Own goal from the climate sceptics?

If you read the post at Deltoid superficially, you might get the impression that ex-weatherman and blogger Anthony Watts had scored a massive own goal. The bottom line is that he probably has, but the story is complicated, with some wriggle room.

Since 2007 Watts has been on about the siting of NOAA climate stations in the USA. Many, he found, were next to heat sources, heat sinks, and had been surrounded by urbanization during the decades of their operation. In June 2007 he started the surfacestations.org project after similar concerns were found by Dr. Roger Pielke Snr of the University of Colorado. With the help of volunteers the project surveyed over 1000 of the 1221 United States Historical Climatological Network (USHCN) stations and rated them for quality on a 5-point scale. Watts visited 100 sites himself.

You’ve probably heard the complaint a thousand times that this siting problem boosts the average temperature for the Unites States as measured by agencies such as NOAA and NASA. The official line was that there were anomalies due to siting, but they cancelled each other out. Some of the sites were now on irrigated lawns, but the photos that appeared on sceptic/denialist blogs were invariably in positions where heat was a problem, like an asphalt car park.

Moreover, I understand that the authorities used statistical techniques to compensate for siting problems, raising the spectre of warmists fiddling with the original data. Not just honest scientists doing the best they can in the real world with limited resources.

A study by NOAA took the surfacestations.org ratings and compared the raw data from the poor stations with that of the good stations. In a peer-reviewed paper in early 2010 they found that the poor stations rated the daily minimums slightly higher and the maximums lower, with an overall slight cooling bias. Read about it at Skeptical Science.

Naturally Watts wouldn’t trust the warmists at NOAA. He’s gained access to the raw data and was running his own investigation. This resulted in a peer-reviewed paper with some real scientists, including sceptics/contrarians Roger Pielke Snr and John Christy, which has now been accepted for publication.

I haven’t read the full paper (large PDF), only Dr Pielke’s summary. They found much the same pattern as NOAA but their bottom line is this:

the biases in maximum and minimum temperature trends are fortuitously of opposite sign, but about the same magnitude, so they cancel each other

The question is how much it matters. To global temperature, given the results and given the small patch the US occupies on the planet’s surface, not at all, which is why I’ve never taken much interest in the kerfuffle. It does matter to local trends within the US, however. NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) has established a modern network of 114 sites ‘going forward’ as they say, known as the U.S. Climate Reference Network (USCRN).

There has been an interesting side-story which I reported at Climate Clippings 23 (see heading From BEST to worst), which I’ve repeated here.

A certain Berkeley astrophysicist, Richard Muller, has been critical of temperature records, both the reconstructed records of Hockey Stick fame and the modern instrumental record. He set up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST) to create a new definitive record working from the same data, which everyone knows is adjusted for various reasons.

There was much hope invested in this project by the sceptics, including Anthony Watts. This is what Muller found, according to preliminary advice to Congress:

Follow the links at Tamino to see how the BEST has become the worst.

For a fuller account see The Economist (thanks for the heads-up, wilful), where we find that the so-called ‘bad temperature station’ complaint is also a load of cobblers.

Of course Muller’s evidence to Congress was a preliminary finding, not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. Watts was quite cranky about it as you can see from his comment on BEST and letter to Congress.

Meanwhile on The Science Show, Robyn Williams talks to John Cook and Haydn Washington about their new book Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand. Bob Carr, who launched the book, gives his thoughts here. Carr says that the “bulk of the book assembles and rebuts the arguments of climate change deniers.” Should be a handy reference. Apparently a copy will be sent to every Federal politician.

For an historical account I suspect that the new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming would be the place to go.

Go here to listen to an excellent interview of Naomi Orestes by Richard Fidler. I liked the bit where she said that people are entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. And, broadly, the facts are well-established.

Update: See also Curt Stager’s Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth published by Scribe. He says the optimistic scenario is that it would take 100,000 years for the planet to return to ‘normal’ if we get CO2 under control quickly.

34 thoughts on “Own goal from the climate sceptics?”

  1. Because I spent time on this post last night the new Climate Clippings thread will be delayed at least until tomorrow morning, possibly as late as Monday morning.

  2. Another recent own goal of course is Wegman’s rather massive plagiarism/abuse of peer review cock up. And where are the climategate skeptics over that one?

