Why climategate doesn’t matter to the science of global warming

From the outset of the whole debacle I stated that the proper response to bad science (if indeed there is any, and it appears there is not) is good science, not leaked emails.  Or in other words if something inappropriate has taken place in the science, then the proper response is good science to correct any mistakes. Op-eds and blog posts aren’t a proper challenge to the large and independently tested body of science supporting global warming. This is especially true when they are based on nothing more than cherry-picked, out-of-context quotes.

But even if the worst and most damning interpretations of these emails are true it still doesn’t substantially weaken the science behind global warming, as Chris Mooney explains:

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that all of the worst and most damning interpretations of these exposed emails are accurate. I don’t think this is remotely true, but let’s assume it.

Even if this is the case, it does not prove the following :

  1. The scientists whose emails have been revealed are representative of or somehow a proxy for every other climate scientist on the planet.
  2. The studies that have been called into questions based on the emails (e.g., that old chestnut the “hockey stick”) are somehow the foundations of our concern about global warming, and those concerns stand or fall based on those studies.

Neither one of these is true, which is why I can say confidently that “ClimateGate” is overblown–and which is why I’ve never been impressed by systematic attacks on the “hockey stick.” Even if that study falls, we still have global warming on our hands, and it’s still human caused.

My sense is that the climate skeptic commenters we’re seeing aren’t actually familiar with the vast body of climate science work out there, and don’t realize how most individual studies are little more than a drop in the evidentiary bucket. It is because of the consilience of evidence from multiple studies and fields that we accept that climate change is human caused, and it is because of the vast diversity and number of scientists, and scientific bodies, who find that evidence compelling that we talk of a consensus.

I don’t see how anything about “ClimateGate” changes this big picture significantly–and again, that’s even if we assume the worst about what the emails reveal.

The Arctic sea ice is still declining, glaciers are still retreating, Australia is still in the grasp of a massive drought, and now we have data suggesting that east Antarctica (long thought to be a stable ice sheet) is melting… in other words despite what might have been said in  these emails the earth is still getting warmer, and we have multiple lines of evidence (completely independent to the leak) attributing global warming to our greenhouse gas emissions.

UPDATE: The Way Thing Break brings us:

The emerging scientific consensus on the SwiftHack emails: get real, denialists

And of course the emails never have and never will impact the scientific basis of the reality of anthropogenic warming.

UPDATE 2: Zeke Hausfather over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media has a very thorough write-up on the 5 major issues that deniers have seized upon:

  • Scientist Kevin Trenberth’s remarks on scientists’ inability to account for lack of warming;
  • Phil Jones’ comment on using a “trick” to “hide the decline”;
  • Encouraging editors of Climate Research to resign after the publication of Soon and Baliunas (2003);
  • Discussions among scientists surrounding efforts to avoid citing two skeptical papers (Kalnay and Cai (2003) and McKitrick and Michaels (2004)) in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report; and
  • Perhaps most damning, comments by Jones encouraging others to delete e-mails to avoid releasing them to freedom of information requests from climate skeptics.

Concluding that:

Given the sheer volume of e-mails over a 12-year period that have now undergone extensive scrutiny (including a useful keyword search tool), it’s almost surprising that there is so little actually there.

It is unfortunate, if perhaps not surprising, that the quotes from the e-mails that have gotten the most publicity from skeptics and in some media strongly distort the views and actions of the scientists in question, contributing to a perception of collusion to manipulate the climate data itself.

Nothing contained in the e-mails, however, suggests that global temperature records are particularly inaccurate or, worse, that they have been manipulated to show greater warming. The  certainly troubling conduct exposed in some of the e-mails has little bearing on the fundamental science that strongly indicates that the world is warming and that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the primary cause.

For the scientists involved and for many of their professional colleagues, that is the “bottom line.” Whether the public and its elected and appointed policy leaders reach that same conclusion remains to be seen.

UPDATE 3: Two independent analysis of some CRU data show that it is indeed reliable:

We extracted a sample of raw land-surface station data and corresponding CRU data. These were arbitrarily selected based on the following criteria: the length of record should be ~100 years or longer, and the standard reference period 1961–1990 (used to calculate SAT anomalies) must contain no more than 4 missing values. We also selected stations spread as widely as possible over the globe. We randomly chose 94 out of a possible 318 long records. Of these, 65 were sufficiently complete during the reference period to include in the analysis. These were split into two groups of 33 and 32 stations (Set A and Set B), which were then analyzed separately.

