SciBlogs

Archive August 2010

A lesson for NZ critics of climate science? Ken Perrott Aug 31

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In September the NZ High Court is to consider a request by local critics of climate science to get NIWA to change its national temperature record. See A desperate plea to be noticed? and When asses go to law for details.

Michael Mann

Their legal action bears strong similarities with that taken by  Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against the University of Virginia. He claims he was doing this to investigate fraud in US climate scientist Michael Mann’s research. The local critics had effectively charged NIWA scientists with misconduct or fraud – the manipulation of NZ temperature data by using adjustments which the critics claim were not required (see New Zealand’s denier-gate).

Cuccinelli’s case was effectively a “fishing expedition” as he had no evidence of fraud. The NZ critics similarly have no evidence of scientific misconduct (which of course hasn’t stopped them claiming this to the world).

A failed witch hunt

So perhaps the local plaintiffs should take some lessons from Cuccinelli’s case which the presiding judge has now set aside (see Judge quashes Cuccinelli subpoena of U-Va. records). He ruled that Cuccinelli had failed to state “reasons to believe” that Mann had committed fraud:

“The Court has read with care those pages and understands the controversy regarding Dr. Mann’s work on the issue of global warming. However, it is not clear what he did was misleading, false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Chances are a similar thing is going to happen in New Zealand.

Mann, of course, was pleased with the ruling in his case. He said:

“I’m very pleased that the judge has ruled in our favor. It is a victory not just for me and the university, but for all scientists who live in fear that they may be subject to a politically-motivated witch hunt when their research findings prove inconvenient to powerful vested interests.

“I’m looking forward now to trying to get back full time to the things I really care about: doing research and extending the forefront of our scientific understanding of the science of climate and climate change, teaching and advising students and postdoctoral scholars, and doing the best I can to communicate to the public important scientific findings.”

Climate desk has an audio of an interview with Michael Mann on this ruling.

Need to Know’s Alison Stewart spoke with Mann about the dangerous precedent the Cucinelli’s case could have set and about what he calls the climate change denial “industry.”

Download the file here.

Thanks to The Fire Judge Sets Aside Virginia Attorney General’s University of Virginia Document Demands

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Nicholas Stern to present Robb Lectures Ken Perrott Aug 30

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Nicholas Stern

Here’s an opportunity for New Zealanders to hear an international expert talk about the economics of climate change, policies for adaption and mitigation and the issues involved in obtaining a global agreement on these.

The Sir Douglas Robb Lectures 2010 are to be presented by Lord Nicholas Stern next week.

Formerly Chief Economist of the World Bank, Lord Stern is IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He is well known for the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change which was produced by a team led by Stern at the UK Treasury, and was released in October 2006.

Stern will be presenting three lectures at Auckland University. These will also be available to audiences at the Victoria University of Wellington via a live video link. And podcasts of the lecture should be available from the Auckland University website afterward.

Some of the ideas to be presented are also contained in his recent book A Blueprint for Safer a Planet.

Details of the lectures are:

8 September – Lecture 1: Managing climate change and promoting development: risks, scale and values.

9 September – Lecture 2: Policies for low-carbon growth and development: Creating a new era of progress and prosperity.

10 September – Lecture 3: Progress towards a global deal.

Lectures start at 7.00pm

Numbers are limited at both venues and you must register here.

In person in Auckland
Fisher & Paykel Appliances Auditorium, Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Road, Auckland. Evening parking available for $5 in lower levels of the Owen G Glenn Building.

Live video link in Wellington

Pipitea Campus, Victoria University of Wellington Lecture Theatre 1 (RHLT1), Ground floor, Rutherford House, 23 Lambton Quay, Wellington.

For further details go to Events- The University of Auckland.

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The myth of the noble scientist Ken Perrott Aug 25

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David Goodstein used this term to describe:

the long-discredited Baconian view of the scientist as disinterested seeker of truth who gathers facts with mind cleansed of prejudices and preconceptions. The ideal scientist, in this view, would be more honest than ordinary mortals, certainly immune to such common human failings as pride or personal ambition. When people find out, as they invariably do, that scientists are not at all like that, they may react with understandable anger or disappointment.

