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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. 201
    zephyr says:

    I have a question which has probably been answered before but I’d like to ask anyway. It’s purely anecdotal. I live in California, inland. I’ve not followed climate issues for awhile. Anyway, generally summers have been quite hot around here. Now I realize that summer is not over however I’ve noticed that this summer is not as hot as previous summers. In fact we’ve been having some positively cool weather in the mornings and evenings. We all know that glaciers and ice near the poles are melting. Could the low temps be due to evaporative cooling? IOW, artificial cooling such that once the ice is gone, which we hear is not too far away, we will find ourselves positively roasting?

  2. 202
    dhogaza says:

    And therefore saying “you must, however, work to answer them” is a complete waste of time.

    Chris’s two posts were in regard to the process of publishing scientific work, and of course, if you want your work published, you’re going to have to work to answer questions put forth by reviewers.

    He wasn’t saying anything about arguing with deniers.

    Once again, read closely, for comprehension, before shooting from the hip.

  3. 203
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Zephyr, I don’t think it’s likely. I looked at the energy needed to melt the couple of trillion tonnes of ice we’ve lost globally in the last few years, and it’s a small percentage of incident energy. We’ve just had a rather protracted solar minimum and 1998 was a fairly deep La Nina. OTOH, Australia and the oceans are hotter ‘n hades. It’s weather. If you see things lasting 30 years, maybe it’s climate.

  4. 204
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Mark (200),

    What the hell? As Chris and Dhogaza have pointed out, Chris’ original post was–inspired by the links Hank had posted–related to getting a Comment (or Letter to the Editor) published in a journal. He’s not talking about the propaganda war of the deniers, or our response to it, OK? He’s talking about what approach we scientists should take when journal Editors in Chief, and/or reviewers, make difficult, confusing, and/or contradictory requests to those submitting such Comments. You might find that you’ll learn something about some issues scientists deal with if you read Hank’s links and Chris’ comments. Now excuse me while I get back to responding to the latest round of reviewers’ comments to my GRL Comment originally submitted about a year ago now.

  5. 205
    Ike Solem says:

    Here’s a question: Why does the government finance scientific study of weather and climate in the first place? What does the public and the government expect from climate and weather studies?

    The answer is obvious, but often ignored – namely, the goal is to provide quality information that people can base their decisions on.

    Now, we’ve discovered that pumping carbon out of the ground and into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, which warms the land and ocean, which results in more water vapor in the atmosphere, melting ice, rising sea levels, and shifts in local precipitation/evaporation ratios – meaning some people get flooded, some get hit with drought, as per Brazil and India, for example. The ever-more-tedious efforts to discredit these scientific results have all failed to alter the basic conclusions: fossil CO2 is warming the planet.

    If the government was listening to the scientists, would they keep dumping billions into new fossil fuel production schemes, while at the same time pushing a regulatory framework that increases fossil CO2 emissions? No, they wouldn’t – but that’s what is going on.

    The State Deparment just threw its weight behind Canadian tar sand exports to the U.S. (as well as behind increased reliance on African oil from Angola, Chad and Nigeria):

    The decision sat on Clinton’s desk for months, and with a stroke of the pen, she could have denied this expansion of dirty energy infrastructure. But today, the State Department issued the permit, committing the US to more CO2 emissions from oil, and committing Canada to more destruction of indigenous lands and Boreal forest. We brought the Tar Sands Monster to Clinton’s doorstep, generated thousands of phone calls and emails, but Clinton failed to make the right decision.

    Now, the government is claiming to be taking science into account on this decision:

    The State Department said it took greenhouse gas emissions into account when deciding to issue the permit, saying that the issue is best addressed through the domestic policies of the United States and Canada and through international agreements.

