Climate scientists still besieged

Posted on June 8, 2010


S&R interviewed Martin Vermeer, first author of a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper on sea level rise, about how much context the published CRU emails contained. In addition to answering questions about the emails’ context, Vermeer pointed out that some of the context “bears the mark of a scientific community under a politically-motivated siege.” Gavin Schmidt, climate researcher at the Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, agreed with Vermeer when asked. As a result, S&R examined interviews conducted with climate scientists and critics for evidence that climate scientists and climate research were besieged at present. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of evidence that climate scientists remain besieged today. Evidence includes false claims made against scientists for work done on the IPCC Third Assessment Report, erroneous and/or unsupported claims made against several scientists involved in the writing of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, and unreasonable claims of bias against the CRU email inquiries performed to date.

S&R contacted Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit to get his views on how much context the published emails contained and what could be concluded from them. In response, he referred us specifically to one of his posts from December, 2009. He also referred us to the entirety of his “Climategate” category. S&R chose not to focus on the first post as it has been extensively critiqued elsewhere, instead focusing on a related post where McIntyre made a number of claims that are not supported by the published record.

(Updated 6/13/2010: In the process of debating a number of points with Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit, it has been made clear to me that I erroneously assumed that the post referenced below was exclusively about Figure 2.21 from the Third Assessment Report. However, after McIntyre clarified his post today in response to the debate and after further verification of the original source material, it’s now clear that he referenced the TAR first, the WMO next, and then back to the TAR. Given the clarification, the struck out portions of the following post are no longer correct. I apologize for the error.

Update 6/13/10: As seen in the correction below, I initially claimed that the deletion of data would be fraudulent. I then realized that, based on my own experience as an electrical engineer, this wasn’t necessarily the case and the appropriateness of doing so would depend on a host of factors that I had not considered or explained in the post. It is also clear that I did not conduct sufficient research into this specific issue before posting on it, and as a result I made two errors. The first was misunderstanding the differences between the tree ring proxy graphs for the WMO, TAR, and AR4. The second was not understanding that the WMO graph appears to have been created by padding data from the instrumental record onto a tree ring proxy record. The propriety of this is open for debate, but I should have known about the issue before posting this piece. I appreciate the fact that McIntyre and various commenters below have pointed this out, and I apologize for this error as well.)

McIntyre wrote at Climate Audit that

there is no valid statistical procedure supporting the substitution of tree ring proxy data going the wrong with instrumental temperature data to create a false rhetorical impression of the coherence of the proxy data. (emphasis added, source)

Thomas Fuller, co-author with Steven Mosher of Climategate, The CRUtape Letters (Volume 1), excerpted a portion of his book that also makes this same basic claim:

The tree ring data was useful to [the CRU scientists] because it appeared to indicate that the most recent warming we have experienced was unprecedented and dramatic. But it inconveniently declined during the last few decades when they wanted it to increase the fastest; so they replaced the tree ring data with instrument data. (emphasis added, source)

If the scientists had actually substituted or replaced the tree ring proxy data with instrument data, then McIntyre and Fuller would have a valid claim of fraudulent behavior by Phil Jones et al. However, nothing was substituted or replaced.

Looking closely at the graph shows that the tree ring data was neither replaced nor substituted. The zoomed-in version of IPCC TAR WG1 Figure 2.21 at right shows that the instrument data starts around 1900 (red line, red arrow added) while the tree ring data ends at around 1960 (green line, green arrow added). If the tree ring data after 1960 were simply substituted or replaced as McIntyre and Fuller claim, then the instrument data would have been appended to the end of the tree ring data or the instrument data would be shown in green in order to maximize the potential for misinterpretation. Neither is the case.

McIntyre also claimed that

[t]he tree ring data goes down instead of up – but that doesn’t make it “erroneous”. It only means that the data is a bad proxy.

This might be true if the data supported it, but the data clearly doesn’t. recent research suggests that tree-ring data is not necessarily a bad proxy, only a bad proxy for the last few decades. (clarified 6/25/10).

