Climate science and acts of creation

James Hansen Prof Hansen argues climate change is "loading the dice" of extreme weather

The role of formal scientific processes in climate science appear to be under threat as never before.

Last year, physicist Prof Richard Muller and colleagues published - in the sense of posting material on their website - results from a new project analysing the Earth's temperature record.

The Berkeley Earth (BEST) project basically backed up established temperature records from Nasa and others; the world is indeed warming, and by about as much as we previously thought, it concluded.

Prof Muller was attacked in some quarters for not waiting for the formal process of peer review in a scientific journal before launching the data publicly.

He responded that his method - to put the draft out there openly and let everyone respond who wants to - is increasingly the norm in physics and indeed has always been the norm in string theory, that most arcane of disciplines.

In his view, it's the right way to do things.

A couple of weeks ago, in a New York Times article accompanying the release of five more BEST papers that are being submitted to scientific journals, Prof Muller went further, saying that the majority of 20th Century warming could be laid at the door of greenhouse gas emissions.

By contrast, analysis by established bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) holds that only after mid-Century did greenhouse gases drive the warming - prior to that, it was predominantly down to natural causes such as solar cycles and a decline in the frequency of large volcanoes.

Graph The Berkeley group confirmed existing records of global temperature

The original BEST study particularly got up the nose of meteorologist turned sceptic blogger Anthony Watts.

It dismissed the claim he'd made that US weather stations gave an unreliable temperature record because many were badly sited - in places where the extent of heat-reflecting tarmac, for example, had expanded over time.

Also a couple of weeks back, Mr Watts launched a new analysis purporting to show that BEST had it all wrong.

Weather station in Oregon Mr Watts contends that badly-sited US weather stations distort the temperature record

BEST had used an out-of-date methodology for assessing station quality, he argued; use the right one, and you find that US temperatures have risen by only half as much over the last 30 years as Prof Muller and others say it has.

This paper too has been released web-first, on the wattsupwiththat blog, with the aim of formal publication later.

The next development in a busy few days was a Washington Post article penned by Prof James Hansen, the Nasa scientist who has done perhaps more than any other academic down the years to raise the spectre of catastrophic climate change.

It referred to a scientific paper out this week in which he calculates how the incidence of extreme weather events has changed since the middle of the last century.

Using simple statistics rather than computer models, he shows that the frequency of "extreme anomalies" - for the statistically-minded, defined as more than three standard deviations from the mean - has increased 10-fold.

Without climate change, it concludes, last year's drought in Texas and Oklahoma, the 2010 Moscow heatwave, and the 2003 heatwave centred on France wouldn't have happened.

(The article's appearance induced the journal publishing the paper, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to lift the embargo for reporters, but it doesn't appear to be on their website as yet - sometime this week, presumably.)

Prof Hansen's paper has had a mixed reaction from other researchers.

Prof Andrew Weaver from Canada's University of Victoria said it was an "excellent" piece of work that asked a better-framed question than the one other researchers have posed.

"Rather than say, 'is this because of climate change?' That's the wrong question.

A sign reads '38 degrees centigrade' 2010 brought temperatures 8C above normal to Moscow and other parts of Russia

"What you can say is, 'how likely is this to have occurred with the absence of global warming?' It's so extraordinarily unlikely that it has to be due to global warming."

Prof Myles Allen, the Oxford University climate modeller who has spent 10 years developing the science of climate attribution, said it was "broadly in line" with previous analyses, but that the interpretation "goes further than many scientists are comfortable with".

What's perhaps more remarkable about Prof Hansen's paper is the style.

Rarely if ever have I seen a published scientific paper that states the rationale for its existence so baldly in terms of public perception - specifically, "the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming".

"Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public recognises that human-made climate change is underway and perceives that it will have unacceptable consequences if effective actions are not taken to slow the climate change," the authors write.

Climate change glossary
Select a term to learn more:
Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

You'd have to be from another planet not to realise that climate science has been the subject of extraordinarily intense political forces over the last few years.

And many scientists involved feel passionately about it.

At its core, though, climate science has been able to retain its identity partly because researchers generally don't give in to passion, instead sticking to formal processes - publication in peer-reviewed journals and the presentation of data and conclusions in strictly academic terms.

It's rapidly becoming more blurred. And the question arises: is this a good thing?

Prof John Christy, the University of Alabama scientist who has taken a position sceptical of "climate catastrophism" down the years while working in the mainstream discipline of compiling temperature records, believes it could be.

Two years ago, he suggested replacing the monolithic procedures of the IPCC with a "wiki" approach.

And he tells me now that he got involved with the Anthony Watts exercise partly because it "would be an interesting experiment for me in which the paper was 'cloud reviewed' and then rewritten to accommodate important new information before being submitted [to an academic journal]... I'm wondering if this is the way 'review' in the digital age will unfold as time goes on."

Man pours water on head Heatwaves in Greece and elsewhere are down to climate change, the new paper claims

Prof Christy makes the distinction - crucial to scientists - between draft papers for discussion and final, complete ones that go into academic journals and become part of the formal literature of science.

But how clear is that distinction to the public that Mr Watts, Prof Hansen and Prof Muller are trying to influence?

And if it's not clear, how does the new model benefit public understanding?

Peer review is far from perfect - especially in a politicised arena such as climate science where some journals exist with a specific, directed slant on the issue.

Energy and Environment, for example, proclaims itself "a forum for more sceptical analyses of 'climate change'".

Creationists have attempted to clothe themselves in scientific garb down the years by establishing publications designed to look and feel like scientific journals.

The Journal of Creation, for example, says it is a peer-reviewed journal but clearly comes with a specific aim - to combat the problem that "creationists cannot publish their creationist ideas in secular journals because the evolutionary worldview has a stranglehold on scientific publishing".

