"Sound Science" and Climate Change

Last month I wrote about how junkscience.com and The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition were fronts set up by tobacco companies to oppose regulatioon of smoking. Chris Mooney published a very interesting article in the Washington Post on the use of the phrase "sound science" by other industry funded groups to oppose government regulation.

Iain Murray then attacked Mooney, accusing him of misrepresentation, distortion and double-speak. Mooney has replied here, in my opinion thoroughly destroying Murray's arguments.

I've been reluctant to write anything about the climate change debate because there is a daunting amount of material on the matter, and I don't feel that I've read enough of it to make any kind of useful comment. However, the heart of Murray's piece is the claim that Mooney misrepresented what the NAS report on climate change found. To see whether that claim is true you don't have to read the entire literature, just the mercifully brief NAS report.

To support his claim that Mooney misrepresented the report, Murray quotes Richard Lindzen, one of authors of the report (and a global warming skeptic, though Murray does not mention this). The complete article that this quote comes from is here. Lindzen writes:

[I]t is quite wrong to say that our NAS study endorsed the credibility of the IPCC assessment report. We were asked to evaluate the IPCC "Summary for Policymakers" (SPM), the only part of the IPCC reports that is ever read or quoted by the media and politicians.

In fact, right in the very first paragraph of the report you find:

In particular, the written request (Appendix A) asked for the National Academies' "assistance in identifying the areas in the science of climate change where there are the greatest certainties and uncertainties," and "views on whether there are any substantive differences between the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] Reports and the IPCC summaries."

The panel was asked to look at the reports and the summary and give their views on whether their were differences. Section 7 of their report is devoted to this. Lindzen was one of the panel members. How could he possibly be unaware of what the panel was supposed to do?

Lindzen continues:

The SPM, which is seen as endorsing Kyoto, is commonly presented as the consensus of thousands of the world's foremost climate scientists. In fact, it is no such thing. Largely for that reason, the NAS panel concluded that the SPM does not provide suitable guidance for the U.S. government...

This is pretty well the opposite of what the panel concluded. In section 7 they actually report:

After analysis, the committee finds that the conclusions presented in the SPM and the Technical Summary (TS) are consistent with the main body of the report.

Again, Lindzen is one of the authors of the report. How can he say that the report says the opposite of what it actually says?

Lindzen continues:

The full IPCC report, most of which is written by scientists about specific scientific topics in their areas of expertise, is an admirable description of research activities in climate science. It is not, however, directed at policy. The SPM is, of course, but it is also a very different document. It represents a consensus of government representatives, rather than of scientists. As a consequence, the SPM has a strong tendency to disguise uncertainty, and conjures up some scary scenarios for which there is no evidence.

I suppose it is possible that this is true, but it is not what the NAS report says. The panel checked with the scientists and found "that no changes were made [to the SPM] without the consent of the convening lead authors".

Lindzen continues:

Similarly, in the case of our NAS report, far too much attention was paid to the hastily prepared summary rather than to the body of the report. The summary claimed that greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Yet, the full text noted that 20 years was too short a period for estimating long term trends, a crucial point that the summary neglected to mention.

What? There are only 20 years of data for surface air temperatures? That doesn't sound right. Let's see what the full text really says:

Although warming at Earth's surface has been quite pronounced during the past few decades, satellite measurements beginning in 1979 indicate relatively little warming of air temperature in the troposphere. The committee concurs with the findings of a recent National Research Council report, which concluded that the observed difference between surface and tropospheric temperature trends during the past 20 years is probably real, as well as its cautionary statement to the effect that temperature trends based on such short periods of record, with arbitrary start and end points, are not necessarily indicative of the long-term behavior of the climate system.

Wow. Global warming skeptics have been pointing at the satellite data and arguing that it shows that there is no warming going on. The NAS panel points out that 20 years of satellite data is probably not enough to judge long term trends, so it should be treated with caution. Lindzen then pretends that the caution about the satellite data was meant to apply to the panel's statement that greenhouse gases were causing global warming. It clearly was not meant to apply to that statement and it doesn't even make sense if you try to apply it to that statement, since surface temperature data goes back at least one hundred years. Again, Lindzen is one of the authors of the report. I can't think of any excuse for what he wrote here, can you?

Lindzen goes on to claim:

Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled.

Well, no. Their primary conclusion is expressed at the beginning of their summary:

Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century.

It is possible that their conclusion is wrong, but they certainly didn't throw up their hands and say that the science wasn't settled as Lindzen claims.

I find Lindzen's systematic misrepresentation of the report that he helped author completely inexcusable. As for Murray, after endorsing Lindzen's remarks, he very commendably offered a link to the report so that his readers could check for themselves, so I don't know what to make of what he has done. Didn't he read the report himself? To compound the problem he has used the same Lindzen quote to attack a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Murray wittily calls a group containing twenty Nobel Prize winners the "Union of Crackpot Scientists".

More like this

Very few people reading Murray's column will read the NAS report, even though it is not very long and Murray puts the link right there. Murray is banking on that. Even many of those who do read it won't change their positions.

You are dead right that climate change is a dangerous place to visit without good intelligence. The purveyors of Sounding like Science depend on this. To pick on one point which Lindzen knows, but mistates, there is no up to date analysis of tropospheric temperatures that does not show an increase.

One must be aware that time marches on if it does not fly, and that an analysis published in say 2001 would have a different result than one published in 2003, even if the same methodology was used (and in this area, there have been a series of improvements in methodology, and recent years have been historically hot).

The original analysis by Spencer and Christy, after several needed revisions and an added decade of data is now showing an increase of ~+0.082oC/decade. This should be compared with surface measurements of a ~+0.2oC/decade increase.

There are three other analyses of the same data from Microwave Sounding Units. The most recent by Vinnikov and Grody, finds an increase of ~+0.24oC/decade.

A 2003 reanalysis by Mears Schnabel and Wentz often called RSS after the place they work finds a trend of ~+0.126oC/decade (The tropospheric measurements derive from Channel 2).

You can find the RSS paper here and the CURRENT data here.

The third is a 1998 analysis by Prabhakara, which found a trend of ~+0.11oC/decade. This appears to have been a one off, and has not to my knowledge been updated.

Some details of the dirty work in the scrum can be found in the presentations here

Googling will find more.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 07 Mar 2004 #permalink

Here in the US, "facts" can be made by making a statement and then having others make the same statement over and over. Evidence need not be present. I call it the "sound-bite" method. This happens because "sound-bites" will make or break a candidate or a writer, and they know that 90% of the voters and readers will never check the details, most of them don't care about the details, most of them don't even understand the details. It's a very sad state of affairs.

To add to Eli's excellent post, a meeting was convened last year to discuss why the papers Eli mentioned differ from the UAH analyses (a meeting, as opposed to a hit piece written in in an uncited journal).

The meeting information can be found here.

And I absolutely concur with EdZ and Eli that the contrascientists in the employ of Heritage/CEI etc count on you not reading their links/citations. The arguments of these types can be easily shown to cherry-pick just by reading their refereces.



Eli - good post. I always find myself scrambling when I want to bring up the satellite measurement revisions. As for the link Dano provided - I wasn't aware of this. I have some reading to do.
The 'contrascientist' tactic that annoys me most is the run-out-the-clock method: Debate in bad faith (e.g. deliberate misrepresentations) forcing their opponent to spend time correcting them. Readers rapidly lose interest and leave before the substance of the debate is covered (if at all). Call it ADE - attention deficit exploitation.