper takes a more objective look at the data and methods, and teaches us something interesting about time series analysis and the nature of two important climatic time series.

If this is the quality of the Soon et al literature when they can get it into mainstream journals, I have to wonder how bad the papers that are hidden away in obscure journals really are.

2010-02-16

Further craziness about Jonathan Leake

Stunningly bad journalism seems to be this guy's modus operandi: [LINK]

The Donald

Essentially a validation of many of the things I posted yesterday:

Donald Trump: 'With the coldest winter ever recorded, with snow setting record levels up and down the coast, the Nobel committee should take the Nobel Prize back from Al Gore.'
[LINK]

The source: The Daily Mail

2010-02-15

an overuse of the '-gate' suffix

There have been a lot of 'gates' flying around, on both sides of the climate "debate." By "debate," of course, I mean the public relations war being waged by a few people who've decided that the climate either (1) isn't changing, (2) is changing but not because of people, or (3) maybe is changing and maybe because of people, but it doesn't matter because (a) it won't affect anything, (b) will actually be beneficial, or (c) is too expensive to stop. These few people appear to me to be waging this war against everyone else, except the people who believe in any of the previous anti-climate-change ideologies, even when they are mutually exclusive beliefs. This inconsistency among the climate change deniers is obvious, but has not been a useful point in convincing people of their delirium. These few people are the leading edge of a wedge, and right behind that leading edge are opportunistic types who are willing to jump on a bandwagon and blindly follow, either for personal gain or to support their own ideological inclinations.

So let's start with what some are still calling "climategate," despite the fact that it should be more accurately be called "stolen-email-gate" or something (some of the climate-related blogosphere has taken to calling it "swifthack" in analogy to the swift-boat smear of the 2004 USA presidential campaign). The most significant update is that Michael Mann of Penn State has been exonerated by a University investigation. One aspect of the investigation will continue, but it seems pretty likely that will be cleared up soon too [LINK1, LINK2]. Another bit of news related to this is that Phil Jones talked a bit with Nature, defending his own science, but really there isn't much new information in the piece [LINK]. Finally, at UEA, the investigation is starting to get going, but without Phil Campbell, who left the panel because of possible impartiality [LINK].

There have suddenly been a bunch of other "scandals" in climate science. But not really. They seem to revolve around some errors in the IPCC reports. There's a paragraph in the "impacts" report that incorrectly reports the rate of shrinkage of Himalayan glaciers. There's also some confusion about a statement about how much of the Netherlands is below sea-level. The important thing to realize here is that these are tiny details in a sea of information in the IPCC reports, and none of the conclusions about climate change rely on these statements.

These errors in the IPCC have been reported extensively in mainstream media. This has lead some to look at the sources of the reports, which seem to be coming disproportionately from two reporters: Jonathan Leake and David Rose. These reporters are reported to have essentially fabricated and/or distorted information for their stories. There is extensive coverage of the details on Deltoid and RealClimate [see also LINK]. Depending on which side you're reading, these are called "journalismgate," "leakegate," "rosegate," "Africagate," "seagate," etc. And it is all utterly asinine. The reporting in the Times (Leake) and Daily Mail (Rose) is undeniably bad and irresponsible. If these news outlets were interested in the credibility and integrity of their reporting, they would sack both of these writers, apologize, and have real science journalists set the record straight. That won't happen because both are in the business of publishing salacious stories of dubious quality.

There's a trickle down effect. Just sitting here watching CNN, I saw weatherman Chad Myers [LINK] citing the Times Online story in reference to whether there is anthropogenic global warming! As if this one, already discredited, report could show that thousands of scientists and tens of thousands of research papers have all been wrong. Oops, you got us, we didn't know any journalists would be interested. And you'll notice from the link that Myers has a history of being a climate change denier. In the span of two minutes, I heard him make at least three statements doubting the science of global warming. This hurts because most Americans' closest source of science news is their TV meteorologist [LINK], and a surprising number of TV weatherpeople have doubts about the science of global warming [LINK].

When I sat down to write this post, I was infuriated; irate that climate science is continually skewed and contorted to twist people's ideas of what is happening in the world. I thought about writing angry emails, or pleading with prominent science communicators to help expose the irresponsible reporting and illuminate the science and evidence behind global warming. By the time I pasted in that last link, I had convinced myself that science and reason have lost another battle. The scientists are losing the PR war, outgunned, outmanned, and outspent by agents of denial. News abounds showing the increasingly obvious role of climate change in the world's ecosystems and geopolitics, yet more and more Americans (and Europeans) doubt even that the world is warming, and all the while plans to mitigate global warming are being stalled by India and China (and others). Not to be a downer, but I now just wonder how long it will take before the evidence is so overwhelming that it can't be denied? Do we have to see the collapse of major ice sheets, or only a truly ice-free Arctic in summer, or maybe the inevitable 2-degree Celsius global warming? What is the evidence that people really need to see? As a personal matter, I'm having that feeling that many scientists have in these situations, which could be summed up: "I'll just stay out of all this and keep doing my work."