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Climate Hustle

Lessons from the Monckton/Plimer debate

Posted on 29 January 2010 by John Cook

Earlier today, I attended a climate debate between Ian Plimer and Christopher Monckton versus Barry Brooks and Graham Readfern at the Hilton Hotel in Brisbane (many thanks to Graham for the ticket). The debate made for good entertainment, and surprisingly, I even learnt a thing or two about the climate debate. Even more surprisingly, the most enlightening aspects came from Monckton and Plimer.

Monckton kicked off the debate, warming up with a few disarming jokes. The man sure does know how to work a crowd. He then informed us that he was to focus on the most important aspect of climate discussion which is climate sensitivity. Unfortunately, he immediately veered off-topic, spending most of his allotted time taking potshots at the IPCC. The discussion of climate sensitivity came in a hurried blur at the end of his presentation, including a curious graph that showed solar activity increasing over the last few decades. As direct measurements of solar activity show solar output decreasing since 1980, I was interested to see where his data came from but the graph was gone before I could locate the reference.

Ian Plimer jumped out of the gates with the (correct) assertion that climate has changed in the past and has experienced quite dramatic changes in temperature. Indeed this is Plimer's chief refrain in his book, in every interview I've heard and at today's debate. Anticipating this (correctly), earlier in the week, I'd submitted a question to be asked of Plimer during the question time that took up most of the debate time. My question was:

"You say climate always changes and climate scientists ignore this. Why do you ignore the dozens of studies that examine past climate change? These actually provide evidence for our climate's sensitivity to CO2 forcing."

Okay, it's a mouthful but I've been genuinely wondering this since I read Plimer's book. He's a qualified geologist, a professional scientist and yet he seems unaware of (or ignores) the extensive body of peer reviewed literature that acknowledges past climate change, scrutinises these periods and concludes that our climate is sensitive (for a good overview, read Knutti & Hegerl 2008). Those periods of dramatic change demonstrate that our climate is subject to net positive feedback. Doesn't Plimer realise when he talks about past climate change, he's citing evidence for high climate sensitivity?

So I was understandably eager to hear Plimer's response. He began by claiming 'those studies' were based on recent observations and didn't cover the deep past. He then rambled about limestone sequestration of carbon dioxide. The question dodge was disappointing. Not entirely surprising, considering past form, but nevertheless disappointing. Perhaps if I'd cited Dana Royer's study of climate sensitivity from the last 420 million years of temperature change (Royer 2007), I may have received a more specific answer. But I only had a few lines in which to squeeze a question.

Still, I must tip my hat to Plimer and Monckton. Both utilised their formidable public speaking skills and rhetorical flourishes to persuasively explain why humans can't be causing global warming. Plimer's argument was that climate has changed in the past. Eg - climate has a high sensitivity. Monckton's argument was that climate has a low sensitivity. I think the irony that the two were arguing contradictory positions was lost on most of the audience.

In a sense, their combined approach perfectly encapsulates the way skeptic arguments are used to mislead. Layering argument upon argument, regardless of a lack of internal consistency, isn't about furthering scientific understanding but proving the preconceived notion that humans can't be causing global warming. Two skeptic arguments can contradict each other, even on the same debating stage, so long as the common enemy of man-made global warming is refuted.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 106:

  1. Good morning, I was wondering if you could elaborate on how the the 2 skeptic positions of natural variability and low climate sensitivity contradict each other? Seems to me that both arguments say CO2 does not play as nearly a large role in climate as the majority of scientists argue.
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    Response: Good evening (here in Brisbane at least). I'll try coming at it from another angle in the hope that it clarifies the science more. As Barry Brook explained today (after Plimer dodged my question), climate doesn't change by magic. It changes because it's forced to change. The forcing that changes climate is changes in the planet's energy balance - when the planet is accumulating heat or losing heat. This energy imbalance is also called radiative forcing.

    So a key question with climate is how sensitive is our climate to radiative forcing? For example, if you doubled atmospheric carbon dioxide which has a radiative forcing of 3.7 W/m2, what is the global change in temperature? The extra heat causes a direct surface warming of around 1.1°C. But then feedbacks come into play. The warming causes more evaporation which puts water vapor into the atmosphere - the greenhouse effect of the extra water vapor has an amplifying effect. Ice melts, lowering the Earth's albedo which causes further warming. There are also potential negative feedbacks - if clouds increase, this raises the Earth's albedo which has a cooling effect. So when you put it all together, does the planet have net positive feedback (which would mean a higher climate sensitivity) or a net negative feedback (lower climate sensitivity).

