I saw news of a ridiculous sort this morning when scanning the headlines. The whole mountain of science concluding that climate change was happening and was a great concern for humanity got a hole blown through it due to findings from a new study. Of course, this is far, far, far, far from the case. But, unfortunately, due to an all-too-commonly copied trail of disinformation, thousands upon thousands of people probably think so now. It is a disgrace that this sort of thing can happen in a supposedly “advanced” society. First off, the trail:
–> A widely discredited climate scientist who is trying to be a maverick and prove that he’s a genius and 97% of top climate scientists are wrong (and who seems to have some beef with his former bosses at NASA) publishes a deeply flawed study in an obscure online journal (using models that have been picked apart and thrown in the trash by respectable scientists previously).
–> A blogger from a conservative, global-warming-denial, fossil-fuel-funded think tank gets Forbes (owned by the now quite infamous Rupert Murdoch) to publish his interpretation of this study and its implications (as if Forbes hasn’t published enough climate nonsense over the years).
–> More mainstream news outlets (and hordes upon hordes of uninformed deniers) who think Forbes and the Heartland Institute are reputable sources publish stories on the matter as well, adding their own bit of extremism to catch people’s eyes (they know how much people love a good controversy, even if it’s based in nothing more than Jerry Springer style theatrics).
–> The population becomes that much more confused about the completely concerning threat of climate change… and the results will speak for themselves if more people who are informed don’t speak up.
Anyway, Brad Johnson & Dr. Joe Romm of Think Progress wrote good pieces on this story today which I’ll just go ahead and re-print in full below. Everything from here on is from them:
Long wrong climate science disinformer Roy Spencer has published another deeply flawed article. That ain’t news. What is news is that the deniers have a couple of new tricks up their sleeves.
First, the disinformers have figured out they should focus on journals that don’t seem to have a very deep understanding of climate science. In May, it was a paper in a statistics journal, which was ultimately withdrawn because of “evidence of plagiarism and complaints about the peer-review process.” This time it’s an article in the open-access Remote Sensing co-authored by Spencer.
It bears repeating that Spencer committed one of the most egregious blunders in the history of remote sensing — committing multiple errors in analyzing the satellite data and creating one of the enduring denier myths, that the satellite data didn’t show the global warming that the surface temperature data did.
It also bears repeating that Spencer wrote this month, “I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”
That doesn’t mean Spencer’s new paper on remote sensing is wrong, but it means his work on the subject does not deserve the benefit of the doubt, as most climate journals would know. And it means we should pay attention to serious climate scientists when they explain how Spencer is, once again, pushing denier bunk.
As the famous critique goes, “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good”:
- “He’s taken an incorrect model, he’s tweaked it to match observations, but the conclusions you get from that are not correct,” Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.
- “It is not newsworthy,” Daniel Murphy, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cloud researcher, wrote in an email to LiveScience.
- NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth (excerpted from below): “I have read the paper. I can not believe it got published. Maybe it got through because it is not in a journal that deals with atmospheric science much?”
As for the second denier trick, well, they got Yahoo News to host a “news story” on the article — written by James Taylor. Not the brilliant singer song-writer who wrote, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.” No, the uber-denier James Taylor whose Heartland Institute wants to bring to America’s heartland too much fire and too much rain — and heat waves that you thought would never end. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
And so Yahoo enables this headline of denier bunk — “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism” — to spread through the web like so much kudzu. LiveScience noted in its debunking post:
The paper was mostly unnoticed in the public sphere until the Forbes blogger declared it “extremely important.”
In fact, as Dessler emailed me, Spencer’s “paper is not really intended for other scientists, since they do not take him seriously anymore (he’s been wrong too many times).” Here are his full comments:
To understand this paper, you have to understand the difference, between a “forcing” and a “feedback.” Forcings are imposed changes to, the climate, while feedbacks are processes that respond to changes in, the climate and amplify or ameliorate them. So the addition of carbon, dioxide to the atmosphere by humans is a forcing—it is simply an, imposition on the climate. Water vapor, on the other hand, is a, feedback because the amount of water vapor is set by the surface, temperature of the planet. As the planet warms, you get more water, vapor in the atmosphere, and since water vapor is itself a greenhouse, gas, this leads to additional warming.
