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Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy

Filed under: — group @ 29 December 2010

Recent attention to NASA’s announcement of ‘arsenic-based life’ has provided a very public window into how science and scientists operate. Debate surrounds the announcement of any controversial scientific finding. In the case of arseno-DNA, the discussion that is playing out on the blogs is very similar to the process that usually plays out in conferences and seminars. This discussion is a core process by which science works.

The arseno-DNA episode has displayed this process in full public view. If anything, this incident has demonstrated the credibility of scientists, and should promote public confidence in the scientific establishment.

The story begins with a long-standing scientific consensus backed by an enormous amount of data: DNA is made with a phosphate backbone. Alternative backbones, such as arsenate, have long been considered unlikely for theoretical reasons.

Nonetheless, despite this consensus, reputable scientists have promoted the study of alternatives challenging the prevailing view. And NASA has willingly funded these studies.

Lesson one: Major funding agencies willingly back studies challenging scientific consensus.

The research team, Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues, behind this study collected data and concluded that they had sufficient evidence to demonstrate incorporation of arsenate into bacterial DNA. Although the data were preliminary in nature, Science accepted the manuscript (pdf). With a high profile, potentially groundbreaking paper about to be published, NASA announced a press conference to publicize the findings.

Lesson two: Most everyone would be thrilled to overturn the consensus. Doing so successfully can be a career-making result. Journals such as Science and Nature are more than willing to publish results that overturn scientific consensus, even if data are preliminary – and funding agencies are willing to promote these results.

Within days of the arsenic paper’s publication, strong criticism of the study began to appear on scientific blogs. These blogs attracted the attention of the mainstream scientific press. Soon thereafter, media reported the wide skepticism within the scientific community – with some scientists going so far as to say that the paper should not have been published.

These scientific criticisms opened the door to those wishing to discredit science and the peer-review process, with the contrarian blogs suggesting that this study demonstrates that peer-review is “broken”. A comment on Watts’ blog summarizes their thinking:

It’s amazing how fast the scientific community came out to attack NASA for what they claim is plainly flawed science. Then again, NASA isn’t funding any of the attackers.

In the Climategate mess however, we still have heard very little from an awful lot of so-called scientists who should have been saying a lot more about flawed science but are too afraid to lose their grant money.

This raises an interesting question: just who is critiquing the NASA study? It turns out that many of the critics are also NASA-funded. In fact, many prominent critics of this study are funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute – the very same program that funded the arsenic study.

Carl Zimmer gives us several examples:

  • Norm Pace offers the critique: “Low levels of phosphate in growth media, naive investigators and bad reviewers are the stories here”.
  • Shelley Copley suggested, “this paper should not have been published”
  • Roger Summons remarked that a critical experiment was left undone, and backed the critical blog analysis of his NASA-funded former student.
  • Michael Russell agreed with blogosphere critics, and offered his own critique of the study based on cosmic ratios of phosphorus to arsenic. Russell is a member of the Astrobiology Institute, as well as an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • Forest Rohwer observed, “the experimental evidence in the paper is pretty weak.”
  • George Cody says he “cannot accept this claim until such an experiment [mass spectrometry] (easily done) is performed.”
  • Steven Benner was an early skeptic. To NASA’s credit, they invited him to present his criticisms at the press conference. He has said “we are not expecting this result to survive”.

Each of these scientists is affiliated with NASA Astrobiology.

Lesson three: Scientists offer opinions based on their scientific knowledge and a critical interpretation of data. Scientists willingly critique what they think might be flawed or unsubstantiated science, because their credibility – not their funding – is on the line.

Regardless of whether or not ‘arseno-DNA’ survives the test of time and further study, scientists have shown that they will rigorously criticize science perceived as flawed, with no fear of reprisal from funding agencies.

This is the key lesson to take from this incident, and it applies to all scientific disciplines: peer-review continues after publication. Challenges to consensus are seriously entertained – and are accepted when supported by rigorous data. Poorly substantiated studies may inspire further study, but will be scientifically criticized without concern for funding opportunities. Scientists are not “afraid to lose their grant money”.

Finally, there is the issue of how scientists who publish papers that generate credible blog reactions should in turn react. In times past, it was simple to wait for properly crafted letters and comments to be sent in to the journal. This gave fixed targets to deal with and allowed for considered reflection and response; discussions would perhaps be published 6 months to year later. But today, serious criticisms can arrive immediately (as seen above). Nature (perhaps with a little schadenfreude) had an op-ed suggesting that the authors on this (Science) paper should be more strongly engaged in the reaction, while Science had a plea from the lead author for a little patience, since they were clearly a little overwhelmed.

In our view, this needs to be thought about clearly on a case by case basis. Some criticisms (that for instance accuse the authors of deliberate fraud or misconduct based on a dislike of the conclusions) are not worth rapidly responding to, but it is worth trying to head off any misinterpretations that might be emerging. Short form papers (even with copious supplementary information) do not provide full context for the results in themselves, and so putting together a response to frequently asked questions is certainly useful (as Dr. Wolfe-Simon and colleagues have). This doesn’t replace the need for technical commentary to pass via the peer-review process though. In the end, that is what people will refer back to.

203 Responses to “Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy”

  1. 151

    It’s not that the discussion going on over this paper is fundamentally different from the types of discussions going on without the internet or blogs. It’s just that the process can now move much, much faster. Even before blogs, the worth of a paper was not judged solely by peer review, but in the impression it made to a field.

