Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When Scientists Lie

You might want to read this New York Times editorial before reading on here: "E-mail Fracas Shows Peril of Trying to Spin Science."

Here's the short version: a group of British and American scientists engaged in what charitably can be called "dubious scientific practices" in seeking to promote their thesis that the planet is warming dangerously and we are contributing to it. Less charitably -- more more accurately, in my view -- they lied, primarily by omission. Further, and compounding their intellectual sin, they disparaged skeptics and sought revenge on journals and editors who gave skeptics any time and space at all.

Naturally, those who argue that global warming is a lie are reacting with glee, announcing that this episode proves it and that it further proves that the Earth has in fact been cooling since the late 1990's.

Well, in brief -- no, it doesn't. To say it does is akin to the "logic" critics of the Iraq war used in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which some U.S. military personnel grossly mistreated prisoners. That is, war critics said the scandal "proved" that all U.S. armed forces in the country wee abusive and so on. And that's patent nonsense. Further, it in no way addresses the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the war.

However, it does prove this: because one group of scientists have manipulated the data with which they were working, cherry-picking from a buffet of data sources, mixing those sources, so now the entire data set needs re-checking, at least by sampling if not exhaustively.

What these scientists did is this: they were assembling data to make a chart to show a sharp rise in temperatures over the last century or so, but their chart went further back than the temperature records, so they were using indirect temperature records, in this case, tree rings. However, they came to a time period covering recent years where the tree rings stubbornly indicated a different trend. So, they simply substituted direct temperature records -- but (1.) only for that part of the chart for which the tree-ring record was contradictory, and did so (2.) without indicating they had done so.

This is reprehensible. We all know that no one climate model is perfect, and that all of them need constant tweaking. Ignoring -- even suppressing -- inconvenient contradictory data flies in the face of solid (and honest) science.

Policy makers around the globe are struggling with just how to approach climate change. Not much of anyone disputes there is a change in climate occurring; the only arguments are (1.) is it warming or cooling, (2.) what, if any, role people play in climate change, and, (3.) if people play a role, how great that role is.

If policy makers are convinced that we do play a role, a significant one we can try to correct, then they will consider what to do. And whatever they decide is bound to be expensive, so they need the best, most accurate information and recommendations science can provide.

I can understand select use of data by non-scientists, whichever side of the argument they support. For instance, the temperature in London yesterday got up to about 6 degrees C/43 degrees F, which a person who says global warming is a myth and the planet is cooling, citing the London temperature, might say. But a person who believes in global warming could snort and point at the temperature in Moscow yesterday -- which was about 12 degrees C/53 degrees F. But both are extremely localized and for a single day, so alone are worthless in trying to determine long-term, global trends.

Though the editorial I linked above doesn't mention this next point, it needs consideration. On some of the websites that seek to prove global warming is at best a myth and at worst a lie I've read that the software used to crunch the data is also flawed. It's not clear to me if that software was used only by this group of scientists or if it is widely used. In any case, now that the allegation has been made, that software needs to be examined to see if it is, indeed, faulty. And if how widely it is used isn't known, that needs to be established as well.

There are three groups of scientists, generally, involved in this debate. On one side is that group under the sway of industry and who therefore help promote industry's political agenda. On the other side is that group with the opposing political agenda. Both these groups manipulate and massage the data dishonestly, so can be -- and deserve to be -- dismissed. The third group is made up of the vast majority of scientists who are conducting honest scientific research to determine what's going on -- indeed, if anything is going on.

I feel I should say where I stand on climate change. I believe it's occurring, that it involves warming, and that humans play a significant role in that warming. This scandal alone has not changed my views. But I do hope that many teams of scientists from the third group I mentioned, i.e., those with no political agenda, re-examine the data -- and if they decide their best call is either that there is no climate change occurring or that cooling is occurring, then fine -- I will gladly accept solid, honest science.

I bet that a re-examination will show that on a global scale warming is occurring and that we play a significant role in it. That doesn't mean I dismiss natural changes; after all, there have been numerous ice ages interspersed with much warmer periods since long before humans arose on the planet. Since I'm acknowledging that, you might reasonably wonder why I still suggest humans are playing a role, a significant one.

Basically, it has to do with time scales. Scientists tell us the last Ice Age took on the order of 4,000 years to end. Yet the changes we've seen just since the start of the Industrial Revolution have been on the same order as the changes that gradually came about as the last Ice Age ended. And the Industrial Revolution began under 200 years ago. In other words, same change but over 20 times faster.

There have been anomalies.

For example, there was what is called the "Little Ice Age." There is some disagreement about just when this began and ended, but a rule of thumb is from about the mid-16th century to the mid-19th century, with some overall minor temperature shifts.

This followed a somewhat warmer stretch known as the "Medieval Warm Period" that covered the time span 800-1300 AD, roughly speaking. Scientists disagree over whether this and the Little Ice Age were global events or a great many regional ones. There is evidence of anomalies in different places in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Another example is "The Year with No Summer," i.e., 1816, which followed a massive explosion of the Tambora volcano in present-day Indonesia in 1815. On  the Volcano Explosivity Index, which is a scale of 0-8 similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, Tambora ranked 7; only five such explosions are known to have occurred in the past 10,000 years, though two more are suspected. Tambora is estimated to have ejected about 160 cubic kilometers/64 cubic miles of material -- about four times as powerful as the later Krakatoa explosion late in the 19th century. To make it easier to visualize just how much ejecta we're talking about, formed into a cube with all three sides of equal length, it would measure about 12.65 kilometers/8 miles per side.

[Note: the source I'm looking at is internally contradictory. They say 160 cubic km/38 cubic miles -- but if the kilometer measurement is correct, then that's 64 cubic miles, not 38. And if the 38 cubic miles is correct, then the kilometer dimensions are correspondingly less. However, I'm going with the 160/64 numbers because they work out more accurately than starting with the 38 number across the sources I'm reading.]

Anyway, in parts of the world, in the northern hemisphere in 1816 in the northern hemisphere summer, there was frost. Crops were lost, especially in Europe. But again, the effects, while widespread, were not truly global. By the way, some scientists, but not many, suggest Tambora was in fact an 8 -- a once-in-10,000-years blast. As I said, the VEI works the same way as the Richter Scale, i.e., a 1 is 10 times more powerful than a 0, a 2 is 10 times more powerful than a 1 (and 100 times a 0), and so on. So, whether Tambora was "just" a 7 or actually and 8, it was a major explosion.

Clearly, nature plays a role, and likely one more significant than we play.

Back to the scientists at the heart of this scandal. It's too bad there's no equivalent of a court martial in the scientific world!

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