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Science is being corrupted by political bias

My column in the Times, with post-scripts:


As somebody who has championed science all his career, carrying a lot of water for the profession against its critics on many issues, I am losing faith. Recent examples of bias and corruption in science are bad enough. What’s worse is the reluctance of scientific leaders to criticise the bad apples. Science as a philosophy is in good health; science as an institution increasingly stinks.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report last week that found evidence of scientists increasingly “employing less rigorous research methods” in response to funding pressures. A 2009 survey found that almost 2 per cent of scientists admitting that they have fabricated results; 14 per cent say that their colleagues have done so.

This month has seen three egregious examples of poor scientific practice. The most recent was the revelation in The Times last week that scientists appeared to scheme to get neonicotinoid pesticides banned, rather than open-mindedly assessing all the evidence. These were supposedly “independent” scientists, yet they were hand in glove with environmental activists who were receiving huge grants from the European Union to lobby it via supposedly independent reports, and they apparently had their conclusions in mind before they gathered the evidence. Documents that have recently come to light show them blatantly setting out to make policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy.

Second example: last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a supposedly scientific body, issued a press release stating that this is likely to be the warmest year in a century or more, based on surface temperatures. Yet this predicted record would be only one hundredth of a degree above 2010 and two hundredths of a degree above 2005 — with an error range of one tenth of a degree. True scientists would have said: this year is unlikely to be significantly warmer than 2010 or 2005 and left it at that.

In any case, the year is not over, so why the announcement now? Oh yes, there’s a political climate summit in Lima this week. The scientists of WMO allowed themselves to be used politically. Not that they were reluctant. To squeeze and cajole the data until they just crossed the line, the WMO “reanalysed” a merger of five data sets. Maybe that was legitimate but, given how the institutions that gather temperature data have twice this year been caught red-handed making poorly justified adjustments to “homogenise” and “in-fill” thermometer records in such a way as to cool down old records and warm up new ones, I have my doubts.

In one case, in Rutherglen, a town in Victoria, a recorded cooling trend of minus 0.35C became a reported warming trend of plus 1.73C after “homogenisation” by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. It claimed the adjustment was necessary because the thermometer had moved between two fields, but could provide no evidence for this, or for why it necessitated such a drastic adjustment.

Most of the people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in their views on climate policy, which hardly reassures the rest of us that they leave those prejudices at the laboratory door. Imagine if bankers were in charge of measuring inflation.

Third example: the Royal Society used to be the gold standard of scientific objectivity. Yet this month it issued a report on resilience to extreme weather that, in its 100-plus pages, could find room for not a single graph to show recent trends in extreme weather. That is because no such graph shows an upward trend in global frequency of droughts, storms or floods. The report did find room for a graph showing the rising cost of damage by extreme weather, which is a function of the increased value of insured property, not a measure of weather.

The Royal Society report also carefully omitted what is perhaps the most telling of all statistics about extreme weather: the plummeting death toll. The global probability of being killed by a drought, flood or storm is down by 98 per cent since the 1920s and has never been lower — not because weather is less dangerous but because of improvements in transport, trade, infrastructure, aid and communication.

The Royal Society’s decision to cherry-pick its way past such data would be less worrying if its president, Sir Paul Nurse, had not gone on the record as highly partisan on the subject of climate science. He called for those who disagree with him to be “crushed and buried”, hardly the language of Galileo.

Three months ago Sir Paul said: “We need to be aware of those who mix up science, based on evidence and rationality, with politics and ideology, where opinion, rhetoric and tradition hold more sway. We need to be aware of political or ideological lobbyists who do not respect science, cherry-picking data or argument, to support their predetermined positions.”

If he wishes to be consistent, he will therefore condemn the behaviour of the scientists over neonicotinoids and the WMO over temperature records, and chastise his colleagues’ report, for these are prime examples of his point.