    We work out climate sensitivity by looking at past climate change. We work out what the forcings were that drove climate, we use proxies to determine how much temperature changed and from this, we calculate climate sensitivity. Often scientists look at periods of great change such as the Last Glacial Maximum where the earth came out of an ice age. And what these analyses find is that our climate has high sensitivity. It has net positive feedback. The great climate changes observed in the past are not possible without high climate sensitivity.

    So when Ian Plimer cites past climate change, he's citing evidence for high climate sensitivity. This is in direct contradiction to Monckton's position that our climate has low sensitivity.
  2. Yes, excellent point John. I saw Monckton on the ABC with Ben McNeil. The classic moment was when Monckton turned to Ben and said "of course you are not an expert in climate science". He then waffled on about sensitivity referring to Lindzen with no chance to be contradicted (and in any case the contradiction is too complicated for a lay audience, especially in the time allowed on a current affairs show). Very clever tactic. And I would like to ask Plimer why on Earth he believes that climate change in the past contradicts AGW now. Does he really believe that a rapid change occurring over the last 30-40 years is the result of the same natural causes as the slow geological changes? And if so, why? But I'm sure he wouldn't answer (which is his clever technique).
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  3. I saw Monckton being interviewed by Ben Cubby on and he was very funny - mostly from making such outrageous claims. I think it's in part intentional. As you say, he knows how to work the crowd.

    A comment on your statement: "In a sense, this perfectly encapsulates the skeptic movement as a whole. Global warming skepticism isn't about furthering scientific understanding but proving that humans can't be causing global warming."

    Let's assume you are right and have summarized the "movement".

    I'm fairly new to your website so feel free to tell me to not bother with these kind of comments I'm about to make.. they aren't meant to be critical..

    It seems like you have put a lot of time into creating the site and a lot of the material is specifically aimed at skeptics. So you care about educating "the skeptic movement", which is wonderful.

    If it's really aimed at that "movement" I think you will be doing your hard work a disservice by putting down the people you want to help.

    There are a lot of people out there really trying to figure stuff out. But they don't have physics degrees, have never read an undergrad book on radiative physics and have only a very hazy idea of "the scientific method". So pretty much anything can sound authoritative.

    One way to put people off is to tell them how dumb they are. Much worse - tell them their ethics and motives are flawed.

    They will go and hang out somewhere they feel more comfortable. And so your hard work will only achieve 20% of its potential.
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    Response: I appreciate your comments. I always try to avoid alienating people by characterisation and I didn't quite achieve that goal this time around. I've tweaked the wording of the final paragraph so that it addresses the arguments, not the people.
  4. John, I'm sure you're aware of it, but Plimer has been ambushed, about his claims about volcanoes and CO2 and shown to be dishonest, but he prevaricated and tried very hard to distract and change the subject. Plimer has no shame.

    Partial [edited] transcipt

    GEORGE MONBIOT: .... Take, for example, his claim that human beings produce more carbon dioxide than volcanoes. Now, the US geological survey shows that human beings - sorry, he suggests that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than human beings. The US geological survey shows that human beings produce 130 times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes. And yet again and again, however many times it is pointed out to him, Ian keeps reporting this straightforward fraud, this fabrication that volcanoes produce more CO2.


    IAN PLIMER: Well I'm very heartened that a journalist is correcting me on my geology. Now Mr Monbiot wrote to me when I asked him some questions of science and said he was not qualified to answer these questions of science. So he's a journalist and he's asking me a scientific question. He has not read this book ...


    IAN PLIMER: Well, let me make two points on this. On the chapter called Earth I talk about two volcanoes. One are the terrestrial volcanoes, which is the USGS reports on emissions of carbon dioxide, but more than 85 per cent of the world's volcanoes we do not measure, we do not see, these are submarine volcanoes that release carbon dioxide and we deduce from the chemistry of the rocks how much carbon dioxide is released.

