A whistleblower challenges NOAA’s climate data

Summary: An insider at NOAA has blown the whistle on improper practices at NOAA. This might be the most serious challenge to practices at the major climate science institutions since release of the “Climategate” emails. This occurs when they are vulnerable to scrutiny and pressure from Team Trump. The broad significance of Bates’ claims remains unclear, as are their validity. Here is a summary. It’s a story worth following.

whistleblower

Lots of pearl-clutching over this — David Rose at the Daily Mail published “Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.” The Mail is a British tabloid (i.e., big headlines for sensational stories, lots of graphics). Rose is an award-winning investigative journalist who has written for the BBC, Vanity Fair, London Observer, and The Guardian. See his bio and Wikipedia entry. We rely on journalists such as Rose to provide information and perspectives that contradict the institutional consensus.

For those that prefer hard news, we can skip the Daily Mail and go straight to the source: “Climate scientists versus climate data” by John Bates at Climate Etc. Bates is a distinguished principal scientist at NOAA, and has long been involved in both setting procedures for insuring data integrity and supervising its climate data products. See his bio at LinkedIn and the American Geophysical Association (elected to the Board in 2012). He is an insider to the workings of NOAA’s climate machinery. His report deserves close attention. The following quotes are from Bates’ article at Climate Etc.

Bates’ claims at Climate etc.

In the opening he gives an introduction of his case.

“The most serious example of a climate scientist not archiving or documenting a critical climate dataset was the study of Tom Karl et al. 2015 {aka K15), purporting to show no ‘hiatus’ in global warming in the 2000s {see NOAA’s press release}…. The study drew criticism from other climate scientists, who disagreed with K15’s conclusion about the ‘hiatus.’ (Nature: “Making sense of the early-2000s warming slowdown“). The paper also drew the attention of the Chairman of the House Science Committee, Representative Lamar Smith, who questioned the timing of the report, which was issued just prior to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan submission to the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 {details here}.

“In the following sections, I provide the details of how Mr. Karl failed to disclose critical information to NOAA, Science Magazine, and Chairman Smith regarding the datasets used in K15. I have extensive documentation that provides independent verification of the story below. I also provide my suggestions for how we might keep such a flagrant manipulation of scientific integrity guidelines and scientific publication standards from happening in the future.”

John J. Bates, PhD
John Bates at his home in Arden NC. Picture by Chris Bott.

Bates gives a summary of his case.

“So, in every aspect of the preparation and release of the datasets leading into K15, we find Tom Karl’s thumb on the scale pushing for, and often insisting on, decisions that maximize warming and minimize documentation.

“I finally decided to document what I had found using the climate data record maturity matrix approach. I did this and sent my concerns to the NCEI Science Council in early February 2016 and asked to be added to the agenda of an upcoming meeting. I was asked to turn my concerns into a more general presentation on requirements for publishing and archiving. Some on the Science Council, particularly the younger scientists, indicated they had not known of the Science requirement to archive data and were not aware of the open data movement. They promised to begin an archive request for the K15 datasets that were not archived; however I have not been able to confirm they have been archived.

“I later learned that the computer used to process the software had suffered a complete failure, leading to a tongue-in-cheek joke by some who had worked on it that the failure was deliberate to ensure the result could never be replicated.”

Activists often imply that surface temperature datasets are produced like reading thermometers or counting apples. Bates provides the clearest description I have seen of this complex process. Here is a graphic showing the generic data flow for NCDC/NCEI surface temperature products.

Generic data flow for NCDC/NCEI surface temperature products.

“Data flow for surface temperature products described in K15 Science paper. Green indicates operational datasets having passed ORR {operational readiness review} and archived at time of publication. Red indicates experimental datasets never subject to ORR and never archived.”

Bates gives us some useful advice.

“I have wrestled for a long time about what to do about this incident. I finally decided that there needs to be systemic change both in the operation of government data centers and in scientific publishing, and I have decided to become an advocate for such change. First, Congress should re-introduce and pass the OPEN Government Data Act. The Act states that federal datasets must be archived and made available in machine readable form, neither of which was done by K15.