  2. 152
    colin Aldridge says:

    Would that the Drugs Industry were as pure as some of the above comments suggest is true of
    Scientifc Research. Such companies are allowed not to publish the results of their research into their
    own products and they often don’t. No suprises that they don’t publish results which cast doubt on the
    efficacy of their products

  3. 153
    adelady says:

    @151 Michelle. I like to think of peer review as being like cars racing to qualify for an F1 event. When they’re doing the timed laps they’re more or less alone – and they finish up at a certain position on the grid.

    When the race *really* starts, we get a different activity entirely. Pole position is an advantage but if the car blows up an irreplaceable component, it’s over. Just like a published paper.

    Looked good until … ….. oh dear. Only works under highly controlled conditions, or some other major flaw.

  4. 154
    Mike says:

    Ray (#135),

    Think about the smell.

  5. 155
    Gilles says:

    Gavin : sorry, I just reacted to previous posts – I share your opinion about the stupidity of being “pro” AGW (although many people are actually choosing a higher average temperature when they leave on holydays or retire, so they are at least “pro-W”).

    Ray#146 : I agree with your general statements, but do you think that all these assertions are equally scientifically proved, and if not, which is the level where the doubt is scientifically unjustified, following you ?

  6. 156
    Geoff Beacon says:

    The carbon calculator from the UK Government ( says of air travel:

    “Air travel now accounts for 6.3% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions and the full climate impact of aviation goes beyond the effects of CO2. Apart from emitting CO2, aircraft contribute to climate change through the emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx). This forms the greenhouse gas ozone, especially so when emitted at cruise altitudes. Aircraft also trigger the formation of condensation trails, or contrails, and are suspected of enhancing the formation of cirrus clouds, both of which add to the overall global climate change warming effect. These extra impacts are examples of effects which are collectively known as “radiative forcing”. Recent scientific studies have shown that including the climatic impacts of non-CO2 emissions from planes could mean that aviation’s climate change impact is almost double that of its CO2 emissions alone.”

    Trying the calculator for a return flight from Leeds UK to Brisbane Australia (and making everything except air travel zero) gives a carbon footprint of just over 2.9 tonnes of CO2. The Green Ration Book gives a figure for a similar journey of 6.8 tonnes ( The difference is largely that the government calculator ignores the radiative forcing index.

    The calculator acknowledges the radiative forcing index but quietly ignores it.

    Who should read the small print and find them out? Scientists, journalists or whom?

    Does anyone care?

    [Response: Lots of people care. But the net non-CO2 impact from aviation (in particular) is still quite uncertain and different calculations give very different results depending on the calculation method. Some of the calculators therefore use a multiplier effect, others stick to the CO2 effect alone. – gavin]

  7. 157

    Okay, this blog is STILL doing the thing where, if you get Captcha wrong, and then repost, it tells you you’ve made a duplicate post. What’s up with that?

  8. 158

    Geoff Beacon: I wish you scientists would stop being so smug and realise how far short of the mark many of you are falling.

    BPL: I wish you science illiterates would stop being so smug and realise how far short of the mark many of you are falling.

  9. 159
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew,
    Not silent, no. Merely drowned out by the STUPID financed by big oil, big coal and big asshats.

  10. 160
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Barton Paul Levenson #156

    Example? I’m ready to learn.

  11. 161
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Of course they are not equally established. The first 3 are virtual certainties (~95% CL or better). The others are more likely than not, depending on which particular climate related threat one considers, from 50-80% CL.

    There is, however, zero evidence supporting their negation.

  12. 162
    Geoff Beacon says:


    Thanks for the response to #156 but it’s time to place our bets on the future of the planet. It isn’t good enough to just say “not sure so do nothing”.

    [Response: Who said that? – gavin]

    I am aware of Unger et. Al “Attribution of climate forcing to economic sectors”, and of Borken-Kleefeld et al, “Specific Climate Impact of Passenger and Freight Transport“ and know there are complications particularly when a mixtures of agents are in play. They have different temporal behaviour and some warm and some cool but we need an up-to-date best answer (or guess). Despite these complications, I think it sharp practice for DEFRA to say that the radiative forcing index doubles the effect of aircraft then in their calculator ignore it without explanation. By “who cares” I really meant “ I think DEFRA cheat. Does any one else care about this?”

    [Response: I disagree, if the answer to a question is uncertain, it is not cheating to say it is uncertain. With this particular issue the possible range encompasses no net non-CO2 effect at all, as well as older estimates indicating a factor of 2 or 3. Right now I don’t have a good sense for the latest calculations will take us (but a number of groups are working on them). – gavin]

    I notice you simply say “Some of the calculators therefore use a multiplier effect, others stick to the CO2 effect alone.” without expressing a preference. It may be prudent for someone in your profession to protect your reputation for all our sakes. Nevertheless it is important to have the best possible information – and have it credibly supported: Air travel is increasing. How bad is it? Should we stop it? If so how quickly?

