Archive for the ‘Hockey Stick’ Category


Sucker Up

November 18, 2009

[lollipop[1].jpg]Oh goody. I’ve just been forwarded this delicious essay, published in that mainspring of robust political and ethical theory, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, best known for opinion pieces that, when strung together in the shape of a giant question mark, form a typographical mystery so huge that it can only adequately be addressed by manufacturing a larger question mark.

What does Anne Jolis, author of this piece, have to say in this staid rag? You can check out the original at the link above. It’s about Stephen McIntyre and his work at ClimateAudit.

I (honestly and truly) have nothing against Steve McIntyre, and I admire his assiduousness, but I thought it might be fun to take a look at this article by removing all references to known entities. I also want to remove the context of climate change. Instead, I’ve replaced all names with pre-Socratic philosophers, substituted the topic of heart disease for climate, and reflected all changes in dark green. I’ll even use an issue that could go either way epidemiologically speaking. For reasons of time, I’ll spare you the whole article; but I want you to look at the logic, at the narrative, at what we’re being told we should believe.

Let’s have a go at it, shall we?…

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Miracle Max

November 17, 2009

I’ve prefaced my comments in the past with disclaimers about my non-science background, but this one is too rich. Apparently, if you drill straight into a tree, you get really skinny tree rings, and if you drill sideways into that same tree, you get thicker tree rings. Moreover, if you drill all the way around a tree in a big circumferential loop, you get no fracking tree rings, which is pretty astounding, because dendrologists have asserted for quite some time that all trees exhibit a telltale tree-ring shape.

Given that this is the case, it stands to reason that if a tree is irregularly shaped — maybe due to some external pressure like, say, a giant ice monster crashing the hell up against it several thousand years ago — or if it is perfectly round, as if plucked from the fantasy-land of Plato’s forms, you will get different patterns of tree rings. Lordy. Nature is confounding!

Here’s another interesting factoid that I am wholly unqualified to assert (but will anyway): If you stick a needle into my bicep, you will be more likely to strike muscle than if you stick a needle in my skull. My skull, as it turns out, is mostly bone (or rock; hard to tell). Many doctors probably do not know this about my skull and my bicep, but it bears pointing out lest my doctors draw irrational conclusions about their breaking of needles on the top of my head.

More astonishing is that this peculiar topology is true for all people, except those who have led cosmically different lives: who have fantasized exactly 218 times about dining on chocolate for breakfast, who have swum with piranha, sung lullabies to sheep, eaten three micrograms more spinach than paneer, or been attacked by a thousand-year-old ice monster. And yet, this impudent institution loudly insists on extrapolating across a wide population of all humans, mindless of rampant data-collection errors, naive to the perils of individual variation, wholly reliant upon a flawed and out-dated statistical apparatus that can never account for individual difference because, when we look back over time, there is always another causal branch that has not been explored. Four micrograms of spinach, you say? Bullocks. Back to the drawing board. Audacious, then, to insist that we use their imprecise and flimsy analysis to protect our children against the nefarious pig disease that has been giving all manner of press-lackey conniptions since April.

Don’t get me wrong. I make no pretense to know the statistics. I have no interest in such voodoo. Nor am I interested in tree rings or muscle tissue. I’m interested, instead, in holding the highest standards for the sciences, in setting the truth bar so high that no possible methodology could hope to surmount it. There’s grace in sticking to one’s theoretical guns, you see, in insisting that researchers maintain an immeasurable degree of accuracy, that they hold fast to truth with a conceptual stringency only Moritz Schlick could love.

By my humble lights, far better to stick with math. This a posteriori drivel is a disaster.

Have fun storming the castle!


Tree Ring Circus

November 16, 2009

All the exceptionally well-qualified amateur dendrochronologists who regularly visit this site will no doubt have heard that a bunch of old trees have been given a shot of climatic growth hormone.  Turns out, they’ve grown faster in the past 50 years than they have in 3.7 millenia. Hear that? Millenia!

“This is a cautionary tale,” says Michael Mann, who uses tree rings to gain insights into past climates at Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center, most famously to create the “hockey stick” graph showing an increase in temperature. “Only the human impact of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations can explain that warming.”

Oh. No. You. Di’int.

Judging from past controversy, thems fightin’ words. (I anticipate a McIntyre response in less than 12 parsecs.)

On another front, this anti-millenarian discovery looks to be a sure sign that higher concentrations of CO2 are good for old-growth forest health. Yippie! An upside to coal. Looks like we can relax. Indeed, according to some ways of viewing things, maybe the correct environmental position is the position that pumps tons of sweet carbon liquor into the puckering stomata of our dear Gaia.


