Sunday Times promotes climate change denier


11:18 am - February 15th 2010

by Unity    


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A couple of weeks ago, Ben Goldacre bashed out a quick piece for the Guardian’s news desk on the subject of the General Medical Council’s damning verdict on the conduct of Andrew Wakefield, in which he said:

As the years passed by, media coverage deteriorated further. Claims by researchers who never published scientific papers to back up their claims were reported in the newspapers as important new scientific breakthroughs, while at the very same time, evidence showing no link between MMR and autism, fully published in peer reviewed academic journals, was simply ignored. This was cynical, and unforgivable.

That last paragraph is particularly important because it shows one of the more common ways in which mainstream media outlets consistently distorts the truth by selectively highlighting particular claims and/or research on the basis of whether it conforms to an established narrative. Take, for example, yesterday’s Sunday Times, which devoted several hundred words to the uncritical promotion of the latest effluvial outpourings of  TV weatherman and all-round climate crock, Anthony Watts.

Left Foot Forward has some of the relevant background to Watts’ report, which he co-authored with another well-known climate change denier, Joseph D’Aleo, but what’s much more interesting and illuminating here a recent peer-reviewed paper by Menne et al (2010) [1], which was published last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Menne’s paper, which is usefully summarised at Skeptical Science, takes what was, at the time it was written, Anthony Watts’ assessments of the quality and siting characteristic of 43% of the surface stations included in the US Historical Climate Network (USHCN) and does something with that Watts’ appears not to have even attempted. It analyses the temperature records of these stations and looks specifically for evidence of biases associated with poor siting.

For anyone not familiar with Watts and his Surface Stations website, his personal contribution to climate change denialism has been to use his website to recruit an army of volunteers to go out and photograph the location of surface stations included in the USHCN network in order to evaluate the siting of those stations against published quality standards.

The belief is that this photographic evidence proves that the warming trends evident in the US surface station record are not being generated by climate change but are, in fact, nothing more than the product of microsite influences; the siting of surface stations near car parks, airport tarmac and air conditioners. These, Watts argues, introduce a warming bias into the temperature record.

By examining what has rapidly become the climate change deniers’ holy grail, the raw, uncorrected, temperature data for all the stations that Watts’ had assessed up to the point at which they started work (43% of the total number of sites included in the USHCN), Menne and his co-authors did, indeed, find clear evidence of a bias in the raw data associated with those sites that Watts had assessed as being of poor quality.

Unfortunately, for Watts, this bias turned out to be exact opposite of the one that he predicted.

The poor quality sites included in the USCHN, and identified by Watts, have actually imparted a cooling bias on the raw US surface temperature record since the 1980’s for reasons relating to changes in the instrumentation used to create the records.

(The technical explanation for this is covered by Menne et al’s paper and by Skeptical Science, both of which are linked earlier)

Although Watts’ survey of USCHN surface stations has proved useful here – which Menne openly acknowledges in his paper – what it doesn’t provide is any scientific evidence to support Watts’ proposition that climate change is a complete fraud and one based squarely on the deliberate manipulation of temperature records by climate scientists.

In fact, nothing that Watts does could reasonably categorised as actual science.

This is well evidenced by his response to Menne et al, which consists of yet more surface station photographs and the rehashing of an old critique of the use of homogenised data in a previous NOAA analysis – which is debunked here. None of this has any relevance whatsoever to Menne’s research, which used the unhomogenised raw data for the surface stations included in its analysis and cannot, therefore, be said to have been manipulated by climate scientists.

In short, Watts’ response to a paper which blows a major hole in his pet hypothesis is to post a couple of photos and then quickly change the subject.

To devote several hundred words to a puff piece that promotes Watts’ screed as if it were the work of a genuine scientist is, as Ben Goldacre points out, both cynical and unforgivable – and all the more so in view of the GMC’s recent findings on Andrew Wakefield. These should have given the mainstream media pause for thought but have, instead, been roundly ignored in terms of their implications for the conduct and behaviour of the press in its reporting of scientific issues and evidence.

To make matters even worse than usual, unlike the majority of the news coverage of Wakefield’s fraudulent research, which was written up by non-specialist journalists, the article on Watts’ report carries the byline of Jonathan Leake, the paper’s Science and Environment editor, who really has no excuse for being unaware of Menne et al’s paper…

…is he’s doing his job properly and carrying out the necessary background checks on his work rather than simply churning out wire copy and whatever press releases are being thrust under his nose.

