We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

An Inconvenient Provocateur

By Keith Kloor
Apr 23, 2010 4:05 PMNov 19, 2019 8:23 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

UPDATE: After finishing the Q & A, do check out the comment thread where Judith Curry is actively engaged with readers. Last week, a single blog comment by Judith Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, outraged the proprietors and readers of Real Climate. Curry had mentioned the IPCC and the term "corruption" in the same sentence. I then discussed the brewing firestorm here, and that triggered a spirited exchange in the comment thread, of which Curry was an active participant. As this exchange was playing out, I sensed that Curry was expanding on her recent controversial critique of climate scientists, while also putting forth a contrary view of the two recent probes that have exonerated scientists of wrongdoing in the affair known as Climategate. So I asked her if I could follow up with a few questions to clarify some of her recent statements. She immediately accepted and what follows is a short Q & A, conducted via email, and reproduced in its entirety. Q: In the media and within the climate science community, the Oxburgh report was perceived as a complete vindication of scientists associated with Climategate. Yet you wrote in a comment at Roger Pielke Jr.'s blog that, "the Oxburgh investigation has little credibility in my opinion." Could you elaborate? JC: There is a substantial level of public interest in investigating the issues raised by Climategate. These issues include: wanting an assessment of the reliability and accuracy of the historical and paleo temperature records/reconstructions; wanting an assessment of whether the IPCC was corrupted and whether their conclusions are reliable and can be trusted as the basis for international carbon and energy policy; and whether there are some "bad apples" in the climate research community that need to be weeded out in the sense of not being in positions of responsibility as journal editor, IPCC lead author, administrator. The Oxburgh investigation initiated by the UEA took on a very narrow slice of these overall concerns: whether or not the CRU records of temperature change had been deliberately biased or manipulated by UEA scientists. While the Oxburgh report is hardly a ringing endorsement of the CRU science, their main conclusion is that they do not find any evidence of scientific misconduct such as falsification of data. The basis for this conclusion is examination of a selection of 11 research papers published by CRU (based upon a recommendation from the Royal Society, the exact provenance of this recommendation is unknown) and interviews with CRU scientists. Criticisms of the Oxburgh report that have been made include: bias of some of the members including the Chair, not examining the papers that are at the heart of the controversies, lack of consideration of the actual criticisms made by Steve McIntyre and others, and a short report with few specifics that implies a superficial investigation. When I first read the report, I thought I was reading the executive summary and proceeded to look for the details; well, there weren't any. And I was concerned that the report explicitly did not address the key issues that had been raised by the skeptics. Upon reading Andrew Montford's analysis, I learned: "So we have an extraordinary coincidence - that both the UEA submission to the [UK Parliament's Science and Technology] Select Committee and Lord Oxburgh's panel independently came up with almost identical lists of papers to look at, and that they independently neglected key papers like Jones 1998 and Osborn and Briffa 2006." I recall reading this statement from one of the blogs, which seems especially apt: the fire department receives report of a fire in the kitchen; upon investigating the living room, they declare that there is no fire in the house. So in summary, Jones, Briffa et al. can be relieved that they have been vindicated of charges of scientific misconduct. Even with the deficiencies of the Oxburgh report, I don't disagree with their conclusion about finding no evidence of scientific misconduct: I haven't seen any evidence of plagiarism or fabrication/falsification of data by the CRU scientists. Sloppy record keeping, cherry picking of data, and inadequate statistical methods do not constitute scientific misconduct, but neither do they inspire confidence in the research product. Further, the "bad apple" issue is still out there, but this is something that is impossible to assess objectively. And the behavior of these scientists (sloppy record keeping, dismissal of skeptical critiques, and lack of transparency) has slowed down scientific progress in assessing and improving these very important data sets. Therefore I have been proposing that we move away from the focus on individual behavior, and shifting focus to issues related to the IPCC assessment process, addressing issues related the availability of data and transparency of the methods, and to improving the temperature data and proxies. Once these issues are addressed, the "bad apple" issue becomes mostly moot. Q: In that same comment at Roger's site, you also suggested that there was too much focus on Climategate, as opposed to "the principal issue that people care about: the IPCC and its implications for policy." Then you seemed to go much further in criticism of the IPCC than you have previously, when you said:

The corruptions of the IPCC process, and the question of corruption (or at least inappropriate torquing) of the actual science by the IPCC process, is the key issue. The assessment process should filter out erroneous papers and provide a broader assessment of uncertainty; instead, we have seen evidence of IPCC lead authors pushing their own research results and writing papers to support an established narrative.

Over at RealClimate, Gavin Schmidt shot back:

Anyone making accusations of corruption - especially in the light of the tsunami of baseless accusations against scientists that have been hitting the internet in the last few months - needs to be sure that they adequately document the evidence for their allegations.

Can you respond in full? JC: As to whether the accusations against scientists are baseless or not, well I refer the reader back to the reply to my previous question; the jury is still out on many of the accusations. Below is a slight elaboration on the statement I made at RealClimate; I make no attempt here at a thorough evaluation of the IPCC process and its apparent corruptions. But I have seen and read enough on this topic to feel comfortable in making that statement at RealClimate. And if such critiques aren't made, then there will be no motivation to investigate these issues and improve the IPCC process. These issues really need to be investigated and the IPCC process needs to be improved, and the investigation of the IPCC needs to be much more thorough than the UEA investigations. Corruptions to the IPCC process that I have seen discussed include: "¢ lead/contributing authors assessing their own work "“ (e.g. von Storch criticism in 2005), in some cases resulting in an overemphasis on their own papers written by themselves and their collaborators; "¢ tailoring graphics and not adequately describing uncertainties ostensibly to simplify and not to "dilute the message" that IPCC wanted to send; "¢ violations of publication (in press) deadlines for inclusions of papers in the IPCC report; "¢ inadequacies in the review process whereby lead/contributing authors don't respond fairly to adverse criticism; this inadequacy arises in part to the authors themselves having ultimate authority and in part to cursory performance by the Review Editors; "¢ evasiveness and unresponsiveness by the IPCC regarding efforts to investigate alleged violations occurring in the review process; "¢ IPCC Review Editors and authors using the IPCC to avoid accountability under national FOI legislation. Regarding my accusations of process violations, Gavin Schmidt states:

Issues of process are of interest only insofar as they affect the science assessment. "Does it matter?" is the key question - and as far as I have seen, the answer is no for any purported issue that I have investigated.