“…However, the Act will be toothless without an enforcement mechanism. For that, there should be mandatory, independent certification of federal data centers. As I noted, the scientists working in the trenches would actually welcome this, as the problem has been one of upper management taking advantage of their position to thwart the existing executive orders and a lack of process adopted within Agencies at the upper levels. Only an independent, outside body can provide the needed oversight to ensure Agencies comply with the OPEN Government Data Act.

“Similarly, scientific publishers have formed the Coalition on Publishing Data in the Earth and Space Sciences (COPDESS) with a signed statement of commitment to ensure open and documented datasets are part of the publication process. Unfortunately, they, too, lack any standard checklist that peer reviewers and editors can use to ensure the statement of commitment is actually enforced. In this case, and for assessing archives, I would advocate a metric such as the data maturity model that I and colleagues have developed. This model has now been adopted and adapted by several different groups, applied to hundreds of datasets across the geophysical sciences, and has been found useful for ensuring information preservation, discovery, and accessibility.

“Finally, there needs to be a renewed effort by scientists and scientific societies to provide training and conduct more meetings on ethics. Ethics needs to be a regular topic at major scientific meetings, in graduate classrooms, and in continuing professional education. Respectful discussion of different points of view should be encouraged. …”

Summary by Dr. Judith Curry at Climate Etc.

“Following ClimateGate, I made a public plea for greater transparency in climate data sets, including documentation. In the U.S., John Bates has led the charge in developing these data standards and implementing them. So it is very disturbing to see the institution that is the main U.S. custodian of climate data treat this issue so cavalierly, violating its own policy.

“The other concern that I raised following ClimateGate was overconfidence and inadequate assessments of uncertainty. Large adjustments to the raw data, and substantial changes in successive data set versions, imply substantial uncertainties. The magnitude of these uncertainties influences how we interpret observed temperature trends, ‘warmest year’ claims, and how we interpret differences between observations and climate model simulations. I also raised concerns about bias; here we apparently see Tom Karl’s thumb on the scale in terms of the methodologies and procedures used in this publication.

“…He submitted an earlier, shorter version of this essay to the Washington Post, in response to the 13 December article (“Climate scientists frantically copying data“).  The WaPo rejected his op-ed, so he decided to publish at Climate Etc.”

The consensus strikes back (will be updated).

Rebuttals, of varying quality appeared quickly. As a bystander of little science expertise, but some experience in public policy analysis, here is a (not the) framing of the three major rebuttals so far to Bates’ claims (of varying quality. Also see the statement by the president of the American Geophysical Union.

(1) On the Mail on Sunday article on Karl et al., 2015” by climate scientist Peter Thorne at the blog of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units hosted by the Department of Geography at Maynooth University. Most of this is classic “he said, she said” analysis.  Bates made claims. Thorne says Bates is wrong. Thorne’s statements about Bates’ weak background in these matters is false (details here). Thorne does link to relevant information, which seems of little or no use to non-scientists (perhaps even to non-climate scientists).

(2) David Rose’s alternative reality in the Daily Mail” by at climate scientist Victor Venema (bio here) at his blog, Variable Variability. His rebuttal is a polemic making two major points. First, that the Daily Mail is a tabloid. Which is correct. Second, that the global average temperatures warmed during 1970-2000, then much more slowly during 2000-2015 — and there was a spike in 2015-16 (from a strong El Nino). He believes that this proves something, but is unclear exactly what — and why it refutes Bates’ claims.

(3) Factcheck: Mail on Sunday’s ‘astonishing evidence’ about global temperature rise” by Zeke Hausfather of Berkeley Earth, posted at Carbon Brief.

His rebuttal shows that NOAA’s new land surface record shows similar warming to that of other major climate datasets, and that a new paper (on which he was lead co-author) confirms NOAA’s new sea surface data — “Assessing recent warming using instrumentally homogeneous sea surface temperature records” in Science Advances, January 2017.

If Hausfather is correct, this means that Bates’ claims about possible violations of best practices (and some important rules) are of interest to climate scientists, and esp. to NOAA and Science — but they have little relevance to the public policy debate about climate change.

