Friday, December 04, 2009

Update on the CRU Scandal and the Medieval Warm Period

We’ve now heard back from the Wordhoard’s resident Science Dude* on his review of the CRU e-mails and the kerfuffle they’ve caused. In addition to the e-mails, he’s looked at some of the published results that came out of them. As promised, I report to you his findings.

Some of the public sturm und drang over the e-mails is over things that are either misunderstood by laymen or simply the casual way that two academics might talk with one another over presumably private e-mails. For example, a lot of cry has gone up over the sentence, “Next time I see [prominent global warming skeptic] at a scientific meeting, I’ll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted.” Well, heck, there are some colleagues in my own field I’m tempted to beat the crap out of, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I had expressed that in an e-mail to a friend. It’s the kind of thing you write in an e-mail to someone you know well, not the kind of thing you publish in a footnote.

Science Dude does find, however, that at many points the e-mails reveal “bad science,” “deception,” and academic bad behavior ranging from the “sloppy” to “beyond the pale.” Beyond the unethical behavior, he notes, there also appears to be illegal behavior in the requests to delete e-mails to avoid FoIA requirements, something that is illegal as “anyone getting grants at that level would know” ((though I should note he is Science Dude, not Legal Dude). Because you can’t really be fined or prosecuted for being a bad scientist, but you can be for violating the Freedom of Information Act, Science Dude says “I can also say I would rather be Michael Mann than Phil Jones right now,” and he notes that even the other participants in the e-mails are quickly distancing themselves from Jones – a very bad sign indeed.

To see “the most honest thing written” on the CRU scandal to date, Science Dude recommends reading Eduardo Zorita’s “Why I Think that Michael Mann, Phil Jones, and Stefan Rahmstorf Should Be Barred from the IPCC Process.” Science Dude notes that Zorita has probably done serious damage to his career by writing it – which also explains why I’m respecting Science Dude’s anonymity.

Now, for the part that affects us here at the Wordhoard – the Medieval Warm Period. In one now-notorious e-mail, Michael Mann wrote that “it would nice to ‘contain’ the putative ‘MWP’” (or Medieval Warm Period), but Mann has since argued that what he meant by that was that he simply wanted to identify exactly when the MWP began, not deny its existence. Science Dude, however, finds Mann’s explanation unbelievable, both in the context of the e-mail and Mann’s other publications. Read enough of what Mann has written about the MWP (or what he prefers to call the “Medieval Climate Anomaly”), and you’ll see that his explanation doesn’t pass the laugh test. Whether the MWP was just an anomaly or not, Mann clearly meant to hide it in the data.

At the end of the day, the requests by Jones to delete e-mails were not just probably illegal – they were also clear signs of conscious deception. At best they were like Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men, shouting “You can’t handle the truth!” As Science Dude points out, deciding what the public can and can’t handle is “a dangerous business for scientists to get into.”

Even more troublesome within the scientific community is the reliance on the CRU for binned data. Binning data is a process that that’s intended to eliminate small observational errors, but it can be very computer intensive, so other scientists have been acting in good faith using the CRU’s binned data for their own work – but if that data was massaged to aim toward a particular end rather than eliminating error, the hard work of honest scientists has been compromised. Science Dude doesn’t have access to the unbinned data to compare with the binned data (nor would he likely have the time or resources to do so just as a favor to me) regarding the Medieval Warm Period, but the CRU scandal opens the possibility that some of what we think about the MWP will have to be revised as we get more honest data.

*Science Dude is a legitimate university scientist – millions of bucks in grants over the years, full professor, etc. He characterizes himself as a believer in climate change, and would not call himself an anthropogenic climate change “skeptic,” but notes that climate is always changing. He would argue that the question as to whether and to what degree human activity affects that climate change is uncertain.


  1. Thanks Scott and Science Dude! This helps a great deal.

  2. Anonymous10:13 AM

    I don't know what scientists to trust on this stuff by now. Lots of people who are adequately qualified to comment don't know what's going on or disagree with each other, and there are all kinds of faith positions involved. I don't see any other way to orient oneself except by trying to gauge consensus or majority opinion, in which case one Science Dude does not make an unusually warm summer... If however we are mainly concerned with the MWP, then this data series is from far too wide a set of points anyway. We're not concerned with global climate, but with regional climate, in Western Europe and perhaps secondarily the Sahara region (because of what it does to Mediterranean trade networks and the gold supply).

    Are you in a position to post the full text of Science Dude's e-mail?

  3. I can't post Science Dude's e-mail, because this is culled from several short e-mails, a loooooong telephone conversation, and then his vetting of what I wrote above. If you have a specific question, though, I might be able to get him to comment on it.

  4. Thanks for following up with Science Dude's analysis. I note that Eduardo Zorita has removed the editorial that S.D. praises as the "most honest" response to the East Anglia affair. Instead the link now sends readers to a new blog run by Zorita and four others, about which more anon.

    I think S.D. ought to have noted that Zorita was the subject of some unkind remarks in the hacked e-mails. Also that Zorita coauthored a 2005 paper in Science that was widely touted by anthropogenic global warming skeptics as proof of their case, before which a crucial math error was brought to the authors' attention, to which they repsonded with a correction not in Science but buried in a much more obscure journal little read in their field -- something for which they were sharply criticized in 2006 by scientsts who believe their work shows evidence of AGW. These facts would seem to be necessary context for Zorita's response to the CRU-hack: he may have an axe to grind against Mann and Jones.

    That said, in the new blog, Zorita actually argues against S.D.'s interpretation of Mann's "'contain' the putatative 'MWP'" remark. Apparently it does pass the "laugh test" of a climatologist that S.D. admires:

    << I really cannot understand why the use of the word contain has been so severely criticized. The Medieval Warm Period is a period of a few centuries, centered around more or less the year 1000, which quite possibly was warmer than the following centuries, say from 1400 to 1800. The duration and geographical extent of the Medieval Warm Period is not very well known. Mann is writing about possible studies to reconstruct, albeit in an approximate manner, the climate of the past millennium. He argues that instead of limiting the reconstruction period to just back to year 1000, it would be nice if they could extend the period of the reconstruction backwards by several centuries, thus perhaps gaining a better understanding of the Medieval Warm Period. >>

    Which is just what I said in my earlier comments on your earlier post, apparently before Mann's own remarks making the same argument were published.