Out of Character

November 23, 2009

Andrew Freedman has an interesting perspective over at the Washington Post. My colleague Tom Yulsman has a much more interesting position on the extremely strong case for climate science even if we discard everything that Jones and Mann have ever produced. And James Inhofe is launching a monolithic investigation into the state of everything he finds offensive (subscription required).

Here’s this quote from Freedman’s interview with science historian Spencer Weart, author of The Discovery of Global Warming:

Look at last week’s verdict on the Bear Sterns hedge fund managers who were accused of misleading investors. The prosecutrs based their case on a few seemingly incriminating sentences drawn from a mass of emails. When the jury saw the whole set of emails, they quickly found that there was no crime, just ordinary business chatter. From what I’ve seen, I expect that will be the verdict on the climate scientists’ emails.

In other news, Raymond Pierrehumbert has a hidden affection for Lassie.


  1. Monbiot is not being charitable (to the climate scientists involved), though he makes the same main point as Tom Y.

    In any case, he’s the first liberal pundit of note (that I know of) to take this tack, which will make the response to his column that much more interesting.

  2. Yeah, that’s interesting. Thanks for the tip. I think that’s basically right. There was some covering up going on (we don’t know why, but have our private suspicions), some people look bad, there’s no reason to abandon all of the rest of the science, and that’s where we are. I think the liberal punditocracy is waiting to see where the shoes fall on this. It’s only been a few days, after all. Gnashing of teeth is premature.

  3. Here’s why climate scientists are in this fix: The hockey stick was a simple, elegant, dramatic and easily understandable way to show that what’s happening today is unprecedented in the recent geological past. As a result, it took on a life of its own, even after the science had moved on.

    At the same time, the hockey stick’s creators came under furious assault by political actors, and their understandable response was, as Judy Curry put it, to circle the wagons. Be it for any of us to cast the first stone… But the problem was that the symbol became so powerfully useful in the political arena that the scientists involved seem to have felt compelled to defend it to the death, even when lots of other science clearly demonstrated that AGW was real.

    None of this is unprecedented in science. But what may be unprecedented are the political stakes. It’s one thing to be piggish about your pet theory on, say, cosmic strings — a topic that has no bearing on anything or anyone other than those interested in such things. (Count me as one of them!) It’s another thing entirely to be piggish about something that could play some role in the remaking of the economy of the entire world.

  4. I read both the Monbiot and the Curry pieces, and agreed with both of them that a few of the climate scientists involved — Phil Jones in particular — don’t look good at all when it comes to their attempts to fiddle with FOI requests. And Gavin’s half-hearted attempts to spin this as frustration is only half convincing.

    Still, I think Curry’s optimism that if only scientists were more transparent about the data and quicker in responding to requests from the public, this will make denialists “irrelevant” and tamp down much of the noise on the sceptic side — is terribly naive.

    Not saying transparency and ethical aren’t good in and of themselves, but you’d have to be deluded to think that CA, WUWT, and all the merry pranksters won’t misrepresent all that juicy data…

    Btw, what are we to make of Gavin Schmidt’s insistence that the data is already freely available? This would seem to directly contradict Monbiot, Curry, etc.

    • I think Gavin has to make two points about the availability of data and model code. First, all of his code and the data produced by the reference runs of that model *are* freely available to all comers. Second, that there is an alternative raw surface station data set available at GHCN.

      The only data that is really at issue here is the CRUTEM V.3 raw data. In the most recent rejection (from the UEA Information Officer) of his request, it is indicated that CRU is trying to get released from the IP agreements so that the data set can be made freely available.

    • I think it is quite a stretch for people such as Gavin to claim that the code and data is already out for all to see.

      People can, undoubtedly, take the raw CLIMAT and NDDC etc. data, process it and draw graphs with it. If they do it right (wrong) I’m sure they’ll be able to show cooling or that the earth has heated up by 10°c or whatever.

      However there’s no point in doing that unless they are able to say things like “we adjusted temperatures this way because of X whereas CRU adjust them that way because of Y and we thing that for reason Z, Y is grossly overvalued and X is undervalued in their analysis”. If nothing else the first thing any peer reviewer will ask is “Why is your result different to HADCRU3?” and there needs to be an answer.

      This, as Willis Eschenbach points out – http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/11/24/the-people-vs-the-cru-freedom-of-information-my-okole%E2%80%A6/ – cannot be done without further disclosure. The one thing the leak does show is how much tweaking is required – take this recent email http://di2.nu/foia/1252090220.txt and perhaps look at some the HARRY_READ_ME to get a feel for how much user intervention is required in the series creation. In order for people to make informed comment about the accuracy of the CRU temps they need to be able to replicate them and they can’t with the data alone.