Curly Wants His Money Back

October 29, 2009

Steve McIntyre gives the impression in his recent post that I somehow think peer review is a closed system. He doesn’t say as much, but I gather that he assumes I don’t attribute much weight to the role of blogs in the peer review system. Here’s what he has to say, specifically regarding my comments:

Roger Pielke Jr had opined hopefully that this concession would finally settle at least one small point in paleoclimate. Pielke said that “it looks like this dispute will in fact be resolved unequivocally through the peer-reviewed literature, which for all of its faults, is the media of record for scientific claims and counterclaims”. Pielke was obviously aware of the role of blogs (both Climate Audit and in Finland) in this dispute and was here focusing more on the fact that Kaufman was admitting the upside down use in a formal venue, rather than the role of the journals in extracting the admission from Kaufman. This point was misconstrued by Ben Hale here who interpreted Roger’s post as evidence that the Kaufman error had been detected and resolved by journal peer review and due diligence, when that’s not what happened at all. (I posted a comment at Hale’s to this effect.)

I added the colorful language. More after the jump…

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Peer Review. Game On.

October 26, 2009

In recent weeks, some commenters on this and other blogs have tried to argue that the peer review system in climate science is broken; that under normal circumstances, they might trust peer review, but for some reason (given the technical narrowness of peer review in dendrochronology, for instance) peer review couldn’t be trusted.

Today, we have news through Roger’s blog that at least some critical responses have been attended to through the proper peer review channels.

Among other things that this points to is the non-brokenness of peer review. So, I reiterate: if the failings of a given study are so grave as to undermine the study, then those failings should, and apparently can feasibly, travel through the appropriate channels of peer review.


Misreading the Point

October 23, 2009

Not sure where Steve McIntyre gets this from:

Yamal Already a “Standard”?
Another possible argument was raised by Ben Hale, supposedly drawing on realclimate: that Yamal was already “standard” prior to Briffa. This is totally untrue – Polar Urals was the type site for this region prior to Briffa 2000.

I didn’t suggest anything of the sort. I said that the burden of proof is on McIntyre. I remain agnostic on the history. I remain agnostic on the science. Truth be told, I’m not even sure I understand what he means when he says that I said “Yamal was already ‘standard’ prior to Briffa,” so I find it difficult to understand how this could be my position.

Maybe someone can explain to me what McIntyre is after, but from my vantage, it looks a lot like he misses the point. The point should be a simple one: if he wants to demonstrate a failure in the science, he has to do so through the formal, albeit flawed, channels. Very few readers of his blog are qualified to judge whether what he’s saying makes sense; and it is definitely true (a) that there are some qualified people who object to his methods, and (b) that there are some people in the world who are meticulous enough to back up crazy ideas with lots and lots of numbers. Both of these facts cast suspicion on what he, or anybody else for that matter, writes. Thus, we have formalized systems of peer comment and review.  You can read all about it at the three, relatively hot, hockey stick threads here, here, and here.


Cherry Ping-Pong

October 13, 2009

There’s a lot of tit-for-tat going on in the blogosphere over the alleged cherry-picking of data (also here and original, criticized post here).  I’ll remain agnostic on the empirical question, as all usual caveats apply.  But what exactly is cherry picking?  Is it ever okay to select data?

Let’s be clear on one thing: deliberative and judicious selection of data is not equivalent with cherry picking.  A cherry picking charge is considerably more severe.  Scientists, like technicians, select out data using criteria that “seem to fit” their view of what is happening.  There’s nothing suspicious about this.  It’s what all specialists do: scientists, academics, politicians, lawyers, policy makers, businessmen, and so on.  We select out relevant data and discard the irrelevant stuff by using our professional judgment.

Selection becomes a problem, however, when we discard and/or discriminate against relevant data that either does not support our position or that contradicts our position.  Cherry picking is an informal fallacy of relevance.  (There are other, related, fallacies of induction; but cherry picking, as I understand it, is a fallacy of relevance.)

A clear implication of this fallacy is that the charge of cherry picking cuts both ways. The charge applies to anyone who chooses to select data that fallaciously demonstrate her position. The nature of the dispute over whether someone has cherry picked, in other words, must be over the relevance of the data and not the mere existence of contravening data.

Relevance is key.

In Chip Knappenberger’s Guide to Cherry Picking, Chip artfully tries to show that depending on your stopping and starting points, you can end up with one or the other conclusions about the warming or cooling of the earth.

…the answers [about whether the climate is warming or cooling] depend on several things, among them the dataset you want to use and the time period over which you examine—i.e., which cherries you wish to pick.

But this is a distortion of what we mean by “answer”…

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Silly Kids, Tricks are for Rabbit

October 7, 2009

In response to the 9YQ — the nine-year question: about why it took so damned long for McIntyre and others to get the data — some have protested that the publication policies of Science are such that Briffa et al were obligated to offer up their data immediately upon publication.

