RealClimate logo

Resolving technical issues in science

One of the strengths of science is its capacity to resolve controversies by generally accepted procedures and standards. Many scientific questions (especially more technical ones) are not matters of opinion but have a correct answer.

Scientists document their procedures and findings in the peer-reviewed literature in such a way that they can be double-checked and challenged by others. The proper way to challenge results is, of course, also through the peer-reviewed literature, so that the challenge follows the same standards of documentation as did the original finding.

Such a challenge can either be in form of a new, independent paper, or in the form of a comment to a published paper. The latter is the appropriate avenue if the challenge is not based on new data (and is thus a piece of research in its own right), but is a criticism of the methods used in a paper.

Such technical comments are routinely published in journals, and RealClimate authors have of course also been involved in writing or receiving such comments. One prominent example was a comment in Science showing that a challenge by Von Storch et al. (2004) to the “hockey stick” climate reconstruction of Mann et al. (1998) “was based on incorrect implementation of the reconstruction procedure”. We discussed the implications on Realclimate after the comment appeared. Another recent example was a comment by Schmith et al. on a Science paper on sea level rise by Stefan, noting that he failed to account for the effect of smoothing on the autocorrelation in the data he used. In his response, Stefan acknowledged this mistake but showed that it does not affect his main conclusions.

That the original authors are allowed to respond to a comment in the same journal issue, and the comment’s authors get to consider this response before deciding to go ahead with their comment, are key hallmarks of a fair procedure, in addition to a neutral journal editor and independent reviewers overseeing the process. Even if the authors of comment and reply continue to disagree to some extent, this comment process in most cases resolves the issue to the satisfaction of the scientific community. It lays out the facts in a fair and transparent way and gives outsiders a good basis for judging whom is right. In this way it advances science.

There is however a different way of criticizing scientific papers that is prevalent in blogs like ClimateAudit. This involves challenging, ‘by all means necessary’, any paper whose conclusions are not liked. This can be based on simple typos, basic misunderstandings of the issues and ‘guilt by association’ though there is sometimes the occasional interesting point. Since these claims are rarely assessed to see if there is any actual impact on the main result, the outcome is a series of misleading critiques, regardless of whether any of these criticisms are in fact even valid or salient, that give the impression that every one of these papers is worthless and that all their authors incompetent at best and dishonest at worst. It is the equivalent of claiming to have found spelling errors in a newspaper article. Fun for a while, but basically irrelevant for understanding any issue or judging the worth of the journalist.

While commentary — even quite negative commentary — of papers on blogs is entirely reasonable (after all, we do it here occasionally), claims that a particular paper has been ‘discredited’ or ‘falsified’ that have not withstood (at minimum) the process of peer-review should be viewed with extreme skepticism. So should accusations of dishonesty or misconduct that have not already been conclusively and unequivocally substantiated.

This brings us to the recent claim by Hu McCulloch that a post on, detailing an error in Steig et al’s paper in Nature on Antarctic temperature change, was not given due credit by Steig et al. when they published a Corrigendum earlier this month. In this case, McCulloch’s comment on the paper were perfectly valid, but he chose to avoid the context of normal scientific exchange — instead posting his comments on — and then playing a game of ‘gotcha’ by claiming plagiarism when he wasn’t cited.

McCulloch accuses Steig et al. of appropriating his ‘finding’ that Steig et al. did not account for autocorrelation when calculating the significance of trends. While the published version of the paper didn’t include such a correction, it is obvious that the authors were aware of the need to do so, since in the text of the paper it is stated that this correction was made. The corrected calculations were done using well-known methods, the details of which are available in myriad statistics textbooks and journal articles. There can therefore be no claim on Dr. McCulloch’s part of any originality either for the idea of making such a correction, nor for the methods for doing so, all of which were discussed in the original paper. Had Dr. McCulloch been the first person to make Steig et al. aware of the error in the paper, or had he written directly to Nature at any time prior to the submission of the Corrigendum, it would have been appropriate to acknowledge him and the authors would have been happy to do so. Lest there be any confusion about this, we note that, as discussed in the Corrigendum, the error has no impact on the main conclusions in the paper.

There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism, and pointing out errors — even fairly minor ones — is important and useful. The difference, though, between people who want to find out something about the real world and people who just want to score political points, is what is made of those errors. That is the test of constructive scientific dialog. Specious accusations of fraud, plagiarism and the like don’t pass such a test; instead they simply poison the atmosphere to everyone’s loss.

217 Responses to “Resolving technical issues in science”

  1. 51
    Ike Solem says:

    P.S. For a mechanistic description of global warming, with solutions:

    We know that planetary surface temperatures are a function of their atmospheric composition (among other factors), and we know that adding IR-absorbing gases like CO2 and CH4 to the atmosphere increases the atmospheric absorption and reduces the outgoing radiative energy. Conservation of energy tells us that this must result in warming of the planet surface, and the absorption and re-radiation of infrared radiation by CO2 molecules is the specific mechanism responsible.

    We can measure the increase in atmospheric CO2 from pre-industrial times by various means, trapped air in ice being the main one. The key factor in the overall atmospheric CO2 increase is the net amount of fossil fuel burned; a secondary factor is the permanent conversion of high-carbon wetlands and forests to low-carbon agricultural soils.

