Friday, November 27, 2009

Finding confirmation in Climatequiddick

The reaction of bloggers and pundits to Climatequiddick - the hacking and disclosure of e-mails sent and received by climate scientists at East Anglia University - follows two unfortunate patterns.

On the right, we hear folks proclaiming the end of the debate about anthropogenic global warming. They say, as I heard local talk show host Mark Belling claim, that claims of AGW have been shown to be based on "fraud." The e-mails are significant, but surely they don't do that.

On the left, we have denial expressed in the form of accusing "denialists" of "lies" and "ignorance" resulting in a failure and refusal to understand the supposedly innocuous content of the e-mails, which - despite references to tricks and suppression of opposing views - actually reflect scientific integrity. The hack is a nefarious plot to subvert the Copenhagen summit.

For the most part, neither group has the expertise - or is willing to take the time - to understand what they are talking about. I, for example, can't really say whether ignoring recent measurements of tree ring density in northern latitudes because they don't fit into certain models concerning the relation between such density and temperature is right or wrong.

But, being a reasonably informed observer of the global warming debate, it does seem to me that the e-mails reflect an ongoing problem with the matter of AGW. In my view, the most intelligent "popular" writer on the subject has been Jim Manzi.

Manzi, in short, makes the following points. First, is that the process claimed to result in AGW is based on sound physics. Increased atmospheric carbon could result in increased temperature. Second, it is by no means clear that it will do so because of many confounding and countervailing elements. Third, it is, therefore, virtually impossible to "predict" the fact or extent of warming. It makes far more sense to speak in terms of probabilities. Efforts to develop predictive models based on the historical record are particularly problematic because they are essentially unfalsifiable and, by certain defintions, cannot be "science." If we find data that contradicts the model, we can simply tweak the model ("hide the decline") until the data fit. What we can't do is run an experiment in which history is reconstructed under different conditions and see how often the model fits the data. Fourth, concern over AGW is prudent but it is unlikely to be the existential crisis that it is claimed to be and it is not clear that the best policy is abatement rather than accomodation. (Manzi does recognize that a small chance of a bigger problem requires a policy response but not the economic retrenchment that has been the typical proposed response.)

In that context, the e-mails become highly problematic - not because they "disprove" AGW - but because they reflect a rigid and unscientific commitment to orthodoxy. As Manzi points out, paleoclimatology is more like economics and political science than physics and chemistry. It is unlikely ever to achieve the certainty that we associate with certain questions in hard sciences and, therefore, the dogmatic commitment reflected in the e-mails is hard to see as frustration with those who won't accept the obvious and seems to reflect a set of closed minds.

This seems particularly so in the case of the website RealClimateChange (from which the Climatequiddick "deniers" seem to get their talking points). It doesn't read like most academic blogs. It is full of hyberbole, name-calling and smack talk.

The problem can't be assumed away by structuring the question as "selfless" defenders of the climate against self-interested industrially funded hacks. There is money to be made on both sides of the climate debate. That scientists might get lost in commitment to claims about the power of their discipline (here that science can predict the climate) and to their previous positions is a very well known - and very human - phenomenom.

20 comments:

illusory tenant said...

Just one of several points that could easily be made:

If we find data that contradicts the model, we can simply tweak the model ("hide the decline") until the data fit.

Of course, that isn't what happened at all and the professor is only too eager to dismiss evidence to the contrary with the following rhetorical flourish:

RealClimateChange [sic] ... is full of hyberbole, name-calling and smack talk.

If that was the case (and it isn't) then anybody with a serious interest in this "controversy" could still ignore the "smack talk" and address the substance:

"Declines" in the MXD record. This decline was written up* in Nature in 1998 where the authors suggested not using the post 1960 data. Their actual programs (in IDL script), unsurprisingly warn against using post 1960 data. Added: Note that the 'hide the decline' comment was made in 1999 – 10 years ago, and has no connection whatsoever to more recent instrumental records.

In other words, the disparaging reference to "talking points" in the above post is more than a little ironic.

* The RealClimate post precedes "written up" with a stricken-through "hidden," but since this blog doesn't allow for the appropriate HTML tag, it can't be reproduced here. Presumably that bit of sarcastic humor is representative of the "smack talk" Prof. Esenberg believes takes precedence over the substantial content of Gavin Schmidt's contributions.

John Foust said...

Climatequiddick? Somebody died?

