If the ice on Antarctica melts, the oceans will rise several meters, inundating low islands and coastal regions. There is a controversy about the rate at which Antarctica is warming.
The headline read “O’Donnell et al 2010 Refutes Steig et al 2009″. Wow! Steig’s work had been featured on the cover of Nature (1) when he found that over the last fifty years, the Antarctic had been getting warmer by 0.1 C per decade. I wanted to see how it was possible that Steig was wrong, but O’Donnell’s paper was nowhere to be found. My search led me to the Steve McIntyre’s ClimateAudit website. Yes, McIntyre claimed, a peer reviewed paper in J. Climate had refuted O’Donnell. After wading through some verbiage about the failure of the scientific peer review process and the evils of “Climategate”, the truth emerged. McIntyre was one of the coauthors of the paper and had access to it, though it had not yet been published.
It is considered bad form among scientist to claim that your paper refutes another scientist’s. That is best left for other scientists to decide. It is even worse to do so before your paper is published. There is a prohibition in scientific ethics about making premature and exaggerated claims to the public. Apparently, McIntyre missed that, as he did the same thing in “Climategate” . He claimed the climate scientists were guilty of hiding data, not sharing their raw data, of colluding to keep skeptics from publishing, and of using the peer review process to keep skeptics from publishing. This is, for lack of a better name, the ” Twisted Science Theory”. Five investigations into “Climategate” found no scientific misconduct. Apparently, McIntyre believes in getting his version of the facts “out there” before the truth can be discovered.
The Feud: But, did O’Donnell’s paper prove the Antarctic was not warming? No, not at all. The refutation claim is part of a running feud McIntyre has with Michael Mann, a coauthor of Steig’s paper. The dispute started much earlier when, after repeated complaints of scientific secrecy, Mann had released the raw data from one of his papers to Steve McIntyre. McIntyre recalculated the results and claimed to have refuted Mann’s work. McIntyre had a bit of trouble getting his work published in a peer-reviewed journal, but after much complaining, the Geophysical Research Letters finally published it. Shortly after its publication, Peter Huybers found McIntyre’s paper to have errors that, when corrected, led to results similar to Mann’s. That should have ended it, but the dispute became a political football when Congress intervened. Congress rejected the National Academy of Science’s offer to investigate the matter and instead chose Edward Wegman, a statistician from George Mason University. Wegman relied heavily on McIntyre’s work and opinions, he refused to answer scientists’ questions about his methods, and he produced a flawed report. Wegman is now himself under investigation by George Mason University for alleged plagiarism and improper research methods.
The Refutation: McIntyre should certainly get some credit for proving Sir Walter Scott’s “Tangled Web Theory”. However, by being a coauthor of a paper in a respected, peer reviewed journal, McIntyre has clearly refuted his own “Twisted Science Theory”. McIntyre’s involvement in O’Donnell’s work and his premature claims of “refutation” made me wonder if McIntyre might have introduced bias into O’Donnell’s methods. I contacted O’Donnell and asked about his funding, McIntyre’s role, and whether he considered his paper a refutation of Steig’s work.
The Scientific Controversy: O’Donnell was very honest and professional in answering my questions. He explained that the idea for the paper arose from a series of posts on McIntyre’s blog and the replies on RealClimate. He explained: “The paper would not likely have happened had I not been presented a challenge by both Dr. Steig and Dr. Gavin Schmidt at the RealClimate blog.” “None of the four of us have advanced degrees and none of our degrees are in the geosciences ”. “Steve McIntyre’s function with respect to the paper was to ensure that, to the best of our ability, we made the best possible use of the available data”. The work did not have external funding and the authors contributed the work, the expenses, and even the page charges from their own pockets.
O’Donnell’s Reply was very diplomatic. Whether his paper could be considered a refutation or not, he said, depended on what you considered important about Steig’s work. The essence of his reply was:
” 1. If you consider the focus in Steig et al.’s abstract ‘Here we show that significant warming extends well beyond the Peninsula to cover most of West Antarctica, an area of warming much larger than previously reported’ – with the conclusion that the warming in West Antarctica cannot be solely explained by an increase in the circumpolar westerlies, then I feel that characterizations of either ‘refutation’ or ‘rebuttal’ are appropriate.
2. If you consider the overall picture of Antarctica presented by Steig et al. to be the most important – e.g., overall positive trends, though not significant for East Antarctica or the continent, more warming in the Western half than the Eastern – then ‘improvement’ is appropriate. One must exclude the seasonal analysis, however, as the seasonal differences between our paper and Steig et al. are both significant and physically important in terms of the dynamics driving Antarctic climate.
3. If you consider the mathematical method used by Steig et al. to be the most important, then either ‘improvement’ or ‘rebuttal’ would be appropriate, though I would lean toward ‘improvement’. There are two definite mathematical errors in the Steig analysis. One of the errors has a negligible impact on the results; the impact of the other is significant. However, the largest differences between the Steig et al. result and ours arise due to using objective criteria for parameter choices rather than heuristics.”
“I always viewed the challenge as a friendly one (as, I believe, did Dr. Steig). Dr. Steig was quite helpful in my email communication with him when we were attempting to exactly replicate his method. Regardless of the language used by anyone, our paper is only important if it enhances the understanding of what has happened with Antarctic climate and prevents similar mathematical mistakes from being propagated. In terms of the larger picture, the characterization of ‘refutation’ or ‘improvement’ is less important than the question of whether our paper has made a contribution.”
Steig’s Reply: Now that O’Donnell’s paper has been published (2), Eric Steig has posted an analysis of O’Donnell’s paper on RealClimate (3). He explained the differences in the two paper’s methods, gave credit where he thought O’Donnell had improved on his work, and explained where he thought O’Donnell was in error. His evaluation of the work was summed up in his statement:
” As one would expect of a peer-reviewed paper, those obviously unsupportable claims found in the original blog posts are absent, and in my view O’Donnell et al. is a perfectly acceptable addition to the literature. O’Donnell et al. suggest several improvements to the methodology we used, most of which I agree with in principle. “
Antarctica Is Warming: This reasoned debate stands in sharp contrast to McIntyre’s assertions. The exchange between O’Donnell and Steig is an excellent example of the kind of open academic debate that underlies every significant research conclusion in science. I would not consider O’Donnell’s paper a refutation, but an addition to our understanding. The significant point to me, and they both seem to agree, is that Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, is warming.
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