    • Look, I’m not a climate scientist, as I often say, but I see no reason to suggest that the linked e-mail indicates anything other than the normal sort of tweaking that someone would do in order to advance a trend-line hypothesis. Maybe “tweaking” sounds bad to some people, but we tweak things all the time in order to get them to work… and maybe even “getting them to work” sounds bad, but the point is not that one is manipulating the conclusions, but rather one is trying to get the fit. Climate scientists ask “Why? Why is this happening?” and they take lots and lots of data and try to see if they can get their explanation to work. If it works, then it works as an explanation, which is what we’re all looking for: what works as an explanation.

      Moreover, that essay by Willis Eschenbach is completely ridiculous, and I’d be surprised if any philosopher of science would stand behind his caricature of the scientific method, except and only as a caricature…first-year undergraduate level stuff.

      Incidentally, you oughtn’t to look to scientists for clarity about the scientific method. They’re sometimes just as hoodwinked as everyone else. Look to philosophers of science.

  5. Why should I believe that any of the science that presented by the IPCC consensus is an accurate representation of reality?

    The answer that many will give is that it was vetted by a peer review process that separates the good science from the bad and that I must trust that the peer review process has not excluded good science that casts doubt on the conclusions presented.

    So the question becomes: how can I trust the peer review process now that I know it has been manipulated?

    We had a situation where some cowboy cops killed a guy during an arrest. The police force investigated and cleared the cops of wrongdoing. However, a bystander with a cell phone camera had evidence that the story was not as cut and dried as the cops wanted everyone to believe. There was public inquiry. Many damning details came out and the cops will likely be charged.

    Before this story broke I trusted the internal review process used by the cops. I do not anymore. If a similar incident happens again and the cops say the officers did no wrong I would not believe them until some external review board looks into it. It is quite possible that the external review board will make the same decision as the internal review by I will not treat the internal review as credible until the external review has confirmed it.

    This is my position on peer review. The process has been compromised and I cannot treat any conclusions as credible until the claims have been independently verified.

    I realize that many will feel I am throwing the baby out with the bath water, however, I think it is important it is to ensure that it process is beyond reproach and when stuff like this happens it must be taken very seriously.

    Bottom line: any scientist that excuses, dismisses or otherwise minimize the malfeasance of Mann and Jones undermines their own credibility and casts doubt on the reliability of their own science.

    • If you think that only one side is trying to manipulate the peer review process I suggest you review the scandal at Climate Research from 2003. This is what most of the hullabaloo in the emails is about.

      And this still still seems to be going on. Witness James Annan’s letter of complaint to the AGU about the quality of their journals. In the last couple of months JGR has published some truly execrable papers (McLean et. al. in particular in which they make claims about what is driving temperature trends based on an analysis which *removes* the trends from the data by taking first differences).

  6. Raven: Because lots and lots of scientists, from wide sectors of the scientific community, agree that there’s a lot there.

    You have to trust the peer review process. That’s the best you’ve got. If you don’t trust the peer review process, you basically have no theory of truth, or you have an incredibly problematic theory of truth (which I will be happy to destroy), and that’s a problem for you. It has always been true that peer review is open to manipulation. It has always been true that there are political and values considerations mucking up the machinery, even in the work on cosmic strings.

    So too with your insular circle of cops. The justice system is also open to manipulation. It’s nowhere near perfect. Even still, we have to rely on it. Without it, we’re up a creek. What can we do? We work to make the system better; we create procedures that make it very hard for this sort of insularity.

    • I believe that “peer review” is going to undergo some type of reform in reaction to this situtaion. Some folks are straining hard to apologize or explain away the actions of some of these guys. Without a doubt the kimono has been lifted on how some of the scientists act, whether in a political or emotional way, when it comes to “peer review”. That should change.

      My bottom line: We better make damned sure, or at least as sure as we can be, without these massive egos getting in the way, that we make the most reasonable decision possible when it comes to potentially re-making our entire world economy. Yes, the “science is settled” when it comes to the issue of the planet warming over a period of time, but the POLITICS is not settled when it comes to what to do about it.

      Hubris is dangerous. The hubris involved with the climate science is amazing, from the email correspondence I’ve seen. And the hubris that we can make a quick decision on “saving the planet” amazes me. “30 DAYS TO SAVE THE PLANET”!! I believe that we need better consideration, better science, better modelling. There are easy steps we can take NOW, but I don’t see the rush to totally remake the world TODAY as the answer.

      Me? Not a scientist, just a citizen…….

    • My example with the police had at least three processes: the internal review by the police, the public inquiry and the external review by a non-police board.