    [Response: I think you need to get a little perspective here. Aviation emissions of CO2 are around 2% of current emissions. Even if air travel doubles or triples and/or the non-CO2 effects are large, it is still a small part of the pie (power generation and surface transport are by far and away the dominant sources). It is also the case that air travel is the hardest activity to find substitute fuel for (despite ongoing experiments with biofuel, replacing jet fuel with a non-fossil fuel derivative is real challenge). However, airplanes can become more efficient (a new 767 is some 25% more fuel efficient than a plane built 25 years ago), and there are many practices that can be tweaked that improve airline efficiency overall by some 10 or 20% (allowing more optimum flight paths, reducing the time before landing when landing gear needs to be deployed, reducing on-ground use of engines etc.). Thus there are many ways to push for airlines reducing their emissions in the short term. Note that none of this involves the ‘multiplier’ we started talking about. That only comes in to the picture if you are comparing aviation with other sectors – any goals or plans within the specific sector are not affected. But comparing across sectors on a very fine level is still at a very early stage of research – you would need the same kind of multi-emission evaluation for each (which the Unger paper is a first stab at). So, my feeling is that the exact multiplier effect is not required for the kinds of policies that need to be enacted now, but can be used as a heuristic for people to get a sense of what is happening. – gavin]

    There are lots of cases where guidance to policy is needed. A good example is tree planting as a means of carbon sequestration. What are the general rules for planting trees when albedo is balanced against sequestering carbon?

    You may have noted my earlier posts worrying about the Trillion Tonne Scenario that Raypierre discussed in “Losing time, not buying time”. I questioned the climate models that were used in its development having had some discussion with climate scientists in the UK. Did the models underestimate? Were feedbacks that may become significant missed? If so does this matter? If not why not?

  13. 163
    Rod B says:

    Hank Roberts (122), good question. No, I don’t think funding people explicitly to try to reach a predetermined conclusion, pretending it’s science, is a good idea. But it is a matter of degree. For instance a research project that sets out to verify another’s results is perfectly proper in the correct context. There is almost always some predetermined idea by the scientist and the funders of the outcome of a research project. Kinda like the difference between “expect to happen” and “has to happen.”

    As an aside (and I’m not excusing it) there is a number of examples of scientists and especially funding organizations doing precisely that — “proving” a predetermined outcome.

  14. 164
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod, you don’t get funded to “verify another’s results”. If you sought an independent study via an indpependent and imporoved method tha might reproduce the results or support the results, you might stand a chance.

    I think that in your mind the question of anthropogenic climate change is a lot more central than it is in climate research. There are research efforts that bear on it (e.g. magnitude of aerosol or cloud feedbacks, other ways of estimating climate sensitivity). However, the frontlines of climate research have moved on from this. I think you have a rather distorted idea of how science actually gets done.

  15. 165
    Ray Ladbury says:

    You are mixing up science and engineering. Positing a radiation forcing index to bound the complex interplay of different forcings sounds like an engineering factor to me.

  16. 166
    dhogaza says:


    airplanes can become more efficient (a new 767 is some 25% more fuel efficient than a plane built 25 years ago), and there are many practices that can be tweaked that improve airline efficiency overall by some 10 or 20% (allowing more optimum flight paths, reducing the time before landing when landing gear needs to be deployed, reducing on-ground use of engines etc.). Thus there are many ways to push for airlines reducing their emissions in the short term.

    The soon-to-be-delivered Boeing 787 will be about twice as efficient as the workhorse of the 1970s, the 727.

    When full, on flights of reasonable duration, you’re looking at about 60 seat-miles per gallon, which compares well with single-passenger automobile travel, but is worse than high-speed rail.

    Future airliners will probably continue to show incremental increases in efficiency, though my impression is that all of the low-hanging fruit’s already been harvested with the latest generation (i.e. 787). Well, the high percentage of composites used in that airplane isn’t really even “low-hanging fruit” …

    The kind of world being built in Europe, where rail travel times downtown-to-downtown competes well with air travel and beats driving 2:1, can perhaps push towards a kind of optimization where air travel is largely reserved for flights of 1000km and more, where there’s really no competition.

    Here in the US, airlines have been slowing cruising speeds by about 5%, yielding something like 10% in fuel savings (working from memory, here, but it’s something like that). This adds perhaps 15 minutes to an average hub-to-hub flight, a reasonable trade-off.

    In the future, more dynamic and computerized air traffic control will allow spacing between flights to be reduced, and allow for a much higher percentage of flights routing directly towards a runway, rather than slowly working their way through a complex pattern of holds at a particular altitude, turns, etc. This will also reduce fuel consumption, and on departure reaching cruising altitude more quickly (Gavin’s “more optimum flight paths”).

  17. 167
    Silk says:

    Hello. Re : #156, #162 – The person to talk to is … me. Well, I’m one of the people to talk to.

    What Gavin said in his inline comments is basically what I think. There’s a lot of work on aviation and forcing, but it’s not clear what actual number should be.

    The main issue is getting aviation into some kind of carbon pricing mechanism. At present we could use 1, 2 or 10 as a multiplier. It wouldn’t have any impact on emissions, as these are not costed at present.

  18. 168
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Barton Paul Levenson, It seems that if you make a mistake, it still gets posted anyway.
    If this post makes it through, then I have just confirmed it!

  19. 169
    Geoff Beacon says:


    DEFRA’s Act on CO2 said the radiative forcing index “could mean that aviation’s climate change impact is almost double that of its CO2 emissions alone”. If they believed that they should have put the current best estimate of radiative forcing into their calculations or at least explicitly warned users they were ignoring the issue. It is not clear even from their frequently asked questions that it is being ignored and this is at odds with the internal carbon counting done by UK Government departments and IPCC recommendations. I paraphrase the quote at the end of this comment as “We don’t know if the radiative forcing index is 1.9 or 2.7 so let’s call it 1.0”.

    Can I paraphrase your position as “IPCC estimates of the magnitude of the radiative forcing index are not accurate so substitute 1.0”. But why would you do this? A few sentences justifying such a judgement would be enlightening.