  3. Until yesterday, the Science Show page you link to had a lengthy conversation going on in reader comments. These have now silently and softly disappeared as has the ability to comment on the story (yet, other stories from the same show still have comments).

    I wonder why? Were there too many comments from global warming supporters and scientists? Far be it from me to plead special persecution, but my pro-science comments on ABC pages are almost invariably moderated out of existence, never to see the light of day.

    For those interested, google cache records 77 comments that have been apparently euthanised by the ABC moderators.

  4. “And, I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.”
    – Anthony Watts, March 6th, 2011.

    “With his testimony, Dr. Muller has totally destroyed any credibility he might have had with me.”
    – Anthony Watts, March 31st, 2011.

    With thanks to J Bowers @ Open Mind.

  5. Like your commentary Brian – thanks.

    For some reason The Science Show has today removed all comments from its ‘An analysis of climate change denial’ page.

  6. An interesting conversation , Richard Fidler had today with Curt Stager,
    put some perspective on the issue for me.
    Its not up at the ABC site yet.

  7. Brian, I agree with “people are entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts” as a normative principle.

    However, in contemporary political debate – and not only on global warming mitigation – many of the loudest voices openly flout this principle.

  8. Robert, there is an interesting article in the current edition of the New Scientist that shows how the mind is false or at least inaccurate in interpreting reality in multiple ways. Opinion seems to rule over fact to an extent that its a defect in the species.

    I’ll try to dig out a link tonight.

  9. @9
    “Brian, I agree with “people are entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts” as a normative principle.

    However, in contemporary political debate – and not only on global warming mitigation – many of the loudest voices openly flout this principle.”

    Like the “fact” often touted on here that “Australia is the worlds largest emitter of co2 per capita”.

    Not “exactly” factual but chanted often enough.

  10. OTB, the last time I heard it was a few days ago, with the added phrase “of the comparable major industrial countries”.

    Even without that it’s not particularly and definitely not intentionally misleading, so stop being a pain 🙂

  11. Like the “fact” often touted on here that “Australia is the worlds largest emitter of co2 per capita”. Not “exactly” factual but chanted often enough.

    Ellipsis really. It’s inaccurate as it stands because the criteria are not properly specified. Of the most significant emitters — those emitting more than 1% of total emissions — Australia is the leader in per capita terms. Australia has also emitted, over the last 100 years, more than China and Russia and India so by that standard too, “leading emitter” is a fair descriptor.

  12. Fran said,

    “”””Australia has also emitted, over the last 100 years, more than China and Russia and India”””

    Can you please show a link to that .
    Over at CC 27 if you like.

  13. “Australia is the worlds largest emitter of co2 per capita”. Not “exactly” factual but chanted often enough.”

    Talking about own goals!

    Firstly, if our leading role in co2 emission is not ‘exactly’ factual, what’s the drama to wean us off co2 then?

    Lastly, OTB could you illuminate me how you backup your quoted opinions above in relation to

    -“chanted often enough”

    as well as to

    ‘Australia is NOT the worlds largest emitter of co2 per capita of the comparable major industrial countries’

    with relevant and substantiated facts? Much obliged.

    BTW I am still eagerly awaiting an answer from you here. http://larvatusprodeo.net/2011/05/13/climate-clippings-26/#comment-315214

  14. Why is even this blog doing a bit of a soft peddle on the egg-on-face-aspect of this paper for Anthony Watts?

    As I have noted elsewhere, I turned up via Andrew Bolt’s blog a radio interview he had with Watts in June 2010 in which Watts estimated that warming bias from poor siting could account for .5 degree C in the temperature record. Andrew Bolt quickly noted in the interview, and on his blog, that as the average temperature rise last century was .7 degree, this means that 2/3 could be due to these siting problems. Watts did not disagree.

    Watts was also emphasising how his paper was only days away from the completion.

    I asked Watts at his own blog to explain. He said that the paper was not submitted until October, and he would post again in a couple of days. No follow up post by Watts has yet appeared. Co-author (and non-skeptic) John Nielsen-Gammon has confirmed in comments he has made that he did not get involved until July, and said that Watts was presumably talking about results before his review of their figures. This would indicate that Watts’ maths in the first draft must have been way, way out.

    Now, I know the paper did find that siting was relevant to the question of measuring the daily range of temperatures, and it remains unclear as to how big an issue this is. There is already some suggestion (I’m sure we’ll see more about this soon) that the results might actually match model predictions more closely.

