02 December 2009

When Nature Attacks

Nature has an very strong editorial out about the CRU emails. I'd go so far as to say that it is the most strongly written Nature editorial that I have ever seen, it is just seething in anger:

The e-mail archives stolen last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, have been greeted by the climate-change-denialist fringe as a propaganda windfall (see page 551). To these denialists, the scientists' scathing remarks about certain controversial palaeoclimate reconstructions qualify as the proverbial 'smoking gun': proof that mainstream climate researchers have systematically conspired to suppress evidence contradicting their doctrine that humans are warming the globe.

This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.

Nature sees the climate scientists as having done nothing wrong, and expresses hope that the release of the emails will show to the world the endless harassment that climate scientists must put up with:
If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden.

The e-mail theft also highlights how difficult it can be for climate researchers to follow the canons of scientific openness, which require them to make public the data on which they base their conclusions.
And Nature has already decided that so far there is nothing of much concern in the emails warranting a further or deeper look:

The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers' own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a 'trick' — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature's policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.

The UEA responded too slowly to the eruption of coverage in the media, but deserves credit for now being publicly supportive of the integrity of its scientists while also holding an independent investigation of its researchers' compliance with Britain's freedom of information requirements (see http://go.nature.com/zRBXRP).

In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

The strong editorial is of course expected as Nature is a very public face of the scientific community and its editors probably feel (and actually have) a responsibility to defend their community. But Nature needs to also be careful as its over-the-top tone and unrelenting defense of the scientists in the emails does not jibe with either much of public opinion or many of the views expressed by scholars (including this one) about the significance of the emails.

I have received several emails from scientists none too happy with the tone of Nature's editorial. Here is an excerpt from one:
I find, as a scientist, the latest Nature Editorial highly offensive with its tone and repeated use of the word "denialist".
"The theft highlights the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers."
Although I'm not a US citizen, I find it completely out of bounds to Nature to take a stand on US politics in a manner like this:
"This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill."
I wish you could do a post about this.
One consequence of the emails will be to open up new fault lines within the scientific community as issues that have percolated below the surface emerge now that the ground has shifted. Nature and the broader scientific community needs to tread carefully in taking sides on issues that there is a wide diversity of opinion on within its own community as well as among the broader public. Nature would do well to distinguish a defense of science from a defense of a few individual scientists.

47 comments:

  1. Sigh.

    Sadly, Nature and Lancet both, in the past several years, seem to be willing to overlook a lot to achieve the politically desirable result.

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  2. Does Nature represent the scientific process (which yields whatever information at the end of the day) or specific scientific products or personalities? Isn't an important part of the process testing and replication of experiments?
    I would have liked an editorial that focused on the scientific process and the importance of transparency and debate and how we can reduce the barriers to the full and free scientific discussion.
    No, I don't expect them to suggest replacing journals with open reviewed transparent free online publication as a solution.

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  3. Not even wrong.

    The focus on the United States ( and only a few Senators at that ), in the light of what has preceded Copenhagen, and the continued usage of labels, frequently based on presumption of motive, has the Climate Science Community digging below the bottom and going full-bore for even more depth.

    The 'harassment' angle has become another strawman and it too is constructed of a single straw. The universal standard for FOIA requests is to provide the information As Is without support. That's been done for decades now. Why do these very intelligent people have to make such enormous mountains out of such puny thoughts.

    Political advocacy under the guise of 'science' is disgusting, in my opinion. Worse than disgusting.

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  4. Nature just does not get it.

    The aspect of the emails which disturbs many people is the suggestion that the peer review process was fixed and sceptical views were systematically kept out of the literature.

    When I read that editorial the only conclusion I could come to is the editors at Nature are partisan zealots that would never give a sceptical paper a fair hearing.

    I have feared for years that political consensus behind the IPCC view of AGW would unravel severely damage the reputation of science and scientists. It now appears that my worst fears are coming true.

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  5. It's interesting to compare Nature's editorial with the Hulme op-ed Roger links in the posting immediately above.

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  6. I have to say this of the AGW crowd, they may not be able to predict and control the climate the way they like but they are providing exceptional lessons in gatekeeping.

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  7. Nature needs a transplant.

    They need a new moral compass and a new sense of the critical importance of Climategate.

    They can live in denial for awhile longer, but the eventual deluge of reality will simply overwhelm their ability to affect a reasonable response.

