15 February 2013

Science is the Shortcut

UPDATE 20 Feb 2013: Five days after writing this critique I was asked to step down from the GEC editorial board.

There is a new paper out by Brysse et al. in Global Environmental Change (here $) which includes as co-authors Naomi Oreskes (author of Merchants of Doubt) and Michael Oppenheimer (long-time IPCC contributor and a contributing lead author for the AR5). The authors report a remarkable finding -- they have identified a shortcut to divining the true state of knowledge of the science of climate change.

As the authors' explain:
Evidence from recent analyses suggests that scientists, particularly acting in the context of large assessments, may have underestimated the magnitude and rate of expected impacts of anthropogenic climate change. We suggest that this underestimation reflects a systematic bias, which we label “erring on the side of least drama (ESLD)”.
What ESLD therefore means is that when scientists make a claim about climate change, particularly via the IPCC and other assessments, the presence of a systematic bias indicates that the odds are that things are really much, much worse. ESLD therefore offers a short cut to anticipating where climate science is headed.

An important reason for this bias, the authors assert, is of course none other than those evil skeptics:
[O]ne possible reason why scientists may have underestimated the threat of anthropogenic warming is the fear that if they don’t, they will be accused by contrarians (as was Schneider) of being alarmist fear-mongers. That is to say, pressure from skeptics and contrarians and the risk of being accused of alarmism may have caused scientists to understate their results.
Not only is the accusation of a systematic bias an insult to the integrity of practicing scientists, but the entire paper is built on an empirical foundation that does not touch the ground.

Let's take a closer look at the data claimed to support the ESLD hypothesis. The paper examines literature on IPCC predictions for temperature and sea level, hurricanes, and the role of greenhouse gases from permafrost melting in climate models.
  • It finds that sea level is running well below the 1990 IPCC prediction and above the 1995 and 2001 predictions (if anyone can make sense of 2007 IPCC predictions then you get a bonus point). 
  • It finds that observed temperature increases are consistent with the predictions of all 4 IPCC assessments.
  • It finds that the IPCC accurately reflects the community understanding on hurricanes.
  • It finds that peramfrost melting is not included in climate models, representing a "potentially profound bias in the climate projections—not toward overestimation of climate change, but toward its underestimation."
  • They also cite Arctic sea ice and some science on rainfall.
So here is my tally: 3 sea level predictions + 4 temperature predictions + AR4 hurricanes + permafrost + rainfall + Arctic sea ice = 11 data points. Of these 11, according to Brysse et al. the scientific community has been accurate on 5, overestimated the near term evolution in 1 case and underestimated in 5. Are you convinced of ESLD?

Consider also the figure below on global temperatures, courtesy of Ed Hawkins (@ed_hawkins) at the University of Reading (for discussion see his post here). The figure shows that for the CMIP5 climate models (i.e., those to be used in IPCC AR5) observed temperatures are running at the low end of the ensemble of predictions, reflecting the recent "standstill" in global temperature (the figure also calls into question the Brysse et al. conclusion that global temperatures are consistent with all 4 previous IPCC reports, but I digress).

Least drama? Hardly.
What can be said from all this? Well pretty much nothing.

Consider that the 2007 IPCC report alone had 2,744 findings, almost all of which were reported in probabilistic fashion. Evaluating the accuracy of those findings comprehensively against the evolution of the climate system would be difficult if not impossible, both empirically and epistemologically. Further, one could easily pick out a few findings from the report which tell a different story: drought, methane emissions, flooding, disaster costs, Himalayan glacier melt and so on. In 2010, Robert Watson, a former Chair of the IPCC, noted of the errors discovered in the AR4 report: "The mistakes all appear to have gone in the direction of making it seem like climate change is more serious by overstating the impact. That is worrying." A Dutch assessment of the IPCC AR4 found much the same.

For some reason Brysse et al. neglected to consider a 2010 paper (co-authored by Michael Oppenheimer) which warned of the threat of a dramatic increase in poor Mexicans migrating north into the United States due to climate change. Talk about drama! However, an unnoticed 2012 paper in the same journal found that the original migration paper contained some serious methodological flaws, so never mind. This apparently was a case of Erring on the Side of Too-Much Drama (ESTMD - I can make up scientific-sounding concepts too). We could go on like this all day, and it would not provide any enlightenment.

Is there any evidence that climate scientists exhibit a systematic bias in their published work and assessments due to outside pressure or other factors? No.

As the ESLD paper shows, ironically enough, sometimes work that is badly off base gets into the literature and even scientific assessments are far from perfect. Nonetheless, science is the best route we have to gaining an understanding of the world that we live in. I'm sorry to say that there are no shortcuts. Or perhaps put another way, science is the shortcut.

19 comments:

tallbloke said...

Thank you Roger, for injecting some good sense into the alarmosphere. The merchants of drought should pause to drink deep of your wisdom.

Sean said...

ESLD -- sounds like hiring a PR firm to advertise your humility.

Mark B. said...

"Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions is an international, interdisciplinary journal spanning the social and natural sciences. It publishes >>> high-quality <<< original theoretical and applied research and review articles across the entire field of global environmental change."

So let's put aside the authors. What does this tell you about the reviewers and editors of this publication?

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-3-Mark B.