Results are shown in the following figures. The key points: both Set A and Set B indicate warming with trends that are statistically identical between the CRU data and the raw data (>99% confidence); the histograms show that CRU quality control has, as expected, narrowed the variance (both extreme positive and negative values removed).

Comparison of CRUTEM3v data with raw station data taken from World Monthly Surface Station Climatology. On the left are the mean temperature anomalies from each pair of randomly chosen times series. On the right are the distribution of trends in those time series and their means and standard errors. (The standard error provides an estimate of how well the sampling of ~30 stations represents the full global data set assuming a Gaussian distribution.) Note that not all the trends are for identical time periods, since not all data sets are the same length.

Conclusion: There is no indication whatsoever of any problem with the CRU data. An independent study (by a molecular biologist it Italy, as it happens) came to the same conclusion using a somewhat different analysis. None of this should come as any surprise of course, since any serious errors would have been found and published already.

It’s worth noting that the global average trend obtained by CRU for 1850-2005, as reported by the IPCC (http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter3.pdf), 0.47 0.54 degrees/century,* is actually a bit lower (though not by a statistically significant amount) than we obtained on average with our random sampling of stations.


I took the GHCN dataset available here and compared all the adjusted data (v2.mean_adj) to their raw counterpart (v2.mean). The GHCN raw dataset consists of more than 13000 station data, but of these only about half (6737) pass the initial quality control and end up in the final (adjusted) dataset. I calculated the difference for each pair of raw vs adj data and quantified the adjustment as trend of warming or cooling in degC per decade. I got in this way a set of 6533 adjustments (that is, 97% of total – a couple of hundreds were lost in the way due to the quality of the readings). Did I find the smoking gun? Nope.

Distribution of adjustment bias in the GHCN/CRU dataset

Not surprisingly, the distribution of adjustment trends2 is a quasi-normal3 distribution with peak pretty much around 0 (0 is the median adjustment and 0.017 C/decade is the average adjustment – the planet warming trend in the last century has been of about 0.2 C/decade). In other words, most adjustment hardly modify the reading, and the warming and cooling adjustments end up compensating each other1,5. I am sure this is no big surprise. The point of this analysis is not to check the good faith of people handling the data: that is not under scrutiny (and not because I trust the scientists but because I trust the scientific method).

The point is actually to show the denialists that going probe after probe cherry picking those with a “weird” adjustment is a waste of time. Please stop the non-sense.

What yet despite a complete lack of evidenced claims of conspiracy are abound. Just another example that the opposition to global warming is political, not scientific.

17 thoughts on “Why climategate doesn’t matter to the science of global warming

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  1. Ironically, the illegitimate conspiracy exists… but it’s the likes of the backers of the anti-GW propaganda mills like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, the Heartland Institute and so on, who systematically push lies, half-truths and straw man arguments. More on this from me, eventually…

    But your take on it is good. 10,000 monkeys are currently trying to bang out a peer-review quality paper crapping on the Hockey Stick. I’m sure they will come to a coherent, though likely wrong, conclusion.

    Oh, and smoking doesn’t cause cancer. Right?

  2. Ya. I’ve been saying that too. Pots calling kettles black… Though the kettles aren’t black, and the pots are quite burnt.

    It’s a total PR war, and needs to be fought that way. Does anyone really expect anyone to pour through hundreds of peer review papers, cross-referencing with the code, to see if they were fair in their work? Nah…

    I’ve often thought it was a mistake for Mann et al to do real climate, however useful. They should have always been a step away, leaving the PR to the pros. No matter how many answers they gave, they were always accused of holding back. But they held back because the bozos will always twist even the most straightforward stuff. This is why politicians use spokespeople. Of course, the money isn’t there for it. Frustrating.

    Consider the false “it stopped warming in 1998” claim. It’s an obvious outlier — we’re currently almost half a degree warmer than 1997, for instance — and ‘they’ refuse to get it.

    The denialists obviously aren’t going to agree with anything more complex.

  3. A real response would be: that you are disapointed that scientists with so much real evidence would become lazy and stoop to political tactics and you hope that they remove themselves from the public eye to better serve your cause.

    Your whitewash – and not condemnation – of their behaviour says it all.

  4. @Mark

    I’ve often thought it was a mistake for Mann et al to do real climate…

    I can’t agree with that statement. I think there is tremendous value in scientist directly communicating with the public, and I imagine the denier camp would just accuse scientists of hiding behind PR people because they have something to hide. Remember if one has no regard for the truth then one can spin anything in a negative light.