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  8. I also was a bit surprised to see them taking such a strong tone. I'm guessing that it was written very soon after the release, before there was time to ponder the wider implications, and only went public more recently.

    So will you and some other scientists who think Nature went too far be sending them a letter about this?

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  9. As a scientist myself, I too find the use of "denialist" by such a prominent journal very disturbing.

    I'm sure I would be labeled a "denialist". (I prefer heretic or apostate -- they have a nice religious flavor.) I'm in the camp of: weak CO2 AGW with small positive or negative feedback; some natural variability causing higher T; GISS, HadCrut, etc. instrumental T values are an upper bound; and land use plays are more substantial role than the IPCC accounts for.

    This seems like a reasonable scientific point of view to me, but to a certain group of climate scientists, and to an even bigger group of politicians and activists, this is heresy.

    Just so you know, I believe that evolution (natural selection + genetic drift) is the correct scientific theory explaining species diversity now and over geologic time. I think it was Steven Jay Gould who said something like "the question is not if evolution is the correct theory, it's how". Same for climate: it's not if man is changing the environment (in a Heisenberg sort of way, we certainly are), it's how and by how much.

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  10. I can only conclude that the "climate establishment" has never had any training in damage control.

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  11. Nature has acted very irresponsibly these past few years, sacrificing a proper sense of scientific detachment to become, instead, an advocate for a particular political point of view.

    It is refreshing to see Nature being so open about this.

    But having sacrificed its impartiality, papers published in Nature can no longer be considered to be the product of purely scientific endeavors.

    Every climate paper published by Nature has been vetted by, and approved by, a political process that regards influencing US climate policy as one of its highest goals.

    That's quite a fall from the position that Nature occupied just a few years ago.

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  12. I recall that Nature is the same journal that published an absurdly propagandist piece of nonsense 'showing' that Wikipedia is as a reliable a resource as Encyclopaedia Britannica.

    Is it possible that Mann has a puppet inside Nature?

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  13. Speaking as a scientist, this editorial was the last nail in the coffin.

    I will never again even contemplate whether to take Nature seriously.

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  14. In that very intemperate Nature editorial they state that the emails, etc. were "stolen". But can we really know that? Perhaps a whistleblower at CRU decided that some interesting material on "scientists" at work should be made available? Or, somebody there inadvertantly provided "world" access to the files? That's easy to do if you have a lax operation; and judging from other things they've done (such as deleting their old raw data), we shouldn't think too highly of their competence-- or perhaps of their integrity.

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  15. This editorial is embarrassing. It reeks of partisan politics. It demonizes skeptics. It fails to look at the substance of what the files reveal. It ignores totally the commentary on the programming files.
    In many ways it mirrors the attitudes, arrogance and hubris displayed in the emails. It will do little to lessen the suspicion that surrounds climate science. Its intemperance is likely to reinforce the belief amongst skeptics that AGW is more a religion than a scientific hypothesis.

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  16. Wow, Nature has jumped the shark with this one.

    It sounds how I'd imagine a Soviet era defense of Lysenkonism would. I notice that they very carefully to mention only emails, as if those were the only information released. This entire editorial is designed to spread ignorance and not fact, and as such makes a mockery of the scientific spirit.

    They ought to be ashamed, but I believe it is beyond them.

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  17. You know something's really politicized when if one group publicizes something it's whistle-blowing and the brave standing up to the system, and if another group does the same action it's theft.

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  18. The distaste for the term denialist would be easier to accept if many of the same crew had not cost millions of lives with the same sort of arguments against tobacco regulation and similar issues. While most of these battles have turned, tobacco mortality today accounts for ~20% of male deaths in the developed world and the toll is rising among women and in the underdeveloped world. China is going to be a disaster.

    There are other similarities. Tobacco is a huge, profitable industry that aggressively protects its profits, the harm takes years to develop, and the pleasures are immediate.

    The political and scientific links between tobacco and climate change denialists are well documented (see, for a start S. Fred Singer, Frederick Seitz, Steve Milloy, etc and the organizations they worked with). The chain of payments and relations are pretty clearly laid out in the Tobacco Archives, and we can even trace significant (although probably only a small fraction of the)money flowing from industry into the denialists pockets.

    Let us be clear, the climate change denialists are in about the same position as the Council of Conservative Citizens (google it) on immigration. They got dirty roots.