I think it is a useful term. But I don’t agree with Goodstein’s belief that scientists are guilty of promoting it. Certainly not in my experience.

Before Fermi Lab visit

I think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them.

After Fermi Lab visit

I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.

These are drawings and comments made by Amy, one of a group of US 7th Graders before and after their visit to the Fermi lab

True, there is an ethos of honesty in science which we can be proud of and attempt to adhere to. But we know that scientists are just as human as anyone else. They certainly are as susceptible as others to human failings. And this includes not only pride and personal ambition but also subjectivity, blinkered views, bias and even superstition.

Maybe in the past there was this public picture of the noble scientist but we now live in a more more sensible age. Biographies of scientists are no longer hagiographies. Anyone who has read a recent biography will be aware of how unpleasant Newton was personally. Of Albert Einstein’s treatment of his first wife and their fist child. Of Madame Curies’ affair. No, these heroes of science were real people, not the idealised noble scientist.

Some biographies will even discuss the scientific mistakes of these great scientists. Although, I personally think more should be made of these as they would help us understand the real processes that go on in scientific discovery.

Media beat ups, like the “climategate” concentration on stolen scientist emails, have also revealed how human, and even petty, scientists can be. And the recent news of scientific misconduct by Marc D. Hauser has exposed another, unpleasant, side of human failings (see Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement and Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes).

Human scientists but noble science

But scientists do evoke the image of trust – if you believe advertisements for cleaning products and cosmetics. How often have we seen white lab coats used in such ads. But I think this reputation comes more from the nature of science itself, rather than the scientist. After all, we know from experience that science is capable of delivering. We all depend on this reliability of science in our everyday lives.

This reliability comes from the scientific method – not from the character of individual scientists. Taken in isolation humans rely on pattern recognition. They also rely on brain processes which create our own version of reality. Rather than “seeing is believing” we are often confronted more with “believing is seeing.” It is only human to unconsciously select the information which fits with our preconceived views. To seek confirmation for our own biases.

This may have been a result of our evolution and has probably served us well in our attempts to survive and reproduce. But this approach is not a good basis for truly investigating and understanding reality. They are not a good basis for doing science. And we can certainly see the influence of subjective attitudes, protection of pet ideas, cultural and religious influences, etc., when we look at the history of science.

Modern science has developed methodologies to minimise subjective influences. One is the importance we now place on interaction with reality. On collection of evidence and the testing of any resulting hypotheses and theories against reality. Scientific theories are validated both by testing against reality and by their use in subsequent investigations and technological appliances.

The social nature of science also helps. Ideas and theories must be open to sceptical consideration of peers in the process of collaborative research, funding applications, conference presentations and scientific publications.

Scientific knowledge is progressive – it generally improves with time. This means that mistakes, and scientific frauds, do not remain undiscovered.  Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Ambitious scientists are eager to expose such mistakes. Science really is self-correcting. Irrespective of the human failings of individual scientists.

The noble scientist as a straw man

Scientists themselves have no illusions. After all they experience the human side of their colleagues all the time. I don’t know about the perception of the person in the street but suspect that the image of noble scientist would not be common in these cynical times. Personally, the only time I come across this myth is when it is used as a straw man by those who are critcising science or denying certain scientific findings.

You know. When confronted with scientific features they wish to reject the climate change or evolution denier will sometimes justify their rejection by arguing that scientists are not objective. That scientific fraud is common. The “scientific establishment” controls peer review. Or that science can’t escape from its cultural prejudices. Some theological critics of science fall back on the bias of the so-called “materialistic” or “naturalistic” “paradigm” in science.

They will accuse those they are debating with of having an idealised, fictional concept of the objective, honest scientist. The noble scientist.

