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Claude Allègre: The Climate Imposter

Filed under: — group @ 28 April 2010

Guest Commentary by Georg Hoffmann

In mathematical proofs, it’s a well-known fact that if at some point you divide by zero accidentally or on purpose, then you end up being able to prove absolutely anything you want – for instance, that 2+2=5 or that 1+1=0. The same phenomena appears to govern any number of publications that conclude that climate science is all a fraud – at some point, an impossible calculation is performed and from then on, anything (and everything) can be proven. Critical thinking appears to vanish.

The latest example is that of Claude Allègre – whose recent book “The climate imposture” would have you believe at least six impossible things before breakfast and a great many more before dinner. This is notable because Allègre is one of the most eminent figures in science communication in France, Academie de Sciences member, Crafoord prize winner, former minister of education and research and a fixture on the late night talk shows in France (including a topical satirical version of the ‘muppets’). One might expect a certain degree of rigour from an author with such a pedigree, but on the contrary, nearly every explanation, graphic, or citation in this book is misleading or just plain wrong. If Allègre was not such a high profile figure in France, this nonsense would have been dismissed and ignored, instead, it is regular fodder for the late night talk shows. In my entire career I have never seen so many factual errors in a single publication. It is truly a remarkable work!

It is practically impossible to give a complete overview of what is wrong with the Allègre’s book. However, some people have made a good start: Stephane Foucart, a science journalist at Le Monde, wrote a piece on Le cent-fautes de Claude Allegre (the ‘Hundred Errors’ – this is a play on words, ‘un sans-faute’ (pronounced the same way) means a perfect score) and Sylvestre Huet from the Liberation started a series of debunkings and is now at part five (also in French) and which he has turned into a short book! I started my own list of errors here (in German).

One of the more egregious examples of blatant making stuff up was covered by Science last week (following on from a post by Huet who revealed that Allègre had hand-drawn a continuation of tree-ring data from Hakan Grudd to show cooling over the 21st Century – something of course that no trees could possibly show (at least yet!). Even before Allegre “improved” the data by drawing in an extension more to his liking, the implication that Grudd’s work in any way challenges the prevailing view of unusual large scale warming in recent years was highly misleading. Grudd’s paper (available here, open access) deals solely with summer temperatures at Lake Tornetrask in Northern Sweden, and the paper states clearly that “although the climate of northern Fennoscandia seems to have been significantly warmer during medieval times as compared to the late-twentieth century, the published composite records of northern hemisphere climate (Moberg et al. 2005) do not show a conspicuously warm period around AD 1000.” Once again, Allègre has shown himself willing to jump on any curve “going my way,” regardless of its relevance.

But much of the joy of reading this book is in details – things that it would be trivial to get right without having much impact on the general thesis being put forward, but instead reveal without doubt that the author does not have a single clue about the subject. So let’s start (all translations are mine and reasonably accurate):

  • The first thing one might notice is that almost every non-french scientist has their name spelled wrong: Solansky for Sami Solanki; Usoskiev for Ilya Usoskin and Funkel for Richard Finkel. The most amusing case is during the discussion of tropical cyclones with climate change, where he lists three names of people who have posited a connection: “Wester, Tech and Kerry Emmanuel”. Everyone of course recognizes Kerry Emanuel (despite the incorrect spelling), and “Wester” is (also misspelled) Peter Webster (of Webster et al, 2006). But who was this eminent Hurricane expert Tech? I had no idea until Stephane Foucart lifted the veil. Peter Webster is from the Georgia Institute of Technology, frequently abbreviated to simply “Georgia Tech”. So in his “extensive literature studies” Allègre probably found a line like “Peter Webster, Georgia Tech, thinks that …” and voila! Professor Tech was born!

  • On page 53, in a typical example of his style, Allegre writes that

    ”Jones declares that the global mean temperature raised by 0.6% [sic]. …. How can he claim such a precision with such sampling errors? Nevertheless, Hansen-the-fanatic, without revealing his sources, immediately approves of Jones curve. Those who made statistics based on such shortcomings in sampling are discredited as scientists”.