    “Aviation has effects on climate beyond that resulting from its CO2 emissions, including effects on tropospheric ozone and methane from its NOx emissions, water vapour, particle emissions and formation of contrails/enhanced cirrus cloudiness. This is usually calculated with the
    climate metric ‘radiative forcing’. Aviation was shown by the IPCC (1999) to have a total radiative forcing of 2.7 times that of its CO2 radiative forcing for a 1992 fleet (the so-called Radiative Forcing Index, or RFI), excluding any effect from enhanced cirrus cloudiness which was too uncertain to be given a ‘best estimate’.

    More recently, the radiative forcing for the year 2000 fleet was evaluated by Sausen et al. (2005) which implies an RFI of 1.9, based upon better scientific understanding, which mostly reduced the contrail radiative forcing. Similarly to IPCC (1999), Sausen et al. (2005) excluded the effects of enhanced cirrus cloudiness but others (e.g. Stordal et al., 2005) have improved calculations over IPCC (1999), which indicates that this effect may be 10 and 80 mW/m2 (cf 0 to 40 mW/m2 of IPCC) but are still unable to give a ‘best estimate’ of radiative forcing.
    Whilst it is incorrect to multiply CO2 emissions by the RFI, it is clear from the foregoing that aviation’s effects are more than that of CO2. Currently, there is not a suitable climate metric to express the relationship between emissions and radiative effects from aviation in the same way that the global warming potential does but this is an active area of research. Nonetheless, it is clear that aviation imposes other effects on climate which are greater than that implied from simply considering its CO2 emissions alone.“

    “Act on CO2 Calculator: Public Trial Version
    Data, Methodology and Assumptions Paper”, June 2007
    Department of Food Environment and Rural Affairs

  20. 170
    Geoff Beacon says:


    You say “Aviation emissions of CO2 are around 2% of current emissions.“ But “In 2005 aviation represented 6.3 per cent. of UK emissions …Using a radiative forcing multiplier of two, emissions from flights departing the UK contributed approximately 13 per cent.“1

    The difference between the figures is because most people in the world do not travel by air. They don’t travel much at all. In the affluent countries per capita carbon footprints for travel are many times that of poor countries. Within individual countries the carbon footprint of air travel for the affluent is greater than that of the poor2.

    Are we saying to developing countries “Don’t do what we do?”

    In the UK our government has set a per capita target for emissions of about 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent to be achieved by 2050. The Green Ration Book divides this equally between categories “consumables”, “building”, “transport” and “government”. This allows 500kg CO2e per year for transport. A return flight to and from Australia is 6 tonnes CO2e (or 3 tonnes with a radiative forcing index of 1.0). That is 12 years (6 years) of a transport budget with nothing left for other forms of transport, such as cars, buses or trains.

    We must persuade (or cajole) the poor of the world not pollute the world as much as we do and you don’t get much flight time within a yearly CO2e budget for all travel of 500kg CO2e.

    1 Hansard (2 May 2007)


    Beacon Dodsworth carried out a quick calculation using their P2 geo-demographic classification and the Target Group Index from the British Market Research Bureau.

    The P2 categories used were:

    A01 – Worldly Horizons
    A05 – Established Prosperity
    D11 – Matrimonial Homes
    G17 – Aspiring Streets
    M35 – Impoverished Elders
    L37 – Deprived Youth

    These are in descending order of wealth. Yearly CO2e from flying was estimated as

    A01 778 kg
    A05 756 kg
    D11 479 kg
    G17 491 kg
    M35 372 kg
    L37 211 kg

    The calculation did not take account of any differences between business and standard class.

  21. 171
    Geoff Beacon says:


    The advances in aviation fuel efficiency have been overplayed. Have you seen Peeters et al, Fuel efficiency of commercial aircraft. An overview of historical and future trends

    They say

    Existing estimates, such as the oft-cited 70% improvement from the IPCC Special Report on Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, ignore the record of the pre-jet era. Based on bottom-up (micro) and top-down (macro) analyses of aircraft fuel efficiency, it can be concluded that the last piston-powered aircraft were as fuel-efficient as the current average jet.

    Do lower-flying piston-powered planes have better climate characteristics?

  22. 172
    Silk says:

    #169 – Geoff. I’ll have a look into this and see what the reasoning behind the assumptions is. However, I should point out there is some evidence I’m aware of that suggests the index could be 1.0, so that’s not as outlandish a number of you might think.

    And in any case, the calculator is a calculator. It does, in of itself, price carbon. The trick is to get policy right (that the environmental impact of air travel is contained within the price of travel, and (I guess) that we use this pricing to reduce emissions). ‘Correcting’ the calculator doesn’t correct the problem with our economy – that people can freely emit CO2 (and other things) and not face the consequences of their actions. Or, at least, they do face the consequences, but not any more so (and in many cases, less so) than other people who didn’t emit that CO2.

    Policy is extremely tricky, and not an area for Realclimate. Does anyone know of any decent climate policy blogs out there?

  23. 173
    Ray Ladbury says:

    What part of “It is an area of active study,” do you not understand?

    Ferchrissake, we haven’t even managed to get governments to acknowledge two-century-old physics, and you are complaining about their not acknowledging something about which there is still controversy.

    We could stop all airline travel and it would not make a difference in our fate unless we also drastically decreased all our other fossil fuel production. So your attitude is not only disrespectful, but disingenuous.