First, the tree rings that diverge from the instrumental record are not all tree ring datasets, but rather a subset of tree ring datasets. In particular, the divergence problem applies to the Briffa 2000 dataset taken from trees close to the Arctic Circle. Other tree ring datasets don’t show the same divergence issue, as summarized in Cook et al 2004 and as shown in the image below (note that the northern tree rings in dark blue diverge while the southern tree rings in red do not – and Briffa’s rings are from northerly trees). In summary, the southerly tree ring record matches the instrumental record while the northerly tree rings diverge after 1950 or so.

Second, recent papers have shown that, before the period of divergence, reconstructed temperatures from northerly tree rings closely match may other temperature proxies including boreholes, corals, lake sediments, stalagmites, and the lengths of glacial tongues. As John Cook, editor of the climate science website Skeptical Science put it,

Since 1999, there have been many independent reconstructions of past temperatures, using a variety of proxy data and a number of different methodologies. All find the same result – that the last few decades are the hottest in the last 500 to 2000 years (depending on how far back the reconstruction goes). (source)

While the Cook et al 2004 paper was not published until after the TAR, Fuller’s and McIntyre’s claims of replacement and substitution were published in January and March, 2010 respectively. At this point, McIntyre and Fuller should both be aware enough of the progress made in dendroclimatology (deducing past climate from tree rings) since 2001 to not make erroneous claims.

In the course of interviewing Steven Mosher, co-author with Fuller of Climategate, The CRUtape Letters (Volume 1), he provided S&R with an example of what he claimed was a breach of ethics by a number of scientists during the writing of Chaper 6 of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) Working Group 1 report. Mosher wrote the following:

In the spring and summer of 2006, Overpeck the review editor of Chapter 6 or AR4 informed Briffa that he should have no contact with other scientists outside of the IPCC process. This is documented in the mails. (source)

This was the procedure. All comments and communication must go through official channels to insure fairness and transparency and a trusted scientific record. Jones was aware of these rules. Obsborn was. Briffa was. Then Briffa wrote a mail marked confidential to Eugene Wahl. In that mail and subsequent mails he shared draft versions with Wahl and reviewer comments with Wahl. Wahl sent back edits and materials from an unpublished paper. (source)

Briffa incorporated this material. Briffa described this as “stealing” Wahl’s work and asked Wahl to check it so that it was not traceable. (source)

He knew he was violating the rules. Wahls comments were on a substantive issue. A paper that Wahl and Ammann had written. Wahl’s comments and edits changed the conclusions of Chapter 6. These inputs were not approved or reviewed by any of the official reviewers. The edits were used to blunt a paper by McIntyre–a critic of Jones and Briffa and Osborn. It’s a fair question to ask what context would make such an act acceptable? What possible context could justify this? (links shortened)

S&R fact-checked these claims by reading the emails in question and asking Johnathan Overpeck, Eugene Wahl, and Keith Briffa for their input on what the emails meant. In all cases, Mosher either misinterpreted the emails or there was insufficient context to justify his interpretation.

First, Mosher claimed that “Overpeck the review editor of Chapter 6 or AR4 informed Briffa that he should have no contact with other scientists outside of the IPCC process” and provided a reference for this claim. The email in question says specifically

From: Jonathan Overpeck
To: “Neil Roberts”
Subject: Re: ipcc chapter 6 draft
Date: Thu, 18 May 2006 15:58:25 -0600
Cc: Keith Briffa , Eystein Jansen

Hi Neil – Thanks for your interest in providing feedback on the draft chap 6 Second Order Draft. Since the IPCC has very strict rules about all this, I’m going to ask them (the IPCC) to send you an official invitation to review, along with the process – formal, but highly efficient – to follow. If you could send your comments in that way it would be a great help. We’ve been asked to keep everything squeaky clean, and not to get comments informally.

Thanks! Peck (emphasis added, source)

Mosher also claimed that the emails meant that “[a]ll comments and communication must go through official channels to insure fairness and transparency and a trusted scientific record.” However, the email above doesn’t support either claim. Instead, the email appears to be speaking specifically about only the formal IPCC comment submission process, not about communications in general. S&R asked Jonathan Overpeck, Director of the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences Environmental Studies Laboratory to explain what he was saying in the email in question, and this is what he said:

[T]he email from Neil Roberts relates to a very special aspect of the IPCC process, and that is the peer review of a draft report. In this case, the operating procedure is different because the IPCC strives for a transparent peer review process. For this to work, especially considering the thousands of comments received in each of the review cycles (i.e., for multiple drafts), each IPCC Working Group (WG) sets up a process for the ingest of all reviewer comments. Anyone can comment, but if all the comments come in through the official process, then the WG can track each and every one of the comments and make sure they all get addressed by the author teams. Then, the WG can make all the comments and responses (by the author teams) public. Nothing hidden this way.

