Archive for the ‘Bad science’ Category

News Year’s Honours: well done flooding people and Tim Palmer!

December 31, 2014

I just had a quick look through the New Year’s Honours list and was surprised and happy to see quite a few (6 or 7) people with a link to flood management, including a few from the Environment Agency.

I thought that this was significant as it wasn’t that long ago that Eric Pickles (the Communities Secretary) was questioning the EA’s expertise but it seems that the UK Honours Committee doesn’t agree with him either. So good on them.

Also good news that Tim Palmer (Professor in Climate Physics at Oxford) got recognised too (OBE). I love Tim’s papers and it was his work that largely inspired me to go into climate 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.

Ignoring Monckton was not a good suggestion…

July 15, 2010

A couple of days ago I wrote a post suggesting that Christopher Monckton’s awful musings on climate change should just be ignored.

I was wrong.

Monckton is now encouraging readers of WUWT to email the President of John Abraham’s university (St. Thomas University) to take down his criticisms of a talk Monckton gave.

Firstly, this is not how science should be done.

Secondly, this is just the kind of mob mentality that led to the break down in relations between the “sceptic” bloggers and the UEA scientists that reached a climax with the climategate media non-event. It seems that Monckton and WUWT have learnt absolutely nothing from all this and are continuing with the same tactics that they employed in the past.

In response, the Hot Topic blog has started a petition in support of Abraham to send to the President of St. Thomas University. Whilst I wish we didn’t have to waste time on things like this, I think it’s important to make it clear that this type of action is not acceptable.

Why do I care what Christopher Monckton says?

July 13, 2010

I’ve just notice (via Stoat) that Christopher Monckton has spent a lot of time trying to refute the claims made by John Abraham in this long document. Abraham had produced a talk debunking the points that Monckton made in a talk last year, which I guess upset Monckton.

Most of Monckton’s points are not very interesting (I only looked at 50 or so of the 500ish, yawn) and he still feels the need to defend the IPCC First Assessment Report “Hockey Stick” type graph (see his page 16), which is misguided at best. I also don’t know where he gets the idea that the central England temperature is “regarded as a reasonable proxy for global temperatures”. I’m sure that there are other equally wrong things in there.

But after spending 20 minutes or so reading it, I started to wonder “why am I bothering?” Monckton has never demonstrated himself to be a reliable source of information on climate science (or other things) yet he’s managed to get into a position where people listen to him.

Should we just ignore him? Or do people still have to show that most of what he says on this subject is not reliable?

Does the Today programme have an anti-Climate Science agenda?

May 19, 2010

I was listening to Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday and was quite surprised that they spent nearly 5 minutes reporting from the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC).  This conference is different to almost all other climate conferences as it is dominated by climate change “sceptics”.

The Today programme is one of the UK’s most influencial news programmes and I’ve never heard a report on this show from any other climate science conference despite there being many, many others every year.  (I’m not including Copenhagen here as that was a climate policy conference, not a science conference.)

So why report from the ICCC?  Well, their angle in the report was that its not just right-wingers that are climate change “sceptics”.  This strikes me a bit lame and not really news.

I’m beginning to think that the Today programme has an anti-Climate Science agenda.

My main other concern with the Today programme and its climate coverage is Justin Webb.  A relatively new host, he seems to think that his views should shape the programme’s stance on climate science.  His most notorious moment was an awful interview with Prof. Ian Plimer (geologist turned climate “sceptic”) where Webb failed to question Plimer on any of the controversial things he was saying.

Reporting the consensus view on climate science is probably getting a bit dull and maybe that is why the media like the contrary view.  I just thought that the Today programme was better than that.

[The relevant piece starts at 2:49:49 of the Today programme from 18th May 2010, which is available here for a limited period on the BBC iPlayer.]

Institute of Physics S&TC evidence submission – what’s actually wrong with it?

March 6, 2010

There’s clearly some interest in the IoP evidence submission and my original letter to the IoP didn’t really go into my objections in great detail. I thought I should go through the evidence submission in one place instead of explaining my views in response to blog comments.

Overall, I’m not objecting to the statement because I disagree with it (although I do). I object to it because, for an evidence submission, it contains no evidence and it is judgemental. The IoP should be embarrassed to have its name associated with it and, in my opinion, should retract this evidence statement. Here are my thoughts on why the first 8 points from the submission are inadequate:

“1. The Institute is concerned that, unless the disclosed e-mails are proved to be forgeries or adaptations, worrying implications arise for the integrity of scientific research in this field and for the credibility of the scientific method as practised in this context.”