"What does this tell you about the reviewers and editors of this publication?"

As a member of the Editorial Board of GEC, I am confident in telling you that it says nothing;-)

w.w. wygart said...

I'm trying to work out the logic on this one.

"Evidence from recent analyses suggests that scientists, particularly acting in the context of large assessments, may have underestimated the magnitude and rate of expected impacts of anthropogenic climate change."

If Brysse et al's analyses have detected an underestimation of 'magnitude and rate of change' due to bias, wouldn't you think that they must have to have a better grasp of what the REAL 'magnitude and rate of change' are than anyone else? Or, can you figure out these kinds of things without having to show that if one set of predictions are in error due to bias and that when the bias is then removed you get a set of predictions that better match observation? Has Brysse et al. actually managed to do this?

Isn't that how one normally proves a bias? remove the bias and produce a new prediction that better agrees with observation?

This is not a sarcastic question, just me possibly showing off my ignorance.

W^3

hro001 said...

One wonders when GRASP [Generator of Risibly Activist Scientific Patina] will take its last gasp!

Another GRASP-er who comes to mind is Canada's Andrew Weaver (IPCC Lead Author, Greenpeace PR Agent, and BC Green Party Candidate and Deputy Leader).

Back in his understated "conservative scientist" days, Weaver had declared that AR4 would show climate change to be a "barrage of intergalactic ballistic missiles". Although, no doubt with the benefit of a modeller's impeccable hindsight, he might wish that he had declared it to be an asteroid striking earth!

Hans Erren said...

Apparently the extreme RCP 8.5 run - which looks very much like SRES A1FI - doesn't seem to have any repercussions on the GDP. So a whopping 4.5 degrees of warming is not detrimental to GDP (and future global wealth) in this flawed model.

You can't have it both ways. Therefore back to the drawingboard, now please including the economic feedbacks.

MostlyHarmless said...

How is it possible to know, before the event, that a forecast, prediction or projection is better than another? Divine inspiration? Different brand of tea?

It's all ESMF - Erring on the Side of Maintained Funding.

DGH said...

-4-Roger Pielke, Jr.

"...pressure from skeptics and contrarians and the risk of being accused of alarmism may have caused scientists to understate their results."

So not only is it worse than has been reported, and worse than expected, it's worse than all of that? The poles will warm, the equator will freeze, mosquitoes will drop giant turds from the sky and elephants will spread malaria?

C'mon Roger.

Stephen Schneider wasn't shy about his concerns vis-a-vis global warming. Any journal worth it's salt, nay yours couldn't possibly make that claim.

opit said...

MostlyHarmless How is it possible to know, before the event, that a forecast, prediction or projection is better than another?
That's why I say AGW isn't science. It's not testable.

Ron C. said...

I am seeing a new acronym from climate scientists. EWE now refers to Extreme Weather Events.

Reminds me of an old joke:

Question: Why did the ram run off the cliff?

Answer: Because he didn't see the ewe turn.

Scott Basinger said...

""What does this tell you about the reviewers and editors of this publication?"

As a member of the Editorial Board of GEC, I am confident in telling you that it says nothing;-) "


There goes your confidence...

Kip Hansen said...

Dr. Pielke --> amongst a lot of other things, I trained and worked in security and intelligence gathering/analysis. The rule of thumb ==> "There's no such thing as coincidence".

tomwys said...

Amazing how exposing published drivel gets a most respected scientist bounced from the GEC Editorial Board!

Reminiscent of the Roman adage that bad money drives out the good!!!

See how many silver dimes and quarters are found in your pocket change!
Predict the expertise of future reviewers on the GEC Editorial Board!

Elad Yom-Tov said...

Did they get rejected from the Journal of Irreproducible Results before they submitted to GEC?

marke said...

"..It finds that the IPCC accurately reflects the community understanding on hurricanes..."

What sort of a scientific prediction/measure is that?

Especially when you consider it is the IPCC and the likes of Al Gore telling the public that hurricanes are getting worse and are harbingers of CAGW...

Doug said...

Yes, it appears that a factional war is breaking out amongst the warmists over the accuracy of predictions that we will not, in any event know the accuracy of for several decades at least. It's the ESLD faction vis a vis the ESMD faction.

Roger: that a journal could publish such rubbish would once have astonished me, but these days, surprise, astonishment or disbelief are no longer possible. You can't make this stuff up.

We can't know, but I'm guessing that GEC terminated you over this. You ridiculed them, however gently. They take themselves seriously and may have interpreted this as impugning their integrity. But they were wrong. The publication of this ridiculous "peer reviewed" paper impugns their integrty. You were only pointing this out to them.

Jim Clarke said...

"Is there any evidence that climate scientists exhibit a systematic bias in their published work and assessments due to outside pressure or other factors? No."

I beg to differ. Nearly every paper on climate, regardless of its relevance to anthroprogenic effects, includes some inference to AGW in its conclusion. AGW is portrayed as a given, generating a requirement for additional study of the subject under warming conditions. In other words, we need more grant money because of global warming! Everyone knows that the money will shrink when the warming doesn't happen. The minimum requirement is lip service to the AGW meme. That is a bias.

David Anderson said...

Sometimes the club which wouldn't have you as a member is a club you are best not being a member of.

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