    We know that the CO2 came mostly from fossil sources because we can measure the current abundance of carbon isotopes, and we observe that there is a great increase in 12C and 13C relative to the radioactive 14C species. That’s because 14C is formed by cosmic rays, and it decays away in the ground – you’ll find no 14C in your unleaded gasoline, so when you burn fossil fuels the CO2 dilutes the 14CO2 to lower levels.

    Notice that in the case of biomass removal (forest & wetland destruction), there is an increase in the total atmospheric CO2 due to biomass-to-CO2 conversion, but there is no change in the overall 14C ratio, as trees do not sequester carbon for millions of years. This allows us to estimate the fraction of the atmospheric CO2 increase that comes from fossil fuels – about 3/4, so far.

    We can get rough estimates of the magnitude and timescale of the resulting forced-warming effect using numerical physical models, and we can estimate the accuracy of models by comparing the results to observations over the relevant time scales. Here, we include CO2 as well as other radiative forcing components like aerosols, CH4, ozone, N2O, CFCs – and we see what the model does, and if it is similar to real-world observations.

    So, what are the effects of a warming atmosphere? A heated fluid in contact with another fluid or a solid transfers heat to it, so we can expect the ocean to warm up as well as the land surfaces, with natural variability imposed on such trends. The result is melting glaciers, shifts in precipitation patterns leading to droughts and floods in various regions, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, more extreme weather events – all part of a gradual but persistent and not-very-reversible trend, driven largely now by our continued reliance on fossil fuel combustion for energy production, which is starting to look kind of suicidal on several different levels.

    Of course, the technical fact of interest here is that you can produce energy in the absence of fossil fuels using a wide variety of techniques that don’t involve pumping any multi-million-year-old carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere as CO2 – or converting standing forests into CO2.

    It’s just that vested interests in fossil fuel production own entire governments and global media institutions, more or less, and a good chunk of them are either deep in denial, terrified of change, indifferent to the long-term picture, or some combination thereof. It’s obviously a situation that calls for international cooperation and serious government intervention in the behavior of the large energy cartels and their associated shareholders, isn’t it? At the very least, if they’re going to be handed $700 billion bailout packages, we could at minimum stipulate that it has to be invested in renewable energy.

  2. 52
    chris says:

    re #46,

    Since Dr. McCulloch was apparently fast and professional in retracting his letter to the editor, perhaps the authors should consider a mention of his contribution after the fact at Nature.

    Why? And what has it got to do with you, Jeff? Some scientists do some research and publish a paper. A correction is made. In the meantime various wannabe’s, armchair numerologists and self-important grandstanders pick and hack at the work, insult the scientists at a distance and play second-guessing games about their motives.[*] You seem to have the notion that you can wheedle into the scientific process, bestow upon yourself the role of arbiter of scientific niceties and give “holier than thou” advice about what the scientists should or shouldn’t do in their correspondence with other scientists and journal editors. Astonishing!

    [*] I hope it’s obvious that I’m not speaking about Dr. McCullough here.

  3. 53
    dhogaza says:

    I’m not talking about release of the code, Jeff and Ryan.

    I’m talking about this, by Jeff:

    I have seen many papers discredited and falsified in the past year in blogland and can’t for the life of me understand why alleged scientists would still claim with straight faces the hockey sticks are real. This point by itself calls into question the genuineness of the authors but we’re all familiar with that.

    “questioning the genuineness of the authors” is simply a polite way of suggesting they’re lying.

    So we need peer reveiw by others with greater authority now to see when plagiarism happens. Perhaps we need police to see a car accident, or a fireman to see a fire?

    In other words, it is plagiarism. Unless you really believe that there are no fires without firemen or accidents without policemen, which I seriously doubt.

  4. 54
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: 47

    It’s interesting to read the two faces of Id. Thanks for the link.

  5. 55
    Bill DeMott says:

    As pointed out in the intro materials, many scientific journals have a comments and reply section in which readers can critically comment on articles and the authors reply is generally published in the same issue. I once served as an editor for such an exchange and had to do some research to find the best procedures for acting as editor and mediator. One interesing poinnt that I would have not considered without research is that both the comment and the reply should be peer-reviewed by opposing side as well as by reviewers without conflicts of interest. This worked well, as it helped insure that the commenters were not misrepresenting the position of the original article and the replying authors were not misrepresenting the position of the commenters.

    Many bloggers seem to think that peer-reviewers are likely to support (rubber stamp)just about any paper that supports earlier publications by reviewer or the reviewer’s broader “agenda.” This is often not the case. Often a reviewer will say: this only repeats older work by John Smith and me and is not worth publishing. Reviewers that support a particular hypothesis are also likely to recommend rejection of papers that support the same hypothesis but are scientifically weak or flawed. Of course, reviewers are often favorable when an author gratiously acknowledges the reviewer’s earlier contributions. It’s not a bad idea to anticipate who might be chosen to review your manuscript.

