Manning UpNovember 28, 2009
Joe Romm has published a must-read piece written by Michael Mann, one of the central figures in the CRU hack and an important person in climate science. Romm begins his post by focusing on the science, which is interesting to those who care about climate science, but I impose a false constraint on myself to stay as far from the science as possible (not my bailiwick, and all that). I’m more interested in the somewhat more abstract questions about legitimacy, justification, truth, rightness, etc.
In that spirit, let’s cut to the chase. Here are Mann’s responses to the e-mails, reprinted directly from Romm. I’m pleased that Mann has offered these explanations, but I think they have weaknesses — weaknesses that well could cause problems for him down the line. I’d like to point these out in hopes that he’ll clarify.
I’ve noted a few things in orange and added green to indicate the quotes from the original e-mails. One of the first things that Mann could do, and maybe should do, is release other related e-mails that help to corroborate his case. It’s not that I care, particularly, to read his dirty laundry, but that some further release of e-mails would help establish that his are not post-facto justifications. As a charitable reader, I’m willing to give him and others the benefit of the doubt; but as there are many non-charitable readers in the blogosphere, an evidential basis for offering these claims would be helpful
On with it then, to the justifications…
Here are his five responses to the e-mails:
1. “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i. e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” (from Phil Jones).
Phil Jones has publicly gone on record indicating that he was using the term “trick” in the sense often used by people, as in “bag of tricks”, or “a trick to solving this problem …”, or “trick of the trade”. In referring to our 1998 Nature article, he was pointing out simply the following: our proxy record ended in 1980 (when the proxy data set we were using terminates) so, it didn’t include the warming of the past two decades. In our Nature article we therefore also showed the post-1980 instrumental data that was then available through 1995, so that the reconstruction could be viewed in the context of recent instrumental temperatures. The separate curves for the reconstructed temperature series and for the instrumental data were clearly labeled.
The reference to “hide the decline” is referring to work that I am not directly associated with, but instead work by Keith Briffa and colleagues. The “decline” refers to a well-known decline in the response of only a certain type of tree-ring data (high-latitude tree-ring density measurements collected by Briffa and colleagues) to temperatures after about 1960. In their original article in Nature in 1998, Briffa and colleagues are very clear that the post-1960 data in their tree-ring dataset should not be used in reconstructing temperatures due to a problem known as the “divergence problem” where their tree-ring data decline in their response to warming temperatures after about 1960. “Hide” was therefore a poor word choice, since the existence of this decline, and the reason not to use the post 1960 data because of it, was not only known, but was indeed the point emphasized in the original Briffa et al Nature article. There is a summary of that article available on this NOAA site:
http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/ paleo/ globalwarming/ briffa.html
There have been many articles since then trying to understand the reason for this problem, which applies largely to only one very specific type of proxy data (tree-ring wood density data from higher latitudes).
As for my research in this area more generally, there was a study commissioned by the National Academies of Science back in 2006 to assess the validity of paleoclimate reconstructions in general, and my own work in specific. A summary of that report, and link to it, is available here:
The New York Times (6/22/06), in an article about the report entitled “Science Panel Backs Study on Warming Climate” had the following things to say:
“A controversial paper asserting that recent warming in the Northern Hemisphere was probably unrivaled for 1,000 years was endorsed today, with a few reservations, by a panel convened by the nation’s preeminent scientific body…At a news conference at the headquarters of the National Academies, several members of the panel reviewing the study said they saw no sign that its authors had intentionally chosen data sets or methods to get a desired result. “I saw nothing that spoke to me of any manipulation,” said one member, Peter Bloomfield, a statistics professor at North Carolina State University. He added that his impression was the study was “an honest attempt to construct a data analysis procedure.”
On my read, a lot hangs on the extent to which this is a known problem. If it’s a known problem, then there can be little doubt about the meaning of “hide.” Here’s a case where we could use some evidence that this is known. Again, I don’t know where to find that evidence, but other people will want to know that. There’s more to say here on the framing of a problem, and I’m cooking up a post to address that later.
Also, I think the language of a “bag of tricks” is ham-handed. It doesn’t clarify anything. Madoff had a bag of tricks, and he’s a huckster. Mann is looking to say that these are techniques, legitimate work-arounds that don’t undermine the integrity of the research.
2. “Perhaps we’ll do a simple update to the Yamal post. As we all know, this isn’t about truth at all, its about plausibly deniable accusations.” (from me)
This refers to a particular tree-ring reconstruction of Keith Briffa’s. These tree-ring data are just one of numerous tree-ring records used to reconstruct past climate. Briffa and collaborators were criticized (unfairly in the view of many of my colleagues and me) by a contrarian climate change website based on what we felt to be a misrepresentation of their work. A further discussion can be found on the site “RealClimate.org” that I co-founded and help run. It is quite clear from the context of my comments that what I was saying was that the attacks against Briffa and colleagues were not about truth but instead about making plausibly deniable accusations against him and his colleagues.
We attempted to correct the misrepresentations of Keith’s work in the “RealClimate article mentioned above, and we invited him and his co-author Tim Osborn to participate actively in responding to any issues raised in the comment thread of the article which he did.
What needs clarification here is what a “plausibly deniable accusation” is. I think I understand what he means, but the phrasing is convoluted enough that much more context needs to be given. To my ear, “plausibly deniable accusations” have to do with responsibility: “I am guilty of X, but I just need to find some alternative plausible account that suggests that I might not be guilty of X.” The question hanging in the air is why Mann wouldn’t simply want to seek the truth, why he would be seeking a plausibly deniable accusation. (Answer: of course he wants to seek the truth. He’s saying that the contrarian community is raising “plausibly deniable accusations,” that they’re raising objections to the research that only plausibly raise doubts about the research.)
