Science at the bleeding edge

Similarly, in 2006 we reported being baffled by a story on plants producing methane, which lead to an unfortunate rash of erroneous ‘Trees cause global warming‘ stories (which weren’t justified even if you fully accepted the paper’s results). A few years and many attempted replications later, the potential for methane fluxes from living plants has been dialed down almost to zero.

These are just a few examples, but all of them illustrate the importance of context in interpreting new results. Not every surprising new finding will be wrong, but seeing what other scientists say about it is a good indication of how likely it is to stand. The key importance of this back and forth though is, as Marcus Rex points out in the Nature News piece on the ozone chemistry story: “Even though [the] results now seem to be wrong, his study did prompt other groups to think about alternative approaches”.

And that is a big part of what scientific research is about.

Page 2 of 2 | Previous page

72 comments on this post.
  1. Andy Revkin:

    There’s much much more on this vitally important theme, and the obligation of journalists to convey what’s (boringly) well established even as they sift for the “front-page thought,” here on Dot Earth: http://bit.ly/dotWhiplash
    http://bit.ly/dotPageOne

    and here in a chapter I wrote for a 2005 guide to science reporting:
    http://bit.ly/DailyPlanet

  2. FishOutofWater:

    Following the tobacco industry lead on creating fear uncertainty and doubt to attack well established science – that cigarettes cause cancer – the professional Exxon funded global warming deniers use the uncertainties inherent in cutting edge science to manipulate non-scientists in journalism and policy making positions.

    Thanks for getting to the root of this pernicious problem.

  3. John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation):

    One might compare this phenomenon (news stories examining the latest i.e. short term perspective based on the ‘new’ study) to climate vs. weather (short vs. long) assessment.

    Unfortunately the talking heads feed upon headlines to sell advertising and gain market share and of course suffer the blight of editorial deadlines as Andy Revkin has so well pointed out (and RC as well).

    Headlines are short term, science is long term
    Weather is short term, climate is long term

    Context is key.

    Peer review is important, surviving peer response is more important.

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/01/peer-review-a-necessary-but-not-sufficient-condition/

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/01/peer-review-ii/

  4. John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation):

    #1 Andy Revkin

    Darn it Andy, you beat me to the plug ;)

    Though I was thinking about that other piece you did. Can’t find the link though. It’s the article you did about the process and deadlines and how articles get to release. If you know which one I am referring to, please post it. That was a great piece on the issue.

  5. Richard Pauli:

    What a wonderful subject, connected to everything!

    RC has widely posted on the physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics of global climate destabilization – lets call it science of future studies. Fascinating. Not only is it vitally important to the future of our civilization, but it connects with explorations into political science, social science, behavioral economics, cognitive psychology, and abnormal psychology. And more.

    Many thanks.

  6. Joe Hunkins:

    Several excellent, thoughtful points here about the importance of cautious interpretations. Statistics generally do NOT lie, but they are often misinterpreted.

  7. Doug Bostrom:

    Being a practicing journalist, Andy Revkin’s remark on the obligation of journalists to convey what is already known carries a lot of weight. True it is.

    As a non-journalist but somebody who used to be involved in the arrangement of broadcast news schedules crammed into the 24 hours of a day, I feel obliged to pipe up and say that it’s not called “news” for nothing; journalists are not obliged and really don’t have the resources to chant the same facts until they are bludgeoned into the heads of the general populace.

    (This was public broadcasting, not the Michael Jackson News Network…)

    This is not to say that providing context and background is not a vital part of good journalism, just that “old” news must necessarily fade in prominence. Meanwhile we in the general populace are obliged to listen to and integrate the information being presented us. We have to participate at least at that level if we want to have a functioning civil society.

  8. Chris Dudley:

    One of the different things about science is that it is not rude to say “I told you so,” as this post does several times. We are not blaming or disrespecting when new work is criticized, we are just doing half the work. If skepticism about a new idea turns out to be correct, then one area of uncertainty is reduced because the subject has been more thoroughly studied. Being wrong in an interesting way is probably among the most fruitful contributions one can make to science because of the work inspired by that effort.

    I don’t really agree that the public is less exposed to the more established subjects though. It is just that the exposure occurs in school rather than in the newspaper. Remember, it was in the newspaper seventy years ago. It just isn’t news now.

  9. Paulk:

    I think I may just use this post for my critical thinking class to help my freshmen understand how academic research functions in the academy (versus the media). I tell them something fairly similar, but this is very well put.

  10. John Mashey:

    This is another instantiation of the well-known maxim in military intelligence:

    Google: “the first report is always wrong”

  11. Henry chance:

    I was disappointed on another blog. They were describing the use of fortran and code I used for modeling in the early 70’s. From a technology, it gave a feel of government spending in huge budgets used to process data the old ways. Then we found flaws in the data. I remember writing programs on key punch cards.