    Wow. We’re pretty sure that most people measure temperature deviations in degrees, so maybe the ‘%’ was just a simple typo. The characterisation of Hansen is presumably hyperbole (though see below for worse treatment), but given that all of the sources of the GISTEMP temperature record (which was first published in 1987) are available online (along with all the source code, and completely independent replication), the ‘without revealing his sources’ line is a little rich (especially given Allègre’s undocumented ‘extrapolation’ (cough) of the Grudd data series mentioned above.

  • On page 300, the greenhouse effect is explained, but for some reason CO2 is not considered to be a ‘real’ greenhouse gas. He says explicitly there are three such gases, water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane (This is a pretty large simplification since it neglects ozone, N2O, any number of CFCs, and theoretically pretty much any gas with a structure that has three or more atoms). He continues:

    ”It is due to water vapour, and water vapour alone, that the mean temperature at the Earth surface is +15°C and not -18°C”.

    This again is plain wrong. Depending a bit how you weight the overlapping spectral absorptions of the different greenhouse gases the contribution of CO2 to the total greenhouse effect is about 20% (with water vapour giving 50% and 25% for clouds, which we are sure that Allègre realises are made of condensate (liquid water and ice) and not vapour…). And indeed, since water vapour in particular is a feedback to the temperatures, removal of CO2 will certainly lead to cooling and a subsequent reduction in water vapour.

  • Unsurprisingly, Allègre is of course very sceptical about the use of computer models, and thinks they are taking up all the money available for research (an error that would be easily corrected by looking at NASA’s budget for instance) and so his preference for ‘true’ observations is clear. Take the last interglacial period for instance (also known as the Eemian), around 125,000 years ago. He compares (see figure above) something called the “Gore curve” with something called the “true curve” (la courbe veritable). Al Gore actually shows the temperature and CO2 evolution from Epica Dome C for the last 600.000 years. So let’s assume that this is in fact what Allègre means. Amusingly, this image from the movie shows that Allègre’s hand drawn version of the bottom curve (the reconstructed temperature in East Antarctica) is profoundly different (in the relative warmth at the Eemian, and the number of cycles), but let’s move on…

    Skipping past the inconsistency in the text where he says that until now the best estimate for the last interglacial temperature in Antarctica was +3°C (compared to present) while his “Gore curve” has a zero anomaly compared to today, let’s look at the justification for the new ‘true’ estimate of +6°C warmer. This is referenced to a paper by Sine et al, 2007 in Science (note that every piece of that reference is wrong: as usual, the name is misspelled (it’s Louise Sime, not Sine), the year was 2009 and the publication was in Nature – easy mistakes, I guess).

    Ice core temperature reconstructions such as Dome C are based on the isotopic composition of the ice. This isotope signal needs careful calibration and Louise Sime and colleagues make the point that under warm climate conditions such as the Eemian the calibration developed for cold climate conditions might be different – in fact isotopes during warm periods might be less sensitive to temperature, and so applying the cold-climate calibration might underestimate actual temperatures. However, their results would therefore only concern the time period at the peak of the ultimate interglacial, and does not have any implications for the cold climate values. Note however, that Allègre’s ‘one true curve’ seems to have had a warm trend imposed from 125,000 years ago to the present. I contacted Louise Sime and asked if she thought this was a good use of her paper. She made it clear that she’d not had any exchange with Claude Allègre and that her paper does not discuss the temperature reconstruction over the entire glacial-interglacial period at all (that would be a ‘no’).

    In summary, Allègre presents a ‘true curve’ which is hand-drawn, in which an Antarctic temperature record is described as a global mean, on which he imposes a long term trend which is credited to Sime and colleagues who completely disown it. And the irony of ironies? Sime’s results are based on a climate model.