  6. 56
    Deep Climate says:

    #42 In accordance with Eric’s wishes, I’ll confine any further comments to more general observations. But discussion of the details of this particular case is welcome here:

    There seems to be confusion among the contrarians about what constitutes plagiarism. Obviously lack of proper acknowledgment is a key element; this is, however, not a sufficient condition for a finding of plagiarism. Rather the essence of plagiarism is the appropriation as one’s own, without acknowledgment, of another’s original idea, or expression of that idea.

    Identification of an error in calculation, or in the mundane execution of the explicit methodology, within another’s work can never rise to the level of originality required for such a finding.

    To me that is a guiding principle that should be recognized on all sides. Yes? No? Maybe? It depends?

  7. 57
    David Weisman says:

    I understand that most of the current climate models in use take into the account the effects of the sunspot cycle on climate.

    I understand (but am not absolutely sure, correct me if I’m wrong) that while these corrections are smaller than those demanded by the deniers, they are larger than would be expected due to the fact that Solar radiation is reduced by about a tenth of a percent during certain periods.

    Has any research been done on WHY the change in radiation frequency and variation accompanying the solar cycle has a disproportionate effect?

  8. 58
    Joe says:

    I think that RC here portrays an overly positive view of the scientific method and peer review. If the question is about climate 100 years on from now, the scientific method will not provide that correct answer before the 100 years have passed.

    Indulgence, I say.

    [Response: Not at all. You won’t know the right answer before then, but the correct projection may well have already been made. If science meant just waiting for something to happen, it would hardly have had the success it has. – gavin]

  9. 59
    Ike Solem says:

    “Rather the essence of plagiarism is the appropriation as one’s own, without acknowledgment, of another’s original idea, or expression of that idea.”

    Plagiarism is just a form of deception – but for the really outrageous behavior, take a look at the recent American Petroleum Institute memo put up on the Financial Times website, regarding plans to stage extensive ‘grassroots rallies’ at several dozen locations across the U.S.:

    At the rallies, we will focus our message on two points: the
    adverse impacts of unsound energy policy (e.g., Waxman-Markey-like legislation, tax increases, and access limitations) on jobs and on consumers’ energy costs. And we will call on the Senate to oppose unsound energy policy and “get it right.”

    Recent opinion research that Harris Interactive conducted for API demonstrates that our messages on Waxman-Markey-like legislation work extremely well and are very persuasive with the general public and policy influentials.”

    Really, such ‘astroturf’ groups should be forced to register as lobbyists and clearly acknowledge their financial support. For example, you can see A list of lobbying firms hired by API to go to work on Congress – but where is their list of astroturf lobbyists for this kind of activity:

    We have identified 11 states with a significant industry presence and 10 other states where we have assets on the ground. We also have attracted allies from a broad range of interests: the Chamber of Commerce and NAM , the trucking industry, the agricultural sector, small business, and many others, including a significant number of consumer groups

    What ‘assets’ are they talking about? How about this:

    To be clear, API will provide the up-front resources to ensure logistical issues do not become a problem. This includes contracting with a highly experienced events management company that has produced successful rallies for presidential campaigns, corporations and interest groups.

    If anyone had claimed that an operation of this scale was being conducted without access to this memo, they’d be ridiculed as ‘conspiracy theorists’ by the API, wouldn’t they? In any case, the API CEO is open to questions:

    Don’t hesitate to call me with questions.
    All the best,
    Jack N. Gerard
    President & CEO

    For that contact info:

    Our “must-answer” line during normal business hours is 1.202.682.8114. On weekday evenings, weekends and holidays,
    please call 1.202.682.8038 for the media relations duty officer.

    You can also contact us via e-mail at

    News Media Contacts

    Bill Bush 202.682.8069
    Robert Dodge 202.682.8127
    Cathy Landry 202.682-8122
    Karen Matusic 202.682.8118 (habla español)
    Judy Penniman 202.682.8025

    Director: Kathy Lewis 202.682.8010

    Vice President: Jim Craig 202.682.8120

    I’m sure they’ll explain everything.

  10. 60
    Hank Roberts says:

    David– yes. Put “solar” in the Search box at the top of the page.
    Put any of the papers discussed into Google Scholar to update it.
    Short answer: small effect, rainfall changes, show up.

    You’ll find a vast amount of stuff ranging from speculative to wacko out there.
    If you use Scholar, it will help you filter the needles from the haystacks.
    Look for papers that have been cited by more recent papers.

  11. 61
    David B. Benson says:

    Antarctic Glacier Thinning At Alarming Rate:

  12. 62
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Every generation of science has its own culture. Five years ago, the culture of climatology said that “big ice” changed slowly. In those days, one could not publish a paper that said, “the Arctic sea ice is about to collapse” or “the Pine Island Glacier is about to thin rapidly”, or “methane is about to bubble up out of the sea” because anybody that put forth such a model would be considered a “silly alarmist”. And, in that climate community of 5-years ago, “alarmist” was the worst epithet spoken. Now, we need some of those alarmists, and here is why.

    Forget all the IPCC sunshine, let’s throw something at the denialists that they can get really worked-up over. If we had a few alarmist physicists forging out ahead, crying “doom and destruction”, the denialists would be chasing them, and thereby leave the IPCC to do its work.

