My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009

What would put the climate sciences on track to meet our public policy needs?   Here’s my list of things that must be done, whatever the cost — although it would be trivial compared, for instance, to global military spending.

  1. Raise the standards when applying science research to public policy questions.
  2. Provide greater transparency of data and methods used in climate science research.
  3. Provide third party review of the data, analysis, and modeling is necessary.
  4. Improve the various global climate data collection and analysis systems – satellite, radiosonde, and surface.
  5. Rationally apply the precautionary principle.

Let’s take a quick look at each of these.

I.  Findings from science require far higher standards of proof  and reliability when used as a basis for public policy than for normal scientific or academic practice.

IMO the best available model here is  testing of new drugs.  While there may be an ample peer-reviewed literature for new treatment, the Food and Drug Administration has their own requirements — Approval requires meeting extensive criteria.  These include double-blind testing and review by committees of multi-discilpinary experts.  With careful consideration for conflicts of interest.   Spending trillions of dollars to save the world should require equivalent standards.

II.  Disclosure of data and methods is essential for normal science, and has too-often been missing from climate sciences

On paper there is an adequate set of standards for release of climate science data.  Universities have regulations.  So do most funding agencies, whether government, quasi-government, or non-profit.  Most professional journals require release of supporting data at time of publication.

Despite all this, much of what we know about the data and methods of the pro-AGW case comes from the skeptics long fight to get vital information into the sunlight.  Freedom of information act requests, pressure from Congress, requests to have professional journals enforce their requirements for disclosure of data support articles — all these and more were used in this long struggle.  A dark one, since the mainstream media refuses to report its existence.  It is especially sad, as much of this work was done either with public funds or by scientists working for institutions which require public disclosure of this material.

A clear example of the struggle to bring data in to public view is seen in these posts at Climate Audit:  here and here.  There are examples of top-quality practice by journals (here), and some that are less so (here).

Needless to say, this long campaign of concealment does not create confidence in the pro-AGW case — and prevents the normal routines of scientific progress from operating in climate science.  One of the classic examples of this attitude of many (not all) climate scientists is this vignette.

In response to a request for supporting data, Philip Jones, a prominent researcher {University of East Anglia} said “We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

– From the testimony of Stephen McIntyre before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (the July 2006 hearings which produced the Wegman Report).

There are even stories of retaliation against scientists publishing data critical of AGW.  For example, the case of Dr. Lloyd D. Keigwin.  He published a climate reconstruction based on analysis of Sargasso Sea mud in (”The Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period in the Sargasso Sea”, Science, v274, 1996).  The backlash was formidable, especially when Exxon ran an advertisement mentioning his work.  Fortunately for his career and continued research funding, he wrote a public letter to Exxon rebuking them for using his work to criticize the AGW paradigm.   (No word yet if upon mailing the letter he muttered that “The mud does not lie.”).  For a brief description of this episode see this:  “Exxon Mobil Uses Scientist’s Data As Evidence of Natural Warming“, Wall Street Journal, 22 March 2001 (subscription required).

For a briefing on this vital subject see “Data Archiving, Disclosure and Due Diligence” at the Climate Audit website.

III.  Third party review of the data, analysis, and modeling is necessary.

Journal peer reviews are nowhere near sufficient as a basis to ensure accuracy for large-scale public policy.  Worse, in many cases (e.g., many of Mann’s articles)  the peer review did not include examination of the data or calculations — which were not available — making the “review” almost meaningless.

IV.  We need to greatly improve the various global climate data collection and analysis systems — satellite, radiosonde, and surface.   

The collection of US data is not even remotely close to the claimed “high quality” (except in a relative sense to that of the global data).   Data from the rest of the world is far worse in coverage, comparability (both geographically and temporally), and accuracy. These systems are grossly underfunded vs the seriousness of the public policy issues.

To give one of many possible examples, the adjustments to the data appear largely ad hoc, and are larger than the effect they purport to measure.

  1. Land surface temperature records — Discussed herehere, and at Surfacestations.org.
  2. Ocean temperature records:  Discussed here and here.
  3. Atmospheric temperature sensors (e.g., radiosonde data, inhomogeneous, ambiguous, and heavily adjusted.  Discussed here, and here.
  4. Satellite data — An archive here.  Esp note here, here, here, here, and here.

The proxy data for reconstruction of historical climate data is absurdly poorly funded, considering the importance of the conclusions.  Again multi-disciplinary teams are needed — with third party reviews of sampling techniques (to avoid cherry-picking of samples or proxies), interpretation (e.g., is the signal from precipitation or temperature), and analysis (e.g., to avoid over-emphasis on certain geographical regions or samples — as has proven true of Mann’s analysis).  Note:  these are only indirect measures of temperature.  Here is a large archive of discussions.