  5. @Jerry

    This post was about the impact on the science of the email leak. You failed completely to address that in your comment. As for the fact that some of these scientists were less than charitable to certain individuals I don’t care. It has no impact on the actual science. Nor is it surprising. Scientists are human, and no one should be surprised when they act human (flaws and all). Thankfully science doesn’t depend on scientists being perfect. If it did it would be useless.

    Science works fine in aggregate, but this idea that science must have only flawless people doing impeccable work is a strawman set up by the superstitious to discredit empiricism through nutpicking. -Tim F.

    But as I mentioned before, if any misdeeds were committed, they should be criticized. If bad science has been done (and it appears there hasn’t been any) then the proper response is good science.

  6. I don’t think this is off topic at all. I agree with you that the science should speak for itself. 100%.

    But you would assume that a group of the world leading scientists that work full-time on this project would be able to understand and present such science to the public and other researchers.

    They choose not, but instead chose to resort to some political tactics to prevent information becoming public knowledge, putting a spin on the data etc. – in short, resorting to methods outside of “the science”.

    It is perfectly reasonable to ask why they did this? Could they just not be bothered to do it right? (in which case you surely would not want them clouding your case in future, as I suggested).

    Or is the “evidence” they purport to have by not in fact as good as they say?

    And, what of the far worse matter of the poor coding practices – the code is a mess by any standards and as such guarantees numerical errors. These will be detailed exactly in the coming weeks – mark my words. This for certain has an impact on the science.

  7. I would assume that scientists are human. Flaws and all. Not everything they did was defensible, but it doesn’t mean the science has been significantly affected for the two reasons I discuss in my post, (which you have still not addressed).

    instead chose to resort to some political tactics to prevent information becoming public knowledge

    Yes they tried to get some papers they saw as flawed (and which have not stood the test of time very well) out of the IPCC, but they were not successful.

    Yes they worked to boycott a journal who tarnished its reputation by publishing a obviously wrong paper (several editors of that journal also quit in protest). But typically one doesn’t wish to publish in journals of poor reputation.

    Yes there are some questions raised about the FOI requests, but at the same time those FOI requests were not made in good faith. One doesn’t bombard someone with FOI requests despite being told that some of the data requested cannot be released for contractual reasons. Steve Easterbrook has an excellent write up in the subject:

    A significant factor in the reluctance of climate scientists to release code and data is to protect themselves from denial-of-service attacks. There is a very well-funded and PR-savvy campaign to discredit climate science. Most scientists just don’t understand how to respond to this. Firing off hundreds of requests to CRU to release data under the freedom of information act, despite each such request being denied for good legal reasons, is the equivalent of frivolous lawsuits. But even worse, once datasets and codes are released, it is very easy for an anti-science campaign to tie the scientists up in knots trying to respond to their attempts to poke holes in the data. If the denialists were engaged in an honest attempt to push the science ahead, this would be fine (although many scientists would still get frustrated – they are human too).

    You can ask why they did this, but you seem to have already jumped to conclusions. As you see given the proper context the actions, while not defensible, are far less damaging than you claim. “Skepticism in the truest scientific sense of the word is good and is indeed essential to science. Skepticism should not be confused, however, with contrarianism that does not meet the basic standards of scientific inquiry.

    The same thing happens in biology, when scientist are forced to deal with anti-science creationists.

    Or is the “evidence” they purport to have by not in fact as good as they say?

    Nope (as far as we have seen). See above. The people attacked in the emails and the work they have done has not withstood scientific scrutiny. It was attacked, not because the conclusions were controversial, but because they could not be supported by the data. It is worth noting many of the people who were attacked have said worse in public. Funny how no one seems to mind that.

    These will be detailed exactly in the coming weeks – mark my words. This for certain has an impact on the science.

    Consider your words marked. But I wont hold my breath, some attempts at ‘quote mining’ the code have already failed miserably. And on top of that if any errors are found, one must determine if they made it to the final version of the code. It is entirely possible that the stolen code was an early version, or used place holders in place of real data. But if the error were corrected and the placeholders replaced in the final version of the code (aka the stuff used for actual science) then the fact that old code had errors doesn’t really matter.

  8. I saved the best for last:

    I agree with you that the science should speak for itself. 100%.

    I find it odd that you open your comment with this line, because you end up doing the exact opposite.

  9. “I saved the best for last:…”

    You think that was a real zinger don’t you! sigh…how sad.