    The truth of the matter is that the loss of the Arctic sea ice was the result of warming ocean waters. The methane bubbling up is the result of a warming ocean current. The Larson breakup was the result of a warming ocean current. The thinning of the Pine Island Glacier is the result of a warming ocean current. (warming ocean currents on either side of the WAIS). We have just reported record warm oceans, as an El Nino starts.

    Here is the plan: Let’s tell the denialists that in five years they will be able to see the effects of warm ocean currents melting the bottom of the WAIS! If they don’t turn pale and start sweating then we have not told enough of a story. The denialists will start chasing whoever says that, and leave the climatologists alone.

  13. 63

    While your post might be news to some people, I still do not think that the accusation was worth the dignity of a response. I can tell you from experience that the hardest thing to do when someone makes false or misleading accusations, is to stay silent.

    That said, it’s usually the smartest thing to do.

    Eventually your accusers will do nothing but dig a deeper hole, make even wilder accusations, and look silly. (Not that “silly” would be easy to spot in the mountain of junk science on some of these per D. Archer: “politics dressed up as science” sights.)

  14. 64
    Deep Climate says:

    What should scientists do? Wait for Fox News or the Wall Street Journal to publicize the accusations, or for some Republican congressman to call for an investigation? You should not underestimate the skill of those making wild accusations or “silly” arguments for political ends, especially when they hire the most effective unethical PR talent money can buy to do it. (See Ike’s post above, for example).

    Enough is enough. As I already observed, Eric Steig’s response was gracious and mild, but some response was certainly necessary.

  15. 65
    Jacob Mack says:

    Professor Mann,
    thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer the question posed and provide additional sources and answers.

  16. 66
    Chris Dudley says:

    Aaron (#62),

    Perhaps not five years ago, but two, when discussing the problem of projecting too small a range of possible climate effects, James Hansen suggested 5 meters of sea level rise this century.

    He does get attacked by some quite a bit and he himself may turn out to have been too reticent, but we are getting some of what you are asking for. But, I think it does take the kind of careful work that Hansen puts in to attract the attention of his attackers. Having someone just say a similar thing without intellectual support would not attract attention because it really would be alarmist in the way they try to tar Hansen; that is: crying wolf rather than responsibly informing us what the risk is.

    We are in situation where there are very immediate consequences for some very wealthy and powerful people if we attempt to avert disaster to occur later for very many more people. These people are the origin of the time wasting. They think in terms of power and thus attack where they think they can inflict the most damage to the threat to their power. It would be very difficult to distract them with strong claims that have little support. Their minions, perhaps, might be distracted for a bit but not long enough to make a difference of do anything serious to drain their resources.

  17. 67
    Sanderson says:

    Geoengineering is a method of launching giant (Empire State Building size) rockets carrying megaton payloads of reactive light blocking agents, and it could easily initiate Carl Sagan’s “nuclear winter” scenario, as described very vividly in his book “A Path Where No Man Thought.” In fact that’s what it is. Fighting the worsening effects of pollution by creating even more pollution is like an arms race with the elements.

  18. 68
    Oakden Wolf says:

    I’m coming very late to the discussion here, henceforth my contribution is likely to be relatively unnoticed, but I feel I have to point something out. One of the issues here is that there was actually an error in an IMPORTANT paper that required correction. Even though the authors discovered the error — and corrected it — using proper scientific procedure and channels, the error was found, discussed, publicized, amplified, promulgated, twisted, abused: to ultimately became another arrow in the quiver of those (MM) who are seeking to bring down the scientific edifice of our understanding of global climate change and its driving factors, mainly to service their political ends. By the time the correction hit the presses — by the time the statement was made that the basic findings in the original paper were correct and unaffected — this process of promulgation basically resulted of the online populace (who are unfortunately easily convinced of such things if they are aligned with their inherent cognitive structures) into dismissing the entire conclusions of the paper because someone found a mistake in it.

    Yes, you commented on this: “… that give the impression that every one of these papers is worthless and that all their authors incompetent at best and dishonest at worst.”

    That’s the impression they want to convey. That’s the impression that they want to convince their public is correct. We’ve seen these tactics before — but at the speed of blog, they are very effective. What I don’t know is what counter-strategy could be devised to counter these misinformation tactics. The Obama administration is suffering such problems on health care reform and is setting up a Web site to counter the egregious misstatements (and beyond). The same thing is going to happen with the energy bill, and there are going to be agenda-driven town halls on that, too (Matt Nisbet has recently commented on this, and Al Gore will be leading some, apparently).

    There are many good Web sites that refute the repeated legends of climate change erroneousness and misunderstanding — but the people that need to read them and understand them don’t and can’t. These same people think that Ian Plimer’s recent book and “The Great Global Warming Swindle” are accurate. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    So here’s a modest proposal (and I’m not Jonathan Swift). A reality-based TV show (or Webcast) where a group of actual climate skeptics come to real science class about climate. In each episode, one or two or three of the most popular circulating misconceptions is presented by one of the skeptics to the instructors of the class. The instructors calmly, methodically, and systemically deconstruct the misconception, explain why its wrong, and then explain the proper and correct scientific understanding of that particular topic. After the whole class (8-10 episodes), the skeptics are then asked to honestly assess what they think about climate change now. (Kinda like “The Biggest Loser” — which one of the skeptics attending the class would end up being the “biggest loser” of their host of climate change misconceptions? Of course, there would have to be an emotional angle, but I can leave that to the producers.)