A debating ploy, but one that really avoids the issue. And that is probably why it is used. They should be dealing with, and possibly critiquing if they can, the actual scientific evidence and its interpretation. Not the all too human individual scientist.

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The heart of PZ Myers Ken Perrott Aug 24

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Sounds like PZ Myers’ health problems are more serious than he first thought. He is currently in hospital for more tests – and from the sounds of it – an operation (see That’s not a heart! It’s a flailing Engine of Destruction!)

Hopefully things will go well. He will get the necessary repairs, a well-deserved rest and return renewed to his blogging. I try to read his blog, Pharyngula, daily and I know others do as well. I enjoy his daily dose of humour and common sense.

PZ Myers answers questions at the Melbourne Convention. Photo: Geoff Cowan

PZ is an excellent communicator and we need more people like PZ to defend science and reason. I am personally amazed at the time and effort he puts into this communication. During the last year he has been on sabbatical leave. While he has been writing a book I know this is disrupted by the traveling and large number of meetings he has been speaking at. In the USA and internationally.

I met him last March at the World Atheist Convention in Melbourne and was impressed at how eager he was to meet everyone. This willingness to make himself so available has resulted in a hectic round of speaking engagements and public appearances in this last year. While this has been great for the communication of science and reason it must have had a toll on his health.

So, hopefully, PZ will take this health alarm as a warning. Recognise that he needs to consider his own needs more and turn down some of the requests for public appearances. Hopefully Myers will return to blogging soon. And I hope to see his book published. I will be satisfied with that and I am sure most of his regular readers will be too.

PZ has appealed to his readers not to “waste your time with prayers.” After all he is getting some real help from medical experts. I wish him well and look forward to his successful recovery. Many of his readers are doing the same. One of these well wishers was Richard Dawkins, who commented: “How noble, how typical of the man and of everything he stands for, to use humour in making such an announcement.”

Which brings me to another of my concerns. Dawkins is also someone who gives his time extremely readily. His life must also be very hectic. I was aware that at the time of the World Atheist convention he was traveling around New Zealand and Australia and speaking to sell out audiences. It amazed me that he spoke in Auckland on the Saturday night and in Melbourne on the Sunday afternoon. Those who went along to hear him certainly appreciate his willingness to make himself so available. But perhaps he should also be taking a lesson from PZs current health problems.

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After NIWA, God? Ken Perrott Aug 24

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Local blog Imperator Fish has a nice little satirical comment on the impending legal case being taken against NIWA by New Zealand critics of climate change science (see A desperate plea to be noticed?). If They Win is a fictional news report of legal action taken by the  Climate Science Coalition (CSC) alleging breach of a court order that ruled climate change was not occurring. That is it assumes the CSC will be successful in its current case.

The CSC sued the Crown Research Institute NIWA over weather data issued by the institute, and obtained a ruling by the court last year that NIWA’s data was invalid.

But the CSC are concerned that global temperatures may have risen, in defiance of the court order.

CSC spokesman Terry Dunleavy said the recent atmospheric activity was concerning.

’It may just be an anomaly, but we would certainly be very concerned if temperatures were on the rise, in defiance of the judge’s order.’

Problem is who is responsible? Who do they sue now?

Auckland University Associate Law Professor Nigel de Blath said it was not absolutely clear who or what was behind the recent temperature changes. But if it was God He may have a case to answer.

’On the face of it He appears to have breached the spirit of the court order, if not the actual express language of it.

’I think we all accepted when the ruling came out last year that climate change was at an end. The judge made his views very clear on the subject.’

Mr de Blath said the latest temperature anomalies made a mockery of the entire judicial process.

I nice little story, illustrating the stupidity of thinking one should take legal action in an attempt to change reality.

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Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes Ken Perrott Aug 21

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Here is Marc Hauser’s response to the charge of scientific misconduct (from USA Today Updated: Harvard says Marc Hauser guilty of science misconduct). Hopefully we are seeing an example of science correcting itself.