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  19. The CRU and IPCC are now the Library of Alexandria with smoke billowing from the windows. Nature and a host of others are in the basement deftly working the bellows pumping fuel into the fire. We can only hope that in the ashes we will find some clues as to how this came to pass, how we can overcome this calamity and how the faith of the non-academic public can be brought back into the equation working towards realistic solutions.

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  20. Theft of e-mails?
    That in itself is a bold statement.
    Leaked more like, all these data sets if they were so absolutely vital should have been available to the scientific community to test their authenticity.
    Or don't scientists like being proven correct anymore?
    The now imfamous 'hockey stick' has been debunked, Mann suddenly refinds the Medieval Warming? What was that all about?
    NO Nature is going out on a limb here and is way over the top, arrogance of the 'scientific' community = "how dare they question us?"
    I deem Nature misses the point.

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  21. Nature is in denial. The CRU emails show what many of us suspected all along - a small group of scientists have stitched up the scientific processes of peer review and climate reports.

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  22. Truely disturbing... I guess the blatent lack of objectivity displayed in this editorial explains why they weren't too interested in the quality of science pubolished in their journal. If the message is right, who cares about the science?

    "That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails."

    Except it isn't and it simply cannot be. There is simply not enough hard data available over the time periods required to draw *robust* conclusions as to the role of CO2 amongst natural and other man-made sources. Pretending robustness because there are multiple lines of flawed evidence doesn't make it so and it never will, no matter how often it is repeated. We are still learning alot about climate. The science is NOT SETTLED.

    "If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts."

    Maybe they should check out some of the harassment taken by, so called, "skeptical" scientists (or maybe Nature considers them "deniers") and see this isn't a one-way street. Both sides of the science have to put up with a lot of **** from extremists on both sides.

    Moaning about people asking for scientific data using the FOIA because the authors have refused to release the data, and the journals have refused to uphold their data policies to make the authors release their data, is just icing on the cake.

    Despicable.

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  23. I am guessing the Nature position might be a little different if the emails had revealed instead that it was their own Editor that various individuals were conspiring to despatch.

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  24. Is anyone really surprised journals like Nature are coming out and supporting Jones et al? A lot of people, businesses and governments have invested deeply in Global Warming so when it comes under attack they're going to defend it. I'm reminded of an episode of The Wire, Episode 37 (http://www.hbo.com/thewire/episode/season3/episode37.shtml) "It don't matter who did what to whom. Fact is, we went to war an' now there ain't no goin' back... If it's a lie, then we fight on the lie. But we gotta fight." Science has long gone from Global Warming.

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  25. As former citizen of Soviet Union, i have read this kind of propaganda articles a lot. It’s very similar to Pravda magazine editorials, blackpainting dissidents.

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  26. Muslims were furious at the cartoons. Nature is furious about the CRU leaks. Same reaction. Same reason. They aren't going to tolerate anyone messing with their religion.

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  27. I agree with the other commenters. It sounds like Nature could use some coaching in politics, if they are going to come out with political statements like this. Politicians know better than to make such definitive statements, and scientists are supposed to be so much more objective. Nature has lost its way.

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  28. Roger,

    Nature’s editorial illustrates why there is a need to open the peer-review system.

    Nature has divided things up into two camps—“denialists” and “scientists.”

    And from the tone of the editorial, it is unclear to me that the magazine would give fair consideration to submissions from people it considers to be denialists.

    Am I a denialist? Is Pat Michaels? Is Steve McIntyre? Are you? Is any person who submitted a FOI request to the CRU?

    After all according to Nature “If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts.”

    Perhaps Naturecould do everyone a huge favor and publish a list of people for which it will not consider submissions. At least then they would be being open and honest.

    Which brings me to a few questions. Is Nature an honest broker of science? Is Energy and Environment? GRL? IJC? Climate Research (now or in the past)? Should they be?

    It seems that some journals are constantly derided for the bent of their editorial staff. Does the same not hold true for Nature?

    And finally, seriously, should I bother ever submitting a paper to Nature?

    -Chip

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  29. You kow, Roger, as a scientist, what I find offensive is you and other denialists continuing to lie and obfuscate the actual science.

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  30. -30-Schroedinger

    As a scientist then you'll surely appreciate my request for empirical information with which to support your name-calling and claims. I'm all ears.

