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Mountains and molehills

Filed under: — gavin @ 11 November 2008 - (Español)

As many people will have read there was a glitch in the surface temperature record reporting for October. For many Russian stations (and some others), September temperatures were apparently copied over into October, giving an erroneous positive anomaly. The error appears to have been made somewhere between the reporting by the National Weather Services and NOAA’s collation of the GHCN database. GISS, which produces one of the more visible analyses of this raw data, processed the input data as normal and ended up with an October anomaly that was too high. That analysis has now been pulled (in under 24 hours) while they await a correction of input data from NOAA (Update: now (partially) completed).

There were 90 stations for which October numbers equalled September numbers in the corrupted GHCN file for 2008 (out of 908). This compares with an average of about 16 stations each year in the last decade (some earlier years have bigger counts, but none as big as this month, and are much less as a percentage of stations). These other cases seem to be mostly legitimate tropical stations where there isn’t much of a seasonal cycle. That makes it a little tricky to automatically scan for this problem, but putting in a check for the total number or percentage is probably sensible going forward.

It’s clearly true that the more eyes there are looking, the faster errors get noticed and fixed. The cottage industry that has sprung up to examine the daily sea ice numbers or the monthly analyses of surface and satellite temperatures, has certainly increased the number of eyes and that is generally for the good. Whether it’s a discovery of an odd shift in the annual cycle in the UAH MSU-LT data, or this flub in the GHCN data, or the USHCN/GHCN merge issue last year, the extra attention has led to improvements in many products. Nothing of any consequence has changed in terms of our understanding of climate change, but a few more i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed.

But unlike in other fields of citizen-science (astronomy or phenology spring to mind), the motivation for the temperature observers is heavily weighted towards wanting to find something wrong. As we discussed last year, there is a strong yearning among some to want to wake up tomorrow and find that the globe hasn’t been warming, that the sea ice hasn’t melted, that the glaciers have not receded and that indeed, CO2 is not a greenhouse gas. Thus when mistakes occur (and with science being a human endeavour, they always will) the exuberance of the response can be breathtaking – and quite telling.

A few examples from the comments at Watt’s blog will suffice to give you a flavour of the conspiratorial thinking: “I believe they had two sets of data: One would be released if Republicans won, and another if Democrats won.”, “could this be a sneaky way to set up the BO presidency with an urgent need to regulate CO2?”, “There are a great many of us who will under no circumstance allow the oppression of government rule to pervade over our freedom—-PERIOD!!!!!!” (exclamation marks reduced enormously), “these people are blinded by their own bias”, “this sort of scientific fraud”, “Climate science on the warmer side has degenerated to competitive lying”, etc… (To be fair, there were people who made sensible comments as well).

The amount of simply made up stuff is also impressive – the GISS press release declaring the October the ‘warmest ever’? Imaginary (GISS only puts out press releases on the temperature analysis at the end of the year). The headlines trumpeting this result? Non-existent. One clearly sees the relief that finally the grand conspiracy has been rumbled, that the mainstream media will get it’s comeuppance, and that surely now, the powers that be will listen to those voices that had been crying in the wilderness.

Alas! none of this will come to pass. In this case, someone’s programming error will be fixed and nothing will change except for the reporting of a single month’s anomaly. No heads will roll, no congressional investigations will be launched, no politicians (with one possible exception) will take note. This will undoubtedly be disappointing to many, but they should comfort themselves with the thought that the chances of this error happening again has now been diminished. Which is good, right?

In contrast to this molehill, there is an excellent story about how the scientific community really deals with serious mismatches between theory, models and data. That piece concerns the ‘ocean cooling’ story that was all the rage a year or two ago. An initial analysis of a new data source (the Argo float network) had revealed a dramatic short term cooling of the oceans over only 3 years. The problem was that this didn’t match the sea level data, nor theoretical expectations. Nonetheless, the paper was published (somewhat undermining claims that the peer-review system is irretrievably biased) to great acclaim in sections of the blogosphere, and to more muted puzzlement elsewhere. With the community’s attention focused on this issue, it wasn’t however long before problems turned up in the Argo floats themselves, but also in some of the other measurement devices – particularly XBTs. It took a couple of years for these things to fully work themselves out, but the most recent analyses show far fewer of the artifacts that had plagued the ocean heat content analyses in the past. A classic example in fact, of science moving forward on the back of apparent mismatches. Unfortunately, the resolution ended up favoring the models over the initial data reports, and so the whole story is horribly disappointing to some.

Which brings me to my last point, the role of models. It is clear that many of the temperature watchers are doing so in order to show that the IPCC-class models are wrong in their projections. However, the direct approach of downloading those models, running them and looking for flaws is clearly either too onerous or too boring. Even downloading the output (from here or here) is eschewed in favour of firing off Freedom of Information Act requests for data already publicly available – very odd. For another example, despite a few comments about the lack of sufficient comments in the GISS ModelE code (a complaint I also often make), I am unaware of anyone actually independently finding any errors in the publicly available Feb 2004 version (and I know there are a few). Instead, the anti-model crowd focuses on the minor issues that crop up every now and again in real-time data processing hoping that, by proxy, they’ll find a problem with the models.