    TONY JONES: Can I ask you a question about that, if you don't mind? Because one British journalist whom you quoted those exact figures to went back to the US geological survey after you told him about this 85 per cent figure, and asked he them to confirm their claim that actually 130 times the amount of CO2 is produced by man than volcanoes. The volcanologist Dr Terrance Gerlach confirmed that figure and said furthermore that in their counting they count the undersea volcanoes. So your response to that.

    IAN PLIMER: My response is that there are 220,000 undersea volcanoes that we know about. There's 64,000 kilometres of undersea volcanoes which we do ...

    GEORGE MONBIOT: Which they have counted.

    IAN PLIMER: It is the height of bad manners to interrupt. Please restrain yourself. And we have 64,000 kilometres of volcanoes in submarine environments with massive super volcanoes there. We do not measure them. And the figures that I have used are deduced from the chemistry of rocks which erupt on the sea floor.

    TONY JONES: OK. Now, that's that point dealt with. George Monbiot, a quick response to that and then we'll move on to other questions.

    GEORGE MONBIOT: Yeah, sure. I mean, it's, again, straightforward fabrication. Ian produces no new evidence to suggest that the USGS figures are wrong. He keeps citing this statement that they don't include submarine volcanoes. It's been pointed out to him many, many times that the USGS figures do include submarine volcanoes. And actually, it's the height of bad manners Professor Plimer to lie on national television about something that you know to be plain wrong.

    You get the flavour.

    The transcript is at:
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  5. What the USGS says about volcanoes and gases

    Comparison of CO2 emissions from volcanoes vs. human activities.
    Scientists have calculated that volcanoes emit between about 130-230 million tonnes (145-255 million tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere every year (Gerlach, 1991). This estimate includes both subaerial and submarine volcanoes, about in equal amounts. Emissions of CO2 by human activities, including fossil fuel burning, cement production, and gas flaring, amount to about 27 billion tonnes per year (30 billion tons) [ ( Marland, et al., 2006) - The reference gives the amount of released carbon (C), rather than CO2, through 2003.]. Human activities release more than 130 times the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanoes--the equivalent of more than 8,000 additional volcanoes like Kilauea (Kilauea emits about 3.3 million tonnes/year)! (Gerlach et. al., 2002)
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  6. Your last sentence sums it up very well: "Two skeptic arguments can contradict each other, even on the same debating stage, so long as the common enemy of man-made global warming is refuted."

    This illustrates the difference between the scientist, the politician, and the general public. The scientist has put many years of educational effort in to learning the importance of logical reasoning at many levels, the general public has never done this. So of course, they are highly susceptible to Monckton's style of crass manipulation, they even welcome it.

    But here is the real problem: scientists well aware of the threat of AGW have never taken a scientific approach to understanding how the general public forms opinions, and so is outmanouvered by professional deceivers like Monckton every time.

    We are running out of time to close this PR gap. We may have run out already.
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  7. To MattJ (6)
    Succinctly put. Scientists need to budget time and resources now to learn PR and new communication skills. Or perhaps use their endless riches in funding (not) to hire people already with these skills, like Exxon did.
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  8. 1. During volcanic eruptions (very large) amount of CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere falls sharply ("Sinks for anthropogenic carbon", J.L. Sarmiento and Gruber N.; 2002, page 32, Fig. 3.). Accumulated amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is highly dependent on temperature changes - Particularly NH temperature. So they can only respond quickly to natural sources of emissions - soil bacteria (I recall the experiment Biosphere 2). Volcanic aerosol = less SI for plants = less photosynthesis = fall NPP = more CO2 in the atmosphere ...
    2. Former historic temperature changes were much more violent, than the current (f. e.: "Abrupt tropical climate change: Past and present", L. G. Thompson; 2006 -
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  9. Monckton's and Plimer's opinions are not contradictory. Plimer argues that the climate has changed very often in the past, due to other reasons than greenhouse gasses, and Monckton says that the sensitivity of the climate for greenhouse gasses is much smaller than IPCC claims. These two arguments are complementary.
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  10. One afterthought: Monckton does not say that the climate has a low sensitivity. He only rejects the hight sensitivity for CO2. Solar magnetism, cosmic rays, and orbital forces, that may have caused past climate changes may have much more influence than IPCC admits.
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  11. 3. A propos CHYŁEK - is not a skeptic, at most: "semi" skeptic. Skeptics believe, that the former: first followed the rise in temperature, then CO2 (soil bacteria and ocean heterotrophic bacteria - they are to blame), but CO2 - never had a significant effect on temperature. Water vapor, feedback is always neutralize majority of RF CO2.
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  12. fydijkstra, either climate *is* sensitive to forcing or it isn't-you can't have an each way bet, as Monctkon chooses to have. The properties of the various greenhouse gases has been established over more than a century-especially its ability to capture Long-wave infrared radiation (heat). To try & claim otherwise is to refute more than a century of chemistry & physics. It comes down to this simple question-average global temperatures have risen by around +0.5 degrees over the last 30 years, yet solar activity has declined by around an average of 0.3 watts/meter squared per decade over that similar time period. So where is the extra heat coming from? Until so-called skeptics can produce a valid, alternative theory for the warming trend, then they really lack any credibility!
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  13. 5. 4. Exxon - he depends only on the same subsidies for CCS as well as in Europe. If current warming would, for instance, such as the Older Peron, the money is better spent on protection against transgression of the sea.
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  14. fydijkstra: "...and Monckton says that the sensitivity of the climate for greenhouse gasses is much smaller than IPCC claims."