V.  How to apply the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle is usually applied in an irrational manner to individual threats like global warming.  There are  many high impact – low probability scenarios (aka shockwaves), of which AGW is just one.  Also, the US and world have many vital if more mundane needs that deserve funding.   Since resources are finite, we must access their relative importance — which few of these special interest groups around each shockwave bother to do.  I discuss this in greater length at this post; here is my suggestion:

Commission a group to collect as many shockwave scenarios as possible, with a brief analysis of each. Fortunately there are thousands of interest groups willing to pitch in and help! Then apply a common analytical framework to rate them on both dimensions: probability and impact. The results would prove quite interesting, and allow more rational public policy discussion about which to act upon.

Conclusion

As Steve McIntyre said (source; one of his countless statements like this):

Serious people believe that it {AGW} is an issue. There’s a lot of promotion and hype, but that doesn’t mean that, underneath it all, there isn’t a problem. No one’s shown that it’s not an issue. The hardest part for someone trying to understand the issue from first principles is locating a clear A-to-B exposition of how doubled CO2 produces a problem and I’m afraid that no one’s been able to give such a reference to me – the excuse is that such an exposition is too “routine” for climate scientists. That’s the first attitude than has to change.

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Some posts on the FM site about climate change

  1. A look at the science and politics of global warming, 12 June 2008
  2. Global warming means more earthquakes!, 19 June 2008
  3. An article giving strong evidence of global warming, 30 June 2008
  4. Worrying about the Sun and climate change: cycle 24 is late, 10 July 2008
  5. More forecasts of a global cooling cycle, 15 July 2008
  6. Update: is Solar Cycle 24 late (a cooling cycle, with famines, etc)?, 15 july 2008
  7. Two valuable perspectives on global warming, 4 August 2008
  8. President Kennedy speaks to us about global warming and Climate Science, 7 August 2008
  9. Solar Cycle 24 is still late, perhaps signalling cool weather ahead, 2 September 2008
  10. Update on solar cycle 24 – and a possible period of global cooling, 1 October 2008
  11. Good news about global warming!, 21 October 2008
  12. One of the most interesting sources of news about science and nature!, 27 October 2008
  13. “Aliens cause global warming”: wise words from the late Michael Crichton, 15 November 2008
  14. A reply to comments on FM site about Global Warming, 17 November 2008
  15. Is anthropogenic global warming a scientific debate, or a matter of religious belief?, 22 November 2008
  16. Another pro-global warming comment, effective PR at work!, 1 December 2008

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3 thoughts on “My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009

  1. Surely it would just be easier to call batman – he could uncover the global conspiracy of climate change scientists lead by the penguin in no time at all I bet.

    The best thing listening to the arguments of American conservatives about how the vested interested need to be protected, is to laugh at how irrelevant it is. China has already decided that climate change is worth it – that the damage it will do to developed economies such as the US is worth the price.

    As one chinese official joked to me last month almost nobody in china knows where New Orleans is now and they won’t miss it when it is a swamp again.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Climate Science post #25, and I cannot recall a single pro-AGW comment (there must have been one or two) that makes any attempt to provide evidence or logic. As we see here.

    Quite foolish. Policies requiring public archiving of data and methods are widespread among scientific institutions for good reason, on the basis of bitter experiences. The same is true for policies requiring higher standards of review and disclosure for matters of public policy — such as in drug approvals.

    So my recommendations are quite tame, with ample precedents. Oblat’s reply: refer to a “global conspiracy”, and mock about “calling Batman.” Childish, and sad.

  2. IMO your recommendations are not only quite tame, but salient and at least the minimum to ensure rational public policy. Of course, they all proceed from the premise that rational public climate policy is what is wanted at all levels.

    Therefore I would add: Disclosure of any and all relevant financial (if not also political) interest in any public climate policy outcome, e.g. the membership and investment palette of Generation Investment Management, Grant & funding profiles of contributing scientists, etc.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a powerful point, and consistent with setting public policy-related scientific research on par with new drug testing — and medicine in general. The public is just now becomming aware of the effect of personal incentives for doctors testing, marketing, and prescribing drugs. (Hat tip on these to Matthew Yglesias).

    1. The Medical Industry’s Practice of Giving Gifts to Doctors, How Should the Law and Professional Regulations Address It?“, GEORGE KANABE, Find Law, 13 January 2004 — A review of the problem and existing regulations.
    “Eli Lilly to disclose financial ties to doctors, a drug industry first”, The Hill, 24 September 2008
    2. Leading U.S. psychiatrist failed to report drug income“, International Herald Tribune, 3 October 2008 — “One of the nation’s most influential psychiatrists earned more than $2.8 million in consulting arrangements with drug makers between 2000 and 2007, failed to report at least $1.2 million of this income to his university, and violated U.S. research rules, according to documents provided to congressional investigators.”
    3. No Mug? Drug Makers Cut Out Goodies for Doctors“, New York Times, 30 December 2008
    4. Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption“, Marcia Angell, New York Review of Books, 15 January 2009 — A review of 3 new books on this subject.