I say good luck to them. They’ll need it.

815 Responses to “Mountains and molehills”

  1. 801
    Ray Ladbury says:

    welcome back, Barton. Hope you are well on the mend.

  2. 802
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Mark, remember F=dp/dt.

    Perspectives on mass have changed since the introduction of spontaneous symmetry breaking. Arguments of changing mass might be appealing intuitively, but they aren’t reflective of current thinking on mass, inertia, etc.

  3. 803

    JCB wrote: “At any rate, I do see most of my posts are read as evidenced by some form of response and several emails.”

    Oh, yes–keep on posting! Though I will admit the additional periods Tom mentions are helpful, so keep them coming, too! Ironically, learning to use them more frequently was part of the “take away” from my doctoral experience.

    My private theory on this–no longer private, I guess–is that American prose was permanently affected by Ernest Hemingway’s famously laconic style. Some of us, by contrast, more influenced by the British literary tradition, do love our semi-colons, dashes, and all manner of subsidiary clauses–which, however, can become confusing, particularly when one is less than scrupulous about the attribution of pronouns. (If you just read that last sentence twice, you see what I meant.)

    The existence of William Faulkner is a somewhat troubling datum for this whole theory, however.

  4. 804
    Mark says:

    Ray, 602. I didn’t. But that makes as much difference as saying

    Remember: F=mdv/dt

    You’ve managed to dump mass into momentum and that, if anything, bolsters my argument.

    Photons have momentum. And your little factette says that massive particles do too. And photons only have momentum whilst moving.

    Now, how is that different (other than ontological dumping) from Photons have Mass only whist moving?

  5. 805
    jcbmack says:

    #800, I never actually disagreed, but the skeptics were comeing in droves and I wanted to see someone of your qualifications explain why these arguments are (the ones I posed) are not very helpful. I commented several weeks ago about the climate sensitvity on Watts. I want to thank you for taking the time and being a good sport. Not everyone can use evidence the way you do and for that I am greatful. Ignorance is never one’s friend, this is to be sure Ray. Thank you for your help making matters more clear, as I tend to talk things out so extensively that the point may be lost, though it did expose more sceptics this time in conjunction with your succinct statements.

    Kevin #803, much agreed. I grew up reading Britannica from the 1800’s and early 1900’s and the articles from the time period have tha habit of using many commas, semi colons and the word however is forever etched in my psche. When I took the GRE, the CBEST, and when I wrote my senior project,and my masters thesis I had to die to old habits. Some of my early undergrauate papers were anything, but laconic (a word by the way frequently encountered in teaching certification tests) and even in this post one can see my return to some degree to an older British style, if ever so slightly. I also loved the works of Agatha Chrsitie and Sir Arthur Conans Doyle and have forever been influenced by their asethetic writing styles. I read Hemingway, but was not influenced, only moved by his stories, rather than sentence delivery.

    I tend to type airplane, but have seen aeroplane hundreds of thousands of times; I love the semicolon! DP Davies also writes the British way, though I am American, the litertaure and science-encyclopedias of my youth were from the old school, in some cases where steam engines were fairly new; my early journies into science as a young boy. At any rate not that I am all for sentence form consensus, lord knows I had many a paper that eraned an A, but the professor wanted shorter sentences and less semicolons and, howevers. My thesis of course was rid of most of these excesses and I conformed as I do when I write reviews of my students work, work on my paper now, and have gone back to take one course to further enrivh my background. I will type more pleasing to the RC community to some extent, though I hate one sentence answers and group think influences.

  6. 806
    Tom Dayton says:

    Re: Jacob’s 794 in response to my 793:

    Jacob, I intended no disrespect regarding the grad education. The J.E.M. Tutoring site doesn’t mention a grad degree.

    I was not trying to be snide. Your comments here on Real Climate often seem to be informed by massive amounts of solo reading and thinking, but not by the mental context that comes only from having practiced the craft of empirical research science while under the in-person supervision and mentorship of a productive scientist. Take, for example, the fact that published peer-reviewed scientific articles mention continuing uncertainty. That should be interpreted in the context of every scientific investigation in every field being permanently ongoing to flesh out details, no matter how many other details already have been settled.

    You seem very enthusiastic about science, so I thought you might be well suited to a full-fledged graduate degree in an empirical science. (Hey, maybe even climatology!)