    The point is, though, that the sensitivity is determined by the feedback effects resulting from the temperature change due to a particular forcing irrespective of the forcing's cause, whether it be changes in the solar irradiance, the shape of the Earth's orbit or the composition of the atmosphere.
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  15. MarkJ (Post #1),

    Here's one geologist's perspective (mine!). The argument can be broken down like this:

    1) There is strong geologic evidence that surface temperatures have varied significantly in the Earth's past, both up and down. One of the indicators of this is the presence or absence of polar ice caps. (We can see evidence of glaciers in the sedimentary rock record, so we know when ice caps have been here in the past). Therefore, we know that surface temperature has changed a lot, and is sensitive to something... But what??

    2) Evidence shows that a number of factors can drive changes in temperature, including variability in Earth's orbit, variations in solar emissions, changes in atmospheric composition, changes in albedo, etc.; HOWEVER!.. The geologic record shows that elevated CO2 consistently shows up "at the scene of the crime"
    when the Earth has experienced past episodes of warming (For an informative, entertaining summary of this, listen to geologist Richard Alley's lecture from the recent AGU meeting. It will take an hour, and may be a bit technical, but I hope you'll find it worthwhile.

    3) But even if periods of high temperatures are always associated with high CO2, how do we know which caused which? This one's harder to answer in just a few sentences, so you'll have to do some homework, but you can think of increasing atmospheric CO2 as being like adding more blankets on to your bed on a cold night. The more blankets you add, the warmer the bottom blanket will be, and the cooler the top blanket will be. That's why adding more CO2 keeps causing more warming, even though the absorption bands are saturated.

    4) There's one final argument although it's a bit weaker: The CO2 model fits most of the evidence, and right now we have no other way to explain these past temperature changes other than CO2. The same argument holds for late 20th Century warming!

    In contrast, Lord Monckton claims that the atmosphere is self-regulating, and that there are negative feedbacks that prevent the atmosphere from getting warmer when you add CO2. Monckton is just smart enough to seem like he knows what he's talking about, but actual climate scientists see many flaws in his arguments. Monckton and Plimer may mean well, and might even believe what they say (?), but in the end science is not on their side.

    A Little Knowledge + A Lot of Bias = A Dangerous Thing
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  16. fydijkstra, climate sensitivity does not depend on the source of the forcing, only on the magnitude of the forcing. A forcing of 1 watt/meter sq will produce the same warming plus feedbacks regardless of if it is due to an increase in greenhouse gases or an increase in insolation.

    The climate does not pick and choose which forcings it will respond to and by how much.
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  17. Jim Eager at 04:11 AM:

    I don't understand that claim. I thought it was convention to look at TOA results as being equal because it makes it easier to compare the relative forcings. At some point you are correct, but 1W/m^2 of solar insolation is not the same as 1W/m^2 at TOA due to increases GHG.

    How much absorption of S/W radiation by the atmosphere? And what profile? How does the atmosphere respond to this absorption? What are the changes in the atmosphere as a result?
    How much absorption by the surface? And due to the different albedos of different surface materials, the heating will be different at different locations, causing temperature differentials and so on.