    I’m really not kidding. I think this would help. And you could start with Clark et al. “The Last Glacial Maximum”, Science, Science 7 August 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5941, pp. 710 – 714, and why it DOESN’T refute that CO2 was the main global temperature driver of glacial and interglacial transitions. I.e., kill the “CO2 lags, not leads” meme once and for all, willya?

    In order to really change the way information is flowing, there has to be a serious change in tactics. My suggestion is just an idea; but there need to be some serious, useful, workable ideas out there. Time’s wasting.
    We aren’t going to get the public to accept the need for an alternate energy future without some tactics that have impact.

  19. 69
    Phillip Huggan says:

    Is anyone or has anyone computer modelled the climate effect of a melted Arctic Ocean next decade? The Canadian Prairies produce a great deal of grain. At a 2007 agri-policy meeting, one farmer told me I was nuts to worry about this as it wouldn’t melt for 100 years; they aren’t prepared for any potential climate and weather alterations.
    IDK if Arctic Ocean is big or warm or “rotates on axis” enough to regularly spawn new weather systems, but at the very least I’d expect alterations in existing summer weather patterns, maybe even south of 49th.
    Same for Eurasia. Because of rich people and Neocons we may not even get the chance to begin storing wheat…

  20. 70
    Fred Magyar says:

    Thomas says:

    (16) Yes, the imperfections in our thinking processes are important, and should be an area of required study. If I had my way, their study would be a requirement of citizenship at least as far as it is associated with the ability to affect the policymaking process.

    Perhaps it should more importantly be a requirement for anyone intending to become a policymaker… though it would probably eliminate about 95% of the current crop.

  21. 71
    Ike Solem says:

    See the ABC coverage of the recent Mann et. al paper on hurricane frequency:

    Actually seems like good, wide-ranging coverage of a complex topic:

    Mann and his coauthors from the University of Massachusetts and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution studied eight coastal locations where hurricanes make frequent landfall — seven in the U.S. and one in Puerto Rico. From these samples, they extrapolated the frequency of ancient storms. The North Atlantic has produced an average of 17 storms a year during the past decade — twice the number from most years in the last millennium, according to the study.

    If you want some background discussion on this:

    The proxy used is more reliable than the tree-ring isotope approach, and using mulitple sites is always better than relying on a single location. They also get a match between their proxy and their model, always encouraging.

    Currently, sea surface temperatures globally are peaking at record levels, with the Gulf of Mexico among the warmest, and perhaps a developing subsurface warm pool as well. However, El Ninos are supposed to increase wind shear across the region – but anomalous ENSO behavior is becoming more common (i.e. Australian droughts during La Nina?). Here are the ssts and ohcs:

    According to NOAA:

    Each hemisphere broke its June record for warmest ocean surface temperature. In the Northern Hemisphere, the warm anomaly of 1.17 degrees F (0.65 degree C) surpassed the previous record of 1.12 degrees F (0.62 degree C), set in 2005. The Southern Hemisphere’s increase of 0.99 degree F (0.55 degree C) exceeded the old record of 0.92 degree F (0.51 degree C), set in 1998.

    The global land surface temperature for June 2009 was 1.26 degrees F (0.70 degree C) above the 20th century average of 55.9 degrees F (13.3 degrees C), and ranked as the sixth-warmest June on record.

  22. 72
    Boris says:


    Your post on The Air Vent is pretty shameful. All sorts of wild speculation and questioning of motives. You keep presenting different ways that Eric and Real Climate could still be lying. If the facts don’t fit your accusations, you mold your accusations to fit the new facts. Since actual discrediting won’t due, you’ve resorted to insinuations and soap opera theorizing.

    This is the “skeptics” A game? This is the best you guys have got?

    [Response: Thanks for the support, but that’s enough on this. Some people might enjoy blogo-a-blogo p***ing matches but they can indulge in that elsewhere. – gavin]

  23. 73
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Global ocean surface temperature breaks 1998 record

    The planet’s ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for July, breaking the previous high mark established in 1998 according to an analysis by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. The combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for July 2009 ranked fifth-warmest since world-wide records began in 1880. …

  24. 74
    Ray Ladbury says:

    It really shouldn’t need saying, but evidently it does: You don’t do science on blogs. At their worst, they provide an echo chamber for reinforcing misinformation. However, even at their best, blogs serve to educate those who frequent them. They may add to the knowledge of individuals, but they do not increase the sum total of human knowledge as science must do. Unfortunately, it is the misinformation echo chambers who have the least recognition for this fundamental fact.

  25. 75
    Eli Rabett says:

    Depends on how high up the retraction is pushed in Google (hint)

  26. 76
    Chris Dudley says:

    Ike and Jim (#71 and #73),

    The GISS data have June and July Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index as the second highest on record.

  27. 77

    Dan Satterfield wrote in 63:

    While your post might be news to some people, I still do not think that the accusation was worth the dignity of a response. I can tell you from experience that the hardest thing to do when someone makes false or misleading accusations, is to stay silent.

