Saturday, 24 March 2007

Unfortunately, it's a true story

The climate change non-debate following general public is completely unaware of the controversy surrounding the Hockey Team's history of not releasing data from their publicly funded research, obfuscating for as long as possible or providing incomplete information when requested. Followers of Steve McIntyre's at Climate Audit are completely across the methodology employed by 'the Team' to avoid full and frank disclosure of their data. For those not aware, the Hockey Team are those individuals, led by Michael Mann, that created the IPCC's iconic Hockey Stick graph that featured so prominently in the IPCC's 2001 Third Assessment Report.

Orson Scott Card has a terrific piece on the state of the climate change non-debate, which starts off with what at first reading looks like a hypothetical story of a breakdown in the normal process of scientific peer review. I've got a piece coming along on peer review and its surprising derogation in climate change science, which every right thinking person should be extremely concerned about.

Here's something to whet your appetite from Orson's article (I've reformatted a bit):

Here's a story you haven't heard, and you should have. An intelligence source, working for a government agency. He's not a spy, he's an analyst. He uses computers to crunch numbers and at the end of his work, out pops the truth that was hiding in the original data. Let's call him "Mann." The trouble with Mann is, he has an ideology. He knows what he wants his results to be. And the original numbers aren't giving him that data. So the agency he works for won't be able to persuade people to fight the war he wants to fight.

He starts with his software. There are certain procedures that are normal and accepted in his line of work. But if he makes just one little mistake, his program does a weird little recursion and if there's any data at all that shows the pattern he wants it to show, it will be magnified 139 times, so it far overshadows all the other data. He can run it on random numbers and it gives him the shape he wants. Unfortunately, the real-world numbers aren't random -- they have a very different shape. All the numbers. Even his jimmied program won't give the results he wants. All he needs is any data shaped the right way. And so he looks a little farther, and ... here it is. It looks, on the surface, like all the other data that he's been working with. Other researchers working in his field, just glancing at it, will assume it is, too. But it isn't. Because the source that gathered this batch of data had some other key information that takes it all away. The numbers don't mean what they normally mean. In fact, this number set is absolutely false. If you use these numbers along with all the other data, however, the clever little program will pick them up, magnify them radically, and voilá! The final report shows exactly the shape he needs the numbers to have.
Here's the amazing thing about Mann's original report: He's not the only researcher working in this field. In fact, it's the job of many hundreds of researchers to refuse to accept his data at face value. After all, his findings disagree with everyone else's. Before they accept his results, they have a duty to look at his software, look at his data, and try to duplicate his results.

But nobody does it. Not a soul. Nor, when it goes public, does anyone in the press check the results -- because they want him to be right, too.
Not until a Canadian businessman -- let's call him "Steve" -- took a look at the stats and got curious. Now, it happens that Steve is in the mining business; he also happened to be a prize-winning math student in college. He knows how to read number sets. He knows what good analysis looks like. He also knows what cooked figures look like. He has seen the phoney projections that companies use when they're trying to swindle people. Their results are too perfect. Mann's report looks too perfect, too.

So Steve starts digging. First, he reads Mann's original report. He finds it an exercise in obscurity. From what he published, it's very, very hard to tell just what statistical methods Mann used, or even what data he operated on. This is wrong -- it's not supposed to be that way. Scientists are supposed to leave a clear path so other people can follow them up and replicate their research. The fact that it's so obscure suggests that Mann does not want anyone checking his work. But Mann used government grants in his research. Which means he has an obligation to disclose. Steve contacts him, asks for the information. He gets a runaround. He gets pointed to a website that does not have the information. He tries again, and again gets a runaround -- in fact, Mann sends him a very rude letter saying that he will no longer communicate with him. Why should he? Steve isn't a legitimate researcher in that field. He's just a businessman.

But Steve is now sure there's something fishy going on, and he doesn't give up. He gets other people to help him. Finally they are pointed to a different website, where, to their surprise, they find that someone has accidentally left a copy of the FORTRAN program that was used to crunch the numbers. It wasn't supposed to be where Steve found it -- which is why it hadn't been deleted. Also, there was a little more carelessness -- there is a set of data labeled "censored." Steve can't see, right away, what's significant about it, except that a score or so of data sets are left out of the censored data. Steve looks at the program. He finds the glitch rather easily. He tries the program on random numbers and realizes that it always yields the distinctive shape that has caused all the stir.

Sorting out the data sets is much harder. He contacts a lot of people. He does what anyone checking these figures would have to do, and he realizes: If anyone had tried to check, a lot of this information would already have been put together.
He realizes: I am the first person ever to attempt to verify these astonishing, anomalous, politically hot results. Out of all the researchers in this field who had a responsibility to do "due diligence" before accepting the data, none of them has done it.

Steve McIntyre (along with Ross McKitrick) was the first person to query the validity of the Hockey Stick. The lay person would not understand that in any analysis of science in which numbers are involved it's statistics that verify the results. Numbers are numbers, which is why he recognised the Hockey Stick results as being highly suspicious. He was heavily criticised by everyone in climate science, suffering through the normal Big Oil accusation through to being told that he didn't understand the statistical methodology being used (which it later turned out they'd made up to suit themselves). In testimony to a Congressional committee last year, America's leading statistician, Dr Edward Wegman (who voted for Al Gore in 2000), confirmed the results McIntyre obtained, which really was the point at which the the Hockey Stick lost prominence and the credibility of climate science in general started to be queried more closely.

I've followed Steve McIntyre's odyssey of trying to get the real data for as long as it's been going on. Whether it's Mann or Jones or Briffa or any of the others that make up 'the Team' the response has been the same - hide the data at all costs from outside inspection. What sort of field of science is it in which the vast majority of its leaders don't follow fundamental validation processes? This is a field that has billions of dollars of public money poured into it annually! It's completely scandalous and indefensible regardless of your position on climate change.

For those of us deeply skeptical of what the IPCC is saying the fact that the non-peer reviewed Hockey Stick could be the prominent feature of the Third Assessment Report calls into question the validity of all of the science being presented as fact. If it was correct in 2001 then why is it not correct in 2007 in the Fourth Assessment Report? As I've pointed out before, the damage done to the public's opinion of science by these self-interested charlatans will be serious and result in legitimate scientific work not being funded by much more skeptical governments. Add Al Gore's insane ranting into the fray and it's a recipe for public confidence disaster.

Read the whole thing.

1 comment:

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