  • The phase relation between CO2 and temperatures in the Antarctic ice cores is a frequent source of confusion, and Allègre doesn’t attempt to miss this opportunity to confuse further. As is well known, both temperature and CO2 are correlated to the Milankovitch cycles in complex ways – with both climate acting on the carbon cycle and with the CO2 level changing climate through it’s role as a greenhouse gas. The changes over time have been described as a “chicken and egg” situation in which changes in one component affect the other – however the first one was changed initially (Lorius et al, 1990). Thus the leads and lags involved doesn’t have any impact on climate sensitivity calculations, but it is important for understanding carbon cycle feedbacks which might affect future concentrations of CO2. Allègre makes the standard (and illogical) contrarian argument that if eggs follow chickens then chickens cannot follow eggs, and highlights the paper by Caillon et al, 2003 that constrained the CO2 lag to about 800 years (though with large uncertainties) based on work from his PhD. According to Allègre, Caillon was then ‘punished’ by his institute (which is mine too) for publishing this paper. So I called Nicolas to ask about this ‘punishment’. Once he stopped laughing, he pointed out that he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing (developing measuring technologies) and is very happy with his permanent (tenured) position at CNRS. I’m sure more people would love to be punished like that!
  • It is a very common technique in debating to try and suggest that your argument is correct by claiming that more and more important people are agreeing with it. Allègre makes frequent use of this tactic, but Sylvestre Huet made the effort to call some of these alleged “heretics” and “insurgents” and found that they didn’t agreed with Allègre’s position at all. Allègre additionally claims (p138) that there is even numerical proof for this reversal in the opinion among “american specialists of climate”. However, the source for this claim was a 2009 survey among American TV weather presenters. In a further effort to round up some support, he cites Bill Ruddiman’s hypothesis that human land use change was an important climate forcing over the last few thousand years. But Ruddiman’s theory works via the influence of prehistoric man on the global methane and carbon cycle and needs their greenhouse effects to work! [RC note: Allègre isn’t the only contrarian to have mistakenly dragooned Ruddiman to their cause – see this earlier example!]

Overall, the book is as full with conspiracy theories and insults against climate scientists as any blog you might find on the wilder shores of the internet. However I have never seen something as bad as this from someone who is a leading member of a National Academy of Science. Lindzen (a member of US National Academy) writes articles that are a model of scientific decorum in comparison! In describing the history of the different IPCC reports Allègre introduces the different participants as “religious fanatics”, “Marxists” in search for new arguments to destroy the civil society, “greedy” and “mediocre scientists” (all literal expressions from the manuscript). The list of accusations against Jim Hansen for example is nearly unbelievable. Among other things Allègre makes the astonishing claim that during the last 15 years Hansen has done no scientific work and that he has forced his collaborators to put his name on the publications. Over that period, Hansen has listed 68 publications with 37 as first author – thus the scale of his perfidy would need to have been immense! I asked Gavin whether GISS is really the slave camp implied, and he just laughed. Hansen presumably can’t be bothered to deal with this kind of accusation, but Allègre’s claim is almost certainly libelous.

The truly astonishing thing though is how hermetically sealed and impervious to fact Allègre’s whole argument is. No-one is honest, every result is fraudulent (excepting of course, Allègre’s ‘true curves’), no-one is without an agenda (except Allègre of course, and possibly Michael Crichton) and any scientist espousing the mainstream view or journalist questioning him is a Stalinist. Any contradiction of his arguments is simply proof that you are part of the conspiracy. It is this error that is the equivalent of ‘dividing by zero’ – once you have convinced yourself that only your own opinion matters, you can prove absolutely anything to your own satisfaction – but, unfortunately, to no-one else’s.


462 Responses to “Claude Allègre: The Climate Imposter”

  1. 451
    Richard Palm says:

    We’re lucky that we don’t live in the days when coming up with a scientific theory that was inconvenient for powerful interests could get one burned at the stake. Nowadays the scientists involved only get roasted in the media.

    One thing that has occurred to me in debating those who fall for anti-science propaganda is that there is a need for public school science curricula to include more emphasis on the basic principles of the scientific method, and how one can go about figuring out what’s true and what isn’t when faced with media controversies about science. It seems to me that the number of people I encounter who have no clue about how to distinguish science from propaganda indicates a serious shortcoming in our educational system in that regard.

  2. 452

    RP 451: We’re lucky that we don’t live in the days when coming up with a scientific theory that was inconvenient for powerful interests could get one burned at the stake.

    BPL: When was that, exactly?