Thus, what I was advising in my email was that Neil send his comments in through the official process, rather than informally to me and/or one of our lead authors (e.g., Keith [Briffa]).

In other words, Overpeck was not pointing out to Briffa that he shouldn’t contact any other scientists, but rather telling a reviewer (and copying Briffa on the communication) that he had to go through the official IPCC comment process.

Second, Mosher wrote that “Briffa wrote a mail marked confidential to Eugene Wahl. In that mail and subsequent mails he shared draft versions with Wahl and reviewer comments with Wahl. Wahl sent back edits and materials from an unpublished paper.” What follows is the section of the email that Mosher is referring to:

From: Keith Briffa []
Sent: Tue 7/18/2006 10:20 AM
To: Wahl, Eugene R
Subject: confidential


I am taking the liberty (confidentially) to send you a copy of the reviewers comments (please keep these to yourself) of the last IPCC draft chapter. I am concerned that I am not as objective as perhaps I should be and would appreciate your take on the comments from number 6-737 onwards, that relate to your reassessment of the Mann et al work. I have to consider whether the current text is fair or whether I should change things in the light of the sceptic comments. In practise this brief version has evolved and there is little scope for additional text , but I must put on record responses to these comments – any confidential help , opinions are appreciated . I have only days now to complete this revision and response.
note that the sub heading 6.6 the last 2000 years is page 27 line35 on the original (commented) draft.

Keith (emphasis added, source)

Mosher neglected to mention that Briffa’s reason for sending this email and the reviewer’s comments to Wahl was because Briffa was worried about not being objective with his response. The rest of the email chain suggests that the reviewer in question was Steve McIntyre and Briffa was hoping that Wahl would provide a more objective response than Briffa could. S&R contacted Briffa and asked specifically about this issue, but he declined to be quoted given his continued involvement in the Independent Climate Change Email Review (aka the Muir Russel Review). S&R hopes that this particular issue will be addressed in detail by the Review.

Regardless, however, the context of the email points out that Briffa was working to ensure a balanced response to reviewer comments relating to his part of Chapter 6. Mosher also claimed in his S&R interview that “Overpeck… informed Briffa that he should have no contact with other scientists outside of the IPCC process.” When Overpeck was asked about this, he said “there is no restriction on IPCC authors talking to anyone. Thus, Keith as a Lead Author could consult with any scientist he wanted.”

Third, Mosher said that “Briffa described this as “stealing” Wahl’s work and asked Wahl to check it so that it was not traceable.” This is the applicable portion of the email Mosher referenced:

From: Keith Briffa []
Sent: Mon 7/24/2006 3:16 PM
To: Wahl, Eugene R
Subject: RE: confidential

here is where I am up to now with my responses (still a load to do) – you can see that I have “borrowed (stolen)” from 2 of your responses in a significant degree – please assure me that this OK (and will not later be obvious) hopefully.

You will get the whole text (confidentially again) soon. You could also see that I hope to be fair to Mike – but he can be a little unbalanced in his remarks sometime – and I have had to disagree with his interpretations of some issues also.

Please do not pass these on to anyone at all.
Keith (source)

Looking at the rest of the email chain, the email above follows another email by Wahl, excerpted below:

What I am concerned about for the time being is that nothing in the review article shows up anywhere. It is just going in, and confidentiality is important. The only exception to this are the points I make in my blue comments in the big review file on page 104, concerning the MM way of benchmarking the RE statistic. Those comments are fine to repeat at this point. [Please excuse my hesitance in this way.] (brackets original)

Many journals have rules that say they won’t publish any paper that has been previously published anywhere before the paper has been accepted for publication. S&R’s interpretation of these two emails is that Wahl was worried about his unpublished paper being rejected due to prior publication rules if Briffa quoted it to closely. This differs from Mosher’s statement that Wahl’s input was sought specifically to “blunt a paper by McIntyre.” The two interpretations are not necessarily incompatible, but the implications are different – potential ethical misconduct vs. professional courtesy.

