Archive for May, 2011

John Mitchell and Simon Singh at the RMetS AGM

May 19, 2011

I went along to the Royal Meteorological Society‘s AGM yesterday. I realise this sounds pretty dull but they have a couple of talks before the AGM proper, which were very interesting. (I’m also ashamed to admit that I left the meeting before they got down to the AGM business as I was giving a talk in Guildford that evening.)

The meeting was held at the Bank of England Museum and Mervyn King, who is apparently a bit of a weather geek, gave a short introduction looking at the links between the Bank and meteorology. I thought the most interesting story was on the historical importance of wind to Bank – available credit would have to be increased when easterlies prevailed as ships could sail up the Thames and then decreased again as westerlies returned. Naturally, he also mentioned climatic impacts on the economy.

The first proper talk was by Prof. John Mitchell from the Met Office. He was being awarded the society’s Symons Gold Medal (congratulations John!) so his talk was a celebration of that.

His presentation – “What we know and what we don’t know about global warming” – was based around a series of basic questions, similar to the style of Skeptical Science. He covered topics like: Is CO2 increasing? Is the increase down to humans? Does CO2 affect climate? Is the climate changing? Why is the climate changing? What might future changes look like? Are global temperatures changing as models showed? All interesting stuff, particularly the last point where John showed some updated work from a 2000 paper by Myles Allen where the observed 2009 global temperature was in the middle of the range projected in 1996.

The point that really caught my eye, though, was on recent temperature changes. I think it was some work by Peter Stott that John was showing on the difference between 50 and 10 year temperature trend distributions in model runs forced by natural factors and a 0.2K/decade forcing (I could be wrong about this last point, I can’t remember the setups and didn’t jot them down). Anyway, whilst the 50 year trend distributions where almost completely distinct for the two types of run, the 10 year trend distributions had a considerable overlap, which is pretty interesting given what global temperatures have been doing over the last 10 years or so and what that says about global warming (i.e. possibly nothing you wouldn’t expect from a climate being forced in the way Earth’s climate is being forced).

The second speaker was Simon Singh, who spoke about Science and the Media.

There was a little time spent on climate change; Simon showed a brief email exchange he had with Martin Durkin after the broadcast of the Great Global Warming Swindle in 2007. It seems that Martin’s responses to polite criticism are as sophisticated as his documentaries. Indeed, the presentation of Martin’s emails could also be the first time that c**k and f**k have been used at a RMetS AGM. This, I think, is progress.

There was also an interesting question for Simon about the similarities between the “hide the decline” episode and an edit Simon showed us that he had made to one of his own documentaries (substituting “primes” with “numbers” in an interview with a mathematician to make it understandable for a wider audience). Simon argued that they were quite different situations as the removal of unreliable proxy data was done for scientific reasons whereas his edit was done for communication reasons. I wonder if there isn’t more of an overlap, though. I’m not sure we’ve properly acknowledged the needs of different audiences and how scientists decide to summarise their work for them.

Did Watts’ paper show that surface temperature trends are unreliable? No.

May 16, 2011

Editor’s Selection IconThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgA while ago I wrote a post about an analysis of the US climate monitoring network led by Anthony Watts, who has a very popular climate skeptic blog.

The reason for that post was that Menne et al. 2010 had used some of Watts’ analysis to find that US surface temperature trends aren’t affected much by the station siting (and not in the way that Watts had thought – bad siting seemed to add a cold bias to the record).

Now, Watts has had his paper accepted for publication (although he’s not 1st author) and in a pretty decent journal (JGR). It’s nice to see people contributing to the field in a constructive way so congratulations are in order!

So what does the paper say?

It’s all relatively bland stuff. Here’s a quote from the abstract:

Temperature trend estimates vary according to site classification, with poor siting leading to an overestimate of minimum temperature trends and an underestimate of maximum temperature trends, resulting in particular in a substantial difference in estimates of the diurnal temperature range trends. The opposite-signed differences of maximum and minimum temperature trends are similar in magnitude, so that the overall mean temperature trends are nearly identical across site classifications.

Hmm. I can’t imagine many people getting fired up over that.

This seems quite different to the kind of thing Watts has been saying in the past about the results. Deltoid has some examples.

Anyway, a couple of things strike me as interesting.

On May 8 Watts asked his readers to chip in to cover the publication costs of the paper ($2247), which he collected quite quickly. At the time I looked for the paper or abstract online but couldn’t find it. (I didn’t look too hard, only on WUWT, and the JGR website and a did few searches – maybe it was out there but I thought it should’ve been linked to from a post like that.) Given how Watts had sold the findings up to that point, if I’d have contributed to the costs I’d now be feeling a bit confused at how it turned out.