I am not hopeful. When a similar scandal blew up in 2009 over the hiding of inconvenient data that appeared to discredit the validity of proxies for past global temperatures based on tree rings (part of “Climategate”), the scientific establishment closed ranks and tried to pretend it did not matter. Last week a further instalment of that story came to light, showing that yet more inconvenient data (which discredit bristlecone pine tree rings as temperature proxies) had emerged.

The overwhelming majority of scientists do excellent, objective work, following the evidence wherever it leads. Science remains (in my view) our most treasured cultural achievement, bar none. Most of its astonishing insights into life, the universe and everything are beyond reproach and beyond compare. All the more reason to be less tolerant of those who let their motivated reasoning distort data or the presentation of data. It’s hard for champions of science like me to make our case against creationists, homeopaths and other merchants of mysticism if some of those within science also practise pseudo-science.

In all the millions of scientific careers in Britain over the past few decades, outside medical science there has never been a case of a scientist convicted of malpractice. Not one. Maybe that is because — unlike the police, the church and politics — scientists are all pure as the driven snow. Or maybe it is because science as an institution, like so many other institutions, does not police itself properly.




For those interested in further details of some of the incidents mentioned in this artice, here follow some links and quotes.

1. On neonicotinoids, here is what the scientists wrote:

“Based on the results of the meeting in Paris the following was agreed that the will be published in peer-reviewed journals. Building on these papers a research paper will be submitted to Science (first choice) or Nature (second choice) which would introduce new analyses and findings across the scientific disciplines to demonstrate as convincingly as possible the impact of neonicotionoides on insects, birds, other species, ecosystem functions, and human livelihoods. This high-impact paper would have a carefully selected first author, a core author team of 7 people or fewer (including the authors of the initial four papers), and a broader set of authors to give global and interdisciplinary coverage. A significant amount of the supporting evidence will be in the official Supporting Online Material accompanying the paper. A parallel « sister » paper (this would be a shorter Policy Forum paper) could be submitted to Science simultaneously drawing attention to the policy implications of the other paper, and calling for a moratorium in the use and sale of neonicotinoid pestcides. We would try to pull together some major names in the scientific world to be authors of this paper. If we are successful in getting these two papers published, there will be enormous impact, and a campaign led by WWF etc could be launched right away. It will be much harder for politicians to ignore a research paper and a Policy Forum paper in Science The most urgent thing is to obtain the necessary policy change to have these pesticides banned, not to start a campaign. A stronger scientific basis for the campaign will hopefully mean a shorter campaign. In any case, this is going to take time, because the chemical industry will throw millions into a lobbying exercise.”

2. On Rutherglen, an Australian weather station, the Bureau of Meteorlogy added a page of explanation after the scandal was drawn to their attention. Unfortunately this made things worse by admitting that the record “does not list a site move” and contains “no firm evidence exists [of] exact location”. Moreover, the page reveals precisely nothing about how the adjustment was done to account for this unknown site move. As Jo Nova commented at the time:

“The BOM has added a page listing “Adjustments”. It’s two years late, inadequate and incomplete. Skeptics shouldn’t have had to ask for it in the first place, and we still don’t have the algorithms and codes, or rational answers to most questions.  No one can replicate the mystery black box homogenisation methods of the BOM — and without replication, it isn’t science. There is still no explanation of why an excellent station like Rutherglen should change from cooling to warming, except for vague “statistics”, or why any station should be adjusted without documentary evidence, based on thermometers that might be 300km away.”

The new “adjustments” page doesn’t resolve much at all. There are still blatant errors — The changes to long term trends in minima are not “neutral”,  but increase the trend by nearly 50% (See  Ken Stewart’s site here and  the finished set here). The hottest day in Australia was almost certainly not in Albany in 1933 (which remains uncorrected at 51C). Many  maximums have been adjusted and become lower than minimums. Those mistakes did not exist in the raw data. The homogenisation has created them, like the new  discontinuity in Deniliquin.