Wahl did not respond to repeated requests to clarify these issues and put them into context.

Mosher told S&R that “it is possible for example to draw the conclusion that Overpeck informed Briffa of the IPCC rules. Briffa marked a mail violating these rules “confidential” his subsequent mails show a knowledge that he was violating rules and an intent to cover this act up.” Overpeck disagreed, saying that “no one was breaking any rules, but rather we simply were trying to stick to the IPCC WG process that we all agreed to follow as best we could.” Overpeck also said that Briffa and the other lead authors were “open to talk to whomever they wish when it comes to understanding the science and getting the assessment correct.” The example above illustrates that the referenced emails fail to support or outright contradict Mosher’s allegations.

The series of accusations above relate to the fact that climate scientists remain besieged by critics who make unreasonable, unsupported, or even false claims. But the siege applies beyond just the scientists themselves. The inquiries into the published CRU emails are also under siege.

S&R interviewed Gavin Schmidt, climate researcher at the Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, about various critics’ responses to the inquiries completed to date. He indicated that Steve McIntyre was not interested in honest criticism of the inquiries. Specifically, Schmidt aid that McIntyre had attacked the Oxburgh panel because

Oxburgh ‘had not looked at the right papers’ and [McIntyre] came up with 5 papers they hadn’t looked at. But none of these papers were highlighted (or even mentioned) in McIntyre’s submission to Muir-Russell or the House of Commons, nor were they mentioned in Andrew Montford’s submissions.

S&R fact-checked this claim as well and compared the submissions McIntyre made to the Muir Russel review and the House of Commons inquiry to the list that McIntyre made at Climate Audit. So far as we could tell, Schmidt’s claim appears to be accurate. Schmidt guessed that the reason that these new papers were highlighted was “only because Oxburgh didn’t look at them” and called it a “clear example of moving goalposts.”

(Update 6/8/2010: The details of fact-check had not been included but should have been, a point that commenter PaulM pointed out below.

The references to McIntyre’s House of Commons submission are below. Note that the papers in bold are common between the two lists.

Briffa, K R, 2000. Quaternary Science Reviews, 19(1-5), 87-105.

Briffa, K R et al, 1992. Climate Dynamics, 7(3), 111-119.

Briffa, K R et al, 1995. Nature, 376(6536), 156-159.

Briffa, K R et al, 2001. Journal of Geophysical Research, 106(D3), 2929-2941.

Grudd, H, 2006. PhD Thesis, Stockholm University, Faculty of Science.

Grudd, H, 2008. Climate Dynamics, (DOI 10.1007/s00382-007-0358-2).

International Panel on Climate Change, 2001. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis.

International Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Basis.

Mann, M E, Bradley, R S & Hughes, M K, 1998. Nature, 392, 779-787.

Melvin, T and K Briffa, 2008 in M K Hughes, H F Diaz, and T W Swetnam, editors. Dendroclimatology: Progress and Prospects. Springer Verlag

National Research Council, 2006. Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years. Available at:

Wahl, E R & Ammann, C M, 2007. Climatic Change, 85(1), 33-69.

Wegman, E J, Scott, D W & Said, Y H, 2006. Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ” Hockey Stick” Global Climate Reconstruction.

Here’s the complete list of papers from the referenced post:

Aside from CRU activities at IPCC (the sections in AR3, AR4 and AR4 Review Comments), the most prominent CRU articles criticized here are the following nine: Briffa et al 1992 (the Tornetrask chronology and “Briffa bodge”); Briffa et al 1995 (Polar Urals), Briffa 2000 (passim introduction of Yamal, Taimyr); Briffa et al 2002 (the famous cargo cult “assumption”); Mann and Jones 2003; Jones and Mann 2004; Osborn and Briffa 2005; Rutherford et al 2005; Jones et al (1990) on UHI.

