10 Dec 2009

Megan McArdle: “Surely, It Wasn’t Fraud!”

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Megan McArdle does not believe that conscious dishonesty can be behind the University of East Anglia emails, or the “corrected” temperature charts produced by NIWA and GHCN (the Global Historical Climate Network) .

I am thoroughly unimpressed with the belief that global warming scientists have been engaging in some kind of massive conspiracy to conceal the truth. First, because we seem to be able to observe things like polar ice sheets melting, which point to warming. And second, because, well, why the hell would they? I can imagine a sort of selection bias in the grant process. I cannot imagine hundreds of scientists thinking, well, I put ten years into getting my PhD–time to spend the rest of my life faking data in order to get some grant money! One, yes. All of them, no.

Yet, the facts are troubling. When she looks at the kind of data correction illustrated here:

Megan McArdle is reduced to hoping somebody on the Warmist side has an explanation.

More than one blog is saying this proves that some of the data was falsified. I think that’s too strong. But it does look like maybe they got a little too aggressive massaging it.

Is this an anomaly? I hope it is, and think it probably is. But I worry that it isn’t. And I’m eagerly awaiting someone at RealClimate or similar to explain why and how this kind of correction got applied.


Some of her own commenters do. Wells, at December 10, 2009 6:09 AM, responds:

Oddly for a blog that used to be called “asymmetrical information”, Megan’s missing the agency theory here.

A perceived climate crisis drives grants for research. Grants drive careers: they get you paid, they help you hire others, they give you data that you can use to score the publications that create the public perception of a climate crisis.

Virtuous cycle– as long as the publications support the perception of crisis. Those publications also drive promotions / tenure / editorships. They get you out of low-paid post-doctoral fellowships and into tenure-track professorships. They get your grad students onto a good career track.

If your results are non-significant, then you’re less likely to get published (less contribution to literature). You’re less likely to get grant money, because that goes to people in good career tracks with lots of publications in good journals.

So we have two selection effects: people who are True Believers are more likely to get PhD’s in climate studies to begin with. Then the True Believers are more likely to write papers that help their careers rather than neutral or bad papers. You don’t even need to assume malice: the good scientists just get selected out of the population because they can’t keep up with the phonies, who beat them in grant money, prestige, editorships and faculty appointments.

The temptation to fudge data must be unbelievable, because in that environment, Everybody Does It. And the temptation to fool yourself is certainly unbelievable because all the best people follow the same best practices, so it can’t be wrong. Can it?

Altoids, December 9, 2009 5:11 PM, expands on the same analysis:


With respect, you’re setting up a strawman. None of the scientists who have “come out” as climate skeptics allege a massive conspiracy by scientists, any more than there is a massive liberal conspiracy in Hollywood. What you have is a self-emergent, self-organizing bias. I hope I can illustrate it briefly.

I work in academic science (check my IP address if you wish). Scientists are, in general, uncompromising idealists for objective, physical truth. But occasionally, politics encroaches. Most of my work is funded by DoE, DoD, ONR, and a few big companies. We get the grants, because we are simply the best in the field. But we don’t work in isolation. We work as part of a department, which has equipment, lab space, and maintenance staff, IT, et cetera. We have a system for the strict partition of unclassified/classified research through collaboration with government labs. The department had set a research policy and infrastructure goal to attract defense funding, and it worked.

The same is true in climate science. Universities and departments have set policies to attract climate science funding. Climate science centers don’t spontaneously spring into existence – they were created, in increasingly rapid numbers, to partake in the funding bonanza that is AGW. This by itself is not political – currently, universities are scrambling to set up “clean energy” and “sustainable technology” centers. Before it was bio-tech and nanotechnology. But because AGW-funding is politically motivated, departments have adroitly set their research goals to match the political goals of their funding sources. Just look at the mission statements of these climate research institutes – they don’t seek to investigate the scientific validity or soundness of AGW-theory, they assume that it is true, and seek to research the implications or consequences of it.

This filters through every level. Having created such a department, they must fill it with faculty that will carry out their mission statement. The department will hire professors who already believe in AGW and conduct research based on that premise. Those professors will hire students that will conduct their research without much fuss about AGW. And honestly, if you know anything about my generation, we will do or say whatever it is we think we’re supposed to do or say. There is no conspiracy, just a slightly cozy, unthinking myopia. Don’t rock the boat.

The former editor of the New Scientist, Nigel Calder, said it best – if you want funding to study the feeding habits of squirrels, you won’t get it. If you wants to study the effects of climate change on the feeding habits of squirrels, you will. And so in these subtle ways, there is a gravitational pull towards the AGW monolith.

I think it the most damning evidence for this soft tyranny is in the work of climate scientists whose scientific integrity has led them to publish results that clearly contradict basic assumptions in AGW modeling. Yet, in their papers, they are very careful to skirt around the issue, keeping their heads down, describing their results in a way obfuscates the contradiction. They will describe their results as an individual case, with no greater implications, and issue reassuring boilerplate statements about how AGW is true anyways.

For the field as a whole, it’s not a conspiracy. It’s the unfortunate consequence of having a field totally dominated by politically-motivated, strings-attached money. In the case of the CRU email group, well, the emails speak for themselves. Call it whatever you want.

2 Feedbacks on "Megan McArdle: “Surely, It Wasn’t Fraud!”"



What disturbs me the most about the disclosures is not the obvious bias shown in the emails by the climate scientists at the CRU and their efforts to stifle dissenting views and refuse to share the data on which their own research papers were based. The most disturbing aspect for me is the apparent suspect nature of all of the data upon which their research papers is based. Like most laypersons, I have been a believr in AGW because I believe in science and the scientific method. But the more I look into the research methods of these climate scientists, the more disturbed I become.

The “Harryreadme” file is full of comments describing the sorry state of the climate datasets, the confusing, contradictory and unexplained adjustments that have been made to the data. The one example you cite in your article is very disturbing as it relates to the integrity of the data, but I cannot share your sahguine hopes that it is an aberration. The plain fact is that all of the data has been “adjusted,” “homogenized.” and “smoothed.” Apparently the raw unadjusted data has been lost.

I also read elsewhere that the other “confirming” datasets that supposedly can be relied upon evn if the CRU data is discarded are, are infact, 95% based on the CRU datasets. Independent indeed.

I also have discovered websites that raise questions in my mind as to the accruacy and integrity of the temperature measurements we rely upon to “prove” global warming in recent years.

How can we rely on this data to prove anything, when:

– Over the 150 years of recorded temperature measurements, the weather stations have been moved and the instruments changed; the measurement records have been lost and in some cases not been kept on a regular basis; some records suc as the ones for China are suspect or missing for large periods of time.

– A survey of the weather stations used in the United States, perhaps the most extensive and reliable group worldwide shows that, based on physical inspection of 75% of the approximately 1200 stations, less than 10% meet the standards for accuracy required by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It also appears that the raw data from these stations are also “adjusted,” “homogenized,” and “smoothed” to take into account the replacemnent of stations with new instrumentation, proximity to structures and heat producing equipment that could distort measurements, etc.

Yet from this record of temperature measurements, we are told that the climate is warming to a tenth of a degree.

My faith in the “consensus” of scientists has been severely shaken when I look at the scientific basis of this consensus.


Megan believes and thinks-swell. “I am thoroughly unimpressed with the belief that global warming scientists have been engaging in some kind of massive conspiracy to conceal the truth.” How do we measure Megan’s beliefs?


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