Apologies for the title, but it’s a sign of the times. Accusing major scientific agencies of altering data for politics – without any supporting evidence, even when your own “whistleblower” source emphasizes “no data tampering” – is obviously and squarely anti-science activity in my book. Readers are of course free to draw their own conclusions on that point.
So I had a few charming twitter exchanges with Julie Kelly, author of this hit piece on the latest NOAA controversy which concerns the handling of data on global surface temperatures. I’ll try to avoid a depth discussion of the full flap, fueled by complaints from former NOAA scientist Dr. John Bates, but this snopes article which debunks the associated tabloid claims of “manipulated global warming data” is a helpful start, and this video summary offers a breezy yet factual overview with an enjoyable side of British snark.
The key point is that while Dr. Bates does argue that the data-handling processes he advocates are important for scientific integrity, by his own words he insists he is not making accusations of scientific malfeasance or “data tampering”. Instead, his statements have to do with rather technical concerns regarding archival and operational processes (which are sadly unlikely to drive the kinds of page views our Daily Mail and National Review authors appear to be enthusiastically chasing.)
Ms. Kelly insists she is merely relaying claims from Bates, and that there is nothing inaccurate in her article. Given discussing this on twitter turned out to be challenging (see below), I decided to walk through the points in her article and examine which are even remotely supportable.
Starting at the top, the article’s subheading is:
The NOAA ‘corrected’ data they didn’t like and …
…which we can immediately contrast with Bates’ direct statements that there was “no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious”.
Note the scare quotes on “corrected” and the reference to “data they didn’t like” – Kelly is loudly dog whistling about politically motivated (i.e. fraudulent) data adjustments. Kelly defended this comment to me by claiming to quote Bates: “They had good data from buoys. And they threw it out and ‘corrected’ it by using the bad data from ships.”
The actual source of this ‘they threw [the data] out’ quote is the UK tabloid the Daily Mail, whose writer David Rose is remarkably infamous, having earned his publication at least one “Climate Change Misinformer of the Year” award, routinely earns stunningly poor reviews from climate scientists on the scientific accuracy of his articles, and has an impressively long and “dodgy” legacy on climate reporting.
Again, in all of Bates’ direct quotes in other sources such as the Associated Press and Energy & Environment News, he repeatedly emphasizes “no data tampering”, “did not believe that they manipulated the data upon which the research relied in any way”, “the issue here is not an issue of tampering with data”, “It’s not trumped up data in any way shape or form.”
It also happens to be a simple exercise to read up on the actual scientific paper in question and confirm that the idea of buoy data being “thrown out” is absurd – the update to NOAA’s sea surface data put more weight on buoys. The “threw out buoys” line is a popular contrarian embellishment right down Rose’s alley; you’d expect Bates to know better, and to have mentioned this in his blog post if he believed otherwise.
So we are seven words in to the article and already the headline hyperbolic claim of data manipulation is revealed to be bunk. It directly contradicts the quotes we do have from Bates, and appears to be based only on a notorious tabloid troll, despite Kelly’s colorful insistence otherwise.
Kelly does not appear to think it important to note how much of her claims and hyperbole rely on tabloid writer Rose rather than NOAA scientist Bates, but that’s the source.
We’re off to a pretty ugly start.
The first sentence in the subheading continues:
— surprise — didn’t archive the evidence
Inaccurate – no evidence appears to have been hidden from anyone, whatsoever, and Bates does not allege otherwise. Bates’ own blog post notes that the data was released on an FTP server, and rather complains that the data set was not archived properly, according to more stringent/comprehensive engineering processes that he authored while at NOAA (which he claims should have been required, and which other former and current NOAA scientists dispute. Bates concedes that not all NOAA climate studies need to use this CDR process, but felt they were required for this particular dataset.)
We’re a dozen words in and 0 for 2. The hyperbolic conspiracy theory spin from Ms. Kelly starts up rather hot and heavy.
The body of the article starts with:
A former top scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has stepped forward to expose the malfeasance behind a key climate report issued just before the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in 2015
“Malfeasance” clearly the key word. Note the framing; Kelly paints malfeasance as fact, claiming that Bates has merely helped expose it. Despite the fact that this contradicts Bates’ repeated assertions of “nothing malicious”.
Bates did say he thought that the team was motivated to “rush” results out faster in time for the Paris conference (keep in mind, this was an adjustment at least seven years in the making, with a longer-than-usual peer review process), implying this would risk error, but he conceded that he was only guessing about such motivations.
