>Signs of Damage to Public Trust in Climate Findings (N. Y. Times/Dot Earth blog)

February 5, 2010, 4:27 pm

CBS News has run a report summarizing fallout from the illegal distribution of climate scientists’ email messages and files and problems with the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The conclusion is that missteps and mistakes are creating broader credibility problems for climate science.

Senator James M. Inhofe was quick to add the report to the YouTube channel of the minority on the Environment and Public Works committee:

Ralph J. Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, has an editorial in this week’s edition of the journal Science (subscription only) noting the same issue. Over all, he wrote, “My reading of the vast scientific literature on climate change is that our understanding is undiminished by this incident; but it has raised concern about the standards of science and has damaged public trust in what scientists do.”

Dr. Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist, added that polls and input he has received from various sources indicate that “public opinion has moved toward the view that scientists often try to suppress alternative hypotheses and ideas and that scientists will withhold data and try to manipulate some aspects of peer review to prevent dissent. This view reflects the fragile nature of trust between science and society, demonstrating that the perceived misbehavior of even a few scientists can diminish the credibility of science as a whole.” (A BBC report on its latest survey on climate views supports Dr. Cicerone’s impression.)

What should scientists do? Dr. Cicerone acknowledged both the importance of improving transparency and the challenges in doing so:

“It is essential that the scientific community work urgently to make standards for analyzing, reporting, providing access to, and stewardship of research data operational, while also establishing when requests for data amount to harassment or are otherwise unreasonable. A major challenge is that acceptable and optimal standards will vary among scientific disciplines because of proprietary, privacy, national security and cost limitations. Failure to make research data and related information accessible not only impedes science, it also breeds conflicts.”

As recently as last week, senior members of the intergovernmental climate panel had told me that some colleagues did not see the need for changes in practices and were convinced that the recent flareup over errors in the 2007 report was a fleeting inconvenience. I wonder if they still feel that way.

UPDATE: Here’s some additional reading on the I.P.C.C’s travails and possible next steps for the climate panel:

IPCC Flooded by Criticism, by Quirin Schiermeier in Nature News.

Anatomy of I.P.C.C.’s Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and Year 2035, by Bidisha Banerjee and George Collins in the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

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After Emergence of Climate Files, an Uncertain Forecast

December 1, 2009, 10:56 am

Roger A. Pielke Jr. is a political scientist at the University of Colorado who has long focused on climate and disasters and the interface of climate science and policy. He has been among those seeking some clarity on temperature data compiled by the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, which is now at the center of a storm over thousands of e-mail messages and documents either liberated or stolen from its servers (depending on who is describing the episode). [UPDATED 11:45 a.m. with a couple more useful voices “below the fold.”]

On Monday, I asked him, in essence, if the shape of the 20th-century temperature curve were to shift much as a result of some of the issues that have come up in the disclosed e-mail messages and files, would that erode confidence in the keystone climate question (the high confidence expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 that most warming since 1950 is driven by human activities)?

This is Dr. Pielke’s answer. (I added boldface to the take-home points.):

Here is my take, in a logical ordering, from the perspective of an informed observer:

The circumstances:

1. There are many adjustments made to the raw data to account for biases and other factors.
2. Some part of the overall warming trend is as a result of these adjustments.
3. There are legitimately different ways to do the adjusting. Consider that in the e-mails, [Phil] Jones writes that he thinks [James] Hansen’s approach to urban effects is no good. There are also debates over how to handle ocean temperatures from buckets versus intake valves on ships and so on. And some of the procedures for adjusting are currently contested in the scientific literature.
4. Presumably once the data is readily available how these legitimate scientific choices are made about the adjusting would be open to scrutiny and debate.
5. People will then be much more able to cherry pick adjustment procedures to maximize or minimize the historical trends, but also to clearly see how others make decisions about adjustments.
6. Mostly this matters for pre-1979, as the R.S.S. and U.A.H. satellite records provide some degree of independent checking.

Now the implications:

A. If it turns out that the choices made by CRU, GISS, NOAA fall on the “maximize historical trends” end of the scale, that will not help their perceived credibility for obvious reasons. On the other hand, if their choices lead to the middle of the range or even low end, then this will enhance their credibility.
B. The surface temps matter because they are a key basis for estimates of climate sensitivity in the models used to make projections. So people will fight over small differences, even if everyone accepts a significant warming trend. (This is a key point for understanding why people will fight over small differences.)
C. When there are legitimate debates over procedures in science (i.e., competing certainties from different scientists), then this will help the rest of us to understand that there are irreducible uncertainties across climate science.
D. In the end, I would hypothesize that the result of the freeing of data and code will necessarily lead to a more robust understanding of scientific uncertainties, which may have the perverse effect of making the future less clear, i.e., because it will result in larger error bars around observed temperature trends which will carry through into the projections.
E. This would have the greatest implications for those who have staked a position on knowing the climate future with certainty — so on both sides, those arguing doom and those arguing, “Don’t worry be happy.”

So, in the end, Dr. Pielke appears to say, closer scrutiny of the surface-temperature data could undermine definitive statements of all kinds — that human-driven warming is an unfolding catastrophe or something concocted. More uncertainty wouldn’t produce a climate comfort zone, given that poorly understood phenomena can sometimes cause big problems. But it would surely make humanity’s energy and climate choices that much tougher.

[UPDATE, 11:45 a.m.] Andrew Freedman at the Capital Weather Gang blog has interviewed Gerald North, the climate scientist who headed the National Academies panel that examined the tree-ring data and “hockey stick” graphs. Some excerpts:

On whether the emails and files undermine Dr. North’s confidence in human-driven climate change:

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.

On Stephen McIntyre of Climateaudit.org:

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.

Also, please note below that Michael Schlesinger at the University of Illinois sent in a response to sharp criticisms of his Dot Earth contribution from Roger Pielke, Sr., at the University of Colorado, Boulder. (Apologies for Colorado State affiliation earlier; he’s moved.)