    That said, it’s usually the smartest thing to do.

    Dan, I can hear what you are saying, but that was precisely the sort of advice a certain presidential contender took when people successfully tarred his reputation with the swiftboat attacks. [edit]

    [Response: OT. No responses please. – gavin]

  28. 78
    Joe Hunkins says:

    You don’t do science on blogs.

    True but I think unfortunate. At their best, blogs like RC become research “water coolers” where informal yet productive discussions can clarify and enhance complex topics, even for experts but mostly for those of us eager to understand why well-informed experts sometimes disagree.

    Unfortunately the mutual disrespect of CA and RC posters and commenters diminishes that potential and I don’t see a solution.

  29. 79
    David B. Benson says:

    As I understand this tempest in a teapot, there was a failure to understand that

    the Internet is best effort and there are no guarantees of delivery.

    While usually the internet informs one if e-mail delivery is postponed or impossible, this is not always the case. Furthermore, as various firealls and so on go into place, there is increased possiblity of internal nondelivery (without notification) or a similar problem at the receiving end.

    Ergo, don’t attempt to send the same e-mail 6 times. If no response after 2 attempts, use the postal service or the telephone.

  30. 80
    Thomas says:

    74 Ray.
    I’m in the process of reading Unscientific American. It is clear that the normal channels of communicatio between science and the public are not working well, and the destruction of the old publishing business model is rapidly destroying some of the few remaining ones. It is clear we need to create new ones. Any suggestions other than blogs?

  31. 81
    Fred Magyar says:

    At the very least, if they’re going to be handed $700 billion bailout packages, we could at minimum stipulate that it has to be invested in renewable energy.

    Comment by Ike Solem @51

    Unfortunately I believe that would be somewhat akin to giving the foxes money then suggesting they build chicken coops with anti fox safety hatches.

  32. 82
    Martin Vermeer says:

    > the mutual disrespect of CA and RC posters and commenters
    False equivalence… “equal rights for cops and robbers”.

  33. 83

    #73, Jim, the upper air was also measured very warm, all from a quite modest El-Nino. Significant data destroying all notions that the climate is cooling.

  34. 84
    Samuel Watterson says:

    The ideas of “a neutral journal editor” and “independent reviewers” are nice ideas – but they don’t exist in reality. Even the best editors and reviewers will not claim to be truly “neutral” or “independent”, though the worst probably would claim this.

    The reason this needs mentioned, is not to discard the process, but to highlight that the process must be considered in this light, if it is to be useful. Science is only as good (unbiased) as the scientists, sadly.

  35. 85
    Dale Power says:

    RE: Oakden Wolf’s modest proposal.

    This should not be lost in the normal shuffle!

    “So here’s a modest proposal (and I’m not Jonathan Swift). A reality-based TV show (or Webcast) where a group of actual climate skeptics come to real science class about climate. In each episode, one or two or three of the most popular circulating misconceptions is presented by one of the skeptics to the instructors of the class. The instructors calmly, methodically, and systemically deconstruct the misconception, explain why its wrong, and then explain the proper and correct scientific understanding of that particular topic. After the whole class (8-10 episodes), the skeptics are then asked to honestly assess what they think about climate change now. (Kinda like “The Biggest Loser” — which one of the skeptics attending the class would end up being the “biggest loser” of their host of climate change misconceptions? Of course, there would have to be an emotional angle, but I can leave that to the producers.)”

    This is the kind of idea that has a chance of actually working.

    What if (to encourage audience participation) the theme was changed to allow an audience “vote” (like American Idol?) on what which ‘student’ seems to grasp the ideas presented best in their summary at the end of the show?

    They could gain points or ranking as the show went on, with those not learning well enough being voted off the show (last place drops off every show, leaving the last ‘man’ or woman, but most of the really loud climate denial people seem to be men for some reason, standing and winning the prize?)

    There should be some prize worth having…

    Just throwing ideas out.

    Any climate scientists willing to play teacher for such a project?

    Whatever is done, it has to happen soon, and it is the social responsibility of every single person to do everything we can! If the people that know wont take some small risks to inform the masses, then we have already lost.

    *I would like to fully credit Oakden wolf with this idea and hope to fully deflect any later charges of plagiarism.

  36. 86
    John Ritson says:

    Re #41

    Your comment “Only Nature decides, not people. Scientists are the people who figure out Nature.” almost makes me regret letting my subscription lapse.

  37. 87
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Samuel Watterson says, “Science is only as good (unbiased) as the scientists, sadly.”

    Ah, but the plural in “scientists” is important, because the biases of individual scientists tend to be diluted by requiring consensus. Moreover, science tends to reward those scientists who can put aside their personal agendas and make decisions based on evidence. Put another way, science is the best remedy we have for the human illness of telling ourselves comforting lies.

  38. 88
    Susan Anderson says:

    Terrific discussion. Returning from life’s complexities to RC, I read with interest the attempt to address questions posed by those eels the pseudo-skeptics.