The canonical way to think about clouds is that they are a feedback—as, the climate warms, clouds will change in response and either amplify, (positive cloud feedback) or ameliorate (negative cloud feedback) the, initial change.
What this new paper is arguing is that clouds are forcing the climate, rather than the more traditional way of thinking of them as a, feedback. This is not, in fact, a new argument. Spencer’s 2010 JGR, paper as well as the new Lindzen and Choi 2011 paper both make this, argument.
Overall, the argument made in all of these papers to support the, conjecture that clouds are forcing the climate (rather than a feedback) is extremely weak. What they do is show some data, then they, show a very simple model with some free parameters that they tweak, until they fit the data. They then conclude that their model is right., However, if the underlying model is wrong, then the agreement between, the model and data proves nothing.
I am working on a paper that will show that, if you look carefully at, the magnitudes of the individual terms of their model, the model is, obviously wrong. In fact, if Spencer were right, then clouds would be, a major cause of El Niño cycles—which we know is not correct. Talk to, any ENSO expert and tell them that clouds cause ENSO and they’ll laugh, at you.
Finally, the best way to put Roy’s paper into context it is to recognize how Roy views his job: “I would wager that my job has helped save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism. I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.” (he wrote that on his blog).
Thus, his paper is not really intended for other scientists, since they do not take him seriously anymore (he’s been wrong too many times). Rather, he’s writing his papers for Fox News, the editorial board of the Wall St. Journal, Congressional staffers, and the blogs. These are his audience and the people for whom this research is actually useful — in stopping policies to reduce GHG emissions — which is what Roy wants.
NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt said of the paper’s findings:
“If you want to do a story then write one pointing to the ridiculousness of people jumping onto every random press release as if well-established science gets dismissed on a dime,” Schmidt said. “Climate sensitivity is not constrained by the last two decades of imperfect satellite data, but rather the paleoclimate record.”
Spencer agreed that his work could not disprove the existence of manmade global warming. But he dismissed research on the ancient climate, calling it a “gray science.”
That would be funny if it weren’t tragic. So the vast paleoclimate literature is “gray science.” What disclaimer would one stick in front of Spencer’s “science” in the area of remote sensing? How about “anti-”? As RealClimate explained:
We now know, of course, that the satellite data set confirms that the climate is warming , and indeed at very nearly the same rate as indicated by the surface temperature records. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when pursuing an innovative observational method, but Spencer and Christy sat by for most of a decade allowing — indeed encouraging — the use of their data set as an icon for global warming skeptics. They committed serial errors in the data analysis, but insisted they were right and models and thermometers were wrong. They did little or nothing to root out possible sources of errors, and left it to others to clean up the mess, as has now been done.
So after that history, we’re supposed to savor all Roy’s new cookery?
That’s an awful lot to swallow.
Amazingly (or not), the “serial errors in the data analysis” all pushed the (mis)analysis in the same, wrong direction. Coincidence? You decide. But it remains hilarious that the deniers and delayers still quote Spencer lovingly, but to this day dismiss real science no matter how much it has been vindicated and verified by subsequent independent research.
Finally, Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research also commented on the paper in an email. It’s a bit techie, but I included for completeness’ sake.
I have read the paper. I can not believe it got published. Maybe it got through because it is not in a journal that deals with atmospheric science much? I have never read that journal.