  3. 453
    Anonymous Coward says:

    BPL (#452),
    You might say that Giordano Bruno was no scientist but he came up with theories about the natural world which would later be tested empirically. He argued that stars were like our Sun for instance. He was burned at the stake in 1600 according to the Wikipedia.

  4. 454

    Well, they call theology “the queen of sciences,” IIRC. . .

    ;-)

  5. 455
    Completely Fed Up says:

    re 453, there was also a greek philosopher who stated

    1) that everything was made up of smaller indivisible objects (atoms)
    2) that the earth went round the sun
    3) that life started in the mud around the edges of the waters of the earth
    4) that the wind was a thin substance so thin that it was invisible, but still made of ordinary matter just like the earth and the water

    This was several hundred years BC.

    I’ll see if I can find his name.

    He wasn’t burned at the stake, mind. Just ousted by Plato and his gang of thugs centuries later.

  6. 456

    AC 453: You might say that Giordano Bruno was no scientist but he came up with theories about the natural world which would later be tested empirically. He argued that stars were like our Sun for instance. He was burned at the stake in 1600 according to the Wikipedia.

    BPL: Yes, and the main reason for that was his loudly-expressed position that the miracles of Jesus were tricks perpetrated by magic, that Jesus wasn’t God, and that there had been no virgin birth. They had him locked up for eight years trying to change his mind or at least get him to shut up in public, but since he was the bravely defiant sort, invincibly sticking to his principles and beliefs in the face of oppression, they finally gave up and killed his a$$. BTW, he was strangled with a garrote before being burned–a humane measure, believe it or not, or what passed for a humane measure in 1600, anyway.

    Bishop Nicolas of Cusa had published his belief that the stars were suns c. 1400, by the way, and had no trouble at all over it.

  7. 457
    Bruce says:

    AC 453: You might say that Giordano Bruno was no scientist but he came up with theories about the natural world which would later be tested empirically. He argued that stars were like our Sun for instance. He was burned at the stake in 1600 according to the Wikipedia.

    BPL: Yes, and the main reason for that was his loudly-expressed position that the miracles of Jesus were tricks perpetrated by magic, that Jesus wasn’t God, and that there had been no virgin birth. They had him locked up for eight years trying to change his mind or at least get him to shut up in public, but since he was the bravely defiant sort, invincibly sticking to his principles and beliefs in the face of oppression, they finally gave up and killed his a$$. BTW, he was strangled with a garrote before being burned–a humane measure, believe it or not, or what passed for a humane measure in 1600, anyway.

    Bishop Nicolas of Cusa had published his belief that the stars were suns c. 1400, by the way, and had no trouble at all over it.

  8. 458

    CFU, I believe you’d be thinking of Democritus:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democritus

    “The atoms of Democritus and Newton’s particles of light
    Are grains upon the Red Sea shore, where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.”

    –(Mis)quoted from William Blake

  9. 459

    Hmm, evidently I got that right, except for the line division:

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/mock-on-mock-on-voltaire-rousseau/

  10. 460

    Back in 1994, I sat across the dinner table from Claude Allègre, who arrived late. Sitting next to me was Carl Sagan. The minute that Allègre sat down, Sagan’s whole demeanor changed. He lit into Allègre in a way I’ve rarely seen before. It was all polite but very pointed. Sagan clearly felt that he had a duty to set Allègre straight on a matter concerning something Allègre had said about planetary atmospheres. I got the impression that it wasn’t the first time that Sagan had called him to task.

  11. 461

    Are you suggesting that Allègre is continuing a semi-posthumous “scientific” blood feud with Sagan?

    Or that Allègre was a bit of a duffer back then?

    Or both?

  12. 462
    François Marchand says:

    Claude Allègre is alive and well and suing the French weekly “Politis”, which reminded us all, some time ago that he had made a few mistakes regarding the Soufrière volcano in Guadeloupe, in 1976; to make a long story short, he had decided that the whole population in the area should be evacuated (and they were), whilst an other expert (who happened to know the volcano quite well, but with a different academic background), was saying it did’t make sense.
    Here in France, Claude Allègres’s utterances are entertaining, but -apart from a couple of right-wing newspapers-, hardly anybody is convinced by his delirium.


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