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'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


We now await the denialists and their cry of, ” ‘snot fair, cheats etc.” Surely now we can move on. We’ll see…

2. Earnest Ernest

#…..because it shows one of the more common ways in which [mainstream?] media outlets consistently distort the truth, particularly when it comes to the scientific issues, by selectively choosing to highlight (or disregard) particular claims and/or research on the basis of whether it conforms to an established narrative, irrespective of whether its actually supported by reliable evidence.#

Who’d ave thought it? I knew I shoulda dropped Geography and taken that Media Studies GCSE.
Mind you, it’s a good job that kinda thing never goes on around here, eh? Mind you, it couldn’t really could it?…it says “conforms to an established narrative”…not sure if the wilder pieces of liberal speculation and wishful thinking engaged in by Sunny et al exactly qualify as “established”.

All together now: “Where’s the evidence?”…well actually Brian Mackerel a political blog analyst at the University of North Dorset found in a study of well over 3 “left-liberal” blogs that there was a clear correlation between the frequency of a contributor’s use of the word ‘denier’ and the probability of their having been a geeky student radical who adopted a ‘right-on, politically engaged’ persona to try and come across as sensitive in a vain attempt to get laid before they were 25. Taken in conjunction with the fact that the temperature in Budapest right now is 28 C, we have irrefutable and cast iron case for AGW…that’s a factual piece of dead real scientific reality….IDST….and my mate Ron says he saw Melanie Phillips shaving once..no..straight up…she’s got a moustache.

Unity’s Article: “…is he doing his job properly and carrying out the necessary background checks on his work rather than simply churning out wire copy and whatever press releases are being thrust under his nose.”

I would say the situation is rather worse than mere incompetence or lack of care. There are mountains of press releases out there about real climate change research. (It’s probably equally easy, if not easier, to write a badly researched, misleading article based on them…)

What the Times (and many other media outlets) have started doing is actively seeking out and promoting people like Watts, even though it’s very obvious that their work typically starts with a conclusion (hoax, conspiracy), and then figures out how best to bend the evidence to look like it supports that conclusion – it clearly has no scientific merit.

I think this is partly simply because it’s what they think their readers want to hear, and partly because it accords with the political opinions and commercial interests of their bosses and indeed advertisers.

Unity

I think you would have to agree the Wakefield piece is a pretty contrived and shaky hook on which to hang a regurgitation of the Watts stuff.

A bit like an article based on spotting an Independent headline on immigration that reminded you Rod Liddle is a racist.

Incidentally, just when the AGW debate was becoming more rational and polite, why are we back to deniers? Not a response to Sunny stamping his feet by any chance?

Not going to quibble with the overall point, but this phrase stuck out like a sore thumb:

In fact, nothing that Watts does could reasonably categorised as actual science.

What is ‘actual science’? I’ve commented on this before, that the word ‘science’ is being used to mean a number of different things. Unless you can clearly explain the criteria for being considered ‘valid’ science, it will look as though you’re drawing arbitrary lines about who is worth listening to.

As a possible counter-argument (somewhat devil’s advocate, I admit): I’m sure that Watts has his personal hobby-horse but he is at least trying to get people to go out and look at how this stuff works in practice. In challenging the surface station system, it seems that he has prompted others to uncover flaws/biases in how these stations work, even if the bias was not the one that he expected. The history of science is littered with ‘useful but wrong’ endeavours of that kind. Is it not enough just to say that Watts is wrong in his prior convictions rather than beyond the Pale of science altogether?

It’s clear that Watts’ hypothesis is unsupported by Menne’s research. That’s enough for us to assign it a low probability of being correct, but it does seem to merit investigation. If the surface stations are indeed producing readings that are too low, then this actually strengthens the case for extreme action.

Also, in the Sunday Times article in question, Watts isn’t the only person quoted, although he seems to be the prime mover behind the drive to assess the quality of the surface stations. He isn’t even the first or most-quoted person in the article, and the article concludes with a rebuttal from Kevin Trenberth, who outlines the other methods used to measure climate change, and Vicky Pope from the Met Office who also bolsters the accepted notion of warming over recent decades and projections of further warming. The article also makes it clear that Watts’ ‘findings’ have not been peer-reviewed. From your description of the article, I had expected something a lot worse. It’s almost as if it had been written by someone with an understanding of science!

6. Earnest Ernest

#…the Times (and many other media outlets) have started doing is actively seeking out and promoting people like Watts, even though it’s very obvious that their work typically starts with a conclusion (hoax, conspiracy), and then figures out how best to bend the evidence to look like it supports that conclusion – it clearly has no scientific merit.#

So Times journalists are so well versed and expert in climate science that it is “very obvious” to them that a particular piece of research “clearly has no scientific merit”? Who are these fuckin journalists?…brilliant scientists / mathematicians who also happen to have the requisite Oxbridge PPE degrees, upper middle-class backgrounds and family connections which tend to required for a job with the broadsheets? This is ridiculous.

