Ever notice that once in a while, when observing scientific matters, you have a signal to noise problem that’s really difficult to overcome?
I’m not talking about the actual problems of signal-to-noise in building studies, especially out of short and uncorrelated pieces of data. I’m talking about the amplification that goes on in the denialist quarters of the blogosphere, picking up on phrasings or terms of trade that happen to be easy to misconstrue into a soundbite “club” to beat layfolk over the head with. This happens in pretty much every field of study, but never to the extent or effectiveness seen in the field of climatology.
Take, for instance, Phil Jones’ interview with the BBC, from which an intentional misunderstanding of the concept of statistical significance by a question sent in by a climate skeptic entrapped Jones into saying something technically correct but easily misconstrued.
BBC: Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming
Phil Jones: Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.
BBC: How confident are you that warming has taken place and that humans are mainly responsible?
Phil Jones: I’m 100% confident that the climate has warmed. As to the second question, I would go along with IPCC Chapter 9 – there’s evidence that most of the warming since the 1950s is due to human activity.
Emphasis mine. Of course, the important thing about using a fourteen year period is that it is impossible to make a statistically significant trend out of any climate dataset with the 95% confidence you need to be able to declare statistical significance. You would need the effects of global warming to be massive to gain that amount of confidence. Nonetheless, as Phil Jones says, that specific period shows warming, and it was very close to 95% confidence. It was 93% in fact. And if you expand the window by even one year, it becomes statistically significant. Like I said, entrapment, intended explicitly to build a pullquote that denialists could use to pull stunts like this one over at the Daily Fail.
Or how about the lowball figure for ocean rising? A study was produced that was later withdrawn by its authors after it was pointed out to them exactly how they messed up the figures and why their figure of 82cm rise was far, far lower than figures generated via a better model — a model which suggested up to two metres in sea level rise. They underestimated the amount sea levels would rise, and their figures were parroted by denialists as showing that climate change would be far less severe than we originally projected. Once they realized their errors, they withdrew the paper to correct the record. And amazingly, the denialists got a second turn at the well when the paper was withdrawn, by claiming the withdrawal of that paper proved the oceans wouldn’t rise at all.
The whole “Climategate” fiasco was a similar case of shenanigans. I won’t recap the whole thing (Peter Sinclair does it so much better), but to sum up, some asshole leaked a bunch of internal emails discussing the sausage-making behind the scenes for a scientific study that has been referred to since it came out as “the hockey stick graph”. A few key phrases sounded kind of dodgy pulled out of context even though they had perfectly reasonable explanations (we’re talking Mr. Roper level misunderstanding here). The discussion was perfectly reasonable, involving dropping one of the six temperature proxies at a certain point when it stopped correlating with any of the other five, and including instrumentation temperature data to represent the parts of the graph that they didn’t have proxy data to show — e.g., they didn’t have (for instance) ice core information from the last twenty years, but they DID have real temperatures instead. That was the “trick”. And the one proxy they had to drop because it stopped matching five other proxies or (more importantly) real temperature, was the “decline” they hid.
All of this perfectly reasonable procedural stuff… and yet it’s STILL the focal point of a hundred thousand astroturf comments on every article or blog post across the entire internet. Some of them might legitimately be people’s opinions, but there’s decent evidence that it’s mostly bought dissent. And this dissent, and this ginned up controversy, keep going strong despite the Climategate scientists and the methodology being vindicated no less than seven times.
There’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, though. Via Greg Laden’s Scienceblogs blog:
A study published in late July made false claims and was methodologically flawed, but still managed to get published in a peer reviewed journal. The Editor-in-Chief of that journal has resigned to symbolically take responsibility for the journal’s egregious error of publishing what is essentially a fake scientific paper, and to “protest against how the authors [and others] have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions” taking to task the University of Alabama’s press office, Forbes, Fox News and others.
The numerical results presented in the paper lack statistical significance, but this is hard to detect because error bars or estimates of statistical uncertainty are presented poorly or left out. The methods used in the paper are not described well enough to verify that they could work.
When these results were examined more closely they were found to be not replicable.
The statistical strangeness of the results are explained in part by looking at the scale at which the work is being done. Standard climate models look at climate variables over various time scales from less than a decade to centuries of time. The Spencer and Braswell research inappropriately mixed time scales in a way that seems to have given them results they were looking for rather than a valid finding.
People are willing to fight back. If the Editor-in-Chief was willing to quit in protest of such a shoddy piece of climate denialism being published in his journal, this proves that scientists are willing to put humanity’s future before their own profits — or even before their short term career concerns. And honestly, as I’ve said a dozen times before, conspiracy is more likely from the side that stands to lose billions. I’m tired of being shouted down by people who have every reason and opportunity to obfuscate the truth, twist our and scientists’ words, and outright dismantle the goalposts such that it’s literally impossible to kick a field goal even with the mountains of evidence we have on hand. We call them denialists because they refuse to even look at the evidence, and on the off chance they do, it’s solely to search for a chink in our armor — not the science’s armor, but ours. They’ve already lost the science war. Now it’s all shouting, distortions, propaganda and lies.
See also Greg’s list of links at X Blog.
So what do we do about this? What CAN we do? Are we inexorably headed straight off a climate cliff and the entrenched powers have succeeded in subsuming our long term species survival prospects for their short-term gain? I don’t want to give up on humanity just yet!