Bates accuses the study’s lead author, NOAA official Tom Karl, of using unverified data sets
Bates doesn’t say this, or use the word “unverified”. The closest comment he makes in his blog is saying “The land temperature dataset used in the Karl study had never been processed through the station adjustment software before … When I pressed the co-authors, they said they had decided not to archive the dataset.” The comment is clearly in the context of “guidelines for dataset archival and documentation”, with no indication anywhere that Bates is charging the Karl team with using erroneous or unverified data. The journal Science which published the paper reassures that there was extensive validation of data – more than the usual given the high-profile nature of the topic.
Again, a volatile accusation that appears to be just regurgitating Rose, but attributed to Bates.
It refuted evidence from other climate-research groups that showed a major slowdown in rising global temperatures from 1998 to 2012; the slowdown was a sticky little fact that threatened to undermine the very raison d’être of the conference. Climate activists were sweating over the acknowledgement by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013 that “the rate of warming over the past 15 years . . . is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951.”
Now spinning freely, Kelly is trying to argue that there is plausible motivation for the “malfeasance” she claims exists – the very reality of global warming was in question! The complete relevant quote from the IPCC summary is here:
“During the 15-year period beginning in 1998, the ensemble of HadCRUT4 GMST [Global Mean Surface Temperature] trends lies below almost all model-simulated trends (Box 9.2 Figure 1a), whereas during the 15-year period ending in 1998, it lies above 93 out of 114 modelled trends (Box 9.2 Figure 1b; HadCRUT4 ensemble-mean trend 0.26°C per decade, CMIP5 [= a class of models] ensemble-mean trend 0.16°C per decade) … Over the 62-year period 1951–2012, observed and CMIP5 ensemble-mean trends agree to within 0.02°C per decade (Box 9.2 Figure 1c; CMIP5 ensemble-mean trend 0.13°C per decade). There is hence very high confidence that the CMIP5 models show long-term GMST trends consistent with observations, despite the disagreement over the most recent 15-year period”
Emphasis mine. Contrarian bloggers and other usual suspects who resist the general findings of climate science have tried over the last few years to argue that the flatter growth of global surface temperatures in this 15 year period (cherry picked to start at an unusually high El Nino peak in order to exaggerate subsequent flatness) meant something fundamentally damning for all of climate theory. Scientists have stubbornly refused to agree with them, for fairly obvious reasons, including the fact that evidence indicated no slowing in the total accumulation of greenhouse-driven heat in the ocean, heat that led to the spectacular global temperature records (and associated mass coral reef mortality) in 2016, as an El Nino event came along and released more of that heat to the surface.
What the IPCC notes is that yes, trends ran cooler in this period, but hey they ran hotter in the previous similar period, trends ‘wiggling’ up and down around the projected mean due to various factors like El Nino is generally expected, and the multi-decade trend is what matters. Kelly’s spin only makes sense if you think that projected trends being “only” within 0.02°C of observations per decade means that worries of 2-3 full degrees C warming by 2100 must be hopelessly inaccurate.
It seems a stretch to imagine policy makers at Paris were consumed with such concerns, no matter how many Daily Mail and Forbes type articles were churned out about it. EE News raised this question to a senior member of the State Department’s climate talks negotiating team in 2015: “I never heard it discussed once, let alone this one NOAA report, discussed in Paris, the run-up to Paris or anything after Paris, so this is really just an incredibly bizarre claim.”
Kelly’s attempt to invent a grand motivation for the political malfeasance she claims to exist isn’t super convincing.
The IPCC walked back its own predictions from 2007 that short-term temperature would rise between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius
We’re on some sort of tour of junk talking points here. The 2013 IPCC report projects from between 1.1 to 4.8 degrees C global warming by 2100 in any remotely business-as-usual scenario (RCP 4.5, 6.0, 8.5), they were not “walked back”.
So Karl, the former head of the NOAA office that produces climate data, worked with a team of scientists to challenge the IPCC findings and prove that the hiatus did not exist
Here we have some wild speculation about motivations that can’t possibly be correct. NOAA had clearly indicated that they had a growing cooling bias in this data set, as early as 2008:
“Because ships tend to be biased warm relative to buoys and because of the increase in the number of buoys and the decrease in the number of ships, the merged in situ data without bias adjustment can have a cool bias relative to data with no ship–buoy bias. As buoys become more important to the in situ record, that bias can increase. Since the 1980s the SST in most areas has been warming. The increasing negative bias due to the increase in buoys tends to reduce this recent warming. This change in observations makes the in situ temperatures up to about 0.1°C cooler than they would be without bias. At present, methods for removing the ship–buoy bias are being developed and tested.”
This is long before the IPCC released its latest report. The idea that NOAA really resolved this known data problem after seven years of analysis only because Karl wanted to “prove the hiatus did not exist” can only be a colorful fiction.
He claimed to have developed a way to raise sea-temperature readings that had been collected by buoys: He would adjust them by using higher temperature readings of sea water collected by ships.