This point contradicts the IoP’s assertion in their recent press releases that they accept the current understanding of climate science as presented by the IPCC. More worryingly, despite the fact that CRU’s research findings have not been undermined by the email leak, this point implies that the integrity and credibility of the whole of climate science is now in doubt. There is no justification for this extrapolation even if CRU’s research were compromised.

“2. The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital. The lack of compliance has been confirmed by the findings of the Information Commissioner. This extends well beyond the CRU itself – most of the e-mails were exchanged with researchers in a number of other international institutions who are also involved in the formulation of the IPCC’s conclusions on climate change.”

This is a rather one sided analysis of the unique issues relating to the data that CRU use – there is what I consider to be a more balanced and better informed overview here.

Further, UEA present a different interpretation of the Freedom of Information issues informed by their correspondence with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“3. It is important to recognise that there are two completely different categories of data set that are involved in the CRU e-mail exchanges:

• those compiled from direct instrumental measurements of land and ocean surface temperatures such as the CRU, GISS and NOAA data sets; and

• historic temperature reconstructions from measurements of ‘proxies’, for example, tree-rings.”

There’s not much to take issue with here other than the very final part – “for example, tree rings” – which doesn’t really give an indication of the full range of proxy measures that have been used in the reconstructions.

“4. The second category relating to proxy reconstructions are the basis for the conclusion that 20th century warming is unprecedented. Published reconstructions may represent only a part of the raw data available and may be sensitive to the choices made and the statistical techniques used. Different choices, omissions or statistical processes may lead to different conclusions. This possibility was evidently the reason behind some of the (rejected) requests for further information.”

“This possibility was evidently the reason…” I read this as wild speculation. Is there any evidence to back this theory up? If not, it has no place in an evidence submission. More generally, though, why have the studies that have investigated the details of the proxy compilation in the IPCC report (The “Wegman” report, 2006 and The National Research Council Report, 2006) not been mentioned and critiqued?

“5. The e-mails reveal doubts as to the reliability of some of the reconstructions and raise questions as to the way in which they have been represented; for example, the apparent suppression, in graphics widely used by the IPCC, of proxy results for recent decades that do not agree with contemporary instrumental temperature measurements.”

For me, this is the low point of the evidence submission. Surely the reason for asking organisations like the IoP to provide evidence is that they have the knowledge to provide context to the issues at hand. This point has not done that – it is merely an ill informed judgement on a quote from an old email (the “…hide the decline…” one).

If this point were to be taken seriously, they would need to have referred to the figures in specific papers or documents where they believe that the proxy records were suppressed.

I suspect that they have not done this because there is no evidence to back up this point. For example, Briffa et al. 1999 (“Reduced sensitivity of recent tree-growth to temperature at high northern latitudes” in Nature) specifically discusses the issues of dendroclimatology divergence. Chapter 6.6 of the IPCC AR4 WG1 report also looks at the details of the proxy reconstructions of the climate of the last 2000 years, including divergence. There are other examples. I cannot see how the IoP can interpret this as suppression.

”6. There is also reason for concern at the intolerance to challenge displayed in the e-mails. This impedes the process of scientific ‘self correction’, which is vital to the integrity of the scientific process as a whole, and not just to the research itself. In that context, those CRU e-mails relating to the peer-review process suggest a need for a review of its adequacy and objectivity as practised in this field and its potential vulnerability to bias or manipulation.”

This point again seems one sided and gives no recognition to the efforts of the scientists in question to engage with their critics before they were subjected to unfounded attacks on their work and integrity.

In relation to the second issue in this point, peer review, the IoP should surely have looked beyond an account of what people were saying in an incomplete archive of private emails. If we look at what actually happened in the public arena then, as an example, certain papers that were discussed in those emails were not excuded from the IPCC report as was suggested.

“7. Fundamentally, we consider it should be inappropriate for the verification of the integrity of the scientific process to depend on appeals to Freedom of Information legislation. Nevertheless, the right to such appeals has been shown to be necessary. The e-mails illustrate the possibility of networks of like-minded researchers effectively excluding newcomers. Requiring data to be electronically accessible to all, at the time of publication, would remove this possibility.”

Again, there are particular issues relating to a small percentage of the data used by the CRU. Newcomers to the field were not excluded from contributing (if anything, the work of CRU in collecting all this data and producing usable girded products promotes the inclusion of newcomers) but the issues relating to the data mean that, at presnt, to replicate the work they would have to request the data from third parties themselves.

