RealClimate logo

Serving up a NOAA-thing burger

Filed under: — gavin @ 9 February 2017

I have mostly been sitting back and watching the John Bates story go through the predictable news-cycle of almost all supposed ‘scandalous’ science stories. The patterns are very familiar – an initial claim of imperfection spiced up with insinuations of misconduct, coordination with a breathless hyping of the initial claim with ridiculous supposed implications, some sensible responses refuting the initial specific claims and demolishing the wilder extrapolations. Unable to defend the nonsense clarifications are made that the initial claim wasn’t about misconduct but merely about ‘process’ (for who can argue against better processes?). Meanwhile the misconduct and data falsification claims escape into the wild, get more exaggerated and lose all connection to any actual substance. For sure, the technical rebuttals to the specific claims compete with balance of evidence arguments and a little bit of playful trolling for the attention of anyone who actually cares about the details. None of which, unfortunately, despite being far more accurate, have the narrative power of the original meme.

The next stages are easy to predict as well – the issues of ‘process’ will be lost in the noise, the fake overreaction will dominate the wider conversation and become an alternative fact to be regurgitated in twitter threads and blog comments for years, the originators of the issue may or may not walk back the many mis-statements they and others made but will lose credibility in any case, mainstream scientists will just see it as hyper-partisan noise and ignore it, no papers will be redacted, no science will change, and the actual point (one presumes) of the ‘process’ complaint (to encourage better archiving practices) gets set back because it’s associated with such obvious nonsense.

This has played out many, many times before: The Yamal story had a very similar dynamic, and before that the ‘1934‘ story, etc. etc.

Assuming for the sake of politeness that sound and fury signifying nothing is not the main goal for at least some participants, the question arises: since this is so predictable why do people still keep making the same mistakes?

I have two slides that I use in my talks about the challenges of science communication in a politicized world:

The Bates story is an excellent illustration of how this plays out in real life. The key thing to remember is that there is a ready-made narrative and ‘public’ issue for all stories like this and it takes real skill (and might not be possible) to avoiding falling into that pre-existing narrative rut. You know, this one:

[Pro-tip: talking about massive international multi-agency conspiracies makes you sound like a crazy person, so get past that by only talking about the whistleblowers!].

Unfortunately, Bates and Curry, perhaps deciding that judgement calls about where on a complex maturity matrix (right) (Bates et al, 2014) any specific dataset should be placed, was not likely to generate much attention, decided to over-egg their pudding: Bates added obviously wrong claims to his litany (like the claim that ASCII data on an ftp site was neither an archive nor ‘machine readable’), and let his imagination run beyond what he could actually show (‘thumbs on the scale’ for instance). David Rose, certain that he had a juicy data tampering story didn’t bother to check his graph when it seemed to show a big difference between analyses. Note that the graph did not actually use the data from the Karl et al (2015) paper at all.

Thus a perhaps interesting claim about process, got turned instantly into a claim about misconduct, and another hammer to be used to undermine independently replicated conclusions (Hausfather et al, 2016). In Bates’ later interviews, he tried to close Pandora’s box – for instance saying that “The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything it was”. Well, whoop-dee-doo.

Weirdly he also claimed that he is wary of his critique becoming a talking point for those skeptical of human-caused climate change and that “I knew people would misuse this”.

Which kinda makes my point but also raises some obvious questions!

The key element in politicized discussions of science is the obvious desire of most people to have the narrative confirm what they desperately want to be true. Thus however little the story projected onto the faux debate, that is where the story was going to go. The initial exaggerations and false claims just made this more likely.

In contrast to the argument made in a recent New York Times op-ed, science is not politicized because scientists are citizens and have opinions (they are and they do), but because certain narratives suit political movements better than the truth.

Scientists can fight against this by being scrupulous in not giving opportunities for people to take their words or work out of context and project it onto the faux debate. One can be clear from the beginning about what can’t be concluded, as well as what can be. Specific complaints about specific issues need to be clearly distinguished from general complaints about everything. I find that people who do this don’t get caught up so much in these faux scandals, while for people (like Bates) who don’t see it as their responsibility to properly contextualise their statements, it happens over and again.

When people who know better go ahead anyway, you end up with this kind of mess with all the bad consequences outlined in the above slide, regardless of the point that someone thought they were making. But in this case the actual substance is a total NOAA-thing burger.

Can I get fries with that?