If you add up the papers that McIntyre says are key in the second list, you find that there are five “key” papers that McIntyre neglected to mention in his submission to the House of Commons, just like Schmidt said. End update)

In a post at Climate Audit on the subject of the inquiries completed to date, McIntyre said “I resent the idea that I automatically think that any and all inquiries are automatically suspect. I don’t.” However, McIntyre’s submission to the Muir Russel review contained a complaint about the review panel’s members and a copy of his House of Commons submission, but otherwise no new material. In addition, McIntyre laid out a long list of reasons that the Oxburgh panelists were compromised:

Chairman Oxburgh, a former oil company executive, is a green entrepreneur. Kerry Emanuel is a Michael Mann coauthor who blamed Climategate not on the scientists who composed the emails, but on an adverse ‘public relations campaign.’ Lisa Graumlich is a coauthor with MBH’s Malcolm Hughes – see here – both are presently at the same institute of the University of Arizona. This volume was proceedings of a NATO workshop – edited by.. Phil Jones.

McIntyre is claiming that everyone with a fossil fuel or green energy background is too biased to rule fairly. So is any scientist who accepts the overwhelming scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate disruption, who has published with such a scientist, or who even works at a university with such a scientist. And so is anyone who has ever published in a journal or proceedings edited by any scientist like Phil Jones.

The problem with this list of restrictions is that it results in disqualifying any scientist that has the necessary expertise to understand the science discussed within the published CRU emails. For example, Roger Pielke Jr can’t be unbiased because he’s now a co-author with CRU scientist Mike Hulme (source). The independence of John Christy of the University of Alabama – Huntsville is compromised because he worked under Thomas Karl writing the United States Climate Change Science Program Synthesis Assessment Product 1.1. National Academy of Science member and MIT professor Richard Lindzen is similarly disqualified because he teaches at MIT just like Oxburgh panelist Kerry Emmanuel does. Should we thus disqualify all of the work of the National Academy of Sciences as hopelessly biased against anthropogenic climate disruption because Lindzen is a member of the Academy, even though the NAS has come out publicly saying that climate disruption is being dominated by human causes? Of course not – doing so would be absurd. Instead, we should either reject McIntyre’s criteria as unreasonable or conclude that he does think all inquires are suspect even though he claims to resent it.

Mosher agrees with McIntyre that all the inquiries are suspect.

With regards to future inquiries. I do not expect any of them to address the relevant questions. I don’t expect any of them to have members who have read all the mails or understand all the issues. I do not expect them to call any of the people, like McIntyre or the authors who have written extensively on the mails and know them by heart. As with the previous inquiries in the best case it will be the incurious and unprepared asking the questions or the in the worst case the biased and self interested asking the questions. They will not ask the right questions or the hard questions.

This suggests that Mosher will not accept the outcome of any of the inquiries unless they produce results that match his prejudices even though the inquiries have done exactly what Mosher said was necessary to understand the emails: “Somebody with knowledge of the mails sitting down with Jones, Briffa, Osborn and others to ask them a few simple questions.”

Mosher claims that he found evidence of a bunker mentality among the climate scientists mentioned in the CRU emails, and that Phil Jones confirmed this conclusion after publication (which is a potential breach of journalistic ethics – you’re supposed to fact-check before publication, not after). Vermeer agreed, saying that the emails showed evidence of scientists responding to a “politically-motivated siege.” Vermeer went on to suggest that S&R more closely scrutinize critics like Mosher, Fuller, and McIntyre, saying that

They have a history of getting the science wrong; of never acknowledging getting the science wrong when they do; of referring to fraudulently compiled documents by denialist hacks as if these had scientific merit; of thinly veiled accusations of scientific malpractice based on nothing; of FoI harassment; etc. etc.

S&R’s fact checking verified many of Vermeer’s complaints in the statements of Mosher and McIntyre.

If there’s one measure of whether climate scientists still feel besieged by critics, it’s whether or not scientists alter their behavior to protect themselves against an email being hacked and publicly taken out-of-context, something that Vermeer was worried about happening. S&R asked Schmidt if he had seen any evidence of this. His response was that “[t]here are a lot more phone calls now – which is slowing a lot of free and frank discussion.”

Welcome to the post-Climategate world – even more besieged than before.

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