    41. Greisch – very well put (also Chris and many others);
    I’m a fan of Chris Mooney, but his most recent book, to my eye a natural progression to a call to action, was not as rich. It is short and sweet and affirms what we’ve all experienced. I missed the thorough detail in his two earlier (Republican War on Science and the less polemical detailed and thorough history of hurricanes and hurricane research, Storm World, which is a great read). Those interested might like to follow his blog:

    He appears to be having a debate about approach which has drawn the fire of some rigid opponents to religion who seem to miss the point that their anger about the issue is fueling the ignorance of others.

    On trolls, two observations:
    (1) among the excruciatingly boring expose of repetitive ignorance posing as plausible knowledge are kernels of knowledge; I found my thick skull beginning to thin a bit as the explanations multiplied, so I began to understand a bit about the fluctuations and mechanics of water vapor.

    (2) One should be wary of providing practice to political opponents of reality-based science on creating the appearance of plausibility. It struck me that the arguments began to appear more reasonable though they did not become so. It’s a tricky business, but all over the web on multiple issues there is an increase in literacy and courtesy among the deniers, as they’ve realized illiteracy and hate speech only preach to the converted.

    Try parking a car or typing by the gestalt method, doing it until it feels right. It doesn’t work on real things!

  39. 89

    I’m not sure anymore which thread had the discussion on humidity in a warming world, but for those who haven’t seen it yet, there’s a report out on a new study (Santer is an author) showing that models robustly capture an anthropogenic increase in water vapor content. Report at:

  40. 90
    Walter Manny says:

    Ray, you state without argument that “the biases of individual scientists tend to be diluted by requiring consensus”. That is a pretty spectacular generalization, and one which could easily be misinterpreted. In particular, a scientist with a healthy bias, i.e. one informed by the facts as she understands them, is not going to fare well against the consensus. Surely you would acknowledge that the urge to scientific consensus is not without its downside, and perhaps you would care to be more specific in your support of it. — Walter

  41. 91
    Craig Allen says:

    Kevin, that article contains the fascinating statement:

    “the scientists first took each [of the 22] model[s] and tested it individually, calculating 70 different measures of model performance. These “metrics” provided insights into how well the models simulated today’s average climate and its seasonal changes, as well as on the size and geographical patterns of climate variability.”

    Hopefully this will be presented somewhere accessible.

  42. 92
    Hank Roberts says:

    From Susan Anderson’s two excellent points on trolls, just above:

    > the arguments began to appear more reasonable though they did not become so.

    From Walter Manny:

    > a scientist with a healthy bias, i.e. one informed by the facts …

    From Michael Tobis, at his blog, on Pielke Sr.

    > It still isn’t clear … what the word “bias” means in the recent work.

    From James Annan, replying to Michael there:

    > “bias” is a key concept to the series of papers.
    > It’s pea-under-the-thimble stuff.

    Watch this stuff.

    Michael Tobis warned clearly some years ago on his blog about the tactic of persisting with inapt and innumerate questions with the intention of exhausting the scientist’s patience and drawing a sharp putdown that could be hung up as a trophy.

    (That’s why many of us ordinary readers try to step in and catch some of the dum-dum stuff, to spare the scientists’ time for actual questions meriting a thoughtful answer rather than a pointer to the FAQ)

    The tactic only gets more effective with the kind of help that trolls are getting, as Susan observes — better bait, better trolled, more effective.

    Another reason blogging may be getting used up.

    Another argument for finding a programmer who can write a blog tool that allows easily dividing posts in response threads into what John Mashey has called “shadow threads” — a strand for serious thought, and a strand for the stuff not worth attention that distracts from cooperative thinking.

    Without some improvement like that, blogging won’t do the job going forward, and the alternative, improving the journals, will take similar work.

  43. 93

    Walter, I think Ray’s point is solid.

    For instance, I’ve been reading about the history of chemistry. There was bias against Lavoisier’s rejection of the theory of phlogiston, Dalton thought Berzelius’ system of chemical notation–basically, what we use today–barbarous, and Dalton’s own atomic theory took about 50 years to become thoroughly accepted. Time and again, the truth has prevailed against the biases even of great scientists.

    IMO, it’s happening again in climate science, as objection after misconception after alternate explanation to AGW fails. (Of course, the blogosphere reanimates them as zombie science, but that’s a sideshow in the end, scientifically speaking. It’s not so clear that that’s true in the policy realm, unfortunately, though I’m guardedly optimistic.)

  44. 94

    (Besides, the whole point of scientific culture is to exalt what you call “healthy bias”–ie., utmost respect for the facts–as the normative ideal. To the extent to which that ideal is realized, “biased in favor of the facts” is a nonsensical phrase, since “bias” should describe a departure from the norm, not the norm itself.

    (Why you would call this “bias” at all is an interesting question. Is your prime axiom “AGW is false,” with the corollary being “Ergo, the consensus is (“unhealthily”) biased?”

    (Don’t forget that the GHG hypothesis had to make its way against the current of bias for a full century, if you start with Tyndall–a half century or so if you start with Arrhenius.)

  45. 95
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Thomas and Joe,
    The whole subject of how to facilitate public science literacy in a country where more people believe in angels than evolution is quite frankly depressing. This goes well beyond any mutual contempt between any two websites. It goes to the very heart of whether policy can be science based. Unless you believe that everything we understand about climate is wrong–not uncertain, but wrong–then the evidence that we face a credible and severe threat is certainly sufficient to argue for extreme caution. Indeed, the calculus of the uncertainty even argues for more extreme caution.