    Compare that with more long wave forcing. A different surface absorption (geographically). A different atmospheric profile. Different effects on the atmosphere.

    Perhaps it all "comes out in the wash" and perhaps someone has already demonstrated that it is irrelevant what source?
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  18. Re your statement: "As direct measurements of solar activity show solar output decreasing since 1980, I was interested to see where his data came from but the graph was gone before I could locate the reference."

    He was quoting the findings of the ACRIM Compsite total solar irradiance (TSI) - the most credible compilation of satellite TSI observations, which shows a net upward trend during the past 30+ years. The ACRIM Composite uses the results of satellite experiments published by their science teams without alteration.

    You are familiar with the PMOD Composite TSI which shows a slight downward trend over the past 30 years of TSI observations. Unfortunately the makers of the PMOD Composite made unjustifiable alterations of the published satellite data to conform it to the approximate predictions of TSI proxy models.

    Use of the PMOD Composite is useful to the AGW GHG hypothesis because it makes solar variability a less likely competitor of Anthropogenic GHG climate change. However the PMOD does not represent the most likely interpretation of the extant satellite TSI database. For a discussion of this and related topics see the ACRIM website:
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  19. re: stevecarsonr (Post #3):

    Your comment and John's reply, address one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of the climate change debate. I don't believe it's possible to understand the scientific issues without understanding the difference between skepticism, which is based on scientific reasoning, and denialism, which is based on ideology, yet even using these terms "raises hackles" and causes animosity. But unless one recognizes that denialism is a) real and b) not about scientific evidence, it will be very difficult to ever sort out truth from fiction. I know too many people—decent, intelligent people—who have effectively been sucked down into the vortex of "denialism world", where they give credence to arguments that are not scientifically defensible, and can become fixated on "debunking the myth" of anthropogenic global warming. No matter how sincere their intentions initially were, or are currently are, I do not believe they retain the ability to recognize how biased their approach to the topic has become.

    One colleague of mine, with the very best of intentions, sent me a copy of Ian Plimer's book as a Christmas gift, hoping that it would help me grasp the truth about climate change. How can I convey to him how biased and misleading the science content is without offending him, which I really don't want to do?

    I agree that there are many people who are legitimately confused and sincerely want to understand the scientific evidence, which is why I so resent the denialist approach. Denialism doesn't increase understanding. Rather it sews confusion. Worse, it nurtures suspicion and mistrust.

    The issue here is not about being "smart" or "dumb". Rather it's about the ability to recognize bias. This is often very difficult. Understanding the scientific evidence can be challenging enough but when you add in all the bogus arguments and faulty reasoning of denialism, a topic that starts out as merely “challenging” can quickly become overwhelmingly confusing.

    A key question is whether we sincerely want to understand the science, or whether we are simply looking for validation of what we would like to be true. It's so easy to do the latter, while believing we are doing the former. I have no other way of explaining “skepticism” among many (although certainly not all!) of my colleagues in the fossil energy industry. Yet how can I possibly say this without alienating the very people I would most like to reach?

    I don't have an answer.
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  20. acrim,

    I also thought that they may have used the acrim composite. However, it's flase that it is "the most credible compilation". All the intdependent proxies of solar activity have backed up the PMOD composite. In any case, the difference is insignificant.
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  21. It looks like a partial account of the difference between the two composites. Ignoring the acrim gap problem, ignoring the problem of the definition of the maximum of solar cycle 21 (NIMBUS 7 before the start of ACRIM-I), dismiss it like a choice of pro- vs anti- AGW theory and simply state that acrim is "most credible" while pmod "does not represent the most likely interpretation" is clearly a biased interpretation.

    The ACRIM team itself aknowledge the problems while you, despite your nick (that sounds like advocating one side) do not.
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  22. stevecarsonr:
    "There are a lot of people out there really trying to figure stuff out. But they don't have physics degrees, have never read an undergrad book on radiative physics and have only a very hazy idea of "the scientific method". So pretty much anything can sound authoritative."