  24. 174
    Geoff Beacon says:


    Borken-Kleefeld et al, “Specific Climate Impact of Passenger and Freight Transport“ make an interesting point in the supporting information.They say

    Distance travelled is not the only aspect of passenger travel; travel time is equally important. Indeed, people seem to have a travel time budget of little more than one hour per day on annual average [5, 6]. The time available for an activity appears as primary constraint and the location for this activity is chosen according to the available means of transport. Their average travel speed then determines the range of activities available (cf. SI Table 4), along with the available budget and the travel costs. The speed differences result in very different distances traveled and hence different climate impacts per trip.

  25. 175
    Geoff Beacon says:


    One of my irritations was that the DEFRA carbon calculator did not make it’s assumptions clear. I have been arguing this point for years. But I suppose I must wait for the white smoke from the chimney.

    You may have gathered that I am worried that climate science and IPCC predictions are behind the game. Look up the NSIDC and University of Washington websites to see the way Arctic sea ice and volume are decreasing – much faster than the IPCC was predicting a few years ago. I may be panicking but when I have contact with leading climate scientists seemingly unaware of the rate of decline, I worry.

    I also worry about the climate models behind the Trillion Tonne Scenario and you will notice I have had no assurances on that issue.

    Gavin’s comment on the impact of aviation may be correct but as you can see from my comments above, I think it is only a part of the picture.

  26. 176
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff says, “Look up the NSIDC and University of Washington websites to see the way Arctic sea ice and volume are decreasing – much faster than the IPCC was predicting a few years ago.”

    Yes, and the IPCC projections are still labelled “alarmist” by not just denialists, but also by mainstream politicians and media. You have to understand how science works. There are some things we know with virtual certainty–e.g. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. It is firmly part of the consensus, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t believe it doesn’t believe in science…or is an idjit. There are other areas where there is significant uncertainty, but where even the most optimistic bounds still pose concern–CO2 sensitivity is an example here, as even the warming we get with 2 degreees per doubling has serious consequences. Eventually you get to issues that are on the cutting edge of the science and about which there is still substantial uncertainty and controversy. Here, you will find considerable reluctance on the part of scientists to make definitive statements–particularly if the subject matter is outside their expertise or comfort zone. You would probably have better luck asking someone who has published specifically on the subject.

    Once we move beyond the consensus, we’re in the realm of engineering and risk management. The question here is no longer whether something is a threat, but rather how bad the threat can get and how much will it cost to make it survive that level of “bad” or to avoid that level of “bad”. You are well into the engineering range here, and you are asking for guidance from scientists. It’s like expecting beer to taste like wine.

  27. 177
    Dean says:

    I think there’s another rule that we may want to discuss:

    “Groundbreaking studies that challenge the status quo should never be initially announced as the lead item on CNN.”

    Almost no good can come from these stories promoted in such ways. Because of our nature, these “revolutionary” announcements have to be met with strong opposition by the “establishment”. Then journalists jump on the story because it’s now a food fight. In the end, all of the scientists look bad to the public (the “revolutionaries” because there’s considerable doubt as to whether they’re right and the “status quo” for being seen as intolerant of new thought).

    The proper place for this is in scientific journals, magazines and discussion forums (blogs, conferences, etc) and not national TV. Unfortunately, if this is the way it’s done, there’s no “grand public announcement” that so many people/institutions love to make.

    I guess we’ve not yet learned the lesson from Fleishman & Pons…

  28. 178

    #177–Dean, I sympathize. But I don’t think I quite agree; I seem to recall quite a few instances where “the establishment” basically said something like “well, this is an interesting finding, and it will have enormous ramifications if it holds up. But there’s a good chance it won’t, so we’ll have to see what further inquiry tells us.”

    Then the “further inquiries” take place in journals, mostly. And if, as in the present case, there’s some “new media” back and forth around it, it still doesn’t turn into a full-fledged “food fight,” because there isn’t the denialist machine stoking fake controversy, as we see in the case of climate science today.

    And in any case, unless people eschew the press release altogether, surely it’s CNN’s choice to trumpet a given paper–not the researcher’s?

  29. 179
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 175 Geoff Beacon says:
    > … when I have contact with leading climate scientists
    > seemingly unaware of the rate of decline, I worry.
    > I also worry about the climate models … and you will
    > notice I have had no assurances on that issue.

    Well, posting questions on the blog should not be represented as your success or failure to “contact leading climate scientists” nor to “get assurances” — Geoff, this is not the way to do what you want.

    There are lots of people who want to contact leading climate scientists and express their feelings or get reassured.

    Personal individual service happens sometimes but it’s not promised.

    All of us here are readers, a few are scientists with expertise, but asking broad questions about fears isn’t going to get you the answers you want.

    There is a way to get the best answers available:

  30. 180
    Clippo (UK) says:

    Re: the BBC comments by Geoff #147, Ray #148 & Didactylos #150

    I’m sure you will be amazed / disheartened by this link:-

    from which :-

    His opinions echo recent comments by BBC Director General Mark Thompson, who has argued that British broadcasters should be free to launch an equivalent to America’s right-wing Fox news channel.

    (sorry, I’ve forgotten how to quote & bold here at the moment)

    I wrote immediately to the Telegraph to register my disapproval but of course they didn’t print my letter.

  31. 181
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Hank 179.

    On the Trillion Tonne Scenario models perhaps I should have said “We have had no assurances”.

    “There are lots of people who want to contact leading climate scientists and express their feelings or get reassured.” But I do contact leading climate scientists and most give very helpful answers. It’s not just for my own reassurance. I make the effort to contact policy makers to pass on my experience.

    How should I report concerns about climate science gleaned from emails, phone calls, talks and personal meetings?

