On global warming, cherry picking and publishing

By Donald Rodbell, originally posted at Concordiensis, here

On March 5, Lord Christopher Monckton came to Union to provide a different perspective on climate change than that held by the vast majority of climate scientists. While his presentation was objectionable on several levels (see below), it did raise the level of interest in global warming to a greater degree than I could ever have hoped for. I suppose we all like a heated debate!

One of Monckton’s main arguments is that science is not done by consensus. The consensus in question here is the 97 percent of climate scientists in a 2008 Gallup Poll (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009) who agree that the world is warming and that humans are at least partially responsible for that warming.

According to Doran and Zimmerman (2009, p. 22), “It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes. The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists.”

Monckton, however, posits that consensus in general, and this consensus in particular, do not ensure that the underlying science is sound.

This, of course, is true, but while scientific consensus has been wrong (e.g., the dogma prior to Nicolaus Copernicus’ discovery in 1543 that the Earth was not the center of the universe), when that consensus is informed by the scientific method and by replication in peer-reviewed literature, the consensus of scientists is very rarely wrong to the extent suggested by Monckton in the case of global warming.

Few of us doubt the scientific consensus that UV light can cause skin cancer, that chlorofluorocarbons have a deleterious effect on stratospheric ozone levels, or the scientific underpinnings of most modern medical treatments.

However, a main tenet of  Monckton’s presentation is that the scientific basis for our concern over global warming is fundamentally flawed. In fact, his blatant misuse and ignorance of published scientific literature, as illustrated below, should make one seriously question his credibility.

One example of Monckton’s misuse of scientific data came in his rebuttal to an op-ed piece that I wrote with Erin Delman for the Concordiensis on March 7, 2012. In this rebuttal, he noted that the Earth has not been warming for nearly 15 years. If one picks 1998 as one’s starting point and ends last year, one does indeed get a negative slope (see graph).

This is due to the fact that 1998 was an exceptionally warm year due to a strong El Nino event that year. If one considers the long-term trend, however, the slope remains positive with warming clearly continuing.

Indeed, Monckton made the point in his Union presentation that one can influence trends by carefully choosing where to start and end a time series.

Why then would Monckton choose this dubious strategy to argue that warming has not been occurring for most of the last decade and a half? That this contradiction has been pointed out by others apparently has not dissuaded him from continuing the practice of cherry picking data sets.

Monckton further mischaracterized climate science during his talk at Union. He chose a record of Beaufort Sea Ice (Melling et al., 2005) to illustrate that from 1991 to 2003, sea ice there has not been declining, and that, by inference, sea ice in the arctic is healthy. In fact, 30-year records from the (U.S.) National Snow and Ice Data Center reveal that arctic sea ice, as a whole, is declining precipitously, and even when Antarctic data are included, the global average is declining. Clearly Monckton knows of the NSIDC data sets, as he must have waded through the Melling et al. (2005) publication, so why would he choose to show what can be charitably characterized as a misleading graphic of the state of arctic sea ice?

A final example is the assertion made by Monckton during his lecture that Venezuelan glaciers are advancing to an extent not achieved at any time during the preceding 10,000 years. Having worked on deciphering the record of glacier margin fluctuations in the Andes for many years, this was news to me! My relatively recent review paper on the subject reports no evidence of recent ice front advances anywhere in the tropical Andes (Rodbell et al., 2009). Knowing the literature is a fundamental part of the scientific process!

I have illustrated but three examples of Monckton either cherry picking or mischaracterizing data sets to suit his a priori thesis. A thorough analysis of one of Monckton’s prior presentations by Professor Abraham of the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) reveals that these practices are part of Monckton’s modus operandi.

However, the main comment that I made to Monckton at Union and again in the Concordiensis op-ed, is the importance of him publishing his assessment in a scientific journal. There are many journals from which he could choose, and one need not be a scientist to publish. If he is correct, and I do hope that he is, that global warming is nothing that we should be fretting over, then his analysis needs to be spelled out carefully in the peer-reviewed literature.

It is not enough to orally cite strings of publications in his talks or paste references on his slides; we need his written word on, for example, exactly how he bases his climate sensitivity calculations, or why he thinks climate feedbacks will continue to be responsible for homeostasis on Earth. It is not enough to state that those of us interested can contact him for details, those details need to be published for all to evaluate. That is how science works.

Monckton closed his Union lecture by mocking environmentalists (as greenies “too yellow to admit they are red”) and asserting that their concern over climate change would divert billions of dollars that could be used to save those suffering in Africa. This is a false choice. If rainfall projections for tropical Africa and South America are even remotely accurate, then climate change itself may be an especially serious threat to those living on the margins in these underdeveloped regions. In my view, it is not a few degrees of warming that we need to worry most about, it is changes in the distribution of rainfall and the inability of large numbers of people to respond to these changes.

Monckton’s credibility is compromised by his propensity to misuse science, his own ignorance of paleoclimatic records and, most of all, by giving hyper-partisan lectures, the contents of which he refuses to publish and thereby expose to scrutiny.

References Cited

Doran, P. T., and Zimmerman, M. K., 2009, Examining the consensus of climate change: EOS v. 90, p. 21-22.

Melling, H., Riedel, D., and Gedalof, Z., 2005, Trends in thickness and extent of seasonal pack ice, Canadian Beaufort Sea: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 24, p. 1-5.

Rodbell, D.T., Smith, J. A., and Mark, B. G., 2009. Glaciation in the Andes during the Late Glacial and Holocene: Quaternary Science Reviews 28, 2165-2212.

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4 thoughts on “On global warming, cherry picking and publishing

  1. Monckton is a side-show attraction that is doubly dangerous in that he can seem credible because he knows some basics of climate science but that allows him to know exactly where his distortions and cherry picking can be most effective.

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