The adjustments page is just a glorified rehash of the same old excuses

Effectively the bureau is saying “we need large mysterious transformations of data to make Australian trends look like international trends”.What serious climate scientist thinks Australia is supposed to get hotter, colder, wetter, drier, or cloudier with the exact same timing and patterns to the rest of the world? Even high schoolers know that when it rains on the East Coast with El Ninos, it’s not raining on the other side of the Pacific. Just because other homogenizations have produced the same trends by blending data to the point where it is unrecognisable does not make it “good” science.

Lots of international bankers were marketing the same overrated mortage bundles. Anyone want to buy subprime science — I have a collateralized trend for sale

Three years ago the independent audit team, with Senator Cory Bernardi, asked for an ANAO audit of the BOM’s “High Quality” HQ data set. The BOM was not enthused. They dumped the HQ set that they had previously lauded and set up a new one called “ACORN”. We listed some of the  errors in June 2012. Two years on, nothing much appears to have changed. They still haven’t released the algorithms used in the homogenization process. They are still using stations  more than 100km away, some 600 km away, to “adjust” temperatures.  The mystery black box adjustments are still producing inexplicable nonsense, and the BOM still can’t explain why — on individual stations  like Rutherglen and  Bourke — anyone should find their adjustments necessary and scientifically justified. There is  no documentation showing Rutherglen has moved. But there is documentation suggesting perhaps  Bourke’s deleted “hottest” day really might have been 125F in 1909.

The BOM’s active silence on the  long hot recordsof the late 1880s and 1890s suggests they are more interested in promoting one message — “it’s warming” — rather than being custodians of the real and more complicated history of the Australian climate.


3. On tree-ring proxies, the new data concerns “out of sample” data on tree rings from bristlecone pines on Sheep Mountain in California. This data set gives a sharp hockey stick up till 1980, implying rapidly increasing growth of trees as 1980 approached. But critics have alleged that this is unlikely to be down to temperature, and more iikely a “strip-bark” phenomenon, whereby the tree regrows rapidly after damage by goats and sheep. The absence of data from after 1980 has always been puzzling. Well, as Steve McIntyre now reports, the data have now been collected and they show low growth rates during the warm years of 1980-2000. Once again, Jo Nova summarises the story especially well:

The  obvious message is that these particular proxies don’t work now and probably never did, and that this hockeystick shape  depends on not using tree rings after 1980.

More important than the details of one proxy, is the message that the modern bureaucratized monopolistic version of “science” doesn’t work. Real scientists, who were really interested in the climate, would have published updates years ago. (Indeed, would never have published the hockeystick graph in the first place. Its dysfunctional combination of temperatures and truncated proxies is mashed through a maths process so bad it produces a hockey stick most of the time even if the data is replaced by red noise.)

The screaming absence of this obvious update for so long is an example of what I call the “rachet effect” in science — where only the right experiments, or the right data, gets published. It’s not that there is a conspiracy, it’s just that no one is paid to find the holes in the theory and the awkward results sit buried at the bottom of a drawer for a decade.  The cortex soaked in confirmation-bias couldn’t figure out how to explain them.

See Climate Audit for McIntyre’s view on Salzer et al 2014.

“The new results of Salzer et al 2014 (though not candid on the topic) fully demonstrate this point in respect to Sheep Mountain.  In the warm 1990s and 2000s, the proxy not only doesn’t respond linearly to higher temperatures, it actually goes the wrong way.   This will result in very negative RE values for MBH-style reconstructions from its AD1000 and AD1400  networks when brought up to date, further demonstrating these networks have no real “skill” out of sample.

We’ve also heard over and over about how “divergence” is limited to high-latitude tree ring series and about how the Mann reconstruction was supposedly immune from the problem.  However, these claims mostly relied on stripbark chronologies (such as Sheep Mountain) and the validity of such claims is very much in question.