The main basis for the paper is a figure : Figure 3 which is based on Fig. 2 data. The axis on Fig. 2 is incorrectly labeled. Fig 3 should never have been published because it has no error bars or uncertainty estimates. Significance of results is never addressed, and we do not know whether anything in the figure is significant, but Spencer treats it as if it were. Also we do not know how it was calculated and whether smoothed data (as in Fig. 2) were used or not. Significance also goes down a lot when one goes fishing by including all leads and lags unless there is an a priori reason for those values. One can usually guess the significance by looking at enough leads and lags and the fact that the magnitude of values at -12 months are similar to those at plus 3 months suggests neither are significant. For the models, values are based on 100 years, not 10 years. If instead 10 sets of 10-year model values had been selected then the odds are one would look like the “observed”. i.e. the models are likely more realistic of the true relationship.
In addition, I find the whole discussion to be out of touch with reality. The external radiative forcing of the climate system is mostly well known and comes from the changes in atmospheric composition (greenhouse gases) and the sun spot cycle etc. The part not so well known is the pollution (aerosol), but that is small. Nearly all of the variations in water vapor and clouds, except for those affected by aerosol, are a response to the weather and climate variations; they are NOT a forcing. This is a major error that continues in Spencer’s work.
The model is totally unrealistic and it does not have such things as El Nino or a hydrological cycle. It is known that the major variations in this period are associated with El Nino, as we have discussed in our rebuttal of Lindzen’s work:
Trenberth, K. E., J. T. Fasullo, C. O’Dell, and T. Wong, 2010: Relationships between tropical sea surface temperatures and top-of-atmosphere radiation. Geophys. Res. Ltt., 37, L03702, doi:10.1029/2009GL042314. [PDF]
The ocean heat content and its variations are very important, and moreover are not that well connected to sea surface temperature. Large leads and lags are known to occur. The parameters of Spencer’s model are selected by assuming the answer to get the best fit, and do not take any ocean dynamics into account at all. In short, the model does NOT provide a means of interpreting the data in any shape or form.
The climate denier blogosphere is going mad over a new paper that supposedly “should dramatically alter the global warming debate” by showing that “far less heat is being trapped than alarmist computer models have predicted.” The paper, written by conservative climate scientist Roy Spencer and his University of Alabama colleague William Braswell, finds that “satellite observations and climate models display markedly different behaviors” and posits, with caveats, that there may be “lower climate sensitivity of the real climate system.” As LiveScience’s Stephanie Pappas writes, the paper then was promoted by a Heartland Institute blogger on the Forbes.com website:
The study, published July 26 in the open-access online journal Remote Sensing, got public attention when a writer for The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think-tank that promotes climate change skepticism, wrote for Forbes magazine that the study disproved the global warming worries of climate change “alarmists.” However, mainstream climate scientists say that the argument advanced in the paper is neither new nor correct.
Pappas interviewed climatologists Gavin Schmidt, Kevin Trenberth, and Andrew Dessler, who eviscerated Spencer’s shoddy science:
The study finds a mismatch between the month-to-month variations in temperature and cloud cover in models versus the real world over the past 10 years, said Gavin Schmidt, a NASA Goddard climatologist. “What this mismatch is due to — data processing, errors in the data or real problems in the models — is completely unclear.”
“He’s taken an incorrect model, he’s tweaked it to match observations, but the conclusions you get from that are not correct,” Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, said of Spencer’s new study.
“I cannot believe it got published,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
In his paper, Spencer relies on a toy model of the climate system which geochemist Barry Bickmore (a Republican) had previously exposed as being one that could “give him essentially any answer he wanted, as long as he didn’t mind using parameters that don’t make any physical sense.”
This case is an excellent example of how the right-wing climate disinformation media machine works. Roy Spencer, one of the handful of publishing climate scientist ideologues, gets his work into an obscure journal. Then James Taylor, an operative for a fossil fuel front group, claims it is “very important” on Forbes.com, a media website owned by a Republican billionaire. The Forbes blog post was redistributed by Yahoo! News, giving the headline “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism” a further veneer of respectability, even though the full post is laughably hyperbolic, using “alarmist” or “alarmism” 15 times in nine paragraphs.
Photo via Sebastian Niedlich (Grabthar)