    Leaving aside outright ideological/political denialism, the problem is that a lot of those sincere people go right ahead and label themselves as 'skeptics', when in fact they are either misinformed or incompletely informed -- and are either unaware of that or refuse to consider it. You might be put off by what seemed an arrogant putdown of the sincerely interested, but there's an arrogant lack of self-awareness on the 'skeptic' side.
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  23. Hey CoalGeologist-a *very* good summary of Denialism vs Skepticism. The AGW also has its own version of the Denialist-what I call the "true believer": they accept the theory of AGW because someone *tells* them its true-not because they've seen the evidence (on newspaper blogs, the True Believers annoy me almost as much as the Denialists-because their unscientific, argumentative approach is usually counter-productive!)
    Anyway, by contrast, up until around 2002 I'd always ignored the role of the Sun in global warming (I thought CO2 was the *only* culprit). Then someone told me about this Danish Solar Physicist who had shown that global warming could be attributed to changes in solar activity. Rather than ignore inconvenient evidence against AGW, I actually sought out that paper-& became very well informed about the solar contribution to climate. Of course, the paper also showed that the correlation between solar irradiance & global temperatures fell away sharply in the 1970's-a fact which the person who put me on to the paper seemed to have conveniently missed. My point is that, if someone directs me to anti-AGW papers, I'll happily read them because I want to be fully INFORMED. Denialists & True believers tend only to read that which reinforces their belief, whilst ignoring everything else. Hence Monckton's reliance on ACRIM rather than PMOD solar data.
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  24. stevecarsonr @17, I meant a 1W/m^2 forcing at surface.

    For sure an increase in solar output would have different effcts at TOA, such as warming the stratosphere.

    But it does not take an increase in solar output to increase solar insolation, orbital configuration will do the same thing locally.

    It's the climate sensitivity to a forcing at the surface that I was comparing.
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  25. CoalGeologist #19 - (also touching on Steve Sullivan #22):

    "I don't believe it's possible to understand the scientific issues without understanding the difference between skepticism, which is based on scientific reasoning, and denialism, which is based on ideology"

    I think it is. Radiative physics is just radiative physics. Statistics is just statistics. A scientific argument can be tested and falsified by the evil and the good - and you don't even need to know their inner motives to assess their science.

    It might be convenient to put labels on people. But even if it's accurate, your labeling will reduce your efforts.

    If you want a media friendly sound-bite to help circulate an "explanation" of why many people don't believe your position then labels are a good idea.

    If you want to analyze the various movements for psychology research, then the labels will be a good starting point.

    If you want to feel good about why you are right and others are wrong, then labels are a good idea.

    *But* if you want to win people over they are the worst choice.

    Who here likes being insulted? Oh, no hands?
    Who here thinks he or she has a "closed mind"? Oh, no hands?
    Who here thinks he or she refuses to listen to evidence fairly presented? Incredible, still no one.. Is the microphone working?

    Ask these questions of any group of people, and what results do you think you will get?

    Try an experiment
    Take two groups of people who disagree with you on let's say.. climate science.

    Lecture the first group on why they are denialists and how they are not even skeptics and how they need to listen to real climate scientists - and then present a little evidence.

    Take the second group and ask them a few questions about what they know and what they think and pick up on a few points and help them understand that little part better. Present some information they might not of heard of. Tell them "you know a lot of people think that because it's actually quite a complex subject, but here's how some scientists try and explain it.."

    Compare the 2 groups afterwards. Will group 1 or group 2 have learnt more? Which will be more receptive to consensus climate science? Which will go away and possibly change their mind on a few points?

    I haven't made any great revelations about psychology and I'm sure it's not really controversial(?). And yet some of you are shaking your heads.

    My question was only: "do you want to change people's minds?"
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  26. stevecarsonr,
    you are 100% right and, i belive, it's what people try to do in this blog thanks to the high signal to noise ratio maintained by our guest.

    But although it's the right thing to do, it might not always work. Your reasoning assumes the will to learn and an open mind. Take for example the claim that global warming has stopped. You can explain interannual variability, you can explain the statistics of trend, you can explain the effect of ENSO; but what if they reply "yes, but whatever those nice things say, still the temperature has been flat in the last 5 years"? If they do not have a scientific background you might understand why they say so but you're not going to convince them. If they have s scientific background and you know they may understand those things, you'll not convince them either.