The skeptics have argued (and I agree with them on this) that Chapter 2.3 in the IPCC WG1 Third Assessment Report and Chapter 6 in the IPCC WG1 Fourth Assessment Report, both of which address the paleoclimate proxy record, were not accurate assessments of the science and its uncertainties. The "elephant in the room" is the 1000-year reconstructions involving Briffa, Mann and Jones, regarding which the CRU emails certainly provide much evidence relating to the authors' conduct as IPCC authors that violate the IPCC process protocols. Process matters. If the results of the assessment weren't being questioned, process violations would be a non-issue. The failure of the various inquiries to seriously engage on this conduct results in a situation where the public is left with the impression that such behavior and conduct is condoned by IPCC and its scientists. With respect to the torquing of the science by the IPCC, there are many small examples, but I describe here three broad issues: 1) a senior leader at one of the big climate modeling institutions told me that climate modelers seem to be spending 80% of their time on the IPCC production runs, and 20% of their time developing better climate models. 2) there is a huge rush of journal article submissions just before the IPCC deadlines; clearly many scientists are trying to get their latest research included in the IPCC. There is the perception out there that best way to have a paper included in the IPCC is to support the established IPCC narrative. 3) scientists involved in the IPCC are attempting to influence the research process (e.g. peer review in journals, not making key data and metadata available) to support the IPCC narrative and using the IPCC platform to editorialize against and discredit critics (examples of these abound in the CRU emails). Q: Speaking of RealClimate, I think it's fair to say that they represent the views of a sizable and influential bloc of climate scientists. In a comment several days ago at this site, you said: "Over at RC, they are commenting that we shouldn't open our minds to garbage, but I am afraid the jury is still out on many of the issues that warmists have such high confidence in." What are some of those issues? JC: To keep this short, I will only itemize some topics where I think the confidence levels in the IPCC are too high and uncertainties have been inadequately characterized: much of what is in the IPCC WG2 report (impacts), the 20th century external climate forcings, the historical surface temperature record prior to 1960, attribution of the 20th century climate variations (including the role of the multidecadal ocean oscillations), the impacts of land use change, sea level rise, paleoclimate reconstructions, uncertainties of climate models and lack of metrics for evaluating climate model performance. Q: With respect to all the controversy kicked up by Climategate, you've also written this past week: "At the beginning, I tried to limit my personal exposure on this and was very leery of getting misquoted by the media. When others failed to speak up, I felt that I needed to step up to the plate." A number of scientists have stepped forward, as you have, such as Mike Hulme and Hans von Storch, and called for a rethinking about how climate science engages the public and especially its critics. Why so few? JC: There is likely to be a range of reasons for this, but for an individual scientist it is probably some combination of the following: "¢ they feel threatened by what they saw happen to Phil Jones and Michael Mann, and want to "fly below the radar screen" so that nothing like that happens to them; "¢ they don't want to risk censure by their peers in straying from the established narrative; this is a very valid concern for young untenured scientists; "¢ the norms of professional scientific behavior are to attack the scientific argument, not the behavior of an individual scientist "¢ they aren't paying much attention to all of this, rarely check out the blogs, and don't want to be distracted from their own research. "¢ some scientists that I have talked with do have strong feelings on this issue, but realize that a lot of homework would be needed on this and broader science policy issues to be an effective "pundit" on the subject. "¢ climategate has motivated numerous scientists to question more actively some of the high confidence (e.g. "very likely") conclusions of the IPCC; these scientists will speak out in the context of their published papers. "¢ the issues here cross over into the social sciences and politics, well outside the comfort zone of most physical scientists. Hanging out in the blogosphere would provide some of the requisite skills and perspectives in engaging with the public and critics of climate research; very few climate researchers have been doing that. There seems to be some sort of unwritten rule by the IPCC scientists and their defenders not to engage with critics/skeptics, since they think that such engagement legitimizes the skeptics. Personally, I think that the almost total lack of "mainstream" climate scientists engaging with skeptics has resulted in a loss of the moral high ground in the public's view, and has acted to increase the public credibility of the skeptics. Further, this lack of meaningful engagement has inflamed the skeptics (particularly in the blogosphere) and they just keep pushing harder and digging deeper. Some scientists are speaking out: Gavin Schmidt and Richard Lindzen are saying, well, what you would expect them to say. I and a few others (e.g. Von Storch, Hulme) are trying to provoke reflection by the climate community towards improving the situation and the credibility of climate research. More voices and additional ideas on these issues would certainly be welcome. I remind my fellow scientists that scientific integrity is about more than just following the rules and staying out of trouble; it also demands that we consider carefully when to speak up versus when to stay silent when concerns about scientific integrity are raised. ***Postscript*** In recent months, Judith Curry has engaged her peers, critics, and the public at well known web outlets, such as Climateprogress, Climateaudit, and Dot Earth, among others. Additionally, she has been a participant in lively comment threads over at Roger Pielke Jr.'s site, Bishop Hill, and most recently, here. I thank her for taking the time to answer my questions at this blog.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.