Feb. 3, 2017

The Rest of the Story

I took some time recently to look at the whole ‘climategate’ debacle because this study is constantly used to claim that scientists are manipulating data to support the assertion that the planet is warming and human activity is causing it. Of course, this is just one study and there are literally thousands, over 15,000 recent peer-reviewed studies, that provide, not only a preponderance of evidence, but a convergence of evidence from many different fields of science, glaciologists, wildlife biologists, soil scientists, foresters, oceanographers as well as meteorologists and climatologists. This study was hugely sensationalized and propagandized by conservative media, but they never told the rest of the story.

So, this is what really happened. East Anglia University in the UK was looking at ways of determining paleoclimates to compare to current climate situations. A common way of doing this is by looking at tree ring data and comparing to actual temperature data. Tree rings are a largely consistent source of climate data for the past 2,000 years. But since the 1960s, scientists have noticed there are a handful of tree species in certain areas that appear to indicate temperatures that are warmer or colder than we actually know from direct thermometer measurement at weather stations. Specifically, in the Yamal region of Siberia, there is a small set of trees with rings that are thinner than expected after 1960 when compared with actual thermometer measurements there. Scientists are still trying to figure out why these trees are outliers. Some analyses have left out the data from these trees after 1960 and have used thermometer temperatures alone instead. The research group in the UK began emailing researchers at Penn State, who had done a similar study, to ask how they mitigated the data for these outliers rather than just exclude the data. This email exchange shows scientists communicating about different ways to look at the same data that were being discussed at the time in the peer-reviewed literature. Conservative media clipped up the emails and presented segments of the emails to make it seem as though scientists were doing something sneaky, manipulating data to make it fit the theory that man’s input of CO2 is having a major effect on warming temperatures and climate change.

Because of the controversy, the study was re-peer reviewed by several science committees: a UK parliament science committee, a Penn State committee, a NOAA committee, the National Science Foundation Inspector General office, a M.I.T. committee and others. All of these committees cleared the East Anglia group of any wrongdoing. The methodology was found to be reliable and the conclusions were found to be valid.

But this story continues. The Berkeley Earth Project, founded by Dr Richard Muller, to a large extent replicated the so called climategate study. He came to the same conclusions as the original study, which any scientifically literate individual would know, validates the study. Now, too often, scientists are wrongly accused of collusion, but this is the thing: Dr Muller has been on the Koch brothers’ payroll. He has been a well-known climate change skeptic over the years, producing reports that cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change for the petrol-chemical industry. But here is a quote from his Op Ed in the New York Times, July 28, 2012:

CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which I founded with my daughter Elizabeth. Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

So, I consistently hear climate change deniers use the climategate story to claim that scientists are manipulating data to support an agenda. When I ask them any questions about the study, they have no idea what the study was about, who conducted the study etc. And they certainly don’t know the rest of the story. The fact that conservative media didn’t report the rest of the story after impugning the character of these scientists is real evidence that conservative media is not news and presents propaganda. Of course, most don’t have the attention span to follow the rest of the story, nor the scientific literacy to understand the peer review process or how studies are validated. Most don’t understand statistical processes and the difference between mitigation and manipulation. At any rate, the current administration is using climategate as a reason for doubting human impact on climate change. This is their rationale for purging data from the EPA, rolling back environmental regulations, and pulling out of the Paris agreement. But, their premise is flawed and uniformed. With all the resources of the executive office at hand, they don’t seem to have the ability to fact check anything that might conflict with their agenda. Making decisions based on propaganda is dangerous business and we could have four more years of it.