  12. Bill DeMott:

    As someone who spends a lot of time as a reviewer, editor and writer of scientific articles, I am still often surprised by the number of articles that pop up on Google Scholar searches. Scientist have difficulty keeping up with the literature in their own specialities. It takes a lot of effort to get up to speed with literature when making a moderate shift in one’s research topic. In my opinion and based my experience teaching college students, journalist and the general public have no idea of the depth and strength of evidence that support current scientific theories. Of course, the really exciting parts of a scientific topic are those of current controversy and active research.

  13. Hank Roberts:

    A bit of cutting edge new science:

    http://www.nrlmry.navy.mil/nexdat/headliner/CloudSat_Oceans_final.pdf

    Much else there, always something new in satellite observation for weather and climate. Try:
    http://www.nrlmry.navy.mil/nexdat/headliner/Contrails_Jan09.pdf

  14. Bernie:

    #2 Fishoutofwater
    Methinks you should read gavin’s comments again.

  15. Karen Kohfeld:

    Gavin, thanks for this excellent description of both the scientific process and how it can be interpreted by someone who is not used to skimming through Science and Nature every week. I teach physical sciences to future environmental managers, some of whom are gaining their first exposure to natural science. This post provides an excellent (and brief!) perspective on how one should approach new results. It may just become a required read.

  16. Lawrence Brown:

    In the original post, Gavin says:”Similarly, in 2006 we reported being baffled by a story on plants producing methane, which lead to an unfortunate rash of erroneous ‘Trees cause global warming‘ stories….”

    The return of the “killer trees”. No less an authority than our 40th President once said:”Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” — Ronald Reagan, 1981.
    http://rationalwiki.com/wiki/Trees_cause_pollution

    Thank you for an instructive post. One good lesson-proceed with caution.

  17. Dean:

    This issue of media and science has also been an issue with diet and health, where the media likes to report on a study that indicates some odd impact. Today there was one that was reported to show that 5 cups of coffee a day defends against alzheimers.

    And there is the parallel issue of science and blogs. Are they a good place to debate science? Roger Pielke Jr said so on his blog but Roger Pielke Sr apparently doesn’t think so since he doesn’t allow it.

  18. Eli Rabett:

    One of the keys here, and also in another recent case, is the method by which extraordinary and important results are confirmed is not by checking the details of the original publication, but by figuring out a way to measure the same thing differently. By coming at a problem from a different angle you don’t buy into the same set of assumptions, errors and gotchas. It is only at that point that you can sensibly ask (and profit from the answer) what went wrong, and even then there is no guarantee of an answer.

  19. Jeffrey Davis:

    Sorry to hear that trees don’t belch or break wind. It was the kind of strange possibility that helps to brighten a dull landscape.

    reCaptcha: that weir

  20. Bob Clipperton:

    Good article RealClimate

    In my opinion, this article completely supports the extended ‘scientific’ peer-review process.

    Many people, including those with a fair amount of scientific knowledge would suggest that if a paper has been published in a respected journal after ‘peer-review’ then it is ‘truth’.

    Therefore, I always recommend ‘verification’ or ‘validation’ of the work in my debates elsewhere with AGW deniers.

    They obviously don’t like it because almost without exception, (anybody know of any ?) their ideas have not been verified/validated.

  21. Tony O\\\'Brien:

    From the outside it sometimes difficult to workout whether a different result is change or better data.

    Over the years there have been estimates of the size of the cavity under the Amery ice shelf, each one showing that the cavity is bigger. Now is the cavity growing or is the science, data and equipment improving?

    I suspect mainly the latter, that the first estimates where conservative. That the cavity was at least that big, but probably bigger.

    Similarly with the newly discovered variability of the North Atlantic Current, new or new data. Given the expansion of oceanic desertification related to reduced upwelling and the reduction of deep-water creation off Greenland, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the Meridional Overturning Circulation is starting to stall.

  22. Steve Reynolds:

    16.Lawrence Brown: ‘… our 40th President once said:”Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”’

    At least in isolated circumstances, that can be true. The Smokey Mountains are called that for a reason.

  23. Robert Reiland:

    I’ve often relied on this blog for perspective when new results have been prematurely touted in climate science. My own perspective is that even peer reviewed papers announcing something new should only cue one on what to look for in the future rather than pointing to anything settled.

    An example from cosmology is that for a long time cosmologists were in two camps as to the Hubble Constant. One group was confident that it was close to 50 Km/s/Mpsec. Another that it was close to double that value. Both groups had good papers backing their claims. We now have good confidence that it’s within 2% of 72 Km/s/Mpsec. There are now very few cosmologists who think otherwise.

    This might not make news in the same way that previous disagreement did, but it is more interesting to me that something with such big unknowns could be resolved so well so quickly.

    In arguing with people about climate science or cosmology, I have gotten into the habit of using only the solid results while saying that I’ll be willing to talk about the latest results when they have been refuted or given much more support.

  24. Mark:

    re 22: Especially since where you have a lot of trees and no roads…

  25. tamino:

    Re: #22 (Steve Reynolds)

    You really should investigate before saying things like this:

    At least in isolated circumstances, that can be true. The Smokey Mountains are called that for a reason.

    Indeed they are, but not for the reason your comment suggests. From Wikipedia:

    The name “Smoky” comes from the natural fog that often hangs over the range and presents as large smoke plumes from a distance.

    Fog is not pollution.

    As for Reagan’s statement, you should have read the link given:

    Reagan was disingenuously referencing the photochemical reaction that causes ground level ozone pollution (GLOP), also known as photochemical smog.[2] Smog is created when automobile and power plant emissions are broken down into ozone and other chemicals by strong sunlight. These reactions are amplified by the presence of various volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.[3] During hot weather many tree species release volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, notably terpenes and isoprenes[4] (pine pitch is a terpene). Other VOCs that contribute to GLOP include gasoline, kerosene, paint, paint thinner and other industrial solvents.

    Reagan’s statement was disingenuous because volatile organic compounds produced by trees do not cause pollution any more than the sun causes pollution. Reagan might as well have said, “the sun causes more pollution than automobiles do”. Photochemical ozone pollution is created when automobile and power plant pollution is broken down by strong sunlight in the presence of any number of volatile organic compounds.

  26. Barton Paul Levenson:

    I’ve added a couple of new pages to my web site. This one deals with the famous “800-year lag” of CO2 to temperature in the ice cores:

    http://BartonPaulLevenson.com/Lag.html

    And this one deals with the “cooling trend since 1998:”

    http://BartonPaulLevenson.com/VV.html

  27. robert davies:

    Re: #20. This is an important point, and well put. In my discussions with the public, I’ve found it helpful to point out that peer review is not a high bar, but a relatively low one. Peer-review generally (though certainly not always) assures the reader that no obvious errors have been made. But publication then initiates the ‘extended peer-review’ that you mention, involving the broader scientific community, not just the three or four referees.

  28. Steve Reynolds:

    25.tamino: “You really should investigate before saying things like this…”

    You could look a little more as well and give a peer reviewed reference rather than Wikipedia. See the last sentence of this abstract:

    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/110452719/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    Identification of some organic smog components based on rain water analysis
    R. A. Saunders, J. R. Griffith, F. E. Saalfeld
    Chemistry Division, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C. 20375, USA

    Abstract
    An analysis has been made of a sample of rain water collected in Washington, D.C. following a sustained photo-oxidant smog alert which was accompanied by haze and low visibility. The analysis was effected by purging the organic content from the water with helium gas and identifying the constituents by means of gas chromatography – mass spectrometry. The predominant compound was found to be 3-methylfuran, a possible intermediate or end product of the atmospheric decomposition of terpenoid hydrocarbons. The analysis suggests that the smog resulted from the air oxidation of hydrocarbons evolved from Appalachian forestation rather than from manassociated activities.

  29. glen:

    i wonder what Gavin thinks about this paper; science from the bleating edge of climate change.

    “People push measurements to the limit of their accuracy (and sometimes beyond) and theories are used slightly out of their domain of applicability.”

    [Response: Can I use that? – gavin]

  30. David B. Benson:

    “The Sun Has Spots, Finally”:
    http://www.livescience.com/space/090706-sunspot-activity.html

  31. L. David Cooke:

    RE: 28
    Hey Steve,

    Terribly funny that that study should point to terpenoids when spruce-fir tree distribution is primarily found on the ridges, surrounding the balds and at elevations greater then 5,200 feet. The main body of the region is generally defined as temperate deciduous forest, with the primary population being oak and maple, (with old growth maples filling in for the loss of the American Chestnut).

    I think reviewing the body of the referenced study would be worthy of further analysis… After all I have not heard of many tourists going to the “mountains” to watch the pine needles fall in Spring versus the leaf color change in the Fall.

    Cheers!
    Dave Cooke

  32. Jim Galasyn:

    Evolution and global warming — the denialosphere will erupt like a supernova!

  33. John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation):

    #29 glen

    Gavin, I don’t think there is any copyright on titles as I recall, (from the 1986 copyright act (last time I read copyright law)).

    Hmmm… I smell something? It’s not the sheep albedo though… Is there a connection between sheep size and …?

  34. ned:

    Gavin, the science supporting global warming is essentially settled though, isn’t it? When I get into debates with neanderthals about the why the Climate Bill is necessary now that’s what I’ve been saying anyway.

  35. Thomas:

    I’ve seen some sciencedaily references to a new study which claims that the ElNino phase of ENSO is changing form. I don’t have the reference, but I’m sure Gavin and company have heard of it. They only seemed to be interested (at least press overview-wise) in the connection to Atlantic hurricanes. The claim is the warm phase was starting to affect the central pacific rather than the eastern. This might make an interesting future topic, “is the character of ENSO changing, what is the evidence, and if true what are the implications?”

  36. Eli Rabett:

    You don’t get smog without NOx and SOx mostly produced by high temperature combustion (read humans). That’s the difference between Atlanta and the Smokies and pollution from human sources is creeping in there too turning the blue haze (terpenes) into smog.

  37. Hank Roberts:

    Thomas, if you’re thinking about this
    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/309/5742/1844
    you’re asking for a perfect example
    “what if … true” for this topic.

    You can count on a flurry of what-if stories–the scientists have explained the questions are premature speculation: a discovery of something for which we simply don’t have enough decades of records available, so we can’t tell if it’s related to long cycles or to something new happening.

    Now if ANDRILL, say, or someone else with a seabed or lake or ice core covering that area and a long time span comes up able to identify a reliable proxy for this “same but different” pattern, that’ll become interesting.

    I’m sure whoever may be looking is not going to be speculating in advance of the data, though.

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/45259/title/New_cyclone_predictor

    “… Data suggest that episodes of central Pacific warming have occurred more frequently since the 1960s, Webster notes. Because relatively few sea-surface temperature data were collected in that region before the 1950s, scientists can’t yet discern whether this increased frequency is a symptom of long-term global climate change or is merely part of a long-term climate cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which typically lasts around two to three decades.”

  38. dhogaza:

    You don’t get smog without NOx and SOx mostly produced by high temperature combustion (read humans). That’s the difference between Atlanta and the Smokies and pollution from human sources is creeping in there too turning the blue haze (terpenes) into smog.

    It’s clear now, as it was then, that Reagan was talking about something he didn’t understand.

  39. Hank Roberts:

    There are times I just weep. I was out in the street just now watching the space station go over, and a couple of 20ish guys looked at me and I told them what I was doing and pointed, and got the ‘really?’ — and walked across the street to keep it in view as it went through sunset, changing color.

    And one of them asked me “where did it take off from? Florida?”

    And I said “It’s been up there for ten years.”

    And he said “No way.”

    I said “Really. It’s that thing they keep flying up to, taking up more parts, making it bigger.”

    And he said “no way!”

    And I said “It will be back in about 90 minutes, way higher in the sky as it goes overhead on its next orbit.”

    And he looked at me like I was from some other planet.

    Maybe he or his silent friend will remember to look it up.

    Science education. It would be a good idea.

  40. Hank Roberts:

    More from the edge, hat tip to: http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=2029
    Let’s see what becomes of this one. Brief excerpts from the blog:

    Short-term declines in global temperature predicted by GCMs
    A new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters (Easterling and Wehner 2009) argues that short term periods of no-trend or even cooling (nested within longer term warming) are in fact predicted by Global Climate Models….

    http://www.climateshifts.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Fig-1-300×280.jpg

    http://www.climateshifts.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Fig-2-300×203.jpg

  41. Ike Solem:

    Here’s another example of this kind of thing:

    NEW YORK, July 7 (UPI) — Cooler than average weather patterns in the U.S. northeast, attributed to the solar cycle, will likely persist for the rest of the summer, forecasters said.

    There will be spikes of summer weather, AccuWeather.com reported Monday, but weather patterns that have prevailed so far will probably last.

    This year represents a low point for sunspots, NASA said. Studies indicate the lower the sunspots, the less bright the sun, which could translate to less heating of Earth, although many other factors could also be pertinent.

    One, I don’t believe that NASA is attributing the cool summer to the sunspot cycle, correct? Thus, this is obviously slanted language that attempts to tie NASA to that conclusion. What UPI apparently did is to copy some elements of the “Accuweather.com” story by their ‘senior meteorologist’, Alex Sosnowski, who also played the same game with NASA. Not exactly the first time that Accuweather has done such things, but pretty surprising that they’d use such a thorughly discredited concept. For some background:

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Accu-Weather%27s_science_for_hire

    However, they are hardly alone in this. Take a look at the headline provided for Andy Revkin’s story on seal level change in the NY Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/science/earth/15antarctica.html

    “Study Halves Predictions of Rising Seas”

    At best, that’s an incredibly distorted headline that completely misrepresents the actual study. For why, see:

    http://climateprogress.org/2009/05/14/new-york-times-revkin-antarctic-sea-level-ris/

    Second, the posting of a note by Don Easterbrook as fact by Andy Revkin is also very misleading:

    Here is the note from Don Easterbrook: Editor’s Selection at the NYT.

    This is the cool water phase of the PDO and it isn’t going to change for at least 2-3 decades (at least it never has in the past) and it is unaffected by atmospheric CO2 as shown by the three PDO switches this century

    Here is why it so nonsensical:

    In reality, the Pacific Decadal Wobble and the El Nino/Southern Wobble are not “oscillations” like a mass on a spring produces, but rather fluctuations with a large random component and a small periodic component.

    Regardless of whether the PDO is a real phenomenon or not, it is obviously a good deal weaker than ENSO, and everyone recognizes that global warming will affect ENSO and many other features of the climate, and any reasonably competent journalist should be able to look that up, or at least seek out other oceanographers for their opinions on the issue (try Scripps, Woods Hole, Princeton, etc.).

    So, I don’t really think the New York Times is qualified to comment on what is and what is not good climate science reporting, based on that alone – and there are many more examples from recent stories that have similar basic problems. The NYT is hardly alone – CNN has been publishing even worse material since they laid off their entire science team.

    Stephen Schneider called this the “one fax-one story” approach to journalism – but real journalists do background work, they don’t just act as stenographers, and they take responsibility for what they write.

    There is a big difference between legitimate scientific debate and the kind of things seen above, which fall into the “Well, it’s possible that HIV doesn’t really cause AIDS” category.

    P.S. That is even more true for the claims surrounding coal carbon capture and sequestration, which are nonsensical in the extreme – I still think that there should be an independent scientific review of that entire program, carried out by the APS along the lines of their cold fusion review.

  42. Chris S.:

    John @33

    Is there a connection between sheep size and …?

    Well…

    http://www.indopia.in/India-usa-uk-news/latest-news/616214/FeaturedArticles/14/54/14

  43. Vincent van der Goes:

    Re 26 (Barton Paul Levenson):

    Sorry for getting off-topic here, but I would like to thank you for the work. Your climatology pages are great – clear, insightfull and to the point. Your review of Miskolczi was the best I could find. Keep it up.

  44. Mark:

    Chris #42, there IS a relationship between cold winters and the death of the weaker, smaller sheep.

    It’s why we wrap babies up warm.

  45. Jim Galasyn:

    Hank, I’m right there with you. I was on a flight back from London (I bought offsets through NativeEnergy, btw) and next to me was a lovely lady who was returning from a human development project in Uganda. I asked if climate change was evident in Uganda, and she laughed: “I think they have much bigger problems there!”

    Seeing an opening, I casually asked what she thought of the mechanism of global warming, and she said, “Doesn’t the ozone hole let in more heat?” I used the opportunity for a little education, which I hope didn’t bore her too much.

  46. Peter Mc:

    Jeffrey @19

    Biology ‘o’ level (old UK 16 year old exams) howler from about 1984 – ‘trees can break wind for up to 300 yards’.

    It was followed in the round up by ‘the lens focuses light on the rectum’.

  47. pinkithebrain:

    the only think we realy know is, that CO2 must have a T forcing in the atmosphere and we know about the absorbation reality and capacity of this molecule.
    nothing else is clear. we do not know, if water vapor forcings will “help” CO2 forcings to create a greater warming.

    if you know it realy, please tell me an the rest oft the world, thank you!

  48. Mark:

    “nothing else is clear.”

    To you, maybe.

    We DO know if water vapour forcings will create a greater warming. For the same reason we know CO2 creates warming.

    I think you’re projecting your pinky. Snoik!

  49. Doug Bostrom:

    #41 Ike Solem:

    What a weird coincidence; I took a course that Don Easterbrook phoned in to us hapless undergraduates whilst afflicting us with muzzy xerox copies of the draft of his latest textbook, used as the basis for the course (geomorphology, natch), something like a quarter century ago. Nothing wrong with using your own book in a course you’re teaching, of course, -if- the chapters arrive on time. Looking at Professor Easterbrook’s body of work on AGW, I see he still likes his place in the limelight. I was happy with my grade, he was a decent lecturer when present, but I wish he’d made more of a commitment to doing the course with us as opposed to waltzing around around in the mountains, posing for goggled hero shots in layers of photogenic technical apparel.

    Dr. Easterbrook has self-avowedly staked his reputation on sunspots overwhelming C02 as an influence on climate, apparently regardless of the amount of C02 we put in the atmosphere (sunspots calibrate themselves against C02? how does that work?). But then there’s not much at risk, there. His profile has only increased since crossing the boundaries of his field of expertise and volunteering to revise climate science. He’s emeritus, he’s reached academic Valhalla, he’s been pastured to make room for younger people, so he can sling material like this:

    “There’s a huge uproar in the scientific world because in the last ten years, the climate has cooled slightly, but the media won’t tell you that. This year is a big downturn, you can’t miss it. Global warming simply ended in 1998, but the public doesn’t know it.”

    “Every year they recalibrate their computer model and put in the observed temperature. So, as they go along, the curve that trails behind is perfect. It’s like predicting the morning’s weather at six-o’clock in the evening.”

    “Do you know what drives them? Money. I’m talking about money, period.”

    “It all goes to the CO2 people who build little fiefdoms; they have grant money coming out of their ears.”

    “The CO2 effect is tiny. The eight one-thousandths of one-percent contributed by human activity won’t do much. Human–caused warming is dogma, pure and simple.”

    “Al Gore will go probably down in history as the guy who claimed to have invented the Internet and human-caused Global Warming, and they’re both bogus claims. It’s a hoax, frankly.”

    [Professor Easterbrook seems particularly incensed w/Al Gore, to the point that he’s frothing about the old Internet myth.]

    “There’s nothing we can do by stopping CO2 emissions that will affect climate in the next several hundred years. Nothing.”

    “The Farmer’s Almanac predicted it would be a cold winter. And how do they do that? Do they talk to squirrels or something? It turns out, they apparently look at sunspot cycles. Their projections are apparently based on sunspot cycles!”

    A wee bit lacking in judicious selection of words and claims, but in Dr. Easterbrook’s favor the interviewer who extracted those pearls seemed pretty good at pushing his buttons.

    http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~dbunny/research/global/interview3_27_08.pdf

    Amazing, really, the variety of multiple personalities folks assume depending on their audience. From his letter to the Times you’d never guess Professor Easterbrook leaned on the Farmer’s Almanac as evidence in support of his sunspot hypothesis.

  50. Lawrence Brown:

    Re #41:
    “..That is even more true for the claims surrounding coal carbon capture and sequestration, which are nonsensical in the extreme – I still think that there should be an independent scientific review of that entire program, carried out by the APS….”

    There are currently projects that are taking place on an international level:
    http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2009/01/22/f-carbon-capture.html

    This link reads in part-
    “At the moment there are three big capture programs already underway in the world, which proves the idea can work:

    .Norway’s national oil company is stripping one million tonnes a year of CO2 from the natural gas it is mining under the North Sea and re-injecting it back into empty wells.
    . British Petroleum is doing the same with an oil well in Algeria and planning a similar project in California.
    .And a (coal-gasification) utility in Beulah, North Dakota, is shipping approximately 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year over 200 kilometres by pipeline to Weyburn, Sask., where it is being re-injected into an old oil field to help with the recovery of new deposits.”

    Two of those listed above aren’t coal carbon capture,though the injection process in these projects seems to be working.

  51. John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation):

    #41 Ike Solem

    Just to add a bit to the PDO thing, re the Easterbrook 2-3 decade thing

    http://www.ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/pacific-decadal-oscillation

    http://www.esr.org/pdo_index.html

    I don’t know how anyone can look at the PDO and say with a straight face that it will be negative for 2-3 decades. That thing is all over the place.

  52. EL:

    “Al Gore will go probably down in history as the guy who claimed to have invented the Internet”

    Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet…

    But nobody really cares about the truth. They only care about what they want or fear.

  53. Steve Chamberlain:

    From the OP: One effect of this tendency is that quite often news stories are focused on claims that turn out to be wrong, or if not actually wrong, heavily reduced in importance by the time the dust settles. This is not deliberate, but merely how science works at the frontier. People push measurements to the limit of their accuracy (and sometimes beyond) and theories are used slightly out of their domain of applicability…

    Scientists are of course aware of this, and are usually very cautious about adopting new studies that appear unless they’ve been confirmed independently.

    Sort of tangentially related is this interview on the ABC a couple of days back, with Dr Simon Singh from the UK:
    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2618503.htm

    To cut a long stranscript short, the interview with Singh focussed on a libel suit being launched by the British Chiropractic Society against Singh for a piece he wrote that criticised some chiropractors in the UK for claiming they could treat some childhood conditions like colic. Singh points out that other suits have been taken against other scientists in the UK alleging defamation, even though the science that was reported was well-founded and the conclusions robust. Singh, as a science journalist, believes that defamation suits like these mean “…that good articles are often withdrawn, good articles are often gutted so that the meat of the content is removed before it’s published and sometimes articles that should be published aren’t even published or written in the first place because of the fear of libel laws in England.”

    The interviewer asked Singh if the impending case hindered his ability to be openly critical (of therapies in this instance), to which Singh replied: “I think it does to a very large extent because there are things – there’s a reverse burden of proof. So, a science writer such as myself is guilty until proven innocent. The sheer costs involved. A libel case can cost 1 million pounds, and that might be over damages that are just a few thousand pounds. And so it turns journalism into a sort of high stakes poker game. Somebody threatens you with a libel suit, do you have the absolute confidence and financial resources to see it through to the end. If you don’t, then you’d probably be smarter backing off immediately and apologising, even if you think you’re right. So, it does have this intimidation effect on journalism.”

    More on this at the Grauniad:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/jun/04/simon-singh-libel-british-chiropractic-association-bca

    Sorry if the subject is o/t. But I thought the wider point – that science journalism, and consequently the quality of information and legitimate criticism in the public domain, can be thwarted by fear of reprisal – was worth flagging.

  54. EL:

    Gavin,

    What is the stance on the Deep Solar Minimum here? My simple mind sees it as a factor in this summers temperatures. Since you cut my post, I’m curious about your stance and why you have it.

    [Response: I don’t have a stance. The sun is obviously a key boundary condition, which we clearly don’t have much predictive ability for. – gavin]

  55. Anne van der Bom:

    Doug Bostrom,

    Thanks for this Don Easterbrook quote:

    There’s nothing we can do by stopping CO2 emissions that will affect climate in the next several hundred years. Nothing.

    He’s brilliant. He discovered what the point of stopping CO2 emissions is to not affect the climate.

  56. CM:

    Also in the news recently was a Large-Scale
    Assessment of the Effect of Popularity on the Reliability of
    Research
    in PLoS One. Pfeiffer and Hoffmann refer to theoretical
    concerns that research in “popular” fields may be less reliable (1)
    because of stronger incentives to “manufacture” positive results and
    (2) because multiple independent testing increases the chances of at
    least one group getting a positive result. And indeed, data-mining the
    literature for claims about yeast protein interactions they find inter
    alia that “that individual results … become less reliable with
    increasing popularity of the interacting proteins”. They suggest
    intensifying efforts at post-publication evaluation through wikis and
    suchlike. (No mention of the sterling work of RC, though.) This being
    hot off the press, by your argument we should perhaps reserve
    judgment, but: Any thoughts about the applicability to climate
    science?

  57. Barton Paul Levenson:

    Thanks, Vincent!

    Ed Davies wrote in to point out that I’d made a mistake in describing the nucleogenesis of carbon-14 in the lag paper–that has since been corrected.

  58. SqueakyRat:

    Case in point: any thoughts on this scary story about rainforest die-back?

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2009/0907.brown.html

  59. Jim Bouldin:

    re CM (55):

    I haven’t read the entire PLoS study (yet), and although the authors likely have a point, I would argue that whatever mistakes/errors are made in research on “popular” topics is relatively quickly identified as such, because of the number of people examining the topic. More problematic are those topics which are considered to be “backwater” areas, with relatively few people working on them. There, faulty methodological approaches, perhaps established early on, can go unexamined for long periods, such that mistakes of inference are perpetuated. This then becomes problematic whenever the less popular topic takes on a new importance because of new-found connections to other topics that are more popular or societally relevant, because others will take the results of the former and run with them. I’m dealing with this issue on two different fronts right now.

  60. Doug Bostrom:

    #52 EL:

    Dr. Easterbrook knows he’s taking a contrarian stance with attendant risks, he’s proud of it as we can tell by his war stories. It’s remarkable how cavalier he is about torching his own credibility with careless yet illuminating remarks of the kind I highlighted. I suppose he may not understand how poorly compartmentalized access to information is these days.

    What would be nice is if– when the New York Times or other popular media hand contrarians or anybody else a megaphone– they’d take a moment to help their readers assess those voices by means of a general credibility check. A general audience cannot necessarily process the science in play, but if an author is down on record disseminating untruths in his own words that’s a helpful hint about the author’s credibility and judgment.

    Unfortunately popular media has been crippled by the need of investors to get money without doing work, so that sort of depth of reporting is not available.

  61. David B. Benson:

    Ike Solem (41) & EL (54) — You might care to read Tung & Cabin (2008), available from Prof. Tung’s UW website, regarding the effect of the sunspot cycle on global surface temperatures. They find a more pronounced effect than climatologists before them

  62. CM:

    Jim Boulding (#59), thanks for your thoughts. It makes good sense to me that findings in “popular” fields would also attract more scrutiny tending to rectify errors quickly. As far as I can see this possible effect is not discussed in the PLoS article. Makes me wonder if their data-mining approach could be refined to identify not only what claims have been published but also whether and how fast such claims have been contested in the literature or even retracted.

  63. Rod B:

    a compliment of sorts: I haven’t been a reader of RC forever and could have missed them, but, I was surprised and it struck me that this thread, drew a lot of comments from people who seemed very capable and who I’ve never heard of or seen here before. Tells me there are a bunch of credible folks who monitor RC even though they’re not active posters. That they would do this speaks highly of RC, IMO.

  64. Mark:

    Also, is the PLoS article also being affected by the problem the PLoS article discusses?

  65. Jim Galasyn:

    Sort of OT, but:

    Trapping Carbon Dioxide Or Switching To Nuclear Power Not Enough To Solve Global Warming Problem, Experts Say

    …Bo Nordell and Bruno Gervet of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden have calculated the total energy emissions from the start of the industrial revolution in the 1880s to the modern day. They have worked out that using the increase in average global air temperature as a measure of global warming is an inadequate measure of climate change. They suggest that scientists must also take into account the total energy of the ground, ice masses and the seas if they are to model climate change accurately.

    The researchers have calculated that the heat energy accumulated in the atmosphere corresponds to a mere 6.6% of global warming, while the remaining heat is stored in the ground (31.5%), melting ice (33.4%) and sea water (28.5%). They point out that net heat emissions between the industrial revolution circa 1880 and the modern era at 2000 correspond to almost three quarters of the accumulated heat, i.e., global warming, during that period.

    So, global warming is caused by waste heat?

  66. Chris Dudley:

    Jim (#65),

    Here is a link to the article. http://www.inderscience.com/filter.php?aid=27100

    It seems to have some pretty sloppy thinking. For example, they claim that they have underestimated both their global heat accumulation and their net heat “emissions” so that their “missing” heat is underestimated. Hoever, increasing global heat accumulation would increase the “missing” heat so they seem to have one of their conclusions wrong in a rather obvious way.

    Increased radiative forcing from GHGs is much larger than our heat production, so it should not be too hard to find their main blunders.

  67. Chris Dudley:

    Opps, that should have been “so their ‘missing’ heat is overestimated”

  68. Lani:

    I’m sure you guys are busy, but if you wouldn’t mind, it would be great if you could respond to this article: “Could we be wrong about global warming?” http://blogs.usatoday.com/sciencefair/2009/07/could-we-be-wrong-about-global-warming.html

    This essay you wrote already addresses it generally, but more specific responses would be really helpful.

  69. Chris Dudley:

    Jim (#65),

    Looking a little closer at the paper you mentioned, there are some deep flaws in the authors’ thinking. They consider it to a common notion that the energy we produce is ultimately radiated to space but argue that this happens only rarely when a source is hot (street lighting?) but otherwise is mixed to ambient temperature and retained. They do not seem to understand is that it is heat at ambient temperature that is lost to space, rapidly, and that it is radiation from the Sun which replenishes that loss. Thus, contrary to their statement, one does want to compare heat we generate from fossil energy use with incoming solar energy. Upon comparison, it is seen that our energy use in negligible.

    Their core confusion seems to be in the idea of “retaining” heat. They go to some (sloppy) effort to calculate the extra heat in the earth system owing to warming using the heat capacity of the ground, oceans and air and treating ice melting as an effective heat capacity. But this holding of heat, the existence of a heat capacity, is not what is warming the surface. The surface is warming because heat can’t escape as readily owning to the chemical change in the atmosphere from introducing more greenhouse gases. Heat is being retained in the way a blanket retains heat, not in the way a thermal bath holds heat. It is being impeded in its flow. The manner of storage, while having an effect on how quickly we reach a new equilibrium temperature, is not important to the fact that the temperature is changing.

    Since they have misunderstood the problem, the numerical coincidence that they find between total fossil energy use, and heat capacity filled so far is merely that. Our energy use cannot account for the increase in surface temperature and thus can’t drive the storage of heat. There is no causation without the chemical effect on the atmosphere.

  70. Jim Galasyn:

    Chris, thanks for the summary.

  71. Hank Roberts:

    http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/2009/07/global_warming_is_shrinking_yo.html
    ….
    “… a new paper in Biology Letters comments on the fact that the larger sheep also tend to have darker coats than the smaller sheep. There is, say Shane Maloney, of the University of Western Australia, and colleagues, apparently a genetic link between coat colour and body size.

    This may be another reason for the decline of the larger, black sheep: “While in the past a dark coat has offset the metabolic costs of thermoregulation by absorbing solar radiation, the selective advantage of a dark coat may be waning as the climate warms in the North Atlantic,” the researchers write…..”

  72. Stephen:

    Just a heads-up: CBC Radio just aired an hour-long interview with someone named Lawrence Solomon on their show called “Ideas” last week. You can download the podcast here until August 21:
    http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/podcast.html (Episode is called “The Deniers”, July 21). Solomon trotted out almost every play in the denier book, including global warming on Mars, discrediting the hockey stick, grapes in England, recovery from the Little Ice Age, cosmic rays . . .

    I’m in the process of writing a lengthy letter of complaint to the CBC ombudsman. I’m waiting for some feedback from colleagues before I send it, but I would be happy to post it somewhere if anyone wants to read/critique it.