    I often ask for a legal opinion on what I post. You will appreciate that climate issues can be a minefield. My advisor tells me that “I think …” is a good way to limit the scope of potential legal actions.

    Clippo 180

    There is a difference between the balance between two views and the truth. I think the BBC should pursue the truth more. I am sure that, with a bit of effort, they could do it and keep within the “rule of balance”.

    Finally : You will notice I have had no assurances on missing feedbacks in the climate models used to in the development of the Trillion Tonne Scenario.

  32. 182
    Geoff Beacon says:


    Finally : You will notice we have had no assurances on missing feedbacks in the climate models used to in the development of the Trillion Tonne Scenario.

  33. 183
    Hank Roberts says:

    > How should I report concerns

    Why do you think you need to “report” your concerns?

    Do you believe you have noticed something that no one else has noticed? To know that you’d need to read what others have already published. If you want reassurance that what you’re worried about isn’t novel — I could say trust me on this but I’m just some guy on a blog. Better to look it up.

    My take: you’ve brought up concerns widely shared and widely written about — uncertainties; climate model comparisons. You can blog about them, but I’d recommend doing so by pointing to the other places those are discussed.

    If you find a flaw in the published science, you could try to publish a letter in a journal — comments from reviewers who read what you
    send in might help you put your concerns in context of what’s already known.

    If your goal is to have your personal name and your issues prominent, a personal blog seems the way to go about it these days. You can become an IPCC Expert Reviewer by declaring yourself one, as others have done to draw attention to their concerns. But that’s PR, not about doing science.

  34. 184
    Clippo (UK) says:

    Re :
    There is a difference between the balance between two views and the truth. I think the BBC should pursue the truth more. I am sure that, with a bit of effort, they could do it and keep within the “rule of balance”.

    I agree that they should pursue the truth more but I fear that will be wishful thinking if biased ‘politics’ comes into the UK TV system.

    The reason I say that is because, from “The Doubt Merchants” by Oreskes & Conway, the US extreme right wing have ruthlessly exploited the agreed ‘fair balance’ in US media since WWII. They have ‘doubted’ the consensuses – (should that be consensi ? ) – on the smoking/cancer link, the Ozone hole, Global Warming and even DDT by claiming the science isn’t settled so alternative views, (which generally ‘corrupt’ or cherry-pick the science), must be heard.

    And to the specific point of my above post, Fox News is recognised world-wide as one of the worst offenders in ‘doubting’ science and promoting the US rightwing ‘business-as-usual’ attitude.

    I fear also that, although the BBC is derided by many right wingers here as ‘left wing Labour luvvies’, in fact right wing influences may be behind the scenes. For example, about 18 months ago the BBC produced a 3 part series called “The Climate Wars” dealing with the disagreements in AGW. The second part, I think, showed a Heartland Institute conference in New York where most of the well known AGW deniers showed themselves to be the corrupt science abusers they are. Yet, the BBC has yet to issue this on DVD – very unlike virtually every other series they’ve done. Why ?
    I apologise somewhat if this post is political rather than scientific but the said right wing organisations have consistently also abused the initial Peer-Reviewed process, and the post publication process – referred to in the initial text of this thread.

  35. 185
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Hank #183

    “Why should I report my concerns” on the climate models used in the Trillion Tonne Scenario? Several reasons.

    I haven’t seen any paper or commentary that criticises the models as used in this scenario. If you know of any I would be very pleased to know. These would be much more powerful in putting the case to policy makers. I have to put together material from information I have gleaned on modelling in general and guessed that they apply to this case.

    It would be even better if a proponent of the Trillion Tonne Scenario could give some considered judgement. It may even be that there are missing feedbacks in the modelling but these are not particularly significant. I had hoped for some guidance from the experts on this but I would welcome guidance from you as well. If I could get some better guidance I would feel that “reporting my concerns” had been fruitful but I regret it seems to have caused you some irritation.

    In 2007 I got this reply from a leading climate scientist

    The CH4 (and CO2) permafrost feedback isn’t included in current EarthSystemModels and it is potentially large but no-one really knows. I think the community has been a bit slow to take up on this feedback because of the lack of data.

    Subsequently I was told that funding was allocated to address this issue. Perhaps I have taken my eye off the ball but I haven’t heard of much progress. But I am aware of what Climate Interactive say in their frequently asked questions

    There are positive feedback loops in the real climate system that are not modeled in the current version of C-ROADS. Additionally, C-ROADS is based upon and calibrated to the results of models from the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. Recent science suggests that AR4 may underestimate the time-scale and magnitude of climate change. As a result, we believe that the Climate Scoreboard may well be presently a ‘best case’ interpretation of the long-term impacts of proposals on the table in the UNFCCC.

    Do underestimates affect the discussion between the Trillion Tonne Scenario and the Plan B that I read into “The Copenhagen Accord for limiting global warming: Criteria, constraints, and available avenues” by Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Yangyang Xu?

    Do they?

    Is the answer well known and I’ve missed it?

  36. 186
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Clippo 184:

    Just seen the BBC evening news on the UK freeze and it’s causes. They mentioned the warmer Arctic, the cooler Pacific and the lower solar radiation. I think it was a bit “pay your money and take your choice”.

  37. 187
    Rod B says:

    Clippo (184), the banning of DDT and CFCs began in right-wing Republican administrations. Even the battle against tobacco saw its major effort starting in a Republican administration. Try to aim your mud a little better.