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  31. very good comment

    In a way, Nature thinks that science is what scientists do.

    Fortunately, another definition of science exists: science is to make reproducible experiments and to formulate falsifiable theories in order to explain and motivate these experiments.

    Using this latter definition of science, what occured at the CRU (if it is confirmed) was not very good science.

    I propose the following "epistemological" prediction:

    "Any scientist who tries to prevent the free refutation of his theories and / or the free reproduction of his experiments will produce predictions that will be scientifically refuted"

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  32. -31-Roger,

    Good one! Don't hold your breath. (I'm not holding mine -- hint, hint.)

    -28-edaniel deserves a nod too. I didn't deem Eli worthy of my time. But, I'm glad somebody did.

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  33. "The strong editorial is of course expected as Nature is a very public face of the scientific community and its editors probably feel (and actually have) a responsibility to defend their community."

    This is BS. Nature should not defend any "community."

    Nature should criticize individuals or groups that have done something wrong, and should praise individuals or groups who have done something right.

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  34. I just spent a while fisking that Nature piece - http://www.di2.nu/200912/03.htm

    It is, it seems to me, typical of the approach that those who do believe in AGW etc. seem to be trying to engage in. It also totally and deliberately confuses the issue by melding outright deniers with varying groups of skeptics

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  35. I counted the words denier or denialist(s)six times in the editorial. Did I miss any out?

    Nature also describes the ‘trick,’ mentioned in a leaked email, as “slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique.” Steve McIntyre has a different description: “The “problem” arises because Briffa reconstruction goes down from 1940 to 1994 instead of up. Jones deleted the post-1960 values of the Briffa reconstruction, replaced them with instrumental values, smoothed the spliced series (see posts by both Jean S and myself proving this) and ended up with a reconstruction that looked like an accurate reconstruction of late 20th century temperatures.”

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  36. "Nature would do well to distinguish a defense of science from a defense of a few individual scientists."

    Verbatim from your quote of the editorial:

    "Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails"

    Foot in mouth disease Roger.

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  37. -37-Jim Bouldin

    Thanks for this comment. You have confused a restatement of perspectives on climate science with a defense of the institutions of science as an institution.

    Sorry if I was unclear. Whether Nature should or should not be involved in the political debate over climate policy is a different question that whether Nature should be actively involved in preserving the integrity of scientific processes and institutions. It is the latter point that I was emphasizing.

    Despite how much I write on this subject I still underestimate how quickly people are to conflate climate policy with science policy. They are not the same.

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  38. Roger, I was not conflating climate policy with science policy. Of course they are different. The point I made was germane because Nature's statement re: the validity of AGW rests fundamentally on the fact that climate science is functional. But I accept your clarification of what you were referring to in the last sentence of the piece.

    So about that: I disagree with your point there.
    The Nature editorial does discuss the topic of improving the overall science process. Specifically, they talked about the need to get national met offices to open up their policies re: data availability, and the need for research institutions to have a way of dealing with data requests so that scientists aren't hamstrung by them. You do agree that these are science policy issues don't you?

    Lastly, I disagree with your overall characterization of the editorial. Many of your statements that are subjective opinion.

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  39. 39-Jim-

    If I understand you correctly, I disagree pretty strongly when you write:

    "the validity of AGW rests fundamentally on the fact that climate science is functional"

    I think that the scientific evidence shows very strongly that humans influence the climate system, and at the same time I think that parts of the climate science community are highly dysfunctional.

    "Many of your statements that are subjective opinion."

    Yes, you'll find those on blogs occasionally ;-)

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  40. I think that the scientific evidence shows very strongly that humans influence the climate system, and at the same time I think that parts of the climate science community are highly dysfunctional.

    By 'dysfunctional' I inherently imply that the right answers, to the most critical questions, are emerging--as they always eventually do in the scientific enterprise. Do you have a different concept of dysfunctional in mind here?

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  41. -41-Jim

    Well, here is one example of what I'd call dysfunction:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2009/06/systematic-misrepresentation-of-science.html

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  42. Thanks Roger, I will read that asap.

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  43. I agree largely with what #9, Trey said. "it's how and by how much."

    A question:

    I have read quite a bit on the many climate science topics but may well of my depth here.
    That said: Don't the forcings and feed backs over long scale (between celestially driven ice ages) tend toward a rough equilibrium?
    I mean, if they didn't, wouldn't the system have 'run away' (or crashed in my IT terminology) at some point? I am excluding major events like Yellowstone blowing big or the like.