I am deeply sorry for the problems this case has caused to my students, my colleagues, and my university..

I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes and I am deeply disappointed that this has led to a retraction and two corrections. I also feel terrible about the concerns regarding the other five cases, which involved either unpublished work or studies in which the record was corrected before submission for publication.

I hope that the scientific community will now wait for the federal investigative agencies to make their final conclusions based on the material that they have available.

I have learned a great deal from this process and have made many changes in my own approach to research and in my lab’s research practices.

Research and teaching are my passion. After taking some time off, I look forward to getting back to my work, mindful of what I have learned in this case. This has been painful for me and those who have been associated with the work.

See also:
Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement
Harvard Finds Scientist Guilty of Misconduct

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Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement Ken Perrott Aug 21

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Well, we now have an official statement from Michael Smith, the Harvard dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, on the Hauser “misconduct” affair. It’s an email sent to Harvard University faculty members. It was also sent to New Scientist by Harvard’s press office (see Harvard Dean Confirms Misconduct in Hauser Investigation). I have quoted the full text of the email below the fold.

The email confirms that Marc Hauser “was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards.” As a result three papers are either being retracted or corrected. The five other issue did not result in publications or the ropblems were corrected before publication.

Harvard has now completed its investigation. However, the email is unclear what disciplinary action will be taken against Hauser. In fact, its description of options (involuntary leave, oversight of research labs, restriction on applying for research grants and supervising student research) seem rather mild. To me this is an indication that the “misconduct” in querstion relates to poor scientific method, subjectivity in collecting data, over-riding fellow researchers, etc., rather than outright fraud.

Marc Hauser has apparently made a comment to the New York Times which has yet to be published. It will be his first comment on the events.

So all rather sad, but perhaps not a case of outright fraud.

Full text of email

Dear faculty colleagues,

No dean wants to see a member of the faculty found responsible for scientific misconduct, for such misconduct strikes at the core of our academic values. Thus, it is with great sadness that I confirm that Professor Marc Hauser was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] standards. The investigation was governed by our long-standing policies on professional conduct and shaped by the regulations of federal funding agencies. After careful review of the investigating committee’s confidential report and opportunities for Professor Hauser to respond, I accepted the committee’s findings and immediately moved to fulfill our obligations to the funding agencies and scientific community and to impose appropriate sanctions.

Harvard, like every major research institution, takes a finding of scientific misconduct extremely seriously and imposes consequential sanctions on individuals found to have committed scientific misconduct. Rigid adherence to the scientific method and scrupulous attention to the integrity of research results are values we expect in every one of our faculty, students, and staff.

In brief, when allegations of scientific misconduct arise, the FAS Standing Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) is charged with beginning a process of inquiry into the allegations. The inquiry phase is followed by an investigation phase that is conducted by an impartial committee of qualified, tenured faculty (the investigating committee), provided that the dean, advised by the CPC, believes the allegations warrant further investigation. The work of the investigating committee as well as its final report are considered confidential to protect both the individuals who made the allegations and those who assisted in the investigation. Our investigative process will not succeed if individuals do not have complete confidence that their identities can be protected throughout the process and after the findings are reported to the appropriate agencies. Furthermore, when the allegations concern research involving federal funding, funding agency regulations govern our processes during the investigation and our obligations after our investigation is complete. (For example, federal regulations impose an ongoing obligation to protect the identities of those who provided assistance to the investigation.) When the investigation phase is complete, the investigating committee produces a confidential report describing their activity and their findings. The response of the accused to this report and the report itself are considered by the dean, who then decides whether to accept the findings, and in the case of a finding of misconduct, determine the sanctions that are appropriate. This entire and extensive process was followed in the current case.

Since some of the research in the current case was supported by federal funds, the investigating committee’s report and other supplemental material were submitted to the federal offices responsible for their own review, in accordance with federal regulations and FAS procedures. Our usual practice is not to publicly comment on such cases, one reason being to ensure the integrity of the government’s review processes.