Terrence Berres said...

"Climatequiddick? Somebody died?"

Rising sea levels not having been considered, it was finally decided there was no way to hide the decline of the 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88.

illusory tenant said...

Oh my. I'd ask for extra penance for that one.

Rick Esenberg said...

Tom

My point is that I don't know whether using the post-1960 data is simply tweaking the data to make the model match the facts and neither do most of the folks rushing to tell us that the e-mails mean nothing, including, I suspect,you. I know what they were claiming in the 1998 Nature article, but that's not inconsistent with the possibility that the data and model are being tweaked - perhaps unintentionally - to fit a particular conclusion.

You are uncritically repeating the talking points, including, but not limited to, the claim that Schmidt (as opposed to NASA) is being sued by CEI for telling the truth or doing something improper, when it is, in fact, a FOIA suit - something about which you do know better and ought not to misleas people.

These talking points come from people who seem awfully partisan to me. RealClimate talks about deniers and disinformation and hangs on to certain claims (i.e., the hockey stick) which most other scientists seem to have abandoned. Other sites post pictures of apes to make fun of critics. This doesn't mean they are wrong, but it does illustrate that they have committed to a dog in the fight.

Whether the data was "hidden" in plain sight or not is not my concern since I don't buy the Belling "AGW as conspiracy" view. But when people are claiming that the CRU dataset is a mess and when the e-mails themselves call for the destruction of documents and the ostracization of "heretics," I do worry about intellectual integrity.

But I'm not accusing anyone of lying. I am suggesting, however, that claims that the science is "in" (itself a rather unscientific proposition) on AGW as an existential threat that requires an economic retrenchment that will itself cause additional poverty and death need to be viewed skeptically. The e-mails illustrate some of the reasons for that skepticism.

Dad29 said...

Well, not to worry.

None of the original data exists any more, and it seems that few at EAnglia actually understand how and/or why certain 'tweaks' were done to the original data to arrive at the conclusions.

The dog ate the homework.

illusory tenant said...

My point is that I don't know whether using the post-1960 data is simply tweaking the data to make the model match the facts and neither do most of the folks rushing to tell us that the e-mails mean nothing, including, I suspect, you.

I didn't say the e-mails mean nothing. I think they mean something. But they are stolen and they are very obviously heavily edited: 1,073 e-mails over 13-1/2 years among a number of individuals. That fact alone should raise a huge red flag. How many e-mails have you sent and received in 13-1/2 years?

Many of the more "controversial" excerpts deal with issues that have been addressed and hashed out years ago. For example, those surrounding the publication of the Soon and Baliunus article in 2003. None of that is any kind of revelation whatsoever, except maybe to Patrick McIlheran.

That that article managed to get published raised a lot of hackles, and with good reason, if you care to investigate the details. It's what's at the heart of many of the comments in the e-mails about "boycotting" the journal where it appeared.

By the way, to reduce RealClimate.org as being "full of hyberbole, name-calling and smack talk" is a real disservice. Its archives go back several years and there is tons of substance on there. Of course there is some smack talk, it's a blog. But there are, for example, many links to research papers. So why focus on the irrelevant smack talk?

I know what they were claiming in the 1998 Nature article, but that's not inconsistent with the possibility that the data and model are being tweaked - perhaps unintentionally - to fit a particular conclusion.

While I appreciate the lawyerly formulation "not being inconsistent with the possibility," it is not even close to having proven this alleged manipulation of data. I've seen a lot of snippy remarks from scientists, which is reflective of their competitive nature and should surprise nobody, but I've yet to see evidence of any conspiracy to deliberately massage data to fit preordained conclusions. If you have it, lay it out.

You are uncritically repeating the talking points ...

That's unfair. I've been following these phenomena for a long time, albeit more closely in the evolution-related disciplines, and the tactics of the denialists in both "controversies" are remarkably similar. A rough corollary: "I demand a transitional fossil!" "Here is a fossil transitional between A and B." "Now show me the transitional fossils between A and this fossil and between this fossil and B!" "Here they are." "Now show me the four more transitional fossils or evolution is false!" And so on.

illusory tenant said...

including, but not limited to, the claim that Schmidt (as opposed to NASA) is being sued by CEI for telling the truth or doing something improper, when it is, in fact, a FOIA suit - something about which you do know better and ought not to mislead people.

