Whilst I would describe myself as a scientific skeptic, in that I will try to investigate claims before coming to a judgement, I would not say I was a “climate change skeptic”. This term is often used to label those that are irrationally dismissive of the scientific evidence (or worse). Several commentators on climate issues, notably George Monbiot of the Guardian, have now started referring to many within this group as “climate change deniers” as it appears that any amount of evidence counter to their stance will alter their belief in that position. One prominent blogger, though, found the use of the denial tag unhelpful and has set himself the challenge, as a layperson, “to make sense of the global warming and climate change debates” via a new blog.
Now, though, we have an opportunity to test the scientific integrity of one of these skeptics. Anthony Watts, an American weather presenter, blogger and self proclaimed climate change skeptic, was instrumental in setting up a web campaign to survey the United States climatological surface station records – SurfaceStations.org. This is a laudable scientific aim, regardless of the fact that it was done in the belief that it would show that the surface temperature recording method was flawed and that the warming trend observed in the US was an artefact of the local micro-conditions.
The analysis on the website consists of quite a lot of not-very-scientific comments about photographs on how poorly sited some of these stations are. Watts has also published a report with some of the photographs alongside their temperature records. However, Matthew Menne (a scientist at the American National Climatic Data Center) and co-authors have published a peer reviewed, systematic analysis of the US surface station temperature records. The results show that the poorly located stations, as determined by SurfaceStations.org, actually show a negative bias relative to the well located sites. This means that the poorly located sites introduce an artificial cooling in the temperature record, not a warming as Watts predicted. Clearly, the uncovering of such a bias in the surface station network in the US means that the infrastructure requires tighter regulation as it is not, at certain locations, doing its job properly.
In this situation, I suspect that a true skeptic would be proud that their effort had highlighted a real issue and contributed to the scientific understanding. However, as SurfaceStations.org approached their investigation with the hypothesis that the network would introduce artificial warming, how will they react?
M. J. Menne, C. N. Williams, & M. A. Palecki (2010). On the reliability of the U.S. Surface Temperature Record Journal of Geophysical Research : doi:10.1029/2009JD013094