3. “Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise. He’s not in at the moment -minor family crisis. Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar to do likewise.” (from Phil Jones)
This was simply an email that was sent to me, and can in no way be taken to indicate approval of, let alone compliance with, the request. I did not delete any such email correspondences.
IMHO, this is the most problematic e-mail in the lot (that I’ve seen so far). It’s this e-mail that needs a fair bit more explanation. Offering up a few of his own e-mails from that period, provided that the discussion wasn’t too terribly sensitive, would help establish the claim that he didn’t delete all of the e-mails. They exist, ergo, he didn’t delete them all. At the same time, offering up some of the e-mails will never satisfy the condition that no e-mails were ever deleted. Unfortunately, that can’t easily be shown.
To help matters, Mann might offer some context as to why Jones would suggest that they do delete the e-mails. Was it simple obstructionism? Did Jones want to hide something? Did Jones just want to be a prick? Was Jones instructed to do so by his legal department? Did Jones want to avoid the further headaches from FOIA requests? The last is, to me, the most plausible. Just destroy the damned things and then there’s nothing to request, so no one has to waste any time giving over the e-mails. I can easily imagine having written something like that. At the same time, it is easy to see how the more conspiracy-minded might read from the e-mail chain an interest in hiding something.
If Mann could offer up e-mails explaining his discomfort with deleting e-mails, that would certainly show this as part of an intemperate discussion. Moreover, if such an e-mail exists, he could offer an e-mail in response to Jones that would demonstrate his discomfort with this plan.
Having said all this, there’s high likelihood that such e-mails do not exist; not because of anything untoward, simply because e-mail is funny like that. Some threads never get responses. The point is not to wait for these e-mails, but rather that there is a political burden of proof on those involved in this issue to produce some exonerating evidence. It’s not an actual burden of proof. It’s just to temper the politically scandalous nature of things as they currently stand. Plus, offering up other e-mails might help to allay concerns that all doors are closed to outsiders.
4. “I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal” (from me)
This comment was in response to a very specific incident regarding a paper by Soon and Baliunas published in the journal “Climate Research”. An editor of the journal, with rather contrarian views on climate change, appeared to several of us to be gaming the system to let through papers that clearly did not meet the standards of quality for the journal. The chief editor (Hans von Storch), and half of the editorial board, resigned in protest of the publication of the paper, after the publisher refused to allow von Storch the opportunity to write an editorial about how the peer review process had failed in this instance.
Please see e.g. this post at RealClimate:
http://www.realclimate.org/ index.php/ archives/ 2009/ 11/ the-cru-hack-context/
(3rd bullet item–see the various links, which lead to letters from chief editor Von Storch, and an article by the journalist Chris Mooney about the incident).
Scientists all choose journals in which we publish and we all recommend to each other and our students which journals they should publish in. People are free to publish wherever they can and are free to recommend some journals over others. For an example of this behavior in daily life, people make choices and recommendations all the time in their purchasing habits. It is highly unusual for a chief editor and half of an editorial board to resign and that indicates a journal in turmoil that should possibly be avoided. Similarly, authors are allowed to cite any papers they want, although usually the editor will note incorrect or insufficient citing.
I support the publication of “skeptical” papers that meet the basic standards of scientific quality and merit. I myself have published scientific work that has been considered by some as representing a skeptical point of view on matters relating to climate change (for example, my work demonstrating the importance of natural oscillations of the climate on multidecadal timescales). Skepticism in the truest scientific sense of the word is good and is indeed essential to science. Skepticismshould not be confused, however, with contrarianism that does not meet the basic standards of scientific inquiry.
This is, of course, true about peer review. Saying more about the standards of peer review would help. Moreover, I’d lay off the association of science with skepticism. There are a variety of kinds of skepticism, and it’s not clear that the division is strictly between skepticism and contrarianism. I’m working on further posts about the nature of manipulation and how that might be understood to function at the level of peer review, so I won’t say much about this right now.
5 “‘It would be nice to try to contain the putative “MWP” (from me)
In this email, I was discussing the importance of extending paleoclimate reconstructions far enough back in time that we could determine the onset and duration of the putative “Medieval Warm Period”. Since this describes an interval in time, it has to have both a beginning and end. But reconstructions that only go back 1000 years, as most reconstructions did at the time, didn’t reach far enough back to isolate the beginning of this period, i.e. they are not long enough to “contain” the interval in question. In more recent work, such as the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007, the paleoclimate reconstructions stretch nearly 2000 years back in time, which is indeed far enough back in time to “contain” or “isolate” this period in time.
Again, a bit more context would help. It is nice to parse the meaning of ‘contain’ here, and it is particularly interesting that ‘contain’ in this sense is meant literally, like a vessel might contain its contents. What must also be addressed, however, is the extent to which ‘contain’ and ‘putative’ are paired, because it is not irrational to read from this e-mail that one is trying to ‘contain’ a rumor, a putative or apparent misconception, by leashing it and keeping it from getting out. That’s a much more malicious use of ‘contain’, and I suspect the interpretation that earns the interest from the skeptics.
To be fairly straightforward about this, I mean these comments constructively. It’s pretty well established now that the CRU hack is a political migraine that needs to be tended to carefully, and that really does demand attention from those who are implicated in the e-mails. Disregarding the illegality of how the e-mails were obtained, they’re out in the blogosphere. The scientists involved must respond to them posthaste. They cannot hide behind the wall of political impartiality, as many scientists are wont to do. I hate to say it, but they really must instead get more involved in the normative dimensions of the climate issue and explore their responsibilities as scientists, offering up both explanations and justifications.