    So: while Watts can claim that the paper did turn up something of interest, there is no way that it wasn’t a major “own goal” on the key claim he made for years about his pet project (that the US temperature record has been boosted artificially by warming bias.)

    Of course, waiting for results did not stop him doing things like (in 2009) writing a paper for the Heartland Institute saying the US temp record was hopeless, posting often at his own blog with photos of poorly sited stations (with those posts them spread far and wide by blogs such as Bolt’s) , and touring Australia making extraordinarily wrong predictions such as a .5 degree warming bias.

    Watts does not deserve condemnation for doing the project – but he certainly does for running around for years, pre-empting its results with wrong and inaccurate (wildly inaccurate) claims.

    I have already contacted Counterpoint and asked them to re-interview Watts and put some hard questions to him about how wrong he was on his Australian tour last year. (They have replied and said they would look into this. He didn’t make the .5 degree estimate with them, but he did say it was a certainty that warming bias outweighed cooling biases.) I have repeatedly made comments to Bolt at his blog asking why he doesn’t get Watts on the phone to explain the wildly wrong estimate made to his face. Funny, nothing about this paper has appeared on Bolt’s blog at all.

    In fact, it appears to me that Watts simply wants the paper’s embarrassing aspect to simply fade away.

    If something equivalent had happened in the other direction, there would already have been millions of posts and comments in the denial-o-sphere about it, ridiculing the person involved for his repeated error and politicisation of a study before the results were in.

    I hope that someone prominent like Revkin, Romm or Monbiot gives this more attention soon, but they are taking their time about it.

  15. facts and opinions

    Big Bang Theory – Sheldon declares his intention to live in Texas and try and teach evolution to Creationists …

    Mrs. Cooper: You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

    Sheldon: Evolution isn’t an opinion, it’s fact.

    Mrs. Cooper: And that is your opinion.

  16. I s’pose we can give up on this previously cutting edge blog regaining it’s edge and at least keeping up with current events. Then again the hatred for Gillard, so obvious here, would of course exclude events that favoured the Government .

  17. Zorronsky and Steve from Brisbane, let me say two things on my own behalf. First, I don’t read Watts’s frick’n blog or Bolt’s for that matter, having other things to do than pollute my brain.

    Secondly, I have no hate for Julia, nor Rudd. Nor even Abbott although he makes tend towards puking. I try to be realistic about them.

  18. Robertb @ 19

    Sheldon is correct. Evolution is a fact.

    I posted a few weeks ago that BBT never mentioned global warming. Up till that time it hadn’t but I have since seen an episode where Sheldon has stated that the icecaps are melting.

    I have learned in the last few weeks that my good brother is also an AGW denier. I was at his home last weekend and the topic of climate change came up when his daughter said she had to do a school project on the causes of desertification in Australia. I mentioned that climate change/global warming was a factor, and my brother piped in and said that AGW wasn’t real. I was expecting a confrontation on this issue eventually and there it was. I quipped that Sheldon (my brother is a big fan of BBT) believed in AGW and my brother’s only comeback was that not everything that Sheldon said was correct. My 13yo niece was standing there silently, confronted by these two opposing views, so I said to her, “I say global warming is real. Your father says it’s not real. Only one of us can be right. You need to ask your school teacher whether global warming is real or not.” In retrospect I think it was the best thing I could have said. I hope she does ask her school teacher about AGW.

  19. @silkworm, what people seem to forget (or perhaps don’t properly appreciate) is that evolution is BOTH a fact AND a theory. Those who do understand it already, please indulge (and correct where necessary) my 101 as follows:

    There is no EITHER/OR regarding fact vs theory because theories are the detailed models of physical behaviour we construct in order to calculate why/how/if/when those observed phenomena (aka facts) will happen again in the future and what the magnitude of the measurable effects will be.

    e.g. we have the FACT of gravity (objects are observed to fall towards a centre of mass), and then we have several competing THEORIES about the possible interplay between physical mechanisms whereby mass produces gravity, and those particular theories are at this stage largely untestable, so AIUI none of those competing theories is likely to be resolved into just one Great Big Theory any time soon.