  38. 188
    Hank Roberts says:

    Geoff, I’m just another reader here. If you want to attract the attention of someone, I recommend this approach, which I’ve found works if followed — and many bloggers have adapted and edited it, pick one of these:

    Once you’ve read that, and want to ask a question the smart way:

    Look at/look up the term you’re focused on: “trillion tonne scenario”

    Google Scholar finds nothing, zip, zero, nada. That’s one clue. It must be called something else if it’s published in the journals. Keep looking.

    Plain Google finds six hits for me at the moment — three are yours, three are by a Shell climate blogger. One of the latter gives you a useful pointer to the website of someone who could answer you. Have a look there.

    When phrasing your questions, again, I really most sincerely urge you to have read the “questions the smart way” method. The author is, well, see “Everybody Loves Eric Raymond” — but the advice he wrote in that piece is widely recommended and well considered for asking questions of any experts.

    The answers you want are in someone’s head; your task is to ask in an interesting and thoughtful way sufficient to charm that person into bothering to type for the public to read, or help you with a pointer.

    I told you my opinion; the trillion ton paper says the short term rates of change don’t matter, so you’re asking about uncertainties the paper has already said don’t matter. But you want an answer from someone who knows something. Finding out who to ask, and where to ask, and how to charm the answer from the person — is always an effort in this stuff.

    I’m done, hope something in there was helpful, if only keeping your question popping up in the thread for a few days. Maybe someone will notice.

  39. 189
    Kevin Stanley says:

    Well, although I’ll agree that politically polarized mudslinging often involves oversimplifications, omissions, hypocrisy, and such unhelpful things…

    I think you will find that the banning of DDT in the US was the result of a long process began by researchers in the 1940s, greatly accelerated by Carson’s publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962, first addressed in US Government by Kennedy’s ordering an investigation in 1963,and that even during the Nixon administration, the progress was mostly due to strong pressure on the EPA from groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and court decisions. It would be a bit…disingenuous…to give Nixon the credit for the 1972 ban.

    Similarly with CFCs, the *start* of the banning, in my opinion, is clearly to be credited to the scientists who sounded the alarms. The regulatory bans in the US began in 1978 (Carter administration, but I’m still giving the credit to scientists and environmentalists here), and if you’re referring to the Montreal Protocol happening while Bush (HW) was in office, I have two responses: first, the administration (as usual) gets credit for not blocking progress in that case, but not for creating it, and second…G.H.W. Bush’s administration hardly seems “right-wing” to me anymore, since the rise of the neo-cons.

    Then with tobacco you shift your wordage to “first major effort starting in….” If you make your criteria sufficiently inconsistent, you can use anything as a supportive example, can’t you?

  40. 190
    Clippo (UK) says:

    Re :-Clippo (184), the banning of DDT and CFCs began in right-wing Republican administrations. Even the battle against tobacco saw its major effort starting in a Republican administration. Try to aim your mud a little better.

    Isn’t that what I implied from post #184 ? Republican administrations also started the EPA and have regularly supported NASA etc. etc. Furthermore, it was a Republican administration that wholeheartedly accepted the science of the smoking/cancer link and legislated to inform the US public of the dangers. The key point in all of this is that many Republican administrations have chosen ‘advisors’ from the US extreme right wing and they have manipulated the media to their own ends.

    My particular ‘beef’ in this respect is that science corrupters and doubters, (for their own vested interests), subverted the ‘fair balance’ rules of various aspects of the US media. Of course, Fox news didn’t exist in the early days of those ‘doubted’ subjects, but has been pre-eminent since, especially over Climate Change. I simply don’t want that approach imported into the UK.

    I’m a UK citizen, but I’ve assumed you Rod B. are a US citizen. If you are, perhaps you should investigate the political machinations of some of your extreme right wing ‘groups’. A good place to start would be the books “The Doubt Merchants” and “The Republican War on Science”.

  41. 191
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, this is the short answer, if you don’t want to do any reading beforehand:

  42. 192

    RE: #187. Rod B, EXACTLY. I’m old enough to remember when the GOP (and the Dems, for that matter) wasn’t a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Corporate Money. Seems quaint, does it not, to recall a time when political parties had a decent respect for science.

  43. 193
    dhogaza says:

    Clippo (184), the banning of DDT and CFCs began in right-wing Republican administrations

    Totally off-topic but Nixon wasn’t particularly right-wing. Among other things he toyed with the idea of a negative income tax to achieve a modest shifting of wealth towards the poor, he attempted to get a comprehensive health care bill through Congress and only failed because it did not go as far as folks like Ted Kennedy thought they could get, he established relationships with China (any Dem doing that would’ve risked impeachment), negotiated détente with the USSR (emphatically rejected by the new right that led to Reagan’s being election), etc.

    No comparison between Nixon and Reagan, not to mention today’s Republican leadership which is far right of Reagan and almost incomprehensibly to the right of Nixon. Nixon would be driven out of today’s party, as has been true of many so-called “RINOs” …

  44. 194
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B,
    Agree that this is not even so much a matter of political affiliation as one of reality-based vs. reality denial. There is however an undoubted political correlation, which I find very unfortunate, as I found myself agreeing with at a reasonable percentage of Speaker Boehner’s initial moves yesterday.

    It is a pity that partisanship seems to preclude cooperation these days, but a prerequisite before I can buy into any political agenda is that it has to be consistent with physical reality.

  45. 195
    Maya says:

    Rod, I don’t know about the others, but the banning of DDT, while it happened during the Nixon administration, was *begun* during the Kennedy administration.