(4)  Eric Davidson, the president of the American Geophysical Union, issued a statement. He says Bates’ claim will be investigated. I suggest we wait for their conclusions before drawing conclusions. The money paragraph…

“As to the merits – or lack thereof – of the allegations made in John Bates’ post about data mismanagement, within NOAA, that discussion is and will continue to unfold in dialogue among scientists …AGU has been and will continue to be a vocal voice in support of scientific integrity in the new Administration…”

(5)  A biased rebuttal to Bates in ScienceInsider: “How a culture clash at NOAA led to a flap over a high-profile warming pause study“. It advertises its bias in the first sentence, describing Bates’ as a “former scientists” — like a defrocked priest, a rarely used at Science — and then only for cases of career changes and fraud. It dredges up all the criticism, including allegations of personal bias by Bates — and approvingly but oddly cites Ars Technica as a quality source for insights about this technical matter (Ars Technica should cite Science as an authority, not vice versa). It also quotes from Bates’ interview in E&E (see below).

The claim of “culture class” comes from Peter Thorne, who worked with NOAA 2010 – May/June 2013 — but not as an insider in the relevant discussions (Thorne’s blog post materially misstates Bates’ role in these matters).

“This split within the office traces partly to cultural differences between scientists working with satellites and those working with ground-based measurements, says Peter Thorne. …“Fundamentally it was a conflict between science and engineering,” Thorne says.”

Replies to Bates’ critics (will be updated).

(1)  Bates and Judith Curry respond to the critics.

See their detailed reply at Climate Etc to the above critiques.  The money paragraphs…

“Most journalists and people outside of the community of establishment climate scientists ‘get it’ that this is about the process of establishing credibility for climate data sets and how NOAA NCDC/NCEI have failed to follow NOAA’s own policies and guidelines, not to mention the guidelines established by Science for publications.

“…The key issue is this. John Bates is not a coauthor on any of these studies, and hence doesn’t have any personal vested interest in these papers. However, he is extremely knowledgeable about the subject matter, being the supervisor for the team running ERSSTv3 and the GHCN. He has followed this research closely and has had extensive conversations about this with many of the scientists involved in this research. Most significantly, he has collected a lot of documentation about this (including emails).”

(2)  Paul Matthews (Assoc prof of applied math, U of Nottingham) verifies one of Bates’ claims: “Instability of GHCN adjustment algorithm“.  It is clear and convincing evidence.

(3)  Bates explains his claims in an interview with E&E. This is an important walk-back on his claims.

“‘The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything it was’ he said. …Bates said the NOAA study relied on land data that were “experimental.” Typically, NOAA officials can publish research that relies partially on experimental data, as long as the data are properly identified, especially if there is an urgent situation that requires something to go out quickly because it is related to human health, safety and the environment.

“The publishing safeguards are important, he said, because they help protect federal research against lawsuits. Bates added that science suffers if its results cannot be reproduced.

…Yesterday, Bates said he was contacted by the Science Committee for the first time only after the story broke. He said he has not communicated with anyone there before and was not a whistleblower for the committee

Conclusions.

Both sides in the public debate are aflutter about Bates’ report, with skeptics making vast claims about it. Bates has made a serious challenge to our climate science institutions, pointing to possible major violations of their rules and adherence to best practices. How they respond will reveal much about their ability to improve and even reform.

The significance of Bate’s report to the public policy debate is unclear. It is a story worth watching.

For More Information.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see the keys to understanding climate change and these posts about the politics of climate change…

  1. Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  2. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  3. A new study shows why we are polarized about climate change.
  4. Disturbing research about the use of “narratives” in climate science papers.
  5. A status report on global warming. Much depends on the next few years.
  6. Good news for the New Year! Salon explains that the global climate emergency is over.
  7. Put the stories about record 2016 warming in a useful context.

To learn more about the state of climate change…

…see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.
Advertisements

9 thoughts on “A whistleblower challenges NOAA’s climate data

  1. I love the way you describe the Daily Mail as ‘a tabloid’ – that’s like saying the National Enquirer is prone to fanciful commentary.