    Now the FACT of Evolution is that the physical characteristics of populations are observed to change over succeeding generations. This is extremely well documented both in the fossil record and in observed populations of organisms (studies and experiments). Charles Darwin’s THEORY of Evolution [explained] by Natural Selection was strongly supported by the discovery of genes as the major mechanism of transmitting inherited characteristics between parents and offspring. That doesn’t mean that Darwin’s THEORY explains everything about the phenomenon of evolution (there are other theories of evolution), just that the particular mechanism has been supported so extraordinarily well that Evolution by Natural Selection is ONE extremely robust THEORY of Evolution.

    There are still evolution denier cranks who try to argue that the FACT of Evolution itself is incorrect, and either offer bizarre explanations for why the characteristics of populations may have changed over time that involve something that is Not-Evolution, or else flatly deny that there have been any changes in populations over generations at all, and that all indications to the contrary have been placed there to test our faith. These people would be hardly worth bothering to argue with were it not for their undue influence (in certain cultures) over childhood science education.

    This last group are the people most akin to those who are denying that our climate is changing. At least those who concede the FACT that the planet is warming, but who challenge the THEORY that human-produced pollutants are a major contributor to that change, can see that we need to plan ahead for changes in future generations that will shift our major food-producing areas and flood many of our major population centres. Those who deny even the fact that the climate is warming would be hardly worth bothering to argue with were it not for their undue influence over political policy.

  20. Even if you accept the science their is mine and Buckleys of achieving an international agreement that is environmentally, economically and politically effective and will reduce global emmissions of green house gases enough to change what is already happening.

    The UN – how many ways can I point out the inadequacies? – it can;’t even stop us killing each other in the here and now let alone affecting the climate 100 years from now.

    The Doha Round of trade talks has been going for ten years – and still an effective agreement appears unattainable – and that is trying to help everyone to become wealthier!

    Yes, yes – the science is ‘settled’ (despite on going revisions) – that was the easy part. The economics and the politics is so much harder.

    You really believe the billions of people in China and India alone, are going to settle for second best in terms of economic development compared to the developed world?

    How much are China’s emmissions going to increase between now and 2050?

    Get a grip on the reality.

  21. @24: maybe you should change your handle to Hanrahan (as in “we’ll all be rooned”). And if you truly believe the Doha round is “trying to help everyone to become wealthier” you’re further divorced from reality than anyone else on this thread.

  22. @25 – zoot – so, you must have a Nobel Prize in economics from demonstrating that trade is generally bad for creating wealth.

  23. @25 – zoot – apart from the little chip about trade do you have any substantive response to the issues I have raised?

  24. Apart from the fact that you demonstrate my thesis that the human race is too f*ckin’ stupid to save itself.
    In the face of a threat to the future of humanity your response is to throw up your hands and wail “It’s all too hard”.

  25. Yeah, if it was left to OBR, OTB, and all the rest of them, we’d still be in the friggin’ stone age:
    ‘Naah, the wheel’s too hard, it will never work. And who needs fire?’

  26. Having just gone through Yasi, the best part of southern Queensland and Capricornia just gone through the almighty great wash and rinse cycle, not to mentioned Victoria, I do not look forward to my next insurance premium. And now, the Climate eggheads are insisting that there is 90% chance it is going to get worse, great!

    Razor, if you would be stopped in your tracks on your 40 odd tonne Leopard in front of a bridge, with an engineer egghead approved sign stating max 10t (or the equiv. of 90% of ditching your ar$e) are you going full steam ahead just to avoid paying “the great big tax” of a major detour? Or are you going to wait for the Chinese to take the long route and catch you napping?

  27. If you are trying to make a comparison with climate change science and human ability to adapt then it is a pretty poor one.

    Firstly, I’d send my Bravo callsign over to see what happens.

    No really – I assume I would be operating in a regimental battle group which had integral engineering capability. Self fording capacity to 2.5 meters. Bridge layers from special equipment troop. Bridging and rafting capability from the Combat Engineers.

    I am of the opinion that caps, tax and transfers and government funded winner picking is wasted money. We need to be able to adapt and allow market solutions to rise to the surface. The best we can do is maximise economic productivity in order to fund adaption as the climate changes (for whatever reason).

  28. @ 32, but we keep being told that we’ll have to mitigate climate change if we want to maximise productivity.

  29. Razor, maybe it was a crude comparison, but shrapnel works well in flushing out snipers. At least we now know what the caliber of your big gun/opinion is. I’ll let others here train their sights on to your offering, knowing I can rely on solid backup to keep out of trouble.

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