In the original Hockey Stick Redux comments section, I replied at several points that there may be other plausible mitigating reasons why Briffa, or his proxies, would be released from fulfilling this alleged requirement.  I also confessed that if it were true that one condition of publication was that all data were categorically open for evaluation, and if it were true that this was a binding rule, then it would also be true that Briffa et al would be obligated to release the data.  I added, however, that it would not necessarily be true that there would not be other conventions that override the prima facie obligation on Briffa et al’s part.  I did not add, but wish I had added, that such a conclusion seems to me incomprehensibly strong, that it would be counterproductive in the extreme.  Scientists and researchers would likely never offer up their findings for publication, and thus, practically speaking, such a rule would be self-defeating.

Those are a lot of conditionals.  Such was my abstract little contribution to this otherwise scintillating debate.


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Hockey Stickler

October 5, 2009

Roger has assured me that if I include the words “hockey stick” in any post, I will generate traffic.  At this point, I’m not sure if I really want that traffic, as I’m relatively new to this whole thing and I still have a little boy who seems to want me to give him fatherly attention.  (Audacious, I know.  Any other three-year-old and I wouldn’t give him the time of day, but this kid manages to persuade me to plop my fat ass on an undersized wooden chair and add color to the outlines of obscure Candyland characters.  I also have significant publication responsibilities…but never you mind, this whole discussion has been heaps of fun, so I think I’ll continue.)

In other news, Maurizio has given me honorary props on his blog, so I guess I owe him thanks for the extra traffic.  I want to take up his issue as well.  Not right here though.  Eventually.  These things must be spaced out.

One problem that seems to be evading commenters is that I’m not qualified to make judgments about what has been scientifically demonstrated.  I simply don’t have the climate background and I rely very heavily on people I deem to be reliable sources.  As it happens, most people are excluded from this category of reliable sources, though those excluded from the category are not distinguished by whether they are “skeptics” or “proponents.”  It is clear that many proponents don’t have anything like the scientific background required to make a justified assessment of the strength of a given scientific argument; and it is equally clear that some skeptics do have that scientific background.  What is also clear is that the climate data span an incredible range of scientific subfields, so I would be shocked and surprised if any single person, even Rajendra Pachauri, is qualified to judge all of the science all of the time.

As a lowly philosopher, I’m only qualified to judge whether something has not been demonstrated, and even my judgment on that score is questionable.  If I can think of any plausible reason why something has not been demonstrated by a given argument, and provided that the burden of demonstration is possible to meet, then it seems reasonable to me to say that the claim in question hasn’t been demonstrated.  The plausible hypothetical objection (emphasis on ‘plausible’), in other words, should serve as enough reason to say that some burden of demonstration hasn’t been met.

For instance…

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Hockey Stick Redux

October 1, 2009

Before anyone reads any further, I want to offer up an extraordinary disclaimer: What I’m about to say should be taken as the view of a relative outsider.  I’m approaching the following issue as a philosopher, hopefully impartially, and looking at the reasons that are offered by (at least) two parties.  I want to discern who has the burden of proof, who has to demonstrate what, given the scientific state of affairs.  In particular, I want to respond to growing excitement in the community of those who are skeptical about the data on climate change (a.k.a. the Skeptics, Deniers, and Denialists).  I don’t want to introduce a discussion about the climate science itself, since I’m not really qualified to do so, except as a well-educated non-specialist.  Further, as a well-educated non-specialist, my tendency is to defer to established scientific record — which in this case is the IPCC AR4, as well as most of the climate science following from that — and to make judgments about the reliability of challenges to this record based on my understanding both that shenanigans happen in the peer review process and the scientific record is open to amendment.

I can’t give the whole back-story on the issue I’m responding to, as it’s way too convoluted.  Best to refer to my colleague Roger Pielke Jr. for his take on things, and then to refer to McIntyre’s original post, followed by Bishop Hill’s relatively straightforward, albeit extremely entertaining, accusation that some very famous climate data was cherry-picked (or insufficiently and unjustifiably employed, depending on your preference).  When you’re done with that treat, follow it up with a heavy shot of RealClimate.  Roger thinks RealClimate is unjustifiably bristly.  I’m not so sure.

Point being: I’m really stepping into the thick of things here.  Not sure why.  Sadism, perhaps.  Stupidity, maybe.  Too much wine, most likely.  This issue has just caught my attention.  Anyone who would like to fillet me should feel free, though they should know that even with my extraordinary disclaimer, my skin ain’t that thin and I can usually hold my own.

Now, on to it. Read the rest of this entry ?