    Personally, I think what is needed is another model for writing about science–something where they don’t just sell controversy, but rather emphasize the process of discovery. Will that hold the attention of the average reader? I don’t know, but if we can’t figure out a way to make the avarage citizen sufficiently science literate to vote the interests of him and his progeny, that doesn’t bode well for democracy or civilization.

  46. 96
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Walter, since scientific consensus must of necessity be evidence-based, I’m not sure how a scientist who forms his or her understanding based on the facts and the underlying science can come into conflict with scientific consensus. The only ways I can see are:
    1)Said scientist doesn’t have a firm grasp of the science and is trying to fit an incomplete set of facts into that flawed understanding.
    2) The thousands of scientists independently assessing the facts all come to THE SAME flawed understanding of the system.

    Which of these do you think is more likely?

  47. 97
    Walter Manny says:

    Thanks, Ray et al,

    While I understand that climate science is the subject here, I am speaking more to the more general notion of individual scientists who must buck the establishment to get something new in there — Kevin uses examples of scientists challenging other individual scientists, I have used Darwin against Thomson as an example here before. Thomson, surely, was the holder of the consensus at the time. Perhaps not. The challenging of consensus is easy to see in hindsight, though, and not easy at all to see in the moment. One way or the other, scientists will chuckle at our misconceptions decades from now — an interesting question to me is: what exactly will they have been impressed by and what will they laughingly find to be history repeating itself? Otherwise stated, and back to the topic a bit, I would hope the modelers keep doing their thing, and that the skeptics keep doing theirs, without so much of the name-calling on both sides, which misbehavior I also acknowledge might be a necessary part of the whole deal.

    Somewhat tangentially, you like to point to the unlikelihood of any new factors upsetting the AGW applecart, that what we know now is good enough or “the best science available” I think you once put it. I have a harder time believing predictions about the impact of things we do not yet understand. To your question, though, if it’s leaning towards climate science, 1) is bit of a set-up, since there is more than one challenger but 2) is obviously “more likely”, though I do not use the two words in the IPCC sense :) -Walter

  48. 98
    SecularAnimist says:

    Hank Roberts wrote: “Another argument for finding a programmer who can write a blog tool that allows easily dividing posts in response threads into what John Mashey has called ‘shadow threads’ — a strand for serious thought, and a strand for the stuff not worth attention that distracts from cooperative thinking.”

    I guess it would be a sort of progress for blogs to have the kind of tools that USENET had years ago.

    And “trolling” was old when USENET was young.

    I suppose it goes back to Ogg the caveman heading down to the watering hole to pick a fight and grunting the equivalent of “yo mama” until he found one.

  49. 99
    chris says:

    re #90:

    Walter, I love your response to Ray’s comment since it illustrates the wonderfully different conclusions that arise from differing semantic interpretations.

    Arguing against Ray’s point that “the biases of individual scientists tend to be diluted by requiring consensus” ….

    ….you say: “In particular, a scientist with a healthy bias, i.e. one informed by the facts as she understands them, is not going to fare well against the consensus.”

    This bears directly upon the meaning of “consensus” and “bias”! I (and I suspect Ray, but he can correct me if I’m wrong) considers “consensus” to mean something like “prevailing viewpoint arising from an informed assessment of increasingly strong evidence”. Thus a consensus arises when the evidence becomes strongly supportive of a particular interpretation. Your use of “consensus” suggests (to me anyhow), some sort of uninformed collective viewpoint.

    And on Ray’s use of “bias”. I would consider that “bias” in Ray’s context, is bias resulting from pre-conceptions, confirmation bias, poor choice of experiment, etc., and might even include subtle and not so subtle data manipulation/selection.

    So if I were to paraphrase Ray’s argument it would be something like: “The physical world has an extant reality. Any element of this may be misinterpreted by individual scientists as a result of various bias, but reality will “out” as more studies bear on the problem. As the combination of these studies uncover the reality, this becomes the consensus.” In general the consensus (in this definition) is likely to be correct.

    Incidentally, the manner in which scientific consensus develops underlies to me the rather tedious nature of nonsense under discussion on this thread. The study by Steig et al is (in my opinion) nothing like the last word on this subject. It is a so-far small piece of evidence in the entire edifice of our understanding of natural/forced climate responses. We don’t really know conclusively the temperature history of the Antarctic of the last 50 years. Steig et al provides one piece of evidence; in particular it suggests that the Antarctic is unlikely to have cooled over this time – more likely it’s warmed somewhat. No doubt this study will stimulate further work and in time we’ll be sufficiently informed that a consensus will form on this little piece of science. It seems totally unnecessary for groups of wildebeeste to wait for every study that comes out and attempt to trample this under a barrage of numerological nit-picking, misrepresentation and insult.

  50. 100
    Rod B says:

    Ike, Fred M: One could argue it could always be more I suppose, but the portion of the $700-800 stimulus package directed toward climate mitigation (directly or indirectly) looks like it’s approaching 15% — not much to sneeze at. From my scan I saw nothing going directly to the big bad oil companies (except possibly for those that are getting into renewable energy and such.)