    What we have in the UK is a nexus of right-wing Denialist media outlets who employ people like Rose, Delingpole etc to rubbish AGW because it dares to represents a serious threat to laissez-faire capitalism (which it does).One comic aspect of this is that these outlets routinely try and convince the UK that we’re in for record cold winters, as being ‘post-fact’ rebuttals of global warming.

    From this winter, which proved to be pathetically wrong – “UK set for HEAVIEST SNOWFALL in years: Long-range forecast warns of Winter 2016 BIG FREEZE”, Express 29th September 2016; the sad litany of rubbish printed by the Daily Mail can be found on this page, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/uk_weather/index.html and the rebuttals plus what actually happened here on the Met(ereological) Office blog (https://blog.metoffice.gov.uk/tag/daily-mail/).

    I don’t know what Bates’ beef is, but the facts are that the earth is round(ish) not flat; the roundish earth goes elliptically round the sun, not vice-versa; life on earth evolved and the same science that established these facts also established global warming as fact with an overwhelming anthropogenic component since the beginnings of indsutrialization.

    It doesn’t matter whether you believe in AGW or not and I don’t care if you do; you can choose to believe it or not as you can gravity, for instance, but if you step out of an aircraft without a parachute you will soon reach terminal velocity of 9.82m squared irrespective of your beliefs – same with AGW.

    Personally speaking I’d pass a law saying all climate holocaust denialist had to be buried with a big red ‘D’ on their gravestones. It won’t be much consolation, but at least their descendents will have somewhere to come and piss once they realise the kind of planet the Denialists handed over to them..

    Like

    1. Thank you. This reply is a fine example of exactly why the entire Discussion is simply not worth time to even check in on.
      There are many things worth reading about. Climate issues are certainly not on that list.
      The hubris, hyperbole and adolescent attitudes of purported scientists has polluted any civil arrangements.
      What is really interesting is how have we arrived at a place where integrity is a dictionary item, truth is a term from the past and apocalyptic phenomenology is an accepted mind set.
      Thanks for the Post but sadly the discussion has left the tracks a very long time ago,

      Breton

      Like

    2. Breton,

      “The hubris, hyperbole and adolescent attitudes of purported scientists has polluted any civil arrangements.”

      To what are you referring? The debate among climate scientists is typical of such debates. There are countless similar examples in the history of science.

      Like

    3. Copito,

      “I love the way you describe the Daily Mail as ‘a tabloid’”

      Words have meanings. It is a tabloid.

      “the sad litany of rubbish printed by the Daily Mail can be found on this page”

      The UK Met Office does not appear to agree with you. They have disagreements with Rose’s articles in the Daily Mail, as US government agencies disagree with articles in the NY Times. A quick look at first two doesn’t show anything that supports your characterization.

      “I don’t know what Bates’ beef is”

      Yes, that’s quite obvious. Perhaps because you didn’t read carefully, or you have a closed mind, or just do not have anything like his professional training and experience.

      “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in AGW or not and I don’t care if you do; you can choose to believe it or not as you can gravity”

      You’re just fantasizing, making stuff up. Neither the debates within climate science — such as the process issues Bates’ raises — nor those about public policy are anything like “gravity.”

      Like

  2. Come, come. The Daily Mail as a source of science information, let alone climate science information is ludicrous. Kevin Trenberth, a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “is that this is quite an arduous process, and can take a long time. And, of course NOAA doesn’t necessarily get an increase of funds to do this. Bates was complaining that not all of the data sets were being done as thoroughly as he wanted to,” said Ternberth. “But there’s a compromise you have to make as to whether you can do more data sets or whether you can do more really thoroughly. And the decision was made that you try and do more.”

    “His primary complaint seems to be that when researchers at NOAA published this paper in Science, while they used a fully developed and vetted ocean temperature product, they used an experimental land temperature product,” said Zeke Hausfather, an energy systems analyst and environmental economist with Berkeley Earth. Because climate data comes from a number of different sources, methods of handling that data go through a vetting process that ultimately dictates the use of one for the official government temperature product. That can mean controlling for known defects in the devices that gather climate data or figuring out the best way to put them together. The product that Karl used for land temperature data hadn’t finished that process.

    “That said,” said Hausfather, “the land temperature data they used in the paper is certainly up to the standards of an experimental or research product.”