    In a few words, sometimes is ignorance, sometimes is misleading information, but other times is something else, a sort of psychologic block.
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  27. "Greenhouse effect" of water vapor is determined not by column integrated moisture contents, but upper tropospheric specific humidity. There is a strong correlation between global lightning activity and upper troposphere water vapor contents, because it is deep convection in tropical clouds (also generating much lightning) that transports vapor up there. Global lightning activity can be monitored from anywhere on Earth through Schumann resonance amplitude history. Using this indicator, no long term trend is observed in lightning activity. So. There is no strong positive humidity feedback, climate models indicating otherwise are disqualified, climate sensitivity to elevated CO2 levels is low. Q.E.D.

    You can check it for yourself.

    $ wget -r -w 10 --random-wait

    Magnetic Activity and Schumann Resonance

    American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2001
    C. Price and M. Asfur
    Tel Aviv University, Geophysics and Planetary Sciences, Ramat Aviv, 69978, Israel

    20th International Lightning Detection Conference
    21-23 April 2008 - Tucson, Arizona, USA
    2nd International Lightning Meteorology Conference
    24-25 April 2008 - Tucson, Arizona, USA
    O. Pinto Jr. and I.R.C.A. Pinto
    Brazilian Institute of Space Research ­- INPE
    São José dos Campos, SP, Brazil

    "It is also generally expected that global lightning activity tends to increase at climate scale in response to global warming (Williams, 1992). However, at present time there do not appear to be any long term trends in the lightning activity (Price and Asfur, 2006b; Markson, 2007), although many recent studies indicate a high positive correlation between surface air temperature and lightning activity (Williams et al., 2005; Price and Asfur, 2006a; Sekiguchi et al., 2006). The lack of a long term trend in the lightning activity may in part explain why there is no specific reference to future changes in lightning activity in the last IPCC report (IPCC, 2007)"
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  28. MattJ at 20:45 PM on 29 January, 2010

    "But here is the real problem: scientists well aware of the threat of AGW have never taken a scientific approach to understanding how the general public forms opinions, and so is outmanouvered by professional deceivers like Monckton every time."

    Not by climate scientists, of course, but there is quite a bit of research being done into how people think about climate and what sort of mental models they employ in dealing with the topic. Some of the findings are encouraging, some are depressing.

    Significantly, the research says that differentiating between weather and climate really does continue to be a challenge for laypersons even when discussions on the topic are stripped of all distracting politics and acrimony.

    Is confusion between climate and weather a problem with listeners, or communicators?

    Looking at mental models research versus continued poor results with educating the public about climate change, I wonder if making surface temperature the main communications message regarding climate change is not a fairly big mistake. Surface temperature is a crummy proxy for measuring actual climate change, especially when oceans dominate the scene. We don't live in the ocean, after all, yet oceans are where most of the current energy perturbation is going.

    Look at Dr. Hansen's recent essay on winter cold snaps, how horribly messy it became because he had to deal with separating weather from climate plus natural variability. It may not be possible to convey a thorough understanding of surface temperature before eyes glaze over.

    Some means of expressing total heat content of the ocean-atmosphere system could well be a better way to go with communications. Calories might be a natural for this; laypeople do have a fairly good understanding of a calorie as a unit of energy.

    If Hansen had been speaking in his essay of total ocean-atmosphere heat content, none of the weather distraction would be needed and the variability portion would automatically be simpler and easier to convey.
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  29. Jim Eager #24

    Even then I am thinking that it would need to be demonstrated that the spatial distribution didn't matter to the climate result. Because albedo of solar insolation at the surface has a high variation, not so for LW flux received.

    From the billiard ball model it doesn't: heat in=heat out.
    But how about a 3-d model?

    I have a dumb question:

    I always assumed that the TOA figure for GHG was in relation to the effective SW climate absorbed radiation: E.g. 240W/m^2. Not referenced to 340W/m^2 of solar radiation averaged across the earth's surface prior to albedo effects, and not referenced to S=1367W/m^2.

    Then in "Radiation and Climate" by Taylor and Vardavas (only can see a few pages online) they compared GHG forcing to 1367W/m^2. Perhaps in a general non-technical way, it was only p9.

    So then I thought, maybe I have been making the wrong assumption all along. But I cannot find the answer anywhere.

    Everyone knows the answer. What is it?
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  30. An outstanding article on an important issue, well done!

