The empire strikes back — Nature on Climategate

Beaches have been emptied of silicon to make the memories and CPUs to store all that has been written on the Climategate (which is now less than 1 month old). The mails around here being truly abysmal, the 3 December Nature arrived today (the 10 December Nature arrived earlier this week). On p. 545 is an editorial which quickly lets you know where Nature stands (just by the adjectives ‘paranoid’ interpretation, ‘laugable’, ‘obstructionist’ politicians). Hey, they published the infamous Hockey Stick years ago.

The editorial notes various evidences of global warming (glaciers retreating, sea ice melting, sea levels rising, earlier plant blooming dates etc. etc.) but doesn’t mention the relative stasis of global temperature over the last 10 years, nor the fact that the modelers had to go back and show that, yes, their models actually predicted periods stasis lasting up to 15 years [ Science vol. 326 pp. 28 – 29 ’09 ]. In the post of 16 Nov (just before Climategate broke) I asked if the decade of temperature stasis meant that we have to now cool the planet down in some way to restore things. No takers back then. What do you think?

As to the ‘trick’ and whether Nature will review the paper referred to as using it in the EMails, they say “It is Nature’s policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern but nothing we have seen so far in the EMails qualifies.” I respectfully beg to differ, and below you’ll find some reasons why.

Far be it from me to rehash the whole thing, but if you’ve been living in a closet for the past month (or just reading only the main stream media), here are some sites I’ve found informative and which will bring you up to speed.

#1 Derek Lowe’s post of 1 Dec “In The PipeLine” called “Climategate and Scientific Conduct” along with the (as of this writing) 164 attached comments, which span the range of opinion on the subject. Most comments were written by people with a technical background and hence carry more weight (with me) than hordes of incredibly sincere activists.

#2 The following site, which is an analysis of some of the raw temperature data (from Australia) and what corrections were applied to it. It’s pretty detailed, but if you look at nothing else, look at figure 7. It’s chilling (no pun intended).

#3 Derek Lowe’s post on “In The PipeLine” of 15 December “Manfred Christl rides again . . . ” for an (unintended) example of the scientific method in action, and for the reason the raw climate data should be released and not hidden.

To expand on #3 a bit from a nonchemical (but still an NMR) perspective. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (the term was cooked up so the populace would not hear the word nuclear and refuse to get into the scanner — I’m not kidding) has been extensively used to study brain function. This is a completely different use of NMR from chemistry, where water must be excluded, so its protons don’t swamp what you are trying to measure, and where the position of the peaks are crucial. MRI as used by docs gives incredible views of human anatomy and the diseases it’s subject to — particularly the brain (which like all living things is mostly water). The students in the QM class and the instructor were suitably impressed when I showed a medical MRI to them.

It turns out that when a part of the brain is metabolically active (and presumably doing something) the amount of hemoglobin carrying oxygen INCREASES. This is paradoxic, as one would expect that an active part of the brain would use up all the oxygen available, but nonetheless that’s the way the brain works, increasing blood flow to active areas (so they get more than they can actually use). One can measure this with an MRI machine because hemoglobin without oxygen is diamagnetic. As NMR chemists know, diamagnetic means that electrons around nuclei exposed to an external magnetic field ‘move’ in such a way to create an opposing magnetic field (e.g. shielding). Hemoglobin carrying oxygen is paramagnetic — the unpaired electrons align with the magnetic field making the field field ‘experienced’ at the nucleus even stronger (e.g. deshielding). So there are ways to measure both types of hemoglobin at nearly the same time.

Some sort of task or sensory stimulus is given and the parts of the brain showing increased hemoglobin + oxygen are mapped out. As a neurologist, I was naturally interested in this work. Very quickly, I smelled a rat. The authors of all the papers always seemed to confirm their initial hunch about which areas of the brain were involved in whatever they were studying. Science just isn’t like that. Look at any issue of Nature or Science and see how many results were unexpected. Results were largely unreproducible. It got so bad that an article in Science 2 August ’02 p. 749 stated that neuroimaging (e.g. functional MRI) has a reputation for producing “pretty pictures” but not replicable data. It has been characterized as pseudocolor phrenology (or words to that effect).

What was going on? The data was never actually shown, just the authors’ manipulation of it. Acquiring the data is quite tricky — the slightest head movement alters the MRI pattern. Also the difference in NMR signal between hemoglobin without oxygen and hemoglobin with oxygen is small (only 1 – 2%). Since the technique involves subtracting two data sets for the same brain region, this doubles the error.

So the raw data on global temperature should be out there for all to play with. Saying they shouldn’t be released because skeptics would try to pick them apart is disingenuous at best, and shows a serious misunderstanding of the way science is supposed to work (see #3 above).

From looking (briefly) at the 100,000 word HARRY_READ_ME.txt in the leaked EMails written by the programmer who was trying to organize the raw data, it’s clear that the raw data was not in the greatest of shape. The comments of the professional programmers who looked at some of the available code and data are scathing (sorry, I’ve lost these links).

Lastly, I’ve been reading Nature since starting private practice in 1972. You’ll have to look up “The Club of Rome” which made a big stir that year with its report “The Limits to Growth”. None of their dire predictions came to pass. As I recall, Nature swallowed this stuff, Hook, Line and Sinker. Also look up “Paul Ehrlich” and his Population Bomb which predicted that we’d all be starving in the dark 10 years ago. In addition, note that in 1975 some people were seriously worried about global cooling.

So I don’t trust models very much. In particular, the assumptions and the actual code of the models which predict anthropogenic CO2 as the cause of putative global warming should be made public and dissected. Serious remedies are being proposed for what may or may not exist (global warming) based on a mechanism (anthropogenic CO2 emissions) which may not be correct. It deserves a serious look. Since global temperature has been stable for the past decade (see above), there is time to do so.

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