A key obligation in a scientific misconduct case is to correct any affected publications, and our confidentiality policies do not conflict with this obligation. In this case, after accepting the findings of the committee, I immediately moved to have the record corrected for those papers that were called into question by the investigation. The committee’s report indicated that three publications needed to be corrected or retracted, and this is now a matter of public record. To date, the paper, “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins,” Cognition 86, B15-B22 (2002) has been retracted because the data produced in the published experiments did not support the published findings; and a correction was published to the paper, “Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274, 1913-1918 (2007). The authors continue to work with the editors of the third publication, “The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates,” Science 317, 1402-1405 (2007). As we reported to one of these editors, the investigating committee found problems with respect to the three publications mentioned previously, and five other studies that either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication. While different issues were detected for the studies reviewed, overall, the experiments reported were designed and conducted, but there were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.

Beyond these responsibilities to the funding agencies and the scientific community, Harvard considers confidential the specific sanctions applied to anyone found responsible for scientific misconduct. However, to enlighten those unfamiliar with the available sanctions, options in findings of scientific misconduct include involuntary leave, the imposition of additional oversight on a faculty member’s research lab, and appropriately severe restrictions on a faculty member’s ability to apply for research grants, to admit graduate students, and to supervise undergraduate research. To ensure compliance with the imposed sanctions, those within Harvard with oversight of the affected activities are informed of the sanctions that fall within their administrative responsibilities.

As should be clear from this letter, I have a deeply rooted faith in our process and the shared values upon which it is founded. Nonetheless, it is healthy to review periodically our long-standing practices. Consequently, I will form a faculty committee this fall to reaffirm or recommend changes to the communication and confidentiality practices associated with the conclusion of cases involving allegations of professional misconduct. To be clear, I will ask the committee to consider our policies covering all professional misconduct cases and not comment solely on the current scientific misconduct case.

In summary, Harvard has completed its investigation of the several allegations in the current case and does not anticipate making any additional findings, statements, or corrections to the scientific record with respect to those allegations. This does not mean, however, that others outside Harvard have completed their reviews. In particular, Harvard continues to cooperate with all federal inquiries into this matter by the PHS Office of Research Integrity, the NSF Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Respectfully yours,

Michael D. Smith

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

See also:

Harvard says Marc Hauser guilty of science misconduct
Harvard Find Psychology Researcher ‘Solely Responsible’ for Scientific Misconduct
Harvard dean: Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct
Hauser found “responsible’ for eight instances of misconduct
Harvard to recify journal works
Document Sheds Light on Investigation at Harvard

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Fallacy of Fine Tuning Ken Perrott Aug 19

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I just picked up in my browsing that Victor Stenger is working on a new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Us. Its planned for publication early next year.

This should be a great read. Victor is an excellent and prolific science writer.  He is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado and Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii (retired in 2000). Much of his writing is aimed a countering theological distortion and misuse of science.  This is badly needed for the “fine-tuning” question. In Godless cosmology I refer to an article of his on this in Russell Blackford‘s 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (see Testimony of non-believers for a review of this book).

Books Stenger has published in recent years (click for a list) include two I have reviewed here. They are:

Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (for my review see Quantum Gods), and
The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (for my review see Defending science and reason).

So, I am looking forward to the new book. But, meanwhile, I was interested to see that Stenger has posted on-line draft chapters from his book. He is requesting comments from interested people with scientific and editing expertise.

First time I have seen this approach. Anyone interested can go to Fallacy of Fine Tuning and register their interest. registration is required for access to the documents.

I am not registering myself but the list of chapters below give an idea of the books likely content.

0.   Preface
1. Science and God
2.  The Anthropic Principles
3.  The Four Dimensions
4.  Point-of-View Invariance
5. Cosmos
6. The Eternal Universe
7.  The Large Number Puzzle
8.  Chemistry
9.  The Hoyle Resonance
10.  Physics Parameters
11.  Cosmic Parameters
12.  The Cosmological Constant
13. MonkeyGod
14. Convergence
15. Quantum and Consciousness

See also: Slide show of Victor Stenger’s talk “The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning.”

