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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 12/01/2009

Scientist: Consensus withstands climate e-mail flap

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The debate about the significance of hundreds of leaked personal e-mails between a handful of top climate scientists, which were stolen off a British Web server and posted online about two weeks ago, rages on. Although most scientists agree that the contents of the e-mails do not invalidate the scientific consensus that human activities are changing the climate, the e-mails have raised troubling questions about how climate science is being conducted, such as whether researchers are stifling dissent and manipulating research results.

I've been conducting a series of interviews that shed light on the e-mail controversy and the effects it may have on both climate science and the public's perceptions of that science. Today, I bring you an interview with Gerald North, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences and oceanography at Texas A&M University.

But first, here's a brief recap of how the debate has been shaping up thus far...

Those who doubt the established scientific evidence that Earth has been warming due to human activities have viewed the e-mails as conclusive evidence that the books have been cooked, and that scientists with an agenda are distorting their findings.

Those who subscribe to the mainstream science on climate change have downplayed the scientific significance of the e-mails, but many have expressed concerns that they may cause the public to be less trusting of climate science findings anyway.

Somewhere in the middle are some prominent scientists, such as Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, who have said the e-mails demonstrate that climate science needs to be conducted in a more transparent manner to increase public understanding. I recommend reading Curry's comments on Andrew Revkin's DotEarth blog.

Now, on to Professor North, a physicist who specializes in investigating the causes of climate change through the use of various types of computer models, among other techniques. He is especially well-qualified to comment on this controversy because of his role in investigating the work of one of the key players in the e-mail flap, Michael Mann of Penn State University.

In 2006, North chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel on "Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the last 2,000 Years," which examined Mann's controversial study, known as the "Hockey Stick," which traced Earth's recent climate history. While the panel found some flaws with the study, it largely affirmed Mann's conclusions that late 20th century surface temperatures were higher than they had been in at least four centuries, and possibly far longer than that.

(In the interview, North discusses the work of Stephen McIntyre, who runs the blog ClimateAudit. McIntyre has been writing extensively about the leaked emails. North also refers to a specific leaked e-mail from Phil Jones, who is the director of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, in which Jones referred to a "trick" used in a study).

Andrew Freedman: What are your thoughts on the significance of this scandal, both in terms of what it may mean scientifically and for public perceptions of climate science?

Gerald North: Scientifically, it means little. All scientists know that this kind of language and kidding goes on verbally all the time. Some of us forget that email has the potential to become public at any time. The public perception is another matter. There may be some people who do not know any scientist personally and think they are lily pure, dedicated (do-gooder) nerds. These private comments might lead to less confidence in science. It is a shame, since our country is so scientifically illiterate and is easily swayed by perceptions that have little to do with scientific method and culture. They have very little influence on my opinion.

AF: Do these hacked e-mails make you question the "consensus" on climate change at all, or to a greater extent perhaps than you did before?

GN: I accept the IPCC [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] procedure of assessment. It is not perfect, but it is probably the best we can do in learning the state of the science at an instant in time. It employs people who work actively in the field. Sometimes they are assessing their own work - egos clash. They are drawn together in workshops; then they separate to write the chapters of the report. There is a huge amount of anonymous refereeing of the reports. Monitors check that every complaint is at least discussed (in writing but not necessarily in the final report). There is a tendency to make the report reflect the mainstream view and de-emphasize some things that contradict it.
This is the way science works. People follow an established paradigm. They stay with it until it becomes uninteresting or stagnant. A paradigm can fall by an internal inconsistency that cannot be reconciled, or it may face an insurmountable contradiction with observed data. This latter does not happen overnight. Usually, with long standing paradigms, the data or its interpretation turn out to be wrong.
"ʻClimategateʼ is not even close to causing active researchers to abandon the anthropogenic [manmade] global warming hypothesis."
ʻClimategateʼ [the nickname of the email controversy] is not even close to causing active researchers to abandon the anthropogenic [manmade] global warming hypothesis. This hypothesis (Anthropogenic GW) fits in the climate science paradigm that 1) Data can be collected and assembled in ways that are sensible. 2) These data can be used to test and or recalibrate climate simulation models. 3) These same models can be used to predict future and past climates. It is understood that this is a complicated goal to reach with any precision. The models are not yet perfect, but there is no reason to think the approach is wrong.
Was data manipulated? I do not think so. In the NAS 2006 Report on Reconstruction of Surface Temperatures for the last 2000 Years (I was Chairman of that committee, and it took a different approach to assessment: a panel of experts who are not directly involved in the controversy - note the difference from the IPCC approach), we constructed our own hockey stick curve. We put the tree ring record on the graph and stuck the instrument record on for the last 50 years in exactly the way [Phil] Jones in his [leaked] email referred to as a ʻtrickʼ.
We did not know of his email (it was happening at the same time and we were careful not to have any contact with the IPCC process going on at that time), and we did precisely the same thing because it was the natural thing to do. The tree rings follow the observed temperatures pretty well but those in high northern latitudes ʻdivergeʼ starting about 1960. The exact cause of it is not known but there are several ideas floating around. We devoted several paragraphs and a number of references to it in our report. There is nothing dishonest going on. A prominent skeptic, John Christy, was on our committee.