This is a pretty comically garbled version of the ship/buoy adjustment. Karl did not claim to have “developed a way to raise sea-temperature readings”, of course. The data had to be corrected because there were more buoys over time, and buoys calibrate ~0.12°C cooler than ships in their readings given where they sit in the water, creating a simple bias due to total weighting of more buoys over time. The choice of calibration arithmetically cannot possibly affect the very question Kelly claims motivates Karl – the question of ‘pause’, which is a question of trend.
This is literally Ms. Kelly failing to grasp arithmetic concepts. Perhaps we do not expect National Review writers to grapple with math (or to talk to scientists who understand it), but Kelly is consistently getting things wrong in the direction of wild, unsupported allegations of conspiracy.
We’re accumulating a long list of inaccuracies, misrepresentations and contradictions at this point, and we are in the third paragraph here.
This dubious methodology…
We are apparently to accept Kelly’s expert – if arithmetically challenged – assessment of the “dubious” quality of the adjustment methodology, now…
concluded that the warming trend for 2000 to 2014 was exactly the same as it was for 1950 to 1999
No; they said “no discernible decrease”. Basically the same thing you now see in similar global temperature data sets such as NASA’s GISS, illustrated in this tweet from GISS director Schmidt. (If you look at that graphic and say, “wow, why are they making such a big deal about this ‘pause’ thing?” then you are following along correctly.)
Bates also said the study ignored satellite data
This one seems off the wall, so most likely just from Rose. Bates’ blog post doesn’t raise any questions about the adjustment methodology at all. Rose’s article sort of implies that Bates agrees about the adjustment ‘ignoring’ satellite data, but it’s something of an odd thought. The satellite data Rose refers to is a microwave-based measurement of temperatures high in the atmosphere, not much use for fine-tuning a ship vs. buoy calibration issue way down on the ocean surface. (And those satellite-based measurements are quantifiably less stable anyway, having been undergoing larger rounds of adjustments to fix measurement issues.)
And in the most Obama-esque move…
I just want to pause to enjoy “in the most Obama-esque move”. Good lord what a hack job.
[Bates said] that none of the data had been archived or made available as required by NOAA rules, which means that Karl’s paper cannot be replicated or independently verified
Pure fiction, as already noted the data was and is publicly available; other scientists have already used it to independently verify the results (showing, for example, that the post-fix data matches well in terms of trend with other relevant data sets, such as surface temp readings from the separate ARGO buoy array, as well as a ‘buoy-only’ version of the data).
According to Bates, the NOAA is drafting a new version of the report that will reverse the flaws in Karl’s report.
Also incorrect – Rose again, not Bates. (And scientists currently at NOAA have been assuring this fun pet theory is false as well.)
(One wishes some of these conspiracy theorists would be willing to bet on such predictions, but they’re not usually that foolish.)
Bates notes that the very scientists who have failed to save data are now suddenly concerned that the Trump administration might destroy climate data
Well no; Bates notes the “irony” of concerns about this when he has been cajoling scientists to use more rigorous data archival processes. He does not claim it is the very same scientists who are expressing such concerns.
Bates’s actions could have long-lasting repercussions, not the least of which could be to encourage others to speak out about what’s been going on at federal scientific agencies. It’s long overdue.
Pause to roll eyes.
All told, I struggle to match Ms. Kelly’s professionalism and charm (see example tweet above), as I don’t know what to say other than the entire piece appears an obvious hatchet job aimed at scientists and public confidence in science.
Ah, but you say it’s not quite as bad as the Daily Mail’s version, what with its hysterical “world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data”, and its hilarious chart fail? Is that really the desperate shreds of journalistic integrity we’re trying to cling to here in 2017?
I do remember a time when the National Review aspired to a better reputation than ‘we chase tabloid hacks’. The critical issue today seems to be whether enough (especially scientifically informed) readers will demand better from these publications. If you’re interested in conservative-leaning libertarian publications, I recommend reason.com instead.
Amazingly, Bates told Science Insider that he was wary of his critique becoming a talking point for those skeptical of human-caused climate change. But he thought that it was important for this conversation about data management and integrity to happen. So he gave an interview to a notorious climate misinfomer at a British tabloid.
“I knew people would misuse this. But you can’t control other people,” says Bates.
I suppose it is difficult to account for the Julie Kellys of the world, who enjoyed boasting to me about the page clicks generated by her salaciously embellished version of the story.
At least, amidst this smoking wasteland of #fakenews hysteria on fraudulent adjustments and ‘paused’ global warming, Bates left us with at least one comment on the question most people think is the important one:
“Global warming,” Bates said, “is a scientific fact.”
Geoff Price is in the tech industry, and has been following the debate, such as it is, about the validity of global warming science for a few too many decades now.