My Times column on the revelations of problems with the global surface temperature record at NOAA:
Back in December, some American scientists began copying government climate data onto independent servers in what press reports described as an attempt to safeguard it from political interference by the Trump administration. There is to be a March for Science in April whose organisers say: “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”
Well, today they have a chance to do just that, but against their own colleagues who stand accused of doing what they claim the Trump team has done. Devastating new testimony from John Bates, a whistleblowing senior scientist at America’s main climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, alleges that scientists themselves have been indulging in alternative facts, fake news and policy-based evidence.
Dr Bates’s essay on the Climate Etc. website (and David Rose’s story in The Mail on Sunday) documents allegations of scientific misconduct as serious as that of the anti-vaccine campaign of Andrew Wakefield. Dr Bates’s boss, Tom Karl, a close ally of President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, published a paper in 2015, deliberately timed to influence the Paris climate jamboree. The paper was widely hailed in the media as disproving the politically inconvenient 18-year pause in global warming, whose existence had been conceded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) two years earlier.
Dr Bates says Mr Karl based the “pausebuster” paper on a flawed land-surface data set that had not been verified or properly archived; and on a sea-surface set that corrected reliable data from buoys with unreliable data from ship intakes, which resulted in a slightly enhanced warming trend. Science magazine is considering retracting the paper. A key congressional committee says the allegations confirm some of its suspicions.
[An extract from Dr Bates’s blog:
So, in every aspect of the preparation and release of the datasets leading into K15, we find Tom Karl’s thumb on the scale pushing for, and often insisting on, decisions that maximize warming and minimize documentation. I finally decided to document what I had found using the climate data record maturity matrix approach. I did this and sent my concerns to the NCEI Science Council in early February 2016 and asked to be added to the agenda of an upcoming meeting. I was asked to turn my concerns into a more general presentation on requirements for publishing and archiving. Some on the Science Council, particularly the younger scientists, indicated they had not known of the Science requirement to archive data and were not aware of the open data movement. They promised to begin an archive request for the K15 datasets that were not archived; however I have not been able to confirm they have been archived. I later learned that the computer used to process the software had suffered a complete failure, leading to a tongue-in-cheek joke by some who had worked on it that the failure was deliberate to ensure the result could never be replicated.]
Dr Bates is no “denier”; he was awarded a gold medal by the US government in 2014 for his climate-data work. Having now retired he writes of “flagrant manipulation of scientific integrity guidelines and scientific publication standards”, of a “rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy” and concludes: “So, in every aspect of the preparation and release of the data sets leading into [the report], we find Tom Karl’s thumb on the scale pushing for, and often insisting on, decisions that maximize warming and minimize documentation.”
This is more than just a routine scientific scandal. First, it comes as scientists have been accusing President Trump and other politicians of politicising science. Second, it potentially contaminates any claim that climate science has been producing unbiased results. Third, it embarrasses science journalists who have been chronicling the growing evidence of scientific misconduct in medicine, toxicology and psychology, but ignored the same about climate science because they approve of the cause, a habit known as noble-cause corruption.
[Here is an extract from a recent article about scientific fraud in the Guardian:
When it comes to fraud – or in the more neutral terms he prefers, “scientific misconduct” – Hartgerink is aware that he is venturing into sensitive territory. “It is not something people enjoy talking about,” he told me, with a weary grin. Despite its professed commitment to self-correction, science is a discipline that relies mainly on a culture of mutual trust and good faith to stay clean. Talking about its faults can feel like a kind of heresy. In 1981, when a young Al Gore led a congressional inquiry into a spate of recent cases of scientific fraud in biomedicine, the historian Daniel Kevles observed that “for Gore and for many others, fraud in the biomedical sciences was akin to pederasty among priests”.
The comparison is apt. The exposure of fraud directly threatens the special claim science has on truth, which relies on the belief that its methods are purely rational and objective. As the congressmen warned scientists during the hearings, “each and every case of fraud serves to undermine the public’s trust in the research enterprise of our nation”.
But three decades later, scientists still have only the most crude estimates of how much fraud actually exists. The current accepted standard is a 2009 study by the Stanford researcher Daniele Fanelli that collated the results of 21 previous surveys given to scientists in various fields about research misconduct. The studies, which depended entirely on scientists honestly reporting their own misconduct, concluded that about 2% of scientists had falsified data at some point in their career.
If Fanelli’s estimate is correct, it seems likely that thousands of scientists are getting away with misconduct each year. Fraud – including outright fabrication, plagiarism and self-plagiarism – accounts for the majority of retracted scientific articles. But, according to RetractionWatch, which catalogues papers that have been withdrawn from the scientific literature, only 684 were retracted in 2015, while more than 800,000 new papers were published. If even just a few of the suggested 2% of scientific fraudsters – which, relying on self-reporting, is itself probably a conservative estimate – are active in any given year, the vast majority are going totally undetected. “Reviewers and editors, other gatekeepers – they’re not looking for potential problems,” Hartgerink said.]