      The police could have used your logic and insisted that lots and lots of police agree that the internal review works and it is the best we got. Obviously, the public disagreed and the police now need to deal with an external review board whether they like it or not. That is the price they have to pay for being allowed to fill the role they fill in society.

      Basically, I don’t accept the claim that peer review is the “best we got” and we can’t do better. I posted an essay by Ross McKitrick that uses the justice system as model to create a new process that would be much superior to what we have now.

    • Citizen juries (not McKitrick’s proposal, but from the sound of it, yours) have their place, but the massive infrastructure required to vet all policy-relevant findings would be tremendous. Most of the time, this isn’t a major concern, even though distortions in research can happen at the micro-level. Consider how elaborate most court cases can get: attorneys for both sides can spend days and weeks sometimes explaining the science to oblivious and disinterested juries. It’s insane that we could somehow structure a review process that wouldn’t be the bane of everyone’s work-week.

      Moreover — and this claim is relevant to both yours and McKitrick’s suggestion — attorneys strategize, culling out good arguments, choosing persuasive arguments, based primarily on what will win the case. Sophistry and rhetoric are the overlords of this domain. We do not want our science done in such a way that the objective is what will win. That approach is antithetical to any earnest attempt to describe the world. We want what is right and correct.

      On McKitrick’s paper, he’s guilty of a false concretism. To suggest that there are two sides to an issue, or that somehow these sides could be encapsulated in two directed, 300-page briefs that would then be distributed to world governments only adds insult to the problem. How are proponents internal to a given brief-writing process to adjudicate their differences of view? There will be differences of view. That much is certain. It’s a fantasy creamed off the pages of a Rand novel to claim that there is somehow a singular monolithic standpoint that can be represented in a 300-page brief. Always — always — even with the IPCC, there are dissenting viewpoints. Nevertheless, scientific communities do and must make assertions about the state of the science. They do this because this is pretty close to what we got.

      Check out the debate over the revised mammography standards, or the revised pap smear standards. Same deal.

      • It would take some time to figure out how to best structure an adversarial system for science driven policy discussions but I do not think we can continue pretending that peer review and IPCC like committees are unbiased processes. The bias exists. It is not going to go away an adversarial system is a way to harness that bias and give decision makers and the public better information about the uncertainties.

        Of course, that does not address the bias introduced by funding issues – i.e. scientists will always favour science that will provide the best pay off. In a political environment where GHG catastrophe meme is driving the funding you can bet that most research will be design to re-enforce that meme. For that reason counting the number of peer reviewed papers does not give one an accurate picture of the state of the science.

      • Fortunately for you, Raven, there are many people who are interested in this topic, and many who would like to see some work on revising the peer-review system.

        Tell ya what: you write an article, submit it to my journal — Ethics, Place, & Environment — and I’ll send it out for non-peer review. I won’t let your peers have it. I’ll let my peers have it. To expedite your proposal, I’ll also do my best to ensure that the referees I pick are particularly adversarial to your point of view.

        How’s that sound?

  7. Phil Jones, Dec 3, 2008:

    About 2 months ago I deleted loads of emails, so have very little so have very little – if anything at all.

    Phil Jones, Nov 24, 2009 Guardian

    We’ve not deleted any emails or data here at CRU.

    • In context, I would take that as meaning any emails of relevance to the data. Note that the reporter would have been well aware of the FOI-related email string. I’m also confident that some data has been deleted from time to time, just not *relevant* data.

  8. Ben,

    You miss the point. The IPCC process has gone wrong because of the emphasis on the need for ‘consensus’ in order to provide clear scientific support for the desired political agenda and ‘consensus’ always requires that minority opinion be suppressed.

    When I talk about an adversarial system I am talking about dispensing with the notion that groups like the IPCC should arrive at a single consensus and actually encourage the development of multiple reports with would make no attempt to be unbiased in support of their view. Peer review would still have to be the basis for providing the inputs but the incentive for suppressing contrary research would be much less because the groups would likely have different opinions on which journals to use as sources (i.e. no more opportunities to ‘redefine peer review’ to keep papers out).

    Of course, this would leave policy makers with a dilemma because they would no longer be able to delegate their responsibility to lead to by waving the IPCC report around. They would have to read the different viewpoints and make their own decisions and then explain to their voters why they feel it is best for them and their country.

    In other words, the responsibility for consensus building would be taken way from unelected technocrats at the IPCC and placed in the hands of political leaders which is where it belongs.

  9. Minority opinions based on a proper scientific approach are not suppressed, as anyone can see from reading the AR4 WG1 full report (or even the TS, although it names fewer papers). Long-refuted crap should get suppressed. People (or grackles) whose only interest in the science is to promote crap so as to impede progress should be kept far, far away from any position of influence. All the grackles want is a shit storm.

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