    Obviously, it is not. Tar sand is bitumen-rich mixture of sand, clay and heavy tar. To process, it is first heated with natural gas (fossil CO2 emissions) and then hydrogenated (even more fossil CO2 emissions) to produce a synthetic crude oil, which is then shipped to refineries that are set up to handle it. Tar sand consumes massive amounts of natural gas, and expansion requires an new gas pipeline – the Alaskan “Pipeline to the Tar Sands” backed by both Sarah Palin and Obama and Bush ($500 million from the state of Alaska plus and $18 billion guarantee from Congress).

    Put this next to the current administration’s continued promotion of previously initiated and scientifically bogus ‘clean coal projects’, and it is pretty clear that the rhetoric on energy independence and action on climate doesn’t match the reality of massive government subsidies for fossil fuel projects. The complete list of subsidies for renewable energy is still a tiny fraction of those for fossil fuels.

    If we move our gaze to the global scale, then it becomes clear that outside of obligate oil states like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has the worst climate policies on the planet, driven by a rather corrupt and dishonest governmental system that refuses to even look at the science generated by its own scientists.

    It defies logic – how does the State Department justify promoting fossil fuel project after fossil fuel project, all over the world, while at the same time the President is running around making speeches about the need to “roll back global warming” and “promote American energy independence?” Does the DOE agree with the State Department approach on energy policy, for example?

    Even more surprising is the fact that the Obama Administration refuses to consider allowing local communities to vote down tar sands refineries in their communities, because that would be in violation of NAFTA rules on international trade – which Obama promised to re-negotiate.

    Other than a slight increase in renewable energy R&D, there’s been almost zero change in U.S. energy policy since the last election. Curious indeed, isn’t it? Maybe a more focused political effort is needed to force government bureaucrats and politicians to listen to, and act on, the scientific results.

  6. 206
    Mark says:

    “Mark (200),

    What the hell? As Chris and Dhogaza have pointed out, Chris’ original post was–inspired by the links Hank had posted”

    And as I pointed out in 200 (you did read it, didn’t you?) I pointed out Chris misread my post.

    And you misread that too.

  7. 207
    Mark says:

    “Chris’s two posts were in regard to the process of publishing scientific work, and of course, if you want your work published, you’re going to have to work to answer questions put forth by reviewers.”

    Well, that’s true.

    It isn’t true that it applies here on a blog, a blog not being a published scientific work.

    I though you’d have noticed.

  8. 208

    Zephyr, further to Ray’s point, you’re correct about the cool summer–though more generally correct for the East than for your area. However, most of the world has been pretty warm–cooler temperatures have been seen over much of Eastern North America, but not in the Arctic, where the ice has actually been melting.

    Here’s a map:

  9. 209
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re 66: Comment 66 invokes the “philosophy” of the climate science community. I am going to take some space and address the problems with that philosophy. My case in point is the IPCC documents that are peer reviewed as science documents and then become a basis for public policy – a purpose the peer review did not contemplate.

    The IPCC missed (or worse did not report) the signs that the Arctic Sea Ice was about to decline, with all of the attendant follow-on feedbacks. We are at the edge of the error bars on most of the projections of global warming done by the IPCC after only a very short period. Thus, the IPCC broadly understated global warming and its immediate impacts. That is just as wrong as overstating the problem. This is serious because those IPCC projections are being used as long-term risk management baselines for public policy decisions, and the values of the numbers are incorrect. As a result society is under-estimating the risks, and under allocating resources.

    My comments to are really worth nothing against “the word” of the IPCC. When there is a consensus among the climate professionals that Arctic Sea Ice is not about to melt, then the warning of one amateur that the sea ice will melt soon is accorded the status of a New Yorker cartoon. California is not going to change the baseline for its Adaption Plan until a couple of years after another IPCC report is issued. Today, the loss of Arctic ice is reality. And, yet the IPCC 2007 numbers remain the basis of a major policy document.

    The warmest ocean in history is reality. We have an El Nino coming, so that means a warmer ocean in the near future. Both human infrastructure and the WAIS sit next to that warmer ocean. That means damage from storms driven by the latent heat and damage from rising sea level as the warmer water destabilizes the WAIS. Last summer, walrus died for lack of haul out ice. This time frame was not anticipated by the IPCC. We have sea bed methane clathrates decomposing as a result of warmer ocean waters. That timeframe was not anticipated by the IPCC. We have forests dying as a result of climate change. This time frame was not anticipated by the IPCC. ( )

    The failure of the IPCC to identify the proper timeframe for these climate effects does not give me any confidence what-so-ever that the climate science community will be able sound an appropriate alarm of the WAIS collapse prior to the event. I think the first warning of dramatic sea level rise will be a cascade of expletives as folks look at satellite images some morning, and see that parts of WAIS have already fallen into the sea.

    Hansen’s speculation of 5-meter per century sea level rise should have been backed up by geological observations of rapid sea level rise WITH comparisons of the climate forcings in those geologic periods with current and expected future climate forcings. This is a pointer to good science that nobody wants to follow. What does the rate of thinning of the Pine Island Glacier say about Hansen’s speculation? (Ten years ago, the Pine Island Glacier was supposed to last 600 years, now the estimate is 100 years.) The Larsen breakups were the same physics. Together, they say Hansen’s curves are the right shape! (Shallow, but the right shape.) This is another pointer to good science that nobody wants to follow. (It would be alarmist.)

    Who could have guessed that sea bed clathrates could decompose in 2008? Anybody that was watching the temperature of the oceans and thinking about the stability curves of clathrates. It was in the literature, but I do not see anything in the IPCC that says, “Stop warming the oceans before you melt the clathrates! And, by the way, you are basically out of time!” That should have been in big red letters on the cover of the last IPCC Summary for Policy Makers! (That would have been alarmist! Honest! but alarmist!) So much for NCAR as “Climate Watchman of the World”!

    So again and again, everybody is surprised at the speed of the effects of global warming because they did not believe the physics. Either that, or reticence is rampant. If you are reticent and do not tell the full truth to policy makers and the public, then you cannot blame them for not acting. Moreover, if you have played loose with the facts (over or under), you cannot blame anyone else for doing the same. Have you ever “tweaked” a model so the result was not so “alarmist”? Did you ever not publish the results of model runs because they were “alarmist”? Reticence is a form of denial. If you have indulged, then your hands are dirty.

    I am stating an issue of risk management. We have a risk issues that we are not monitoring and not addressing. It is a matter of policy makers understanding the issue and allocating resources.

    You can seriously expect that the changes in our ice over the next 5-years will be far greater than the changes we have seen over the last 5-years. Then, the changes in the next 5-years will be still greater. This is based on the observations that there is more heat in the oceans to transfer to the ice, there is more ice approaching its melting point, and ice near its melting point behaves in a nonlinear fashion as it absorbs additional heat. This is physics, but this is honest physics. This is physics in the category of, “4,000 walrus died this summer because they did not have Arctic ice to haul out on.”

    These effects are not out in some “Al Gore future”, where some economist can discount the cost to nothing. This is in the time frame of current contracts and leases. This is within the engineering life span of existing public infrastructure. This is a time frame that wealth and power is very interested in.

    If you (plural) explain the system, its honest physics, and effects clearly and slowly, everyone in the world will turn pale and sweat. Anybody that does not start sweating should recruited to fight forest fires, coming in the next few years to the US, Canada, and Siberia. These are not going to ordinary forest fires, they are going to be huge fires of dead wood that bake the soil, and inhibit forest regeneration. All the carbon in those lands will be released as CO2. We have not really seen such fires in our history.

    It is time for the Watchman to shake off his slumber and raise “The Alarm”.


    Still, Your Silly Alarmist

  10. 210
    Hank Roberts says:

    Mark, you derailed from the topic — resolving technical issues — right here:

    Mark says:
    20 August 2009 at 8:1 AM

    Chris 176: “Do the unreasonable experiments demanded by the reviewers, make the silly amendments they specify…or argue against these,”


    That is a REAL Sisyphean task….”

    Mark, then you went off into your usual rant about refuting blog errors.

    Please, focus.