Colleagues of Mr Karl have been quick to dismiss the story, saying that other data sets come to similar conclusions. This is to miss the point and exacerbate the problem. If the scientific establishment reacts to allegations of lack of transparency, behind-closed-door adjustments and premature release so as to influence politicians, by saying it does not matter because it gets the “right” result, they will find it harder to convince Mr Trump that he is wrong on things such as vaccines.
Besides, this is just the latest scandal to rock climate science. The biggest was climategate in 2009, which showed scientists conspiring to ostracise sceptics, delete emails, game peer review and manipulate the presentation of data, including the truncation of a tree-ring-derived graph to disguise the fact that it seemed to show recent cooling (“hide the decline”). The scientists concerned were criticised by two rather perfunctory inquiries, but have since taken to saying they were “exonerated”.
There was the case of the paper the IPCC relied upon to show that local urban warming was not distorting global data sets, which turned out to be based partly on non-existent data from 49 Chinese weather stations; the Scandinavian lake sediment core used “upside down” to imply sudden warming; the chart showing unprecedented recent warming that turned out to depend on a single larch tree in Siberia; the southern hemisphere hockey-stick chart that had been created by the omission of inconvenient data series; the Antarctic temperature trend that turned out to depend on splicing together two weather station records.
Then there was the time when a well known climate scientist, Peter Gleick, stole the identity of a member of a think tank so he could leak confidential documents along with a fake one. Stephan Lewandowsky had to retract a paper about the psychology of climate scepticism that seemed to be full of methodological flaws and bizarre reasoning. John Cook’s paper claiming to prove that 97% of scientists were alarmed about climate change, proved to be based on methods that would have embarrassed a homeopath.
And don’t forget Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC for 13 years and often described as the “world’s top climate scientist”. He had to retract his “voodoo science” dismissal of a valid finding that contradicted claims from Dr Pachauri’s own research institute about Himalayan glaciers, which had led to a lucrative grant. That scandal resulted in a highly critical report into the IPCC by several of the world’s top science academies, which recommended among other things that the IPCC chairman stand down after one term. Dr Pachauri ignored this, kept his job and toured the world while urging others not to, before resigning over a personal scandal allegation.
I have championed science all my adult life. It is humankind’s greatest calling. That is why I deplore those who drag down its reputation by breaching its codes of conduct for political reasons, and I have no time for those excusing these enormities. They foment anti-intellectualism and play directly into the hands of people such as Mr Trump. Under the Obama administration,” says Professor Judith Curry, Dr Bates’s colleague, “I suspect that it would have been very difficult for this story to get any traction.” Yikes.
Dr Bates calls for more ethics teaching in science and for “respectful discussion of different points of view” — which we were emptily promised after climategate. It is time for the many brilliant scientists who are discovering great insights into quasars and quarks, Alzheimer’s and allergies, into neurons, fossils, telomeres and ice ages, to “take a public stand and be counted” against the politicisation of some science within their own ranks.
Post-script. Dr Bates’s essay provoked a number of critical blog posts and articles trying to make out that he was wrong. Some of these took the very tack I had pointed out in my article would be counterproductive, for example Popular Science magazine tweeted: “Even if NOAA fabricated data, the evidence still supports climate change”. Seriously!
Others pointed out that a subsequent study had also apparently abolished the pause. But then an even more recent one had emphatically reinstated it:
“There is this mismatch between what the climate models are producing and what the observations are showing,” says lead author John Fyfe, a climate modeller at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis in Victoria, British Columbia. “We can’t ignore it.” Fyfe uses the term “slowdown” rather than “hiatus” and stresses that it does not in any way undermine global-warming theory.
In any case, the satellite data sets, which are the least adjusted, continue to show 2016’s temperature as being statistically no warmer than 1998’s and continue to show very slow to no warming over 19 years.
Others tried to poke holes in Dr Bates’s account, but he replied with a detailed rebuttal of them.
Judith Curry’s closing comment is this:
An evaluation of these claims needs to be made by the NOAA Inspector General. I’m not sure what the line of reporting is for the NOAA IG, and whether the new Undersecretary for NOAA will appoint a new IG.
Other independent organizations will also want to evaluate these claims, and NOAA should facilitate this by responding to FOIA requests.
The House Science Committee has an enduring interest in this topic and oversight responsibility. NOAA should respond to the Committee’s request for documentation including emails. AGU and other organizations don’t like the idea of scientist emails being open to public scrutiny. Well, these are government employees and we are not talking about curiosity driven research here – at issue here is a dataset with major policy implications.
In other words, with the surface temperature data set we are in the realm of regulatory science, which has a very different playbook from academic, ‘normal’ science. While regulatory science is most often referred to in context of food and pharmaceutical sciences, it is also relevant to environmental regulations as well. The procedures developed by John Bates are absolutely essential for certifying these datasets, as well as their uncertainties, for a regulatory environment.