    This point actually does fall in line with the “Mountains and Molehills” topic of this entire thread. Scientists have a certain context of thought, language, and work practice. Engineers do, too, but a different one than scientists do. Likewise business people. Likewise journalists. Someone with lots of experience in any one of those areas rarely does well initially in any of those other areas. Notice how many scientists and engineers fail at running the companies they started to profit from their discoveries and inventions. Working in a different area requires not just different explicit knowledge, but also different assumptions and different skills, all of which must be acquired through long experience.

    Peer-reviewed scientific articles are written for readers who share the writers’ context. Anyone else likely will misinterpret. One response is to trust the judgment of the people who have the experience. Another response is to go get at least some more of the needed experience yourself.

  7. 807
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Mark, We probably shouldn’t get back into the relativistic kinematics thing, but you need to go back and look at the equations of motion and expressions for energy and momentum. In general, E^2=p^2c^2 +M0c^4. The energy of the photon is pc, while that of a massive particle at rest is M0c^2. The correct definition of force is F=dp/dt–true in classical physics as well, as there are some problems where mass changes (e.g a chain uncoiling and being dragged by a truck). The photon has energy and momentum–not mass.

  8. 808
    jcbmack says:

    Tom, I am not offended at all. I also need to update the J.E.M. tutoring page as well, but things have been busy. I brought up the margins for error because this is a common area of contention from many people who do not share the context with the author, that you spoke about. As far as working in climatology itself, as interesting as I find it, I doubt that I would work directly in the field, though it is interesting. I would like to take more courses in the future, however, relating to climate and weather, and when I am able this will happen. I trust the judgement of the consensus in climatology both because I have investigated and taken courses that are relevant to being able to interpret. I am not really disagreeing with the research or contending that the doubt somehow discredits or makes less well correlated or less relevant the conclusions. I was playing devil’s advocate and utilizing circumscription. It had the desired effect. If one looks at my early posts here or in Watts I get technical and describe models, physics and chemistry etc… I do not doubt the moderators work and have looked at the doubts in climate sensitivity, and see that the range proposed is highly probable and well supported by the trends. We are all life long learners Tom, and no one knows all, but I am confident my current background enables to me to understand the peer review papers and draw sound conclusions. I like when Ray explains things, he is older than I and has, himself a tremendous background. Here and there on RC I have made some errors and misspoke and I have admitted where I have and I am more focused on shortened sentences and less typographical errors:) No offense nor a grudge held, I enjoy your posts.

  9. 809
    Barton Paul Levenson says:

    Thanks, Ray.

  10. 810
    Barton Paul Levenson says:

    Mark, continuing his crusade to correct all the physicists, writes:

    Photons have momentum. And your little factette says that massive particles do too. And photons only have momentum whilst moving.

    Now, how is that different (other than ontological dumping) from Photons have Mass only whist moving?

    Because a particle can have momentum and not have mass. p = h / L where p is momentum, h Planck’s constant, and L (because I don’t know if RealClimate will display a lambda) is wavelength.

  11. 811
    Brian Brademeyer says:

    Ray (807):

    Small nit: should be M0^2.

  12. 812
    jcbmack says:

    Mark it is not likely, but it is possible for the sensitivity to be lower. It certainly is well supported mathematically and empirically that the temperature increase from doubling CO2 will be between 2 and 4.6 degrees, and the clustering is around 3 degrees.As far as negating billions of years of climate, that is really an unknown and cannot be proven, or even strongly evidenced without serious doubts. I will say that the estimates currently published are well supported and accurate.
    Keep in mind I let your serious error on thermodynamics go.Global warming actually supports the 4 laws and equilibration, but at any rate, yes the doubling of CO2 will lead to dramatic enough warming to cause problems. Still some areas will benefit from warming and this is also well known and documented.

    I certainly did play devil’s advocate, I actually did not greatly disagree with Ray or the RC, but sometimes you can show a person the error in their judgment by spelling it out for them.I will also equally state that I am not an alarmist that fears a run away climate, and yes Hank there are reputable climatologists who support such an outcome. Although, there are tipping points in ecology and carrying capacities, as well outlined in Scientific American 3.0, the climate will not just runaway if there is a 4.7 degree increase instead of a 4.6. I am concerned about future climate, this is clear. Also look at evolution Mark, you made several errors on that one as well, but I do enjoy your photons have mass argument. Keep up the good work!I enjoy your aggressive stance and you have a lot of knowledge it cannot be expected for anyone to get everything right even a genius like myself:)

  13. 813
    jcbmack says:

    Mass and energy commute. Photons do not have a literal mass, in a literal sense, but they “behave,” in a manner consistent with mass.

    [Response: Math joke from my youth: What’s purple and commutes? – an Abelian grape. – gavin]

  14. 814
    jcbmack says:

    LOL Gavin… good one. Abelian group. Some concepts or mathematics work out for a given observation or set of phenomena,but do not translate in others. Hence all the perceptual controversy.

  15. 815
    jcbmack says:

    Paradoxes are easily resolvable in real world applications, it is the philosophy which develops that makes man awfully confused.