  1. J.J. Bates, J.L. Privette, E.J. Kearns, W. Glance, and X. Zhao, "Sustained Production of Multidecadal Climate Records: Lessons from the NOAA Climate Data Record Program", Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 97, pp. 1573-1581, 2016.
  2. T.R. Karl, A. Arguez, B. Huang, J.H. Lawrimore, J.R. McMahon, M.J. Menne, T.C. Peterson, R.S. Vose, and H. Zhang, "Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus", Science, vol. 348, pp. 1469-1472, 2015.
  3. Z. Hausfather, K. Cowtan, D.C. Clarke, P. Jacobs, M. Richardson, and R. Rohde, "Assessing recent warming using instrumentally homogeneous sea surface temperature records", Science Advances, vol. 3, pp. e1601207, 2017.

126 Responses to “Serving up a NOAA-thing burger”

  1. 101
    patrick says:

    Far from being being anything like a Gallileo, William Happer is something like a Trofim Lysenko in his mistaken pet notions, I think. His legacy risks having a Lysenko-like effect too. Ideology, wedded to Lysenko’s false pet notions, conspired to retard science for decades in the countries where Lysenko’s ideas were enforced.

    The effect of ideology conflated with Lysenko’s false pet ideas is well described (6 FEB) by Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel, starting at 0:30 of the embedded video clip:–literally-under-attack-20170206-gu6f5w.html

    “The Chief Scientist said there was no place for such political control of science. ‘Frank and fearless advice – no matter the views of the political commissars [now threatening] at the EPA,’ he said.

    “Dr Finkel said that he valued his independence and was grateful that no Australian prime minister or minister had ever told him what to say.

    “His comments came at the end of a short speech that focused on how he had been managing the review of the National Electricity Market. …

    “Dr Finkel said there was urgent need to ensure science was at the centre of policy making.”

  2. 102
    patrick says:

    @32 Russell Seitz: The idea that solar and wind power are “dauntingly expensive” is a thoroughly hackneyed idea. And I take nothing else away from your reference of 1990.

  3. 103
    Scott Nudds says:

    Complaint without action is complacency.

    Complacency = complicity.

    Are you complicit?

  4. 104
  5. 105
  6. 106
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, for an “edit” button … a quote from the above:

    A case study from the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, located around 9,400 feet above sea level in sub-alpine Colorado, demonstrates a clear link between warming trends and early emergence. Here, according to Blumstein, the snow has been melting on average about a day earlier each year over the last 30-50 years. Now marmots are coming out of hibernation a month earlier than they used to, when there are fewer plants available for them to eat, and melting snowpack coupled with hunger-induced daredevilry make marmots easy prey. Meanwhile, heat and drought sometimes dries out summer vegetation, which makes it tougher to fill up their fat reserves for the next winter.

    In some years, warmer weather may seem like a boon for marmots, as it can make for longer foraging time. In fact, over the first decade of the 2000s, the warmer weather actually triggered an explosion in population. But by 2011, the population crashed when there was an exceptionally long winter and late snow melt.

    The thing is, as we can also see in groundhogs, the earlier they wake up and the longer the growing season, the more individuals you might see survive the season. It’s what comes next that’s problematic…

  7. 107
  8. 108
    Fred Magyar says:

    Thomas @ 84,

    LOL! Tks for the link! Seems you ran out of arguments rather quickly, eh?!

    Cheers, old chap!

  9. 109
    Jim Hunt says:

    I awoke bright and early here in the once Great Britain to discover yet another tissue of lies lying on my virtual doormat, courtesy of David Rose in the Mail on Sunday:

    Climategate 2 – Episode 3 of David Rose’s Epic Saga

    Let’s see if we can discover if Peter Stott has any recollection of being interviewed last week by the Mail on Sunday and/or The Mail’s leading fantasy fiction writer shall we?

    I fired off yet another email to Mr. Rose’s Managing Editor posing a similar question.

    “No answer!” has been the stern reply thus far.

  10. 110
    Thomas says:

    108 Fred Magyar; I’m simply too old and wise to bother wasting my time Fred. Believe whatever you wish because you do and will anyway. (shrug)

  11. 111
    Charles Hughes says:

    Thomas says:
    15 Feb 2017 at 9:42 PM

    Hey Thomas! I know you need something to do with all of your free time. Your talents are desperately needed:×9600/

  12. 112
    Thomas says:

    Hi Chuck how’s ya doin’ – always wonderful to see all your top shelf contributions to discussions on RC and posting all that excellent reference materials that others gain so much from every month. (smiling)

    Here’s something in return for all your efforts that might help you.