    The topic is about publications.
    Chris is talking from direct personal experience — on the topic.
    Jim is talking from direct personal experience — on the topic.

    You’re talking about how vital your attacks on blog error are — off topic.

    Please, focus. Let us talk about the topic instead of about you.

  11. 211

    #175, Gavin, It seems ironic that there is not one DWT chart out there, surface temperatures are but a minuscule component at the very bottom of the entire atmosphere. If I just had access to a high speed computer and world wide data set from Upper Air stations, I would have the average temperature of the entire troposphere vs time, a handy simple graph, certainly leaving surface sensitivity for further interesting studies. But no effort in publishing DWT’s is a bit of a puzzle?

  12. 212
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Ike Solem 21 August 2009 at 10:10 AM

    The incoherence you describe in your post suggests to me that our civil society is following a well-worn path, repeated through history many times, an evolution leading to nearly hermetic compartmentalization of governmental units acting at cross-purposes and in many cases in competition with one another. What seems new in our segment of history is the addition of another set of entities quasi-governmental in their influence, those being large businesses and their associations such as (sorry to say again) ExxonMobil, Lockheed-Martin et al, working in harmony with some governmental departments and at odds with others. The net result seems post-Byzantine in its level of dysfunction.

  13. 213
    David Horton says:

    #209 Aoron I’m with you all the way. But I think your anger is directed at the wrong target. You say “As a result society is under-estimating the risks” but this is to completely reverse the reality of what is going on, has been going on for years. It is BECAUSE “society is under-estimating the risks” that the IPCC is constantly restrained into the lowest possible projections. The governments of the world that do not want serious action taken (a phrase that is essentially a tautology) have ensured that the IPCC (rather like Security Council resolutions) restricts itself to the minimal warning that the models predict, rather than to the mean, or, heaven forbid, the upper level. I mean if they started publicising what the science is really saying, the grim prognostications for this century that any of us with half a brain and a little scientific knowledge accept fully, then the average punter, might start demanding that their government’s act, seriously act to reduce GHG emissions. And then where would the corporations be?

  14. 214

    #175, My second try , somehow first message didn’t get through. I strongly believe that Density Weighted Temperature graphs of the entire world troposphere, whenever they may be available, will resolve the surface temperature sensitivity argument back to academic, rather than a political circles. May be requesting out of nowhere that someone creates a DWT map is too much wishing (I have to try harder), but vertical sun disk dimensions are formal, the atmosphere as a whole is warming at an uncalculated rate, I rather somehow that we pull some resources to make a formal DWGT graph, and break the back of those who believe that surface temperatures sensitivities are trivial, or are within range of what is normal. If any one out there has a High speed computer with access to the entire worldwide Upper Air data base, time to crunch some numbers…

  15. 215

    the IPCC is constantly restrained into the lowest possible projections

    I’m sorry but this is a preposterous notion and patently false. In fact comparing early IPCC with actual observations would tend to lead one to the opposite conclusion.

    The IPCC work is to be commended – especially in the initial reports – for working hard to keep politics out of the science. No informed party should be rejecting the IPCC numbers – the projections and data represent the key objective data analysis around which the real debates should take place. e.g. “what should we do?” and “will this create inconvenience or catastrophe?”

  16. 216
    Rod B says:

    Joseph Hunkins (215), a not terribly significant observation, but my view was that the IPCC has gotten better at minimizing political influence, and the early reports, especially the 1st, was accurately criticized for its politics inclusion. Am I wrong?

  17. 217
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re: coments by nit pickers

    This and other forums have devoted countless hours to debate over the quality of various weather data. Frankly, the heat in atmosphere over those disputed weather stations or the difference between data streams is a miniscule fraction of the total heat in the Earth’s system. The fact is, there is some kind of data for the energy flux at that location. Climate Audit rants about issues totaling a few joules, while there are gigajoule holes in our data collection system. Why don’t Climate Audit propose solutions for the places where there is just no data? By distracting in this way, they detract from the whole system of climate science.