    The question is whether the scientists involve think that the science should speak for itself also? My point is that their behaviour suggest not, they think it needs sugar coating or manipulating or whatever.

    You’ve already admitted you don’t understand all “the science”. So, who exactly are you taking your cues from? These people do understand “the science” and their behaviour suggests that they don’t think it stands up on its own. Why are you – a self-confessed non-understander – so sure then?

  10. @ Jerry

    You are repeating yourself. Respond to the points I raise, and the questions I ask you, or loose your commenting privileges.

    My point is that their behaviour suggest not, they think it needs sugar coating or manipulating or whatever.

    Then provide specific examples (and context is everything here). If you wish to suggest that something inappropriate has happened with the science then vague claims simply will not do.

    You’ve already admitted you don’t understand all “the science”. So, who exactly are you taking your cues from?

    I explain that in this post.

    It is odd to see you complain about the behaviour exposed in these emails (which while not defensible is also not that rare, humans are far from perfect after all) while giving the denier side a pass. There have said and acted worse publicly, so one can only imagine what their private communications would reveal.

    And again it is worth repeating that even if the worst accusations turn out to be true, they don’t affect the central planks of evidence for AGW.

    The fact that some scientists may have acted inappropriately is hardly ‘the final nail in the AGW coffin’ that many have claimed. Science isn’t judged by the behaviour of scientists.

  11. My point was something like Real Climate is fine to have, but written by people not doing the research and dumbed down — seriously — so that people like myself can understand what it is they are saying.

    I’m smarter than most. I have, over the years I’ve dabbled in all this, figured out a fair amount of what they are doing, but most people don’t have that patience.

    An approach like SkepticalScience.com is more effective.

    If I had more time, I’d explain in layperson terms exactly what Mann et al did, how the IPCC works, and so on.

    Actually, all that is an interesting project idea.

    I’ve worked in PR in health care as well as medical research, and have dealt with the issue of ‘dumbing’ down complex material concerning basic science into something readable by John and Jane Q Public.

    I read through Briffa the other day refuting the recent attack on the Yamal series… well, I couldn’t follow him. I had no problem following McIntyre though. That’s a problem, and is what I am getting at.

    If a PR hack gets something wrong, then at least that hack is to blame, not a scientist.

    Most people cannot tell good science from bad science. You’re right about science needing to be more open, but it has to be done right, or there’s no point to it.

    I’m surprised that the researchers have to handle so many FOI requests themselves, and do so much of their own PR.

  12. I think both Real Climate and SkepticalScience have their place.

    For the layperson Skeptical Science is a better option. For those interested in a deeper meaning Real Climate is better. Though I cannot claim to understand everything they post there.

    I think a good case can be made that we need more science explanation geared towards laypeople, but I don’t think that should come at the expense of Real Climate.

    But the problem with simplified science is that is will by necessity have holes in it. The proses of simplification will introduce errors, and remove nuance that deniers can jump on. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame summed up the problem perfectly:

    What I’m saying is that the evidence for evolution that is available to the casual person of interest, including most students, is simplified to the point of being misleading, false, or useless. In other words, the popular argument for evolution is bullshit, independent of the underlying reality of evolution or the evidence available to experts in the field.

    The same thing applies to AGW and Skeptical Science suffers from this to some extent. Much of the extra complexity of Real Climate is there in order to avoid this problem, but by doing so alienates many people.

    So what is the solution? I don’t know.

  13. “I think both Real Climate and SkepticalScience have their place.”

    My experience in politics with opening up dialog was that it opened me, and many people, up to attack. Heck, I’m still in court over a vexatious claim.

    The CEI is to sue Gavin at Real Climate for his comment moderation policy. There’s some angle, perhaps, about pubic funds maybe being spent on it forcing a more open policy. Ironically, if it didn’t exist, there’d be nothing to sue over… *sigh*

    The more you release the more the denialists have to attack with, as they are tied only to the plausible. It’s far better to have a third Party handle such things for you, so any plausible claims hand on that party instead. It’s for the same reason why politicians often resort to using spokespersons.

    Anyway, what’s done is done.

    The real way for scientists to get their message out is through the treetops (columnists, op-eds…). They already do this, but they need to do it more.

  14. Hmmm, that seems similar to what Steve Easterbrook said.

    If you are right, then it really is a tragic state of affairs we find ourself in. And that is why I hope you are wrong. I really do hope (perhaps naively) that openness wins the day. Though things don’t look particularly bright right now.

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