    In the late 1950s, Carson turned her attention to conservation and the environmental problems caused by synthetic pesticides. The result was Silent Spring (1962), which brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented portion of the American public. Silent Spring spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy—leading to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides—and the grassroots environmental movement the book inspired led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    In one of her last public appearances, Carson had testified before President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee. The committee issued its report on May 15, 1963, largely backing Carson’s scientific claims.

  46. 196
    Clippo (UK) says:

    Only nit-picking, but it could be implied from your post #193 that I made the quote :-

    Clippo (184), the banning of DDT and CFCs began in right-wing Republican administrations

    I didn’t – this was made by Rod B in #187.

    As I said before, I am a UK citizen but with many relatives in the US and I’ve followed US politics for a number of years. On that basis, I don’t disagree that the GOP has had ‘varying’ approaches to ‘science’. All I claim is that generally your governments have been unduly influenced by business protecting vested interests, and who have controlled your media much more effectively than the true science community.

    To me, these are fundamental conclusions in the books I recommended earlier.

    I have also been a regular visitor to RealClimate for several years,and I consider it to be the creme-de-la-creme of fact-based science websites related to Climate Change.
    So,extrapolating my opinions, why don’t your major Climate scientists co-operate with a suitable media group, say a TV documentary maker, and make a hard-hitting expose of the corruption of, say, Climate science by right wing ‘Institutes’?

    Would Fox news’ competitor CNN play this widely?

  47. 197
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Hank 188.

    I coined the term “Trillion Tonne Scenario” meaning Allen et al.“Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne”.

    You say “the trillion ton paper says the short term rates of change don’t matter”. You imply I should accept that. I don’t.

    I think the Trillion Tonne Scenario has serious unanswered questions.

    Answers don’t seem to be forthcoming.

    I think that may not be because of my lack of charm.

  48. 198
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Hank 188

    I have looked at again. It puts the Trillion Tonne Scenario clearly.

    Estimated cumulative emissions from fossil fuel use, cement production and land-use change since industrialization began are 543,933,748,548 tonnes of carbon.

    To keep the most likely global warming caused by these sources of carbon dioxide to about 2°C, we need to keep the total emissions over time below about 1,000,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon.

    Based on the emission trends over the past 20 years, we predict the trillionth tonne will be emitted on Mon, 11 Jul 2044 20:25:44 GMT

    We would not release the trillionth tonne if emissions were to start falling now at 2.2959482694
    % per year.

    In this explanation they make no reference to CO2 from temperature induced feedbacks. Any underestimate of these feedbacks leads to a reduction in the (1,000,000,000-543,933,748,548) tonnes left for emissions from “ fossil fuel use, cement production and land-use change” and brings forward their date/time Mon, 11 Jul 2044 20:25:44 GMT.

    As a thought experiment, image that temperature induced feedbacks were large enough to bring forward this date to Sun, 12 Jul 2010 20:25:44 GMT (i.e. last year). I would argue that those that support the Trillion Tonne Scenario would have to accept that carbon must be extracted from the atmosphere. (Does James Hansen say we’re over the limit already and advocate carbon sequestration with biochar?)

    Raypierre said in “Losing time, not buying time”, (Real climate, 6 December 2010)

    The problem is that, once you hit that threshold with CO2, you are stuck there essentially forever, since you can’t “unemit” the CO2 with any known scalable economically feasible technology.

    While we are “buying” (or frittering away) time dealing with methane, fossil-fuel CO2 emission rate, and hence cumulative emissions, continue rising at the rate of 3% per year, as they have done since 1900. By 2040, we have put another 573 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, bringing the cumulative fossil fuel total up to 965 gigatonnes. By controlling methane you have indeed kept the warming in 2040 from broaching the 2C limit, but what happens then? In order to keep the cumulative emissions below the 1 trillion tonne limit, you are faced with the daunting task of bringing the emissions rate (which by 2040 has grown to 22 gigatonnes per year) all the way to zero almost immediately.

    My judgement is that this strays into the politics of climate change. It is not pure climate science. I understand a political judgement that cutting the emissions of CO2 is so important that any mention of other options will distract the world from addressing this problem but I don’t agree with it. I believe we need to slow global warming by all means possible to stop us triggering any more tipping points. My worry about the political impact of the Trillion Tonne Scenario is that it engenders in policy advisers views like this one I have in my notes.

    1) Controlling methane emissions is of much lesser importance than controlling carbon dioxide. Methane should not have its current rating increased.

    2) The peak level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is much more important in keeping global temperature rise below the target (2 degrees Celsius) than the precise time at which the peak occurs. I took your mention of 2050 as a reference to the target date for the global temperature maximum.

    3) By the time peak temperature occurs any methane released now will have been removed from the atmosphere by natural processes so it will not affect global warming at the all-important peak.

    To me this suggests the politically easy option of deferring hard choices for a decade. After all, we do have 40 years left. This may not be what is meant but it will be how it comes across.

    Hard choices? No beef or lamb, no bottles, no planes, no cars, no high buildings, no heating gas, an climate military police force and lots more.

    Would you sign up for any of these?

  49. 199
    Rod B says:

    Kevin, well, other than… uh… maybe Nixon… uh… started the EPA???, and it was his administrator (Rickle…..) who instituted the ban. What the hell does someone studying DDT in the 40s have to do with anything??? Your refutation contortions are amusing.

  50. 200
    Hank Roberts says:

    Geoff, I dunno about the “climate … police … and a lot more” — where do I sign up? I want to read the fine print to make sure it’s not just rearranging the deck chairs.

    > any methane released now will have been removed
    > from the atmosphere by natural processes

    “removed” by natural oxidation –> to CO2 and H2O