    Read the rest of this critique, by Kendra Pierre-Louis at Popular Science, here: “DO NOT BUY THE HOUSE SCIENCE COMMITTEE’S CLAIM THAT SCIENTISTS FAKED DATA UNTIL YOU READ THIS“. “NO CREDIBLE EVIDENCE SUPPORTS THAT NOAA FABRICATED DATA; EVIDENCE STILL POINTS TO CLIMATE CHANGE.”

    Like

    1. Godfree,

      (1) “Come, come. The Daily Mail as a source of science information, let alone climate science information is ludicrous.”

      I love patronizing comments from people who couldn’t be bothered to read the first two paragraphs of the post.

      Sentence #2: “The Mail is a British tabloid (i.e., big headlines for sensational stories, lots of graphics).”

      Sentence #5: “For those that prefer hard news, we can skip the Daily Mail and go straight to the source: …”

      (2) “Kevin Trenberth …“…Bates was complaining that not all of the data sets were being done as thoroughly as he wanted to”

      Got to love institutional defenses! Bates stated that NOAA did not follow its own policies. As the AGU President said, his claims will investigated.

      (3) “’That said,’ said Hausfather, ‘the land temperature data they used in the paper is certainly up to the standards of an experimental or research product.’”

      The global surface temperature dataset is a NOAA operational product, one of its flagship products (for obvious reasons). NOAA has procedures for how these are maintained and changed — designed to maintain the integrity of the datasets and the process. Were they followed or not?

      The personal opinions of Trenberth or Hausfather about NOAA policies are not relevant.

      (4) “The product that Karl used for land temperature data hadn’t finished that process.”

      That is exactly what Bates said.

      (5) Got to love the ALL CAPS HEADLINES at the Popular Science article. Classic tabloid style.

      Like

  3. Another volley in the debate, the article Godfree cites above: “DO NOT BUY THE HOUSE SCIENCE COMMITTEE’S CLAIM THAT SCIENTISTS FAKED DATA UNTIL YOU READ THIS” by Kendra Pierre-Louis at Popular Science — “NO CREDIBLE EVIDENCE SUPPORTS THAT NOAA FABRICATED DATA; EVIDENCE STILL POINTS TO CLIMATE CHANGE.” Got to love the ALL CAPS HEADLINES.

    It’s a tabloid to tabloid war, boosting the circulation of both. It opens with a misrepresentation;  “{Karl 2015} debunked the notion of a climate “hiatus” or “cooling.” This paper in Science provided evidence for one of the theories explaining the “pause” or “hiatus”, about which climate scientists have published many scores of papers. The authors did not disrespect the work of their peers by saying they debunked it.

    The author quotes two climate scientists who go to the heart of Bates’ article at Climate Etc. Zeke Hausfather of Berkeley Earth confirms one of Bates’ key claims, a significant violation of NOAA policies.

    “His primary complaint seems to be that when researchers at NOAA published this paper in Science, while they used a fully developed and vetted ocean temperature product, they used an experimental land temperature product. …Because climate data comes from a number of different sources, methods of handling that data go through a vetting process that ultimately dictates the use of one for the official government temperature product. That can mean controlling for known defects in the devices that gather climate data or figuring out the best way to put them together. The product that Karl used for land temperature data hadn’t finished that process.”

    What is the defense? Some believed that NOAA’s policies were subordinate to their personal opinions. Hausfather said “That said, the land temperature data they used in the paper is certainly up to the standards of an experimental or research product.” Kevin Trenberth of NOAA said: “Bates was complaining that not all of the data sets were being done as thoroughly as he wanted to,”

    The global surface temperature dataset is one of NOAA’s flagship products, for obvious reasons. NOAA has policies to protect the process and the resulting dataset. Bates spoke out for that process.  Eric Davidson, President of the AGU, said that the significance of this issue will be reviewed and assessed by climate scientists. Let’s wait for their verdict.

    But journalist and science writer Kendra Pierre-Louis believes that instead we should listen to her:

    “So what does that mean for those of us on the outside? Not much.”

    Like

Leave a comment & share your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s