This point again seems rather one sided. For example, was the aim of the FoI requests really to replicate the CRU temperature product? This blog post and some of the comments indicate that it probably wasn’t. But I agree that making the data available is still important as a matter of principle.

“8. As a step towards restoring confidence in the scientific process and to provide greater transparency in future, the editorial boards of scientific journals should work towards setting down requirements for open electronic data archiving by authors, to coincide with publication. Expert input (from journal boards) would be needed to determine the category of data that would be archived. Much ‘raw’ data requires calibration and processing through interpretive codes at various levels.”

Similar to the final sentence of point 7, this is a nice recommendation but it does not really address the issues at hand. Incidentally, this proposed “standard” is not even employed by the IoP’s own journals – for example, ERL allows data to be uploaded with papers but it is not required. To imply that CRU have acted badly by not complying with this non-existent standard makes no sense.


Anonymous members of the Institute of Physics Science Board (2010). The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Memorandum

Glaciergate in perspective

January 18, 2010

The story is about a claim in the 2007 IPCC report that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035.  It turns out that the evidence for this claim was from a speculative comment made by a not-very-prominent glaciologist in New Scientist in 1999.  The Times and The Express have gone to town with this story.  So, what does it really mean?

A little bit of background…

To understand the significance of Glaciergate, we first need to understand how the IPCC works.  So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is split into 3 Working Groups:

  • WGI: The Physical Science Basis
  • WGII: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
  • WGIII: Mitigation of Climate Change

Each group produced a separate report in 2007.  They were each about 1000 pages long.  This was the fourth IPPC report round, the others were in 1990, 1995 and 2001.

WGI reviews and synthesises all the work on the physics and chemistry of the Earth system and tries to make projections of how things like temperature, rainfall and atmospheric circulation will change in the future.  I refer to this report a lot in my work as a meteorologist/climatologist.

I know a little about Working Group II – it is written by hydrologists, glaciologists, economists, social scientists and medical scientists – but I have very little idea about what goes on in WGIII.  I also confess that I’ve never looked at the WGIII report.  WGs II and III rely on a certain degree of speculation; it is their business to ask what the world would be like if certain things happen based on the projections from WGI.

Was the Himalayan meltdown a “central claim” in the IPPC report?

The 2035 date relating to the Himalayas appears in one sentence in Chapter 10 of the Working Group II report.  So this is one sentence in nearly 3000 pages. As far as I can see (please correct me if I’m wrong) the 2035 claim was not repeated in the WGII Summary for Policymakers or the overall Synthesis Report.  This was not a central claim.

Given that WGII is speculative by nature then Glaciergate appears to be a reviewing error rather than an attempt to distort the science.  Why the claim was given an implied “very likely” (90% certain) tag is worrying but then this is the first questioning of anything in the report that I can remember since it was published in 2007 – that says a lot for the skill and thoroughness of the report reviewers.

Most importantly, though, the WGII glacier claim changes absolutely nothing about the fundamental science behind climate change that appears in WGI.  This is like saying you wont trust anything in the economics section of The Times because they once printed a football result wrong.  The WGI science is all robust and, if anything, quite conservative in its claims and projections.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri (IPCC Chair) is a former railway engineer with a PhD in economics and no formal climate science qualifications…

Today’s Express also makes this statement as if it undermines the whole of the IPCC.  If anything, it just shows that the reporter has very little idea what the IPCC actually does.  Pachauri has worked in several different scientific disciplines and has headed a large organisation before.  In my mind, that more than qualifies him to head the IPCC.

Anyway, if you’re looking for people with in depth knowledge of specific fields, then there are the WG Chairs.  For example, WGI was chaired by Susan Solomon, who stands a pretty good chance of being awarded a Nobel prize for her work in the 1980s on the ozone “hole”.  Beneath the WG Chairs, each chapter has at least 1 co-ordinating author and 1 lead author.  Beneath them, each chapter also has many contributing authors, all experts in their field.

This attack on Pachauri doesn’t hold up very well.

The revelation is the latest crack to appear in the scientific concensus over climate change…

This claim was made in the Times yesterday, with the other cited cracks being the CRU email theft and something about sea level rise estimates.  This claim seems to assume that “consensus” means that no new work is going on in the climate sciences or at least demonstrates a complete ignorance of how science works.

Things will change in the science, which is exactly why the plans for the next IPCC report (due in 2014) are already well under way!  These are exciting (and, if I’m honest, a little depressing) times for climate science so its disappointing that many people outside the research community don’t want to know about it.