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  44. -44-,

    I’ll take a stab at your “equilibrium” question and begin by reframing it in terms of rather consistent ranges.

    First, we have multimillion year long “Hot House” and “Ice House” conditions. “Hot House” is the more typical condition. During these “Hot House” conditions, there is no year round ice anywhere on the planet.

    The world began falling into the present “ice house” condition about 30 million years ago. The present “ice house” condition is one of the three coldest of the last 600 million years. Three of the four known ice house conditions during that period were quite similar as regards temperature. My leading candidate for the primary forcing factor is described here.

    For at least the last 2.5 million years, this planet has been cold enough to cycle between glacial and interglacial periods. NASA has documented “around 100” such glacial/interglacial cycles over “the last 2.5 million years”. The previous link suggests that Milankovitch cycles are the primary forcing factor in these glacial/interglacial cycles. I agree.

    The previous 6 glacial/interglacial cycles have been studied through ice cores. And, the data from those studies -- when coupled with ongoing observations -- demonstrate that there is nothing even remotely unusual about current temperatures or trends in either the Arctic or the Antarctic.

    Click here to further explore all of the above information.

    As to “equilibrium”, the Iris Effect postulated by Dr. Lindzen has been described as a “self-regulating” effect whereby water vapor acts as a negative feedback to mitigate against what little bit of warming is produced directly by CO2. Click here to examine the most recent study to support that hypothesis (and challenge all the IPCC computer models which assume exactly the opposite).

    My personal opinion is that this Iris Effect may play a very significant role in explaining how the world fell into the Ordovician Ice Age some 460 million years ago at a time when CO2 levels were 10-15 times higher than today.

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  45. @jim

    "Lastly, I disagree with your overall characterization of the editorial. Many of your statements that are subjective opinion"

    Frankly, I would be more concern about the subjectivity displayed by the nature editorialist in using the word "denialist" 7 times.

    For instance what is the objectivity of this statement:

    "One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a 'trick' — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results."

    is there any "subjectivity" displayed in NOT mentionning that the sentence were the word "trick" was used was speaking of "hiding the decline":

    've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline"

    source:http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=154&filename=942777075.txt

    I think it is very "subjective" to think that "using a trick to hide a decline" and "using a trick to display data" have the same meaning.

    It is also very subjective to not make the difference between someone who wants to check the data and refute it (as it is often the case in all good scientific community) and someone who has extreme political opinion and denies any kind of scientific evidence.

    Conclusion: this editorial is also very subjective

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  46. -45-,

    Thank you! The Iris effect adds another piece to the puzzle for me. I have seen the paleo temperature and CO2 record you linked several times in arguments that C02 is not a direct link. Since CO2 as a warming agent is a solid argument, it must be it is dwarfed by larger forcings or cancelled out by feedback or some combination. is what I have taken away so far.

    I notice there seems to be a tableau either indicates a damping limit to average temperature at 22C - or could it be a limitation in the ability to detect signal in the proxy record?

    I wonder what it would be like to live in 22C world. If at 12C or 53F, we have 110F days, might we have 140F days in hot house? Or would the gradient be shallow, thus merely warm, even mild? Eden, possibly?

    I see Dr Lindzen's work was in 2000, this is more recent. I believe the rush to judgment by some will be overtaken as more work to understand the climate is done. I just hope science doesn't lose the chance to do this work because the scandal caused dries up funding. I would like to know if we are really impacting the climate and need course corrections.

    PS I have been reading Dr Nir Shaviv quite bit and also am liking the galactic explanation with GCR linkage.
    I assume you know his blog

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  47. jdwill07 (Fri Dec 04, 08:12:00 AM MST),

    1) You are most welcome.

    2) In case you missed it, this 2009 study is the latest to support the Iris Effect.

    3) In a "Hot House" climate, I would buy a better air conditioner (and thereby save the world untold quadrillions of dollars in wasted efforts to micromanage a climate which we are astonishingly foolish to even pretend we are capable of micromanaging).

    But, we are probably hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years away from the next Hot House climate. Our next major challenge will be coping with the next glacial period. The best science I’ve found suggests that is probably about another 50,000 years away.

    4) I was not aware of Dr. Shaviv’s blog. Thanks for the tip!

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