Rick, this is what Horner, the attorney and CEI fellow, wrote of his fishing expedition last Tuesday:

"[CEI wants] those [documents] relating to the content, importance, or propriety of workday-hour posts or entries by GISS/NASA employee Gavin A. Schmidt on the weblog or 'blog' RealClimate, which is owned by the advocacy [sic] Environmental Media Services and was started as an effort to defend the debunked 'Hockey Stick' that is so central to the CRU files. RealClimate.org is implicated in the leaked files and expressly offered as a tool to be used “in any way you think would be helpful” to a certain advocacy campaign, including an assertion of Schmidt’s active involvement in, e.g., delaying and/or screening out unhelpful input by 'skeptics' attempting to comment on claims made on the website.

"This, and the related political activism engaged in, are inappropriate behavior for a taxpayer-funded employee, particularly on taxpayer time."

That's Horner describing the suits he's contemplating.

There isn't any suit yet, and as I said, Horner said Schmidt was "implicated" in the e-mails -- I take that, together with the rest of the aggressive language, to mean he's being contemplated as a party to a suit, FOIA or otherwise -- and it was the CEI fellow who also suggested that Schmidt was blogging on the public dime, that's the impropriety that the CEI fellow is alleging, not me.

I said the CEI wants to sue Schmidt, and that they want to punish him with a lawsuit. I don't know how much clearer that could be, from Horner's own words. He's obviously well beyond the point of being polite and asking nicely. You want hyperbole, name calling, and smack talk, go read Horner's recent post at BigGovernment.com.

illusory tenant said...

These talking points come from people who seem awfully partisan to me.

Yes, there are partisans.

RealClimate talks about deniers and disinformation ...

And rightly so. Unless you're denying that the so-called deniers are "awfully partisan" as well.

and hangs on to certain claims (i.e., the hockey stick) which most other scientists seem to have abandoned.

Again, there was a preexisting entire literature on the "hockey stick." If it's the case that RC "hangs on" to the hockey stick, it's because Mann has reproduced his original conclusions using alternate lines of support and better statistics, and those conclusions have been reached independently by other researchers.

There is a discussion of this in the Copenhagen Diagnosis.

Other sites post pictures of apes to make fun of critics. This doesn't mean they are wrong, but it does illustrate that they have committed to a dog in the fight.

I haven't come across that but I would say that since we are all apes, there's no shame in getting compared to one.

When people are claiming that the CRU dataset is a mess ...

People are claiming all sorts of things. Look above to Dad29. Because CRU didn't store raw data collected from foreign meteorological stations in the 1980s, he says it doesn't exist. That's nonsense, and a perfect example of the absurd things people are claiming.

and when the e-mails themselves call for the destruction of documents and the ostracization of "heretics," I do worry about intellectual integrity.

Certainly that's a legitimate worry but it needs to be applied to both sides.

But I'm not accusing anyone of lying. I am suggesting, however, that claims that the science is "in" (itself a rather unscientific proposition) on AGW as an existential threat that requires an economic retrenchment that will itself cause additional poverty and death need to be viewed skeptically. The e-mails illustrate some of the reasons for that skepticism.

Fair enough. But I don't think that support for and defense of the current economic hegemony are in and of themselves sufficient grounds for skepticism and the attendant suggestion of a conspiracy on the part of AGW proponents is, frankly, pretty silly.

Terrence Berres said...

"extra penance"

Isn't there a penance for consecutive comments, e.g., a Hail Mary each to be completed before attending any upcoming Midnight Mass.

illusory tenant said...

There's 4,096-character limit to comments, but I'll consider it when I make my annual Christmas Eve pilgrimage to St. Peter Claver in Sheboygan.

Dad29 said...

Oh, that's right, IT. The numbers exist. Someplace.

But can they be massaged back to life again?

illusory tenant said...

Someplaces, plural.

AnotherTosaVoter said...

Not to hijack, but here's an example of a conservative accepting life as it actually is.

Seems like you and a lot of people you know wouldn't accept it?

Grant said...

(i.e., the hockey stick) which most other scientists seem to have abandoned.

Eh? Expound upon this, please.

A Nonymouse said...

"Mild winters that never end."

Don't say I didn't tell you.....

Anonymous said...

Its a good thing that Al Gore said the debates over and that its conclusive.

Only people that voted for Gore and Obama believe these things. Of course they believe Gore invented the INTERNET and Obama would save the world.

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