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Climate Skeptic Article Inflation: Wattsupwiththat?

Tue ,04/09/2012


Whenever a newspaper reports on an article that confirms man’s role in global warming, a number of outraged citizens usually proclaim on the newspaper’s blog site that the article is wrong. When asked for their source, they often list Wattsupwiththat, Anthony Watt’s blog site.

One recent newspaper article reported on the BEST study, done by a team of climate skeptics funded by Koch industries and led by Dr. Richard Muller, a noted climate skeptic. Dr. Muller’s team analyzed 1.6 billion temperature records in an effort to prove climate scientists wrong. But they didn’t, and Dr. Muller acknowledged it. He reported that global temperatures were probably higher and man’s role was likely greater even than that reported by climate scientists. He also found that the temperature station data, often criticized by skeptics, was accurate – and that the only credible explanation for global warming is the increasing atmospheric CO2 from man’s activities. The  summary of the paper describing the work is now available.

It would seem rather hard to refute Dr. Muller’s work, but one citizen claimed that there was a peer-reviewed journal article that showed that Dr. Muller was wrong. His source was Wattsupwiththat, which did not exactly claim it was peer-reviewed, but certainly left that impression. Here is what it said: “From the told ya so department, comes this recently presented paper at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) meeting. Authors Steirou and Koutsoyiannis, after taking homogenization errors into account find global warming over the past century was only about one-half [0.42°C] of that claimed by the IPCC [0.7-0.8°C].”

However, that isn’t the whole story. The paper was a conference contribution based on a graduation thesis which was submitted to the EGU session, “Climate, Hydrology and Water Infrastructure”. The abstracts are not peer-reviewed and most of Watts’ data was taken from the slides which are also not peer-reviewed. The paper was presented in the wrong session where it was not likely to be heard by experts in the field. There actually was a session on “Homogenization of Data”. An EGU member in attendance noted the paper had errors, and commented, :” It would have been better if this abstract was sent to the Homogenisation Session at EGU. This would have fit much better to the topic and would have allowed for a more objective appraisal of this work. Had I been EGU convener of the Homogenization Session, I would probably have accepted the abstract, but given it a poster because the errors signal inexperience with the topic and I would have talked to them at the poster.” That hardly refutes Dr. Muller’s work.

Another newspaper aticle reported that a link had been shown between extreme temperatures and global warming.  In the past, climate scientists could only say that climate change was increasing the probability of severe weather, heat waves, and droughts. However, a recent paper by James Hansen et. al. established that the probability of extremely hot temperatures, worldwide, is now 10 times as likely as in 1980. Not only did the paper establish a definite link between climate change and extreme temperatures, but the paper was a straightforward statistical analysis that did not rely on theory or climate models. It would seem that that would be difficult to assail.

However, when it was published in the newspaper, a blogger claimed that there was a research paper that disproved the findings, and the trail led to an article  on Wattsupwiththat, panning Hansen’s paper . It referred to an article, Climate Distortion, by Cliff Mass which states, “Their conclusions are demonstrably false and their characterization of the science and statistics are deceptive at best.”  In his article, Mr. Mass  argued: “Now as the earth warms up the temperature variations shown remain like the bell curve…or Gaussian, but the mean should shift to warmer temperatures (see the figure below). The result is that you get more warm extremes and less cold extremes (less cold extremes are not mentioned very often for some reason).”

That would seem reasonable, as an increase in the mean would shift the distribution to the right, meaning more extremely hot temperatures. However, he somehow used this to claim Hansen was wrong. His argument is not clear, and it is certainly wrong, as he ignores the possibility that the variance could change, which would broaden and flatten the distribution. From Hansen’s paper, here is the distribution based on the actual data:


As you can see, the two graphs are quite different. Dr. Mass*, who is  a Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington , does not accept the conclusions of most other climate scientists, and prefers to assign most of global warming to natural variability, a view that Hansen disproved in his paper. Dr. Mass is known for making controversial statements, and though he volunteered his time at for several years as a TV weatherman, he was released for making controversial statements. Mr. Mass apparently rejected Hansen’s paper, as he does not comment on the correct distribution – or that the paper mentions extremely cold temperatures. Climate Skeptics often argue that an extremely cold weather event disproves global warming. However, a similar distribution for the winter months (see paper) shows a significant probability of extremely cold weather events, even though global warming is occurring – meaning the skeptics argument is baseless.

So, Mr. Watts claims a student paper with errors, presented in the wrong session, and is in no way peer reviewed, invalidates two years of work done by a team of climate scientists. You would think that one could not inflate a paper more than that, but actually it can be done. And, Mr. Watts achieved that by promoting Dr. Mass’ article.

* Note on 09/05/2012. The original version of this article did not  give the full credentials of Dr. Mass and the article has been updated with the correct information. Please see the comments for a discussion of this issue.

(c) 2012 J.C. Moore