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A desperate plea to be noticed? Ken Perrott Aug 17

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Quite a few local bloggers* have commented on the legal action some New Zealand climate deniers are taking to get NIWA to change its national temperature record. This is only the latest step in a nasty little campaign by these people to deny the reality of climate change. Nasty because it distorts the data and facts and makes outrageous attacks on the integrity and honesty of New Zealand scientists. The latest step – but I do wonder if it is the last step – seeing it is likely to backfire.Initially this campaign attempted to take advantage of the “climategate” email hysteria to whip up local anti-science feelings. Of late, as this hysteria has dispersed the local deniers have deteriorated to a small but vocal clique making carping and dishonest attacks on NIWA. I guess they see this legal action as a way of somehow revitalising their campaign.

Legal action won’t change the climate

Don’t they know the story of King Canute? Several commenters have pointed out our understanding of reality is obtained by scientific enquiry, not legal action. That resorting to legal action is a sign of weakness. And that this legal action will probably backfire. Although, I guess when they are defeated that can always resort to the conspiracy theorist claim of “whitewash.” Russell Brown at Public Address suggests that journalists may actually be able to use reporting of this case to communicate some of the real science involved in climate change (see Doing Science in Court).

The political nature of this action, and the dishonesty of the charges, is well shown by the complete refusal of the denier groups to do any scientific analysis or checking of the NIWA data or conclusions themselves.  The raw temperature data is readily available and the methodology is published If the deniers seriously believed that NIWA’s adjustment of the data was faulty they had complete freedom to to their own anaylses and adjustments. They refused to do this and instead concentrated on attempting to impugn the honesty of NIWA scientists.

I wonder how they will answer these questions in court. Why did they not do their own analysis.? Why did they not calculate their own adjustments? Why did they not test the NIWA conclusions by repeating the analyses? After all, the data and methodology was available to them.

Lazy critics – won’t do their own work

This criticism of the refusal of the denier groups to undertake any analysis of their own is implicit in the comments several climate scientists made of the legal action (see Journals not court is place for scientific debate – experts for full quotes).

Dr Andy Reisinger, Senior Research Fellow, New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute and author of Climate Change 101:

“The Climate Science Coalition has not put forward any clear and consistent scientific arguments against this local or global temperature trend, has not published its views in scientific peer-reviewed journals, has not disclosed its own ‘scientific’ methods by which it claims to show that there has been a cooling rather than warming, and its members have little credibility in the climate science community.”

Dr Dave Lowe, former NIWA climate scientist:

“New Zealand climate change scientists employed by various Crown Research Institutes and Universities are amongst the best in the world and are internationally respected. Their research is continually scrutinised, peer reviewed and methods validated by independent research organisations world wide and this includes the techniques used to provide New Zealand temperature records.”

And:

“my suggestion is that the NZ Climate Science coalition should take the raw data used to produce the NZ temperature records (it is all publicly available) and work with it to produce the answer that they require. However their methods and results should then be subject to the same harsh international peer review and method validation processes as those undergone by the NIWA and other NZ climate scientists.”

Ralph Sims, Professor of Sustainable Energy, Director, Centre for Energy Research, Massey University:

“If they have a strong scientific argument as Mr Leyland is professing, why not simple submit a paper to a scientific journal in the usual manner and let the debate continue? Or is it that they simply want the publicity in order to keep their organization afloat?”

Euan Mason, Associate Professor, University of Canterbury:

“This legal suit is a nonsense designed to attract publicity and spread fear, uncertainty and doubt in the absence of a decent argument.  The media should ignore it and the judge should throw it out.  Let the “Climate Science Coalition” tender its own calculations and subject them to rigorous peer review by submitting a scientific paper.”

