Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


WHO PUT THE "GATE" IN THE CLIMATEGATE?Memories of the Copenhagen climate summit have dissipated with the contrails of the jets carrying the delegates back home, but the public discourse continues. For now we put the important talk on hold in favor of a silly strawman: the debate over climatological data. Special thanks to my right-wing pals D, J and S for keeping me abreast of the latest articles, blog posts and email forwards making the case that the evidence showing a general anthropogenic warming of the earth over the past 50 years is a hoax, disingenuously cobbled together by various entities of bad intent. Over the past year, I've studied their arguments, and regret to report that it's pretty weak stuff, misunderstanding the research at best, but more often intentionally misrepresenting it to support the preconceived resolution that the earth's climate is not warming, and even if it was, it wasn't caused by humans, and even if it was, it would make things better, not worse. I have a few arguments with the major voices on the other side, too, and will voice those in future posts, but for now, let's ask how we can get past this argument and why we haven't yet.

Any discussion of climate change has policy implications, and it's only natural for one's political desires to color one's sight. Also, climatology is a difficult science to understand, involving lots of sophisticated statistics, and understanding it takes some work. Most science is sort of like looking at a yard through a picket fence; you can get a fairly good idea of what's back there, but you have to make some assumptions about what you can't see, some of which will likely be wrong. Looking through a single gap will yield a false impression. It can be tempting to consider each gap, seeking the one that best represents your assumptions about the yard, but that's a sure recipe for self-delusion. Only by taking them all into consideration will you approach a true understanding. Last, the sad paucity of good science journalism makes it extremely hard for us layfolks to keep up. I keep waiting for Science or Nature or even the Journal of Applied Meteorology to turn up on the racks at the local Barnes & Noble, to no avail. Peer-reviewed science journals, like Medieval bibles, are not meant for proletariat eyes.

As an example of mainstream science journalism at its worst, I offer a tidbit from last Sunday's Daily Mail, the UK's 2nd most widely-read daily paper. It describes a BBC interview with Phil Jones, the director of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU), the group whose emails were hacked and made public on the eve of the international climate summit in Copenhagen. For those interested in wading through them, the emails can be accessed here. The evidence in these emails has been heralded as a “smoking gun,” proving the following wrongdoing by CRU researchers:

1. Attempting to bar research conflicting with their own from peer-reviewed journals.
2. Hiding incriminating evidence.
3. Manipulating data showing a cooling trend to make that trend disappear.

Without going into depth, I'll just say that #1 was clearly discussed, although there's no evidence any action was ever taken. The evidence for #2 looks fairly damning—exactly what was deleted and what, if any, rules were broken remains unclear, at least to me. Jones says it was done out of frustration with a deluge of FOI requests that were impeding the actual work of the laboratory. The evidence for #3 is extremely weak, and can be interpreted in many ways. Overall, “Climategate,” as it's been dubbed, falls far short of discrediting any of the CRU's work, much less climatology in general.

I hope you can take the time to read the Daily Mail article along with the original interview it claims to describe.

While the Daily Mail headline states that Dr. Jones “admits there has been no global warming since 1995,” what he clearly says is that the data for that period are insufficient to make statistical sense of. Imagine a white wall with three small chips in its paint. Two chips show blue paint underneath, one shows red paint. Your data suggest that more of the wall is blue than red, but you have no idea what the true ratio is. This is the climatologist's dilemma. The CRU data appear to suggest a small warming trend from 1995 to the present and a small cooling trend from 2002 to the present, but they have no idea what color that wall is. (Data from other groups, such as the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, show slightly higher temperatures, but are still statistically insignificant when isolated). The Daily Mail article also misrepresents Jones' statements about the “Medieval Warming Period” as well as incorrectly suggesting that the CRU's surface temperature data were used to assemble the paleoclimatic model represented in the famous IPCC “hockey-stick graph.”

It's hard to attribute the libelous errors in this article to a writer's inability to understand his subject. This isn't journalism, it isn't opinion. It's propaganda intended not to enlighten but to deceive. It's disheartening to see more and more of this from mainstream news organizations, and to realize that more eyes will read the bogus Daily Mail story than the interview it misrepresents. Climatologists simply try to understand the systems they study; it's plain to see from which side the real climatology hoax is perpetrated.
illustration: LESSER FLAMINGOS (2005) oil on canvas 72" x 96"


Blogger Unknown said...

Asking science about what the planet is going to behave like is rather like asking Peter whether or not its going to rain on our paella on Sat. night. The reason GLOBAL WARMING ( Much like the the threat of INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM ) is in the mass media so much is the profitability of the fear factor. Just another fictional scare to make people feel like they need a ruler to protect them. I really believe the planet as an organism will do just fine, no matter how many violent things humans do to each other on false pretences. I think in an immediate time scale we are more threatenened by each other than by some cataclysm of nature.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Of course, if the rain has the wrong address, it won't show up at all. While fear-mongering is a time-honored political tool, that doesn't always justify complacency. We've found the atmosphere to be a pretty useful thing, and changing its composition is just a very bad idea. I also agree that the planet will survive our time on it, but the planetary conditions that have allowed us to succeed so outrageously are more ephemeral than the whole. We're very capable of putting an end to them. Yes, the real threats we face stem from ourselves, but they're likely to play themselves out as a degradation of the systems that support us.

9:45 AM  

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