Well, clearly the "evolutionary worldview" ought to dominate scientific journals - because a vast amount of evidence testifies to the fact it's real.

But you can create a parallel world where it isn't, if you really try.

With all its flaws, publication in mainstream peer-reviewed journals is the best mechanism science has yet devised for ensuring that the findings and conclusions reaching the public ear remain above a certain quality threshold.

String theorists can perhaps afford to take a different tack, because - with all due respect - it doesn't make any practical difference to anyone in the wider world who's right and who's wrong in that particular discipline.

But with climate science, it does. It matters a lot.

Is it really time to throw the traditions away? And if it is, whose interests would that serve?

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Watts' work is important as there is a lot of mistrust in regards to climate temperature measurements. If he is right about the positive bias, then the actual global increase would be within the area of natural variance, and that would remove the need to spend billions on AGW including CO2 control. Instead we could get back to spending that money on the environment and health improvements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    If scientists were any good at predicting what a series of loosely connected random events was going to do they would all be millionaires and the bookmakers would be bankrupt

    Even with a finite number of participants and a limited number of parameters they can't even predict a 5 minute horse race or a 90 minute football game with any reasonable certainty

    Beats working for a living though

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Put a thermometer in a field - no problems getting accurate readings , surround it with estates of centrally heated houses and guess what - the local temperature readings start climbing . Take out the houses and the temperature drops to 'normal' as it was before . Remove tens of millions of people from the country and the temperature will stabilize and keep the greenies very happy = world saved

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    What I love about the climate debate is the sheer disbelief from either side that everyone else doesn't bow down to their righteous opinion. It results in some proper temper tantrums and childlike arguments.

    Meanwhile the majority of people on the planet (like myself) simply don't care either way. We have more immediate and real problems to worry about like paying bills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.


    No need to explain the peer review process to me or that work is required to be novel, but a certain shark seemed to need it explaining to him. It still remains a point that absolutely none of the BEST work has yet passed a peer review and been properly published, that's why Mueller is doing what he does...... his op-eds are the only way anyone gets to hear about him....

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The usual format I see. Pro-climate change zealots at the top, scientific skeptics at the bottom; with "bloggers" in the middle. That makes 43 such articles in the same layout. Nice work. Do you have a template for this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @37. blunderbunny

    In order to pass peer review, papers have to present some new, previously unpublished findings. The BEST papers will have a hard time meeting this criterion since they are verifying previously revealed results. That's because it's been said, but needed to be repeated for skeptics (e.g. Muller). Not a bad thing to verify results, but it may not be publishable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    This is a "Does God Exist?" subject

    The public domain is where credibility can be established but no-one will ever prove nor will they ever disprove the existence of God

    No-one will ever prove and no-one will ever disprove whether man made global warming exists, or ever existed

    It IS however, an excellent straw man subject for getting your mitts on oodles of research tax dollars

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Yeah, the climate is changing. It has been changing for hundreds of millions of years. It has just been disclosed that Antartica used to be tropical. What I am curious about is the conscious effort to change the climate. In America there is a continuing effort to "seed the clouds" Chemtrails. They are there for everyone to see. Are we to believe these have no effect yet my car does?

  • Comment number 38.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    You've really got no idea what you are talking about, it's embarrassing really. All of the BEST papers have "Failed" peer review, none, that would be NONE out of 5 have passed peer review as yet, Watt's paper has not been submitted for peer review at all yet. Your lot wonder why you are losing the battle and the war, look no further than the tone of your own posts........ Honestly, I despair..

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I think that there is a need for open public discussion on climate change but this needs to focus on our response to a potential problem. Science forms an important component of this discussion as evidence to instigate this discussion and for potential solutions. I think cloud-reviewing would undermine this role as scientists would be too involved. Open access & greater public input to funding!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Hold the front page! - Watts thinks Watts is correct!.. and WUWT agrees!

    Watts has no relevant qualification and every reputable scientific study to investigate his 'theory' has debunked it

    The Berkeley Earth project, had 'Skeptic' Denier is the correct term..WUWT exists as a Heartland Institute echo chamber and climate, like evolution is not a fundi neocon popularity contest

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    The climate has always changed since the planet was formed,always will,I'm not sure but i don't think the dinosaurs had cars..and yet they still died out.From what i've seen of it over the years all this fuss means the scientists keep getting their funding to keep telling us were killing the planet,we pay more green taxes and get less in return.I'll keep my car for the time being thanks very much!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Lamna nasus using the denier term in relation to Watts with all its rascist overtones I see, the BBC seem content with that due to their obvious bias. Watts runs the largest climate blog in the world, get over yourself Lamna, your left wing Warmist diatribe is childish in its shrillness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Fair comment. It has been a massive money spinner though and lots of people have made lots of cash with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    26: helo thar
    ---the science skill level of a primary school student

    According to the BBC you can apparently buy childrens' chemistry sets which contain alkali metals.

    "There's still excitement in some of today's kits. Potassium and sodium can be dropped in water to produce a violent reaction."

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    So called global warming is the new religion. Anyone who does disagree is labelled a heretic for indulging in "green sin". I suppose each generation has it bete noir. It used to be nuclear weapons with my generation but you never hear anything about it these days. No doubt it will be the same with climate change in a few years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    10.Count Nachos
    "Sorry Dave but global warming is a fact ".....

    Can we believe this "consensus" between funded scientists
    when someone checks the facts & discovers temps are actually half what they are stating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I'm sure 'cloud review' suits neocons like Watts who specialise in echo chamber, political propaganda.. he left Purdue University without a degree qualification..and his theories on weather stations have been utterly debunked, most recently by the Berkeley Earth (BEST) project, which had 'Skeptic' funding..since that study agrees that AGW is occurring, Deniers is the correct term for Watts et al


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