  3. FM note: This is an interesting comment, but at 2,060 words it is over 8x the 250 word max length of the FM site’s Comment Policy (longer than most posts!) — which appears at the end of every post and on the Comment Policy page.

    Standard practice would be to truncate it at 250 words, but in respect for its content I have edited it here down to 670 words — and posted the full comment here. Brief replies are inserted in bold.

    I’ve been following your blog for some time and have generally found your insights on “conventional” national security matters very insightful. However I find your posts on climate science heavily skewed toward the denialists This particular post seems to sum it all up.

    … I Raising the Standards

    You are demanding a level of certainty prior to taking public policy action that in practice is all but impossible to obtain, and almost never achieved or even pursued in practice. For that matter it’s almost never achieved in business either, where large bets are routinely made projected outcomes that are far from certain. Exhibit A in this regard is the oil and gas production industry, a sector that has budgeted tens of millions of dollars to obfuscate the findings of climate science.

    … Drug testing by the FDA is not a valid analogy. Think experiment subjects and time scale. You test the drug by giving it to a small number animal and later human test subjects and then observe the results for weeks, months and perhaps a few years immediately afterwards.

    FM reply: You completely ignored the specific recommendations I made.

    1. These include double-blind testing and review
    2. by committees of multi-discilpinary experts.
    3. With careful consideration for conflicts of interest.

    All of these are IMO valuable and relatively easy to do measures. The last two are two obvious to discuss. As for #1 — Since Climate Science has limited opportunity for experiments, the equivalent of “double-blind” testing would be (for example) extensive use of out of sample testing of models and — for historical proxies — separation of functions to prevent “cherry picking” of the data to prove the theory being tested. For example, different teams doing data collection and analysis of tree cores.

    … Businesses all the time make big bets on shaky projections. Governments, as we have seen recently to our dismay, often do so on no meaningful projections at all. You dismiss the efforts of the peer-reviewed scientists, but they’re about the only ones in our society who as a community are dedicated to basing their work on observable evidence. Do they always get it right? No. Occasionally there’s outright fraud, and more often there’s self-deception and wishful thinking. But most scientists are dedicated to following the evidence wherever it leads them, and over the centuries the scientific method has evolved self-checks that generally keep it on the straight and narrow.

    FM reply: What is your point? Given the seriousness of the issue, I suggest taking reasonable precautions, making the best practical effort to provide a basis on which to make public policy. Are you advocating doing anything less? And why?

    II Disclosure of data and methods is essential for normal science, and has too-often been missing from climate sciences

    Your reliance on Stephen McIntyre and his climateaudit.org website does not build confidence in your ability to discern unbiased sources. I suggest you check out McIntyre’s entry on the Global Warming Skeptics page of Sourcewatch, especially with regard to undisclosed affiliations. Meanwhile, please keep in mind the words of wisdom that Upton Sinclair uttered about a century ago: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    FM reply:

    (1) Much of the data McIntyre presents with respect to data transparency is objective, and does not depend on any biases or conflicts he might have. Such as the example I cited of the radically different policies about data transparency of Phil. Trans. B and the International Journal of Climatology.

    (2) On what basis do you say I “rely” on Myintyre? I cite a large number of sources, including many eminant scientists. Some examples:
    * These posts about AGW: here, here, and here.
    * My 8 posts about the solar cycle cite nothing but major scientists in the field (see here).
    * Also see the links given on the FM Reference Page.

    … More specific comments pertinent to items raised in this section are addressed below.

    III Third party review of the data, analysis, and modeling is necessary

    One of the most insightful things about science in general that I’ve read in recent years was a reminiscence by the late Michael Polanyi, who is best known today as a mid-20th century philosopher of science. …

    FM Reply: Not a word of your text in this section is in any way relevant to what I said about the need for 3rd party review of evidence about matters of such complexity and importance.

    IV We need to greatly improve the various global climate data collection and analysis systems — satellite, radiosonde, and surface.

    No argument here. Climate measurements are a huge challenge from both the technical and financial standpoints.

    But the climate deniers, especially the one in the White House and his side kick who hangs out at the Naval Observatory complex, are among the biggest culprits. A case in point is the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite (aka Triana). This NASA project was originated during the second term of the Clinton administration and was ready for launch in2001, and a wide group of climate scientists believe that the comparison of its measurements of the energy being received by the earth from the sun and that being radiated back out from our planet are the single most useful data sets that could be added to the climate information inventory. However instead of following through with the project the Bush-Cheney administration chose to mothball it in a Maryland warehouse, where it has sat for almost eight years. Sadly, there are indications that Vice President Cheney, in one last spasm of willful blindness, is personally overseeing efforts to try to prevent Triana from ever being launched. Thus perhaps the satellite is a metaphor for humanity’s response to what may be a threat to its long-term future.

    FM reply: This is a terrible story, but inevitable when science becomes so politicized. Both sides seek to control the information flow. The issues — and the stakes — are far to high for this behavior.

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