As previously discussed on many occasions, stripbark chronologies have been used over and over in the canonical IPCC reconstructions, with the result that divergence problems at Sheep Mountain and other sites do not merely impact Mann et al 1998-99, but numerous other reconstructions.  Even the recent PAGES2K North America reconstruction uses non-updated Graybill stripbark chronologies.  It also ludicrously ends in 1974.  So rather than bringing the Mann et al network up-to-date, it is even less up-to-date.”

Note that bristlecone pines were never supposed to be used as climate proxies anyway. They are a rather unusual species — their growth was thought to be CO2-limited rather than limited by temperature or moisture, so they responded well at first to the increase in CO2 in the 20th century, though obviously something else is going on after 1980. This graph and these results apply only to one situation — not all tree rings. But the  failure of review applies to the whole scientific community.

The IPCC adopted the hockeystick for their logo shortly after Mann produced it, but long since dropped it. Where was the all-marvelous, hallowed, IPCC “expert” review?


PPS After this article was published an extraordinary series of tweets appeared under the name of Richard Betts, a scientist at the UK Met Office and somebody who is normally polite even when critical. He called me “paranoid and rude” and made a series of assertions about what I had written that were either inaccurate or stretched interpretations to say the least. He then advanced the doctrine that politicians should not criticize civil servants. The particular sentence he objected to was:

Most of the people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in their views on climate policy, which hardly reassures the rest of us that they leave those prejudices at the laboratory door.

He thought this was an unjustified attack on civil servants. However, if you read what I said in that sentence, it is that (1) people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in support of certain policies – which is not a criticism, just a statement; and (2) that we need reassurance that they do not let that consciously or unconsciously influence their work, which again is not a criticism, let alone an attack, merely a request for reassurance. Certainly there is no mention of civil servants, let alone by name, and nothing to compare with an attack on me by name calling me paranoid and rude.

Is the first assertion true? I had in mind Jim Hansen, who was in charge of GISS, a data set for which serious questions have been raised about adjustments made that warm the present or cool the past, and who is prepared to get himself arrested in protest against fossil fuels. I also had in mind Phil Jones, partly in charge of HADCRUT, who also is not shy with his views. I was not thinking of Julia Slingo of the Met Office, because I do not think of the Met Office as a collater of temperature data, but perhaps I should have been. And then there’s Australia’s BoM. And indeed the RSS data, whose collater, Dr Carl Mears, fumes at the way “denialists” talk about his data. Hardly objective language.

Is my request for reassurance reasonable? In view of the Australian episodes, the GISS adjustments, the USHCN story from earlier this year (see here) – all of which raised doubts about the legitimacy of adjustments being made to the temperature data – then yes, I think I am. Do I think the data are fatally flawed? No, I don’t. I happily accept that all the data sets show some warming in the 1980s and 1990s and not much since and that this fits with the satellite data. But do I think such data can be used to assert that this is the warmest year, by 0.01 degrees, a month before the year ends? No, I don’t. I think people like Dr Betts should say as much.

As of this writing, Dr Betts’s latest tweet is:

If ‪@mattwridley wants to criticise climate policy then he’s got every right, but attacking scientists is wrong.

Well, if by attacking he means physically or verbally abusing, then yes, I agree, but I don’t do it. I don’t call people by name “paranoid”, for example. But criticizing scientists should be allowed surely? And asking for reassurance? Come on, Richard.

The WMO “re-analysed” a data set to get its 0.01 degree warmest year. What was that reanalysis and has it been independently checked? I would genuinely like to know. I stopped taking these things on trust after the hockey stick scandal.

The thrust of my article was that the reputation of the whole of science is at risk if bad practices and biases are allowed to infect data collection and presentation, and that science like other institutions can no longer take public trust for granted. A reaction of bluster and invective hardly reassures me that science takes my point on board. For the moment, I remain of the view that

The overwhelming majority of scientists do excellent, objective work, following the evidence wherever it leads. Science remains (in my view) our most treasured cultural achievement, bar none. Most of its astonishing insights into life, the universe and everything are beyond reproach and beyond compare.

But Dr Betts’s reaction has weakened my confidence in this view.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times