I have previously commented on this issue which has arisen because more and more scientific data, obtained by publicly financed research, is being made available (see Freedom of information and responsibility). Incompetent and frivolous use of this data should be controlled. There should be a requirement for proper scientific assessment of all reports and documents produced using the data. Whether the documents are produced by scientists or by those skeptical of the science.

(Related to this issue: Have a look at my email correspondence with the local climate change deniers. They outright refused to make available the data and methodologies they used in a discredited report attacking New Zealand scientists. So much for freedom of information.)

*See also:
Hot Topic’s When asses go to law.
Good background. Also NIWA v Cranks: Update one
Court challenge to Niwa ‘stupid’
Niwa challenged over accuracy of data – NZ Herald Report
Tumeke’s Shame on NZ Herald climate denier spin
Code for Life’s Opinion: Wanting to ’resolve’ (climate) science with legal games…
The Standard’s Attacking NIWA
No Right Turn’s Climate change: PR, not science
Dim-Post’s Inherit my wind

And a couple from the critics of the science:
Poneke’s Climate stunt won’t stop science eventually winning over propaganda and media beat-ups
KiwiBlog’s CSC v NIWA
Whaleoil’s N.I.W.A. taken to court over data accuracy

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A stormy future? Ken Perrott Aug 16

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Gareth at Hot Topic has blogged about the range of recent extraordinary weather events around the world (see Fire and rain). And there have been plenty of news reports bringing this to our attention. The Russian heat wave and fires. The floods in Pakistan and China.

Many are asking if this is just coincidental. Or should we attribute them, at least in part, to global warming resulting from human activity. Peter Stott at the Guardian (Climate change: how to play our hand?) and John Scott at Discovery News (Russian Heat, Asian Floods Share Common Cause) say we should.

However, no one is making a direct attribution. Rather they are say that global warming is likely to increase the incidence of extreme weather events. And perhaps that is what we are seeing now.


Climate as “average weather”

Climate is not the same thing as weather. It’s more the “average weather.” As has been said “A single rainy day does not make a wet climate”. Nor does an extra cold winter “prove” that global warming has stopped. Although I have noticed that a cold winter does bring out the climate change deniers in droves.

When we talk about climate change we are referring to trends averaged over many years. Usually 20 – 30 years, but even longer when data is sparse or “noisy”.

So a few extreme weather events in themselves don’t indicate global climate change. It’s just that when the frequency of such events increase as they currently appear to, one suspects this is the result of the changed climate.

The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) point out that:

“simple statistical reasoning indicates that substantial changes in the frequency of extreme events (and the maximum feasible extreme, e.g., the maximum possible 24-hour rainfall at a specific location) can result from relatively small shift of the distribution of a weather or climate variable.”

The last IPCC report illustrated this with the figure below (see Box TS.5 Figure 1 – AR4 WGI Technical Summary.):

These curves represent the distribution of probability of different weather events. Temperature is described here but other weather factors such as rainfall, etc. could be used.

So even a relatively small increase in average global temperature – represented by going form the lefts hand curve to the right hand one – will increase the frequency of extreme events. In this case hot weather.

Of course, this figure is idealised. The probability distributions may be more complex. And regional effects may come into play. For example, there is a suggestion that increased global temperatures could cause a reduction in the ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream. This could actually bring colder temperatures to Europe.

A dangerous future – politically as well as weather-wise

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice-president of the IPCC, describes the current extreme weather events as ones which:

“reproduce and intensify in a climate disturbed by greenhouse gas pollution. Extreme events are one of the ways in which climatic changes become dramatically visible.”

This was one of the main messages I got from James Hansen‘s recent book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (see Thinking of our grandchildren). The effects of climate change will not be just a gradual increase in global temperatures. It will also be increased frequency of extreme weather events. This, together with the projected increase in sea levels, will inevitably cause widespread disruption to human societies.

Personally I think this, and the inevitable political and social disruption it will cause globally, is the most frightening aspect of climate change.

See also: The dire probabilities of unusual weather

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