They’re uninformed opinionated nobodies who are told to cover a story and take the line of least resistance..ie. a quick attention grabbing piece which involves a bit of googling, quick chat with an accommodating ‘expert’ (whether an apocalyptic doom monger or swivel eyed ‘it’s all a conspiracy’ nut)..and hey presto…scientific fact!

What doesn’t help is when equally uninformed commentators with a pre-conceived agenda decide to take the article apart..shout ‘denier’..or ‘authoritarian puritan bastard’ and…round we go again. I’d love someone to convince me that there is indeed a) “an overwhelming scientific consensus” behind AGW and b) agreement on the probable consequences….which I understand is not the unavoidable doomsday scenario so widely painted. This would have to be undertaken by someone who understands that the above is very different to proving that average temperatures rose slightly over the last decade.

I’m still not convinced..nor are many other people I come across.

In fairness to the Times their editorials are not skepticism/denialism. At least that was the position the last time I looked. However, as with most things it pays to follow the money. Check out who owns relatively large proportions of Murdoch’s corporate bonds and commercial paper. No surprise it is Saudi and Russian interests who hold so much of his debt. Now they may just buy up the debt instruments because they provide a good yield. Alternatively, they see it as leverage to influence the narrative.

@6

If you cannot be convinced by the large number of experts who’s work contributed to the IPCC reports, who would you consider qualified to “convince” you that there is anthropogenic climate change?

Pagar:

Wakefield is the relevant point of comparison here for precisely the reason I indicate – the ST’s report uses the same approach that was used to push Wakefield’s now discredited ideas about MMR, that of flagging up unverified claims as if they were legitimate research evidence while ignoring published peer-reviewed evidence which didn’t fit the established narrative.

Rob:

The inclusion of Trenberth’s rebuttal comments are, I’m afraid, somewhat inconsequential, because the damage is done long before the article gets around to Trenberth’s comments.

All journalists are taught to write news articles in the same basic format, which is to put the piece of information you want readers to take note of in the headline and then repeat that same piece of information at least 2-3 times in the opening paragraphs of the article while disguising the amount of repetition by rephrasing and extending.

Long before anyone gets to read what Trenberth has to say, the idea that ‘scientists’ are now saying that the world may not be warming his been drilled into the heads of the majority of readers to the extent that the Times must just have easily have quoted Coco the Clown instead of Trenberth for all the difference it makes to the impression they long since been given.

Ernest (aka Chairman Moo. I’m so cool and Monkeyfish):

I covered the issue of sceptics vs deniers here – http://liberalconspiracy.org/2009/12/06/the-wrong-end-of-the-hockey-stick/ – and by that set of criteria, Watts is clearly a denier who’s co-opting the term sceptic in an effort to provide himself with a very thin veneer of respectability.

So Times journalists are so well versed and expert in climate science that it is “very obvious” to them that a particular piece of research “clearly has no scientific merit”?

If this article had come from the news desk then you might have had a point, but it didn’t.

It’s actually bylined with the name of the Times’ science and environment editor, which raises the bar in terms of what readers have a legitimate right to expect, even if, in practice, it actually does little more than highlight the rather abysmal and declining state of science journalism in the national press.

There is nothing wrong with an amateur like Watts raising the kind of questions he did. The problem is with him giving undue weight to his own conclusions, given that he is an amateur, and not accepting it when those who are more qualified in the matter in hand explain why he is wrong.

By the way, the offending piece in the ST was written by Jonathan Leake, who has form for writing misleading pieces on climate change.

http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/02/leakegate.php
http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/02/leakegate_scandal_grows.php#more

11. Earnest Ernest

#If you cannot be convinced by the large number of experts who’s work contributed to the IPCC reports, who would you consider qualified to “convince” you that there is anthropogenic climate change?#

I’m convinced they agree that CO2 emissions cause warming…I’m just not sure why they couch their findings in such suspicious terms
eg.

Key Conclusions from the 2007 IPCC report

#Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.#

says nothing about AGW..no figures given

#Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations.

Use of “Most”…no proportion quoted
Use of “observed”..why? does this imply there’s even more warming going on that we can’t detect…or does it imply something else?

#Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized, although the likely amount of temperature and sea level rise varies greatly depending on the fossil intensity of human activity during the next century (pages 13 and 18).[41]

tells us how climate works…the word ‘anthropogenic’ is unnecessary

#The probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes alone is less than 5%.

well…here’s an admission of a one in twenty chance they’re wrong…but then again we already knew about CO2 so this is a little tautologous

# World temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 °C (2.0 and 11.5 °F) during the 21st century (table 3) and that:
table 3 informs us that the best way to proceed is continued globalisation (surprise surprise!) wedded to “sustainability”

o Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 cm (7.08 to 23.22 in) [table 3].
….and the best way to ensure the lower figure is continued globalisation wedded to “sustainability”…also, I have often seen reports that “sea levels to rise by a metre..where’s that from?

o There is a confidence level >90% that there will be more frequent warm spells, heat waves and heavy rainfall.

o There is a confidence level >66% that there will be an increase in droughts, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides.

Ok..this sounds bad…until you consider what more frequent or an increase might actually consist in…this could mean..the IPCC that there is a 99% probability of a 1% increase in temperature for instance.

#Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium.

“more than a millennium!!!”..another damning indictment that merely tells us about the mechanics of climate

#Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values over the past 650,000 years

a history lesson..the IPCC confirms that we had an industrial revolution.

Overall…I’m convinced by the fact that CO2 has an effect on climate…I’m convinced it causes warming…I’m convinced that human activity produces CO2…I’m convinced it’s not the only cause of CO2…I’m not remotely convinced by some of the wilder conclusions about us frying..food shortages etc. I’m not convinced that humanity lacks the wherewithal and ingenuity to overcome any potential problems.

12. Golden Gordon

there is no journalist or poster that can deny or advocate the possibility of climate change.
Even top geophysicists cannot agree. It is a shame it has become a right / left issue.
It is a fact that C02 levels have risen due to man’s behaviour but does this effect the climate. I honestly don’t know. Nor does any other poster.
Venus is a hotter planet than Mercury because of it’s CO2 levels but those levels are far higher than Earth’s.
What I do know that in 1940 and 1950’s a certain section of the the right opposed the clean air acts because it was a restriction of trade. Maybe we should look it as a pollution issue. Electric cars are better because it doesn’t pollute with cancerous benzene’s. Also I loved the way the freakonomics chaps tackled the problem, a real piece of lateral thinking.

13. Golden Gordon

Also environmentalists must accept until we discover the holy grail of fission, that nuclear fusion is the cleanest form of energy production

Luckily now Phil Jones has decided a bit of backtracking from the “alarmist” position is warranted…

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/02/14/phil-jones-momentous-qa-with-bbc-reopens-the-science-is-settled-issues/

While Bob Watson has joined the ranks of the IPCC critics…

http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2010/2/14/spring-arrived-early.html

Though our money is still being spent like water…

http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2010/02/climate-change-torrent-of-eu-money.html
http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2010/02/buying-thin-air.html

Haven’t we been over this before Unity? The paper that claims to disprove the Climate Station analysis was written using an incomplete dataset (43%), and was at the least scientifically unethical – there was no attempt to include the person who gathered the data (in this case Mr Watts) in the list of authors, or indeed a notification to him that this was being used. I am not convinced that this refutes the surface-station.org project, not least because it has not yet reported back (who knows – it may agree with the paper). That someone felt the need to refute an unfinished project is quite interesting, as presumably Mr Watts would publish his findings whatever (he apparently wants 100% data before doing so – good scientific principle I would have said).

But lets put that to one side and consider this. Why is it that the organisation hosting USCHN is using Mr Watts data about the standards of their sites anyway? What does this say about their stewardship or monitoring of their own data collection? And this is the key issue – not only are there some severely dodgy statistics in the case for AGW, but even the measured global warming is uncertain as data have not been gathered carefully. And however you look at it, and irrelevantly to a paper defending USCHN, a thermometer getting the blowback from jet engines at Rome is not giving an accurate record of tempratures anywhere not occasionally directly behind a plane…

For the record, I believe Earth is getting warmer. But if asked to substantiate that by a more-sceptical type, how could I do so when the measurements are made by poor collection methods, which would lead to wide margins of error. Menne et al (2010) is no magic bullet; it at best shows that USCHN produces a different error from that predicted (and prediction is part of the scientific process – before the experiment, you predict what you will find). It does not show it is accurate. If you want to confound those who do not believe the planet is warming (albeit not much in the last decade) then you need to show incontrovertible evidence. Not just cherry pick attacks on them.

Watchmen:

I see you’ve been reading Roger Pielke.

For the record, 43% of the dataset is fully half of all the sites that Watts has now surveyed, not to mention his complete dataset at the time the Menne started work on his paper.

So it’s a 50% sample, which is more than sufficient to establish statistical validity.

As for Pielke’s remarks, do try to stick with what he actually said – which was to accuse Menne of discourtesy and not a breach of ethics.

And, in any case, neither argument makes the slightest difference to Menne’s findings, which rather reinforces the point that the only answer that Watts and his supporters have, to date, is that of trying to change the subject.

Why is it that the organisation hosting USCHN is using Mr Watts data about the standards of their sites anyway?

Because its there, even if I suspect that they could have got the job done a fair bit quicker by enlisting the Boy Scouts to help with their own project.

In any case, isn’t it rather hypocritical of Watts to be criticising climate scientists for not putting data in the public domain only then to whine like buggery when scientists take him at his word and use the information that’s already put in the public domain.

Looks a lot like sauce for the goose to me…

Unity,

If I had been quoting Dr Pielke (Sr for clarity) I would have done it accurately. Actually I got the information from Mr Watt’s site, and formed my own conclusions considering I do know proper ethics (and I would maintain publishing ethics – Mene et al could not do this analysis without the work of Watts et al, which deserves more acknowledgement than just footnotes).

I also know that whilst 50% is statistically valid, it isn’t as valid as 100% (statistically valid means likely to be correct – normally 95% probability, but this varies quite a lot). Obviously being 95% confident of a sample of 100% is a lot more certain than a sample of 50%. And the sample was only of 46% of the whole set remember.

As to the accusation of hypocricy – maybe. I have no axe to grind on behalf of Mr Watts, although I think he has done science a service by forcing the issue to be addressed and noticed (please don’t tell me you’d prefer this to be ignored?). But his complaint was that the data was a set sent out to inform volunteers of completed stations, and not therefore ready for analysis. Since you defend homogonisation, I take it you accept the data originator can complain their data is being misused if not properly processed before presentation, or does this only apply in certain cases?

I note you have chosen not to reply to the substantive points about there being problems with measurement of temperatures globally, which is a pity. I’d much rather see this being a debate about whether man is causing warming, rather than having to address these points. But I can’t accept them being brushed under the carpet (I seem to be developing a scientific-conscience), and Melle et al (2010) risks being used to do that.

cjcjc,

Have you actually read the BBC’s Q&A with Jones? There is nothing remotely contentious in there – it is being spun out of all proportion (and with a total lack of scruple) by Watts, the Mail, the Express and others. To call it a u-turn is, literally, incredible.
People like Jones really can’t win – if they express any kind of certainty about the reality of AGW and its consequences they are accused of being alarmist. If they talk honestly and frankly and give due regard to areas where there is uncertainty then this somehow proves that the whole scientific basis for AGW is open to doubt.

Golden Gordon – We do know that increased CO2 (and other gases) levels have affected the climate, because according to the known laws of physics CO2 (And other gases and indeed water vapour) act as greenhouse gases, helping,maintain the planet around 33 degrees C warmer than would be the case without an atmosphere.
Where the uncertainty comes in is the precise global response to increases in said gases, because of other factors that may as well be termed noise, from El nino to changes in solar output, not to mention the heat absorbing capacities of the ocean and possible changes in cloud cover in a warmer world.

So the take home point is that the earth is currently warming, and the last 30 yearfs of it are mostly our fault.

There is also the problem of ocean acidification, which will contribute to destroying oceanic ecosystems, which produce food for us and help deal with our wastes.

Watchman #18 – the issue of siting etc was already addressed long before Watts came on the scene. New sensors were being installed and an upgraded reference network put into place, but all these things take time and money, meaning that they were not in place before Watts came along. Moreover, since Menne et al shows that the previous problems were being dealt with, and anyway raw data showed a cooling, it is odd that Watts has spent the last 2 or 3 years insinuating that the warming trend is false.

Finally, those of us who have been on the scene for a few years know that John V did an analysis of Watt’s labelled good and bad stations 2 or 3 years ago, and got effectively the same results from good and bad, thus proving that there wasn’t a problem. THis was carefully ignored by Watts.

And…
The satellite records all show warming at a rate similar to that of the surface record.

Andrew

Let’s forget the scientific argument for a moment and consider the practical problem.

The Government gleefully use my money to assure me that if I drive five miles less every week and do all the other things they tell me are necessary, they might just be able to save my descendants from being frazzled to death.

I have tried and tried to suspend my disbelief but I just can’t decide which journey not to make. So I guiltily drive on.

Actually I don’t. Because logic tells me it would not make the difference claimed.

Can you not understand the disconnect here?

And…
The satellite records all show warming at a rate similar to that of the surface record.

So, according to Jones, that’ll be none for the last ten years then?

Watchman,

I’m not a statistician but I believe the 95% figure you mention refers to statistical significance and in order for Menne’s work to achieve this it would need to have a sufficient sample size to produce a meaningful result (ie one where we could be 95% certain of it being valid) – it doesn’t mean he would need to include 95% of the entire dataset.

As for Watts not being included

Dr. Easterling of the climate center said, among other things, that Mr. Watts had been invited to participate in writing the paper, given that it drew on his weather-station data. “We invited him a number of times to participate in the work,” he said. “He declined.”

Given how quick Watts is to throw around accusations of malpractice at working scientists I wouldn’t blame them for ignoring him altogether.

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/28/on-weather-stations-and-climate-trends/

Also, I’m not sure why you give so much credence to Watts on this issue and so little to Menne. Menne has done a proper statistical analysis of the data and published it in a peer-reviewed journal. Watts and his followers have collected a bunch of photographs and made certain assumptions on the basis of things he things look a bit fishy. Even assuming Watts’s investigation has been carried out entirely in good faith do you not think that USCHN, being a professional organisation with a strong interest in producing data which is as accurate as possible would not be aware of the kind of supposed issues which Watts raises?

guthrie,

How does an improved sensor compensate for a jet engine firing near the sensor? Answer – it doesn’t. It just records the heat from this more accurately. Don’t confuse improved measurements with improved siting.

Mr Watts contention is that the record is not accurate due to the siting of the stations near to heat sources etc. Interestingly Mene et al claim that the inaccuracy is in the opposite direction to that predicted, but it hardly proves the system works.

Have you got a link to the John V work (albeit that this will be on an even smaller set than Mene et al)?

andrew,

‘Working scientists’. That phrase leaps out at me. It implies only those in jobs can do science, that only those with government or corporate money behind them are worth listening to. And this is why I tend to favour the other side of the debate initially. Because Mr Watt has no clear benefits to promoting his point. Dr Mene, an employee of USCHN, has a very clear motive.

The problem here is that these groups of scientists can exclude outsiders in the main. They do this by peer-review (abuse of the process, but they might not see it as such – insisting all papers meet certain subject-specific criteria), by language (when it should be easy for intelligent people to make papers comprehensible to intelligent laymen) and ultimately by ‘appeal to authority': ‘I am a scientist, so I know best’. There is no deliberate attempts to do so, but the nature of a small academic field is that the people in it bounce the same views around and hear the same thing again and again. And they do not want fundamental challenges, as it undermines their work, their legacy (please note this was of concern to Professors Mann and Jones in the early part of the decade for example). So assuming that a working scientist must be right is a slightly loaded assumption – it assumes that a process of ensuring there is not a closed consensus is in place. In the field of climate change can you say that (since apparently the science is settled, which tends to be a clue of consensus, which is a human activity, not scientific accuracy).

Two other points. Sorry if I was unclear – 95% is a confidence interval, so how likely it is a normal statistical probability is correct. It is nothing to do with the amount of data needed, which can be much less. I was saying 95% confidence from 100% of the data is much stronger than 95% confidence from 46% of the data.

And USHCN may not have been concerned by siting until it became an issue, because they may not have thought of it. Certainly they never publicised it, which would have been appropriate I’d have thought. Although it may have called into question their accuracy, which would give them a motive not to do so. To return to my earlier theme, scientists are not supermen, but just humans with certain interests and training. And they are as prone to paranoia, irrational feelings and covering up problems as the rest of us.

guthrie

“And…
The satellite records all show warming at a rate similar to that of the surface record.”

The satellite record is only working from about 1996 (from memory), so unfortunately is basically showing the lack of warming since 1999 and the warmer years before that. It confirms the recent temperature trend, but please note it is generally colder than the surface temperature record (my guess is because it measures exposed and empty upland areas – the whole of Bolivia for example – for which the temperature is estimated in GCHN and GISS using nearby thermometers). So it confirms recent trends, but not the exceptional warming of the late-twentieth century or anything earlier, and certainly not the viability of any furture predictions.

28. Golden Gordon

Pagar is correct that if CO2 levels are causing global warming. It is going to be very difficult to stop. The freakonomics guys think we should looking at ways to absorb CO2. Whether you can do this I haven’t a clue.
Gore’s idea of replacing income tax with a consumer CO2 gas tax based on consumption may work.

“Finally, those of us who have been on the scene for a few years know that John V did an analysis of Watt’s labelled good and bad stations 2 or 3 years ago, and got effectively the same results from good and bad, thus proving that there wasn’t a problem. THis was carefully ignored by Watts.”

Guthrie. IIRC it was also noted at the time that the warming trend was coming from the untested stations, thus rendering any conclusions premature. Until we see the final result it’s still premature to draw conclusions (in either direction).

Pagar #22,

It’s a fair question. If we accept the reality of AGW and the need to cut CO2 emissions then this can only happen in a meaningful way if we are all prepared to make changes to our own lifestyles. That doesn’t mean wearing a hair shirt and going to live in a yurt but rather taking whatever small measures we can to reduce our (to use an expression I really don’t like) CO2 footprint. So reducing the number of mile we drive is a part of that – it’s not going to be practical for everyone and of course you driving a few miles less a week won’t in itself prevent the worst (or even the mildest) effects of GW but if those of us who can do so, and do whatever else we can, and everyone else does the same – well it’s a start.

Watchman,

‘Working scientists’. That phrase leaps out at me. It implies only those in jobs can do science, that only those with government or corporate money behind them are worth listening to. And this is why I tend to favour the other side of the debate initially. Because Mr Watt has no clear benefits to promoting his point. Dr Mene, an employee of USCHN, has a very clear motive.

Surely the main criteria for deciding whose views we should give more credence to are the relevant qualifications, expertise and experience which a person has – not just in science but in any field. So we take medical advice from doctors, legal advice from lawyers and scientific advice from scientists. There is nothing neccessarily wrong with appealing to authority when the person concerned actually is an authority on the subject in hand. Certainly the fact that Watts is an “outsider” does not in itself confer any credibility whatsoever on his views.
Of course the professionals are human and are not infallible, but as a general rule it is entirely sensible and rational to give more weight to their views than to those of a layman such as Watts unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. It is certainly dangerous (and unfair) to make assumptions about motives – Watts after all has a sizeable following and enjoys a certain amount of notoriety as a result of his activities so I don’t see that he is any more disinterested than Menne and his colleagues.
That doesn’t mean that only the professionals can “do” science, but it is Menne who has actually done the science – he has produced a statistical analysis of the actual data and published a paper in a peer reviewed journal. Watts has collected a bunch of photographs and made certain assumptions based on those. The assumptions have been tested to a certain extent (and 46% is not an insignificant number) and so far shown to be groundless. Now it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the other 54% will show a markedly different result, but neither is there any reason to expect this to be the case so until they are tested as well we are entitled to treat Watts’ claims as completely unproven.
Even so, I am not going to claim there was no merit in Watts’ excercise, he was indeed thanked for his efforts by USCHN, nor does is mean that the siting of the weather stations is as good as it could be, which is why the US Climate Reference Network was established, but to suggest that his findings somehow throw the entire US surface temprature records into doubt or that he has uncovered a major problem which USCHN were not aware of is, to say the least, an exaggeration.

32. Luis Enrique

(Andrew Adams – a small digression here. “the need to cut CO2 emissions … this can only happen in a meaningful way if we are all prepared to make changes to our own lifestyles … taking whatever small measures we can to reduce our … CO2 footprint”. I really think you are kidding yourself here, and that the green movement is going down the wrong road when it emphasizes this line of advocacy. I think that the probable decrease in carbon emissions to be achieved by “lifestyle changes” is within a rounding error of zero. Not only are the margins for change small, but most people just won’t do it. What we need are large changes in power generation and transport infrastructure. I imagine you won’t be persuaded by what I’ve written, but you might be if you read this).

33. Golden Gordon

Luis you make a good point as I do not have the expertise in economics as yourself, what are your thoughts on the types of taxation Gore has been touting

34. Luis Enrique

GG

that’s very kind of you, but really I am only a grad student and I have not really studied environmental econ.

Here is a quote you might find interesting from renown environmental economist William Nordaus:

Whether someone is serious about tackling the global-warming problem can be readily gauged by listening to what he or she says about the carbon price. Suppose you hear a public figure who speaks eloquently of the perils of global warming and proposes that the nation should move urgently to slow climate change. Suppose that person proposes regulating the fuel efficiency of cars, or requiring high-efficiency lightbulbs, or subsidizing ethanol, or providing research support for solar power—but nowhere does the proposal raise the price of carbon. You should conclude that the proposal is not really serious and does not recognize the central economic message about how to slow climate change. To a first approximation, raising the price of carbon is a necessary and sufficient step for tackling global warming. The rest is at best rhetoric and may actually be harmful in inducing economic inefficiencies.

I think the tax Gore advocates is intended to achieve this price increase, and it has a lot of supporters. My one slight reservation is that some estimates of the “right” tax are lower than taxes currently levied on petrol etc. so some supporters of this tax are really advocating “do nothing”, which I don’t agree with (I think those estimates are too low). Another reservation is that while some countries may reduce carbon emissions by voluntarily raising the price via such a tax, so long as some big carbon emitters aren’t cooperating, it doesn’t really solve anything.

35. Luis Enrique

oh arse – only the first block of text there is supposed to be a blockquote, the second bit is me.

@11
You now seem to have convinced yourself. What a confused individual you are!

Unity

Your post is grossly misleading in a number of ways.

The problem with Menne’s (albeit peer-reviewed) paper is, as I suspect you well know, that it doesn’t measure what ought to be measured.

There are 2 variables here: temperature and measuring system.

The new MMTS began to be rolled out in the mid 80s. So many of the 75% of the poorly sited stations will have used BOTH systems at various times. Each will have changed over at a different time.

This is not allowed for in the study in which:

the unadjusted …. monthly station values were converted to anomalies relative to the 1971–2000 station mean.

Therefore all Menne is tracking is the variation in instrument error over time.

What it is not finding is the absolute temperature bias (plus or minus) for each individual station.

While converting to anomolies is useful for expressing a trend, it isn’t useful when applied to a situation where there’s a second variable (in this case – measuring system), which isn’t taken into account.

That’s why you get an outcome that you, yourself agree is surprising.

I should say it is surprising. For what you are asking us to believe is, in essence, that sticking a thermometer up the arse of a jumbo jet (to take Watt’s most extreme microsite idiocy) is going to give you a cooler rather than warmer result than siting the thing in a field a mile away from the airport. That offends against common sense and should have rung your alarm bell.

In any case, the well-attested differences between MMTS and the old liquid thermometer system are already compensated for in the results climate scientists use. What Watts is usefully doing is discovering factors that are not usually compensated for.

Second, I missed the dead-tree version of the Sunday Times this week so am assuming that the piece to which you refer is this one:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article7026317.ece

in which Watts only gets a few pars in the middle of an article which gives plenty of reference to scientists of various sorts on different sides of the debate. Hardly a puff piece about Watts.

Third, what neither you, nor to be fair most ‘warmists’ or ‘denialists’ ever really get to grips with is the fact that the temp differences at issue are so small that historical comparisons are always likely to be a hopeless waste of time.

Serious AGW supporters are really only claiming a 0.16 of one degree average increase per decade.

Such tiny fractions are important today in the AGW debate but simply weren’t a generation ago. I spoke recently to someone who used to man a weather station in the 60s and 70s who cheerfully admitted to rounding up or down to the nearest half degree every day – ‘cos in his time the fine distinctions didn’t matter.

The only thing that will sttle this debate is for both sides to be more careful about ‘adjusting, compensating, smoothing and so on (all of which introduce unwarranted guesswork on the size of the compensation) and remember the (small) size of the matter at issue.

What would be useful re the sites Watts has shown with his pics to be so dodgy in some instances as to be perverse would be to measure temps in three or four good locations nearby. Then we’d at least know the scale of the absolute errors informing recent data.

Luis Enrique,

I’m not suggesting for the moment that the measures we might take as individuals will come close to solving the problem on their own – of course we the need the kind of large scale changes you mention, and there may be a place for measures such as the Gore tax and carbon trading schemes. I just think that given the scale of the problem every little bit helps

….oops sorry for shouting in post above, I forgot to close off bold after ‘1971-2000 station mean’. Admins please feel free to fix.

40. Luis Enrique

Andrew,

sure, every little helps. Still, if you have a moment, do read this: Every big helps

Flowerpower:

So many of the 75% of the poorly sited stations will have used BOTH systems at various times. Each will have changed over at a different time.

All of which is dealt with in Menne’s previous (2009) paper.

In any case, the well-attested differences between MMTS and the old liquid thermometer system are already compensated for in the results climate scientists use. What Watts is usefully doing is discovering factors that are not usually compensated for.

Not so – what Menne’s paper does is rule out Watts’ claim that adjustments made by climate scientist to allow for poor siting, instrument error, etc. are distorting the temperature record upwards to produce a warming trend that’s not apparent in the raw data.

“. I just think that given the scale of the problem every little bit helps”

The thing is you see, a lot of people – me included – take the opposite view. That is because the problem is so large, little bits taken on an individual level really aren’t going to help. Even if I am the most energy efficent person in the world, there is always going to be the person down the road who decorates his house with santa lights every xmas, drives a 4 by 4 to the corner shop and flies to australia every month. Indeed I’d say governments have been rather glad that people (re: mainstream media and ‘moderate’ environmentalists) have conceptualised solutions in this manner as it has let them off the hook.

Furthermore, as I think is shown by the mentality of AGW deniers, these efforts have been counter-productive. Generally people don’t like to be lectured, particularly when the preaching is hypocritical, and it becomes obvious that the major culprits are left off the hook.

43. Luis Enrique

I agree with Planeshift that the emphasis on lifestyle may be counter productive.

also, while a wrote above that I agree every little helps, I should have qualified that with it doesn’t help very much. From what I link to above:

a little adds up to a lot,” if all those “littles” are somehow focused into a
single “lot” – for example, if one million people donate £10 to one accident-
victim, then the victim receives £10 million. That’s a lot. But power is a
very different thing. We all use power. So to achieve a “big difference”
in total power consumption, you need almost everyone to make a “big”
difference to their own power consumption.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Unity

    RT @libcon: Watts Up with The Sunday Times? http://bit.ly/asmcux – and what about the research debunking Watts that the ST didn't mention

  2. Robin Green

    RT @libcon: Watts Up with The Sunday Times? http://bit.ly/asmcux

  3. Gareth Winchester

    RT @libcon Watts Up with The #SundayTimes? http://bit.ly/bC3odi #media #science #agw #climatechange #globalwarming

  4. linda goodwin

    Liberal Conspiracy » Sunday Times promotes climate change denier: A bit like an article based on spotting an Indep… http://bit.ly/9lNvH3

  5. Liberal Conspiracy

    Watts Up with The Sunday Times? http://bit.ly/asmcux





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