AF: A number of researchers, including Judith Curry at Georgia Tech, have raised concerns about the transparency of climate science and the "circling the wagons" behavior exhibited by some of the scientists involved, in which they resisted requests for information/data from climate skeptics and sought to exclude certain studies from publication in scientific journals. Do you agree with the assessment that climate scientists should take this opportunity to increase transparency, in order to prevent a future scandal like this from eroding public confidence in their work? Why or why not?

GN: First, I do not think this is a scandal. I normally do not read the blogs, neither ClimateAudit nor RealClimate. But I did dial up ClimateAudit and by chance come upon Curryʼs statement. She has some respect for Steve McIntyreʼs contributions, and so do I. He was treated respectfully throughout our NAS hearings and deliberations in 2006.
I believe McIntyre is very sincere and is not doing any of this for money, etc. I think he has the conviction that we are rushing to judgment about the interpretation of the surface temperature data. His very popular blog makes fun of scientists in a way that unnerves them, since they cannot make fun of him in return without appearing ʻunprofessionalʼ. Many find this frustrating to the point of exasperation. Itʼs like asking a government official to speak publicly like a radio talk show host.
Before addressing the issue of transparency, let me try to tell you some history as it related to the hockey stick controversy, which is what our committee was all about.
McIntyre entered the fray by asking for data from Mann and his coauthors in about 2000. As I understand it they complied, but the more they complied the more he wanted. He began to make requests of others. He sometimes not only wanted data, but computer programs. When he could not figure out how the programs worked he wanted help. From what they tell me this became so irritating that they stopped answering his emails.
He (or his supporters) went to Congress. A Congressional Committee wanted copies of all emails exchanged between coauthors. In my long career I have never heard of anything like this. It is easy to get the feeling that McIntyre is really trying to shut down scientific operations, rather than wanting to get to the truth. It is probably not so, but after a while one begins to feel that way. So McIntyre has generated lots of irritation in the science community.
I did read Curryʼs piece on McIntyreʼs blog. She is a highly respected friend of mine. It seems to be her first encounter with these folks. Of course, transparency is good -- no one would disagree. But science is a very competitive enterprise. Teams (ʻtribesʼ) do get very territorial and there is competition between groups, and not just for funds. Priority of discovery is the holy grail. Over my long career, I have observed this behavior in many different fields in physics and climate science. The experience Judith recalls from her own experience is between two different scientific groups pushing different hypotheses (about hurricane genesis).
It got pretty heated. But itʼs all part of the game. I testified later in 2006 to another NAS committee on transparency. I am for it. But it is easier said than done. If you make things more transparent, you might eliminate competition - imagine giving away trade secrets in the private sector (who gets the holy grail?). Another issue is whether there is enough funding to put such a bureaucratic burden on the scientific investigator. Many believe that more well documented archival of data and computer programs could be done if the funding is there, but this costs lots of money. Do we cut out science to maintain flat budgets?
Finally, I would like to comment on McIntyre and his actions. I do think he has had an overall positive effect. He has made us re-examine the basis for our assertions. In my opinion this sorts itself out in the due course of the scientific process, but perhaps he has made a community of science not used to scrutiny take a second look from time to time. But I am not sure he has ever uncovered anything that has turned out to be significant.

AF: What might you say to the layperson who has not heard much about this scandal, and is wondering whether it means that climate change is no longer such a big problem?

GN: Again it is not a scandal. But perhaps the media can actually construct a scandal out of whole cloth if it wants to. After all, it is hard to get the public in a democracy to do uncomfortable things that have only long-range implications. Oneʼs instincts simply do not work that way. Hence, it only takes a dozen or so persons with scientific credentials to spoil what might be a sensible policy.
I recently looked online at the Journal of Climate, the leading climate science journal in the world. It had about 2000 authors in 2008. The smaller international journal Climate Dynamics had 2400 pages in 2009. Both journals have very high standards. There are also the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, Journal of Geophysical Research and many others. Where are these guys? Most are in the trenches following the paradigm. Grinding out data, model simulations and interpretations. They are not going to throw away their careers on something that is stupid or wrong.
Science has a way of correcting itself over time. Because of the policy relevance (and political sensitivity) of it, we do not always have the time for the normal process to work itself through. Obviously this can lead to the kind of false flaps we are seeing here.

You can read my previous interviews with geoscientist Thomas Crowley and science historian Spencer Weart. I am planning at least one more interview, with someone on the more 'skeptical' side of the climate debate.

Related link: A BBC News column that discusses the different views of whether and how the IPCC should be reformed in the wake of the climate email flap.

The views expressed here are the author's and interview subject's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  10:45 AM ET, 12/01/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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