Also, maybe this is the end to questions as to whether surface temperature increases actually exist. With Fall et al. not really turning much up and the BEST project looking like it’ll confirm the previous surface temperature analyses, there can’t much mileage left in that argument, which was pretty much answered years ago. In that light I suppose it’ll be interesting to see what happens to in the future and if Watts’ perspective changes. (It would also be really interesting to see how the Fall et al. paper changed as it went through review but I don’ suppose that’ll ever happen.)

Finally, I thought it would be worth noting that I do think it’s important to keep looking at the temperature record, how it stands up and how it can be improved. Watts has helped with that in some respect. But overstating conclusions is not helpful.

ResearchBlogging.orgSouleymane Fall, Anthony Watts, John Nielsen-Gammon, Evan Jones, Dev Niyogi, John R. Christy, & Roger A. Pielke Sr. (2011). Analysis of the impacts of station exposure on the U.S. Historical Climatology Network temperatures and temperature trends Journal of Geophysical Research

Book review: Merchants of Doubt

May 5, 2011

Short review

Excellent examination of the background and tactics used by “experts” to delay the implementation of regulation on important scientific issues. Journalists in particular should have a read but I’d think it would be interesting and comprehensible to anyone.

Long review

This is a somewhat worrying story about a small group of scientists with a disproportionate level of influence.

They successfully spread doubt about issues as wide-ranging as smoking, defence, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, second-hand smoke and global warming. Their veneer of authority, despite a lack of relevant experience, appears to have been enough to manage it.

The book is very well researched and extensive references are provided. That said, the style and accessibility of the book remains at the “popular” end of the spectrum, which is good. There’s a website accompanying the book with many of the key documents cited in the book.

Most of the story takes place in the US but the lessons are not exclusive to that region.

There’s an awful lot of issues that come up from the book (media responsibility, motivation of the scientists in question, funding sources, ideology, scientists influencing policy) but I’ll just look at a couple of things here.

The Fairness Doctrine and journalistic balance

One theme that crops up over and over again is the insistence from the “doubt merchants” that they deserve equal time in media debates and discussions. This is really important and, I think, shows that this book should be required reading for journalists working on controversially perceived subjects. Because, as we see time and time again in the book, the controversy is often not based on the science.

I agree that there should be a responsibility placed on the media to be unbiased but, equally, journalists shouldn’t be pressured into presenting a debate as ongoing and/or equal simply because they have not researched the topic.

Or, as Oreskes and Conway put it:

“Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.”

(Of course, this argument works both ways and also implies that scientists do not communicate well with journalists.)


One thing I had a little trouble with in the book was following the separate strands of the story. Whilst the 5 main strands occur pretty much one after another, almost one per decade, there is considerable overlap. It gets quite hard to follow the stories as the characters are involved with more than one strand at any particular moment. I suppose Oreskes and Conway could have overcome this by focusing on the “Merchants” but that would probably be more confusing. Of course this problem only arises because it’s the same people getting involved in each issue.

What might have been nice, though, is if the authors produced an interactive timeline with book, something a bit like this:

I knocked this up pretty quickly but it gives an idea of the overlap of the different strands. I chose the start and ends points based on key events described in the book. I

Sustainable solutions

This isn’t really something that comes up in the book but it was certainly where my train of thought kept going. (This may, however, be because I’m currently planning a new module for one of our courses on sustainable development.)

So, for action to be “sustainable” it needs to be analysed from (at least) 3 interlinking perspectives.

The triple bottom line

Ideally your solution falls in the centre of the Venn diagram but compromises in one direction or the other are probably necessary.

It seems to me that, in the same way that radical, back-to-the-land environmentalists would sacrifice the economy and technology for the sake of the environment, many of the key figures in the book show a willingness to endanger the environment and social development for the sake of the free market. I assume the reason that we think the “doubt merchants” solutions are seen as more feasible than equally single minded environmentalists are that they have a veneer of respectability and authority from academic careers. However, their solutions run the same risks of having few winners and potentially many losers.

How do we get into the middle section of the diagram then?

I don’t know. I’m kind of interested in all three areas but I only really know anything about a relatively small area of environmental science.

Monbiot covers some of this problem, from the perspective of just one area, here.

Other reviews for Merchants of Doubt

Gavin Schmidt in Chemical & Engineering News focusing mostly on the role of scientists.

Robin McKie in the Guardian focusing on the attack on environmentalism.

UPDATE: Naomi Oreskes has recently won the Climate Change Communicator of 2011 award from George Mason University. On the weight of this book alone, it is well deserved.