    If you ever decide to act on that try these folks

  13. 113
    Mike Flynn says:

    Charles Hughes,

    Someone needs to learn to spell.

    It’s “available”, not “avalable”. Fake spelling for a fake employment form?


  14. 114
    Dan DaSilva says:

    Congress will shed light on this once they obtain all the information. If NOAA is a functional scientific organization they will welcome the investigation. However, if NOAA is not it will have problems.

  15. 115
    Paul Donahue says:

    Anyone getting concerned that there have been no new entries to this blog in longer than I can recall? Gavin? Stefan?

    And the moderator seems to be absent too…

  16. 116
    Russell says:

    Patrick is evidently less easily dauntrd than capital markets. three decades after I wrote those words, the national share of wind and solar are still in the single digits.

    Is he looking forward to the Capitalocene ?

  17. 117
    patrick says:

    115 Paul Donahue: No, just check their Twitter posts.

  18. 118
    patrick says:

    116 Russell: In defense of your hackneyed idea, you are calling on a hackneyed fallacy. The fallacy conforms to the fallacy about atmospheric CO2 that it can’t be significant because it’s a small percentage.

    What counts is growth rates and costs. The idea that I said is hackneyed is the idea that wind and solar are “dauntingly expensive.” I said it’s a hackneyed idea. (102)

    Now you trot out the “capital markets.” The global capital markets are not daunted at all by wind and solar. Regional records have recently been set by major contracts in Dubai (2.9cents/kWh) and India (4.9cents/kWh), among others.

  19. 119
    Susan Anderson says:

    Russell, thanks for that. I read about the “capitalocene” last year with appalled fascination. Some of the material is relevant and interesting (worldwide conquest and wasted landscapes for profit go back further than 1750), but the overall approach was sick-making and took determination to finish. People make a living doing that stuff, which undermines their argument. Still, the argument about the predation inherent in the highest apes’ approach to getting on is pretty scary now it is entering what appears to be a fatal endgame. I’m not convinced it is mostly male either. For example, Peter Thiel has passed on the lawyer who took down Gawker who is now helping Melania try to do the same to the Daily Mail. But I wander.

    Returning closer to topic (but still off), I don’t see why big fossil should make over 100:1 on their lobbying dollars while people chant Solyndragatepocalyse “Now is the time to blot out the sun” when the market in renewables is doing quite well. It’s not flat progress, and if the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers coal should go away, and most other forms of extreme fossil as well. There are alternatives.

  20. 120
    Charles Hughes says:

    Mike Flynn says:
    20 Feb 2017 at 8:52 PM
    Charles Hughes,

    “Someone needs to learn to spell.”

    Mike, maybe you should try reading some of Donald Trump’s tweets. I didn’t make up the application, I’m just passing it along. Misspellings are routine.

    By some strange coincidence there’s a “Michael T. Flynn” in the Trump administration.

  21. 121

    “Congress will shed light on this once they obtain all the information.”

    Now, THAT is a true LOL. The last thing this Congress wants is scientific clarity on matters climatic. For assurance that I’m correct, watch for the forthcoming budget cuts in climate research funding.

  22. 122

    Russell, how long do you think before wind and solar break out of single digits? Five years, tops?

  23. 123
    Paul Donahue says:


    Gavin’s continued tweeting has nothing to do with the increasingly suspicious inactivity on this blog. He is likely under considerable political pressure from above – and the pressure is the greatest at the highest level such as his Director of GISS job. Many US agency scientific and technical specialist’s blogs have been quietly abandoned over the past month.

    [Response: You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet… – gavin]

  24. 124
    Donald Condliffe says:

    This entire kerfuffle seems beside the point to me. The production forecasts for oil and natural gas keep going up out to 2040 as extraction technology keeps improving. While alternative energy installed generation is growing carbon burning is too. We are on a BAU plus track for the foreseeable future. That will be the bottom line for the climate.

  25. 125
    flxible says:

    (#123) [Response: You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet… – gavin]

    Also, you shouldn’t believe everything you conjecture about what you don’t read on the internet. :)

  26. 126
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dan DaSilva: “Congress will shed light on this once they obtain all the information.”

    Yes, I have so much confidence being judged by a man who thinks that bringing a snowball onto the floor of Congress in January negates global warming.

    Dan: “If NOAA is a functional scientific organization they will welcome the investigation.”

    Ah, yes, those who are innocent have nothing to fear from an investigation. Now where have I heard that before? Hmm, the McCarthy Hearings, Stalin’s show trials… sure, what could possibly go wrong when you give imbeciles authority over experts.