    It seems impossible to have a resoned debate if one of the parties is prepared to lie. It is even more difficult if one of the parties repeats the lies of others as if they were fact. Trying to drill down to find the source of the lies adds so much heat to the discussion as to make it an aggresive exchange.

    This is the model for almost every discussion I have had with deniers, some of whom I love. I am now intrigued as to how these otherwise fine and rational people come to be active in a movement which is so vehemently anti social.

    I think the appeal of the deniers is essentially emotional and science is apparently piss poor at appealing to emotional motivators.

    CoalGeologist and stevecarsonr offer excellent examples of combining emotional truth with rational argument, Thank You. I strongly agree that slow and patient is propobably the only way to really address the communication gap.

    Unfortunately it is difficult resist the temptation of a dismissive reply. I shall try harder, by starting at the beginning and avoiding the arrogance I have displayed in the past.

    There is no quick fix to this or any other complex problem...damn
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  31. YES! The communications aspect is critical if public understanding of the climate issue is ever to reach a point that would allow an effective, escalating and lasting price on carbon.

    Several issues come to mind:

    1) the possibility that evidence - no matter how solid, unequivocal and well-presented (by me) - is filtered through preconceptions, value-frames and habits of thought (by others) before it even reaches the stage of conscious evaluation ("The Political Mind" by George Lakoff and "Don't Believe Everything You Think" by Thomas Kida are two references I'm exploring);

    2) the question of how compact the AGW narrative could be made for newcomers to the issue: what is the smallest and most defensible set of arguments (lines of evidence) - supporting the conclusion that the threat is real, urgent, and solveable by doing THIS - that would engage enough people to the degree where they would in turn engage others?

    3) the possibility (or need?) to address the continuous onslaught of deliberate misrepresentation (and libel?) of climate science and scientists (can the effectiveness of formal rules of evidence and right of cross-examination so evident in the Dover trial a few years back (concerning attempts to introduce creationism into Pennsylvania classrooms) be harnessed?

    Any ideas on how we can further explore - and act - on this issue?
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  32. To CoalGeologist
    You raise some interesting points, but my bias doesnt necessarily coincide with yours, which I find humorous. What I do agree with is that the debate tends to have a psychological component which only addresses this theme through mild (or not so mild) insults. But the debate also has a political cast not unlike the progressive movement that challenged monarchisms going back for the last 300 years or so. The oil companies and deniers are the royalists, and the opposition in fact are the rabble. The problem of course is when you chop off the head of the king, then what? Maybe rabble is too generous. I think hypocrites would be a better term given that every computer that hits this site is ultimately powered by oil.
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  33. RSVP at 18:18 PM on 30 January, 2010

    "I think hypocrites would be a better term given that every computer that hits this site is ultimately powered by oil. "

    If I prefer beans but the menu offers only toast, does that make me a hypocrite? If somebody botches a gratuitous insult directed at nobody in particular, am I likely to add them to my list of influentials?
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  34. doug_bostrom
    A better comparison is one who would like to have a coke with ice in the middle of the desert, and the closest thing to water is a mirage at a 100 yards.
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  35. #5 ScaredAmoeba

    I had a look at but they reference Gerlach 1991. It seems a well referenced estimate.

    Anybody read Gerlach 1991? It's an EOS paper so only AGU members get access. Is EOS all opinion, news, reviews, no original data?
    If that's the case does anybody know the reference for Gerlach estimates?
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  36. doug_bostrom at 12:13 PM on 30 January, 2010
    "I wonder if making surface temperature the main communications message regarding climate change is not a fairly big mistake. Surface temperature is a crummy proxy for measuring actual climate change, especially when oceans dominate the scene. We don't live in the ocean, after all, yet oceans are where most of the current energy perturbation is going"

    It IS a mistake. As you say, average surface temperature is a "crummy proxy". It's NOT just a matter of communication skills, it really is one.

    There is simply no physical law about "conservation of temperature", temperature budget can neither be measured nor calculated. The very concept does not make sense. Also, surface temperature records suffer from all kinds of biases, trends in global averages ARE controversial. Automatic pattern recognition based data homogenization as it is practiced by climate experts is not a standard statistical procedure. It is NOT used in any other branch of science, and for a reason.

    OHC (Ocean Heat Contents) is much better. Atmospheric & soil heat content is negligible compared to oceans, most of the stored energy in climