Tag Archives: Pielke Jr.

Climate Change and Science

Some readers may wonder why I have doggedly pressed Professor Keith Hunter to clarify his comments on the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition. I hope that news coming out of the US will help explain. These are the results of a new survey:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of American Adults shows that 69% say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data in order to support their own theories and beliefs, including 40% who say this is Very Likely. Twenty-two percent (22%) don’t think it’s likely some scientists have falsified global warming data, including just six percent (6%) say it’s Not At All Likely. Another 10% are undecided. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

There is growing concern amongst the public about the honesty of scientific researchers, and the concern revolves around climate change. The climategate scandal, of course is one of the key issues. However, a review by Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) highlights another matter of concern. Published in Climatic Change, the abstract of his paper is as follows:

Abstract Authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) received guidance on reporting understanding, certainty and/or confidence in findings using a common language, to better communicate with decision makers. However, a review of the IPCC conducted by the InterAcademy Council (2010) found that “the guidance was not consistently followed in AR4, leading to unnecessary errors . . . the guidance was often applied to statements that are so vague they cannot be falsified. In these cases the impression was often left, quite incorrectly, that a substantive finding was being presented.” Our comprehensive and quantitative analysis of findings and associated uncertainty in the AR4 supports the IAC findings and suggests opportunities for improvement in future assessments.

The original paper is well worth a read, but Dr. Pielke has also presented a blog post on the paper, with the headline ‘How many findings of the IPCC AR4 are WGI are incorrect? Answer 28%.’ The actual paper concludes with the following:

Although the IPCC has made enormous contributions and set an important example for global assessment of a vexing problem of immense ramifications, there remain clear opportunities for improvement in documenting findings and specifying uncertainties. We recommend more care in the definition and determination of uncertainty, more clarity in identifying and presenting findings and a more systematic approach in the entire process, especially from assessment to assessment. We also suggest an independent, dedicated group to monitor the process, evaluate findings as they are presented and track their fate. This would include tracking the relationship of findings and attendant uncertainties that pass up the hierarchy of documents within AR5. Strict rules for expressing uncertainty in findings that are derived from (possibly multiple) other findings are needed (see, e.g., the second example in the Supplementary Material).

It is not the purpose of this note to discuss other, related scientific assessments of climate change knowledge; but, we do note that our preliminary analysis of the U.S. Global Change Research Program Synthesis and Assessment Products suggests a far less systematic application of the guidance supplied to authors of those documents and far less consistent application of the defined terms. We believe that the concerns we have expressed here, and the resulting recommendations, apply more broadly than the IPCC process.

The point of the paper is best expressed in the blog post.

What does it mean?  Nothing too interesting, really — science evolves and any assessment is a snapshot of knowledge in time. However, I suspect that some people will get excited or defensive to learn that by the IPCC’s own logic, the report’s future-looking findings could include 28% or more that will not stand the test of time. Of course, such excitement and defense are part of the context that the IPCC and its critics have together created, which has led to incentives to hold the IPCC up as some sort of sacred text or to denigrate it as a sham. Our work suggests neither. Instead, from the perspective of its assessment products it is a valuable if imperfect organization.

As Dr. Pielke has identified, the IPCC reports are used as a sacred text, but science is not about sacred texts. The IPCC is presented as an authority which cannot be questioned, which ends up as an argument from authority rather than an argument about the evidence and theory. A further problem is the reluctance of key researchers to release the raw data, and details of the adjustment to data, that is the foundation of much of the science that the IPCC relies upon.

For example, Steve McIntyre has had to doggedly pursue data from several key papers with endless obstructions used to block his access to the data. Just one example can be found here, but taking the time to read the blog will find a long and sorry tale of questionable behaviour on the part of those presenting the science (or reviewing the science) of climate change. A similar tale can be found here in New Zealand, with endless obstructions to the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition’s (NZCSC) investigations into NIWA’s temperature records. Richard Treadgold offers a good summary of the rather shabby story here, saying the following:

NIWA has enjoyed tremendous support in our dispute with them. Much has been written about it and much obloquy heaped on my and my Coalition colleagues’ heads. This scientific review of NIWA’s report provides justification for our initial scepticism and our perseverance. Seeing what this audit reveals, it’s hard to find reasons to support NIWA.

At first, we hinted strongly at malpractice, to goad the ever-languid NIWA scientists into releasing the data they had withheld for many years. Our goading eventually succeeded in prompting the reconstruction of the NZTR.

Examining the results of that work has uncovered stronger evidence of unscientific and even possibly unethical behaviour than we ever imagined. We certainly never hoped for this. To clarify: this does not please us. We never wanted to find evidence of dishonesty, never imagined that we might and we are disappointed to discover that they failed to do what they said.

There really is something shabby about all of this. In my own work, in an unrelated discipline, I have found similar problems. For example, in a mirror of problems with skeptical researchers have had with reviews, I found an example in which a piece of research that refuted a broadly accepted theory was reviewed by the originator of the theory. It may come as no surprise that the review saw the paper rejected for publication (not my own research I might add, but I have had a similar if less dramatic experiences).

Those on the skeptical side of the debate have, as Richard Treadgold puts it, have obloquy heaped on their heads. Terms such as ‘flat earthers’ and ‘deniers’ are applied. The problem is that much of the skeptical side of the debate resolves around questions about the empirical evidence and theory. On the other side of the debate, in addition to the ‘honest’ science, there is concealment and/or distortion of data, invocations of arguments from authority, and blocking of access to the supposedly gold standard of science, the peer reviewed literature. The general public are starting to notice.

Dr. Pielke is correct when he implies that there is good science on the warming side of the debate, but the bad ‘science’ creates doubt in the minds of the public about the science overall. There are perfectly honest researchers on the warming side of the debate, who are undoubtedly conducting their research with integrity. The problem is that they will end up being tarred with the same brush. More broadly, ‘science’ as a concept is being tarred with the same brush.

It is for this reason that the defenders of the bad science need to be called to account, in particular when those people are in a position of influence. Organisations like NZCSC are the defenders of science, but are instead portrayed as nuts/cranks.Those who insult these defenders of science cloak their insults with the name of science. In doing so, they undermine science as a whole. In other words, it is time for the defenders of science to be given the respect that they deserve.

Note: What constitutes ‘science’ has long been a problematic question. However, I do not think that anyone would reasonably suggest that practices such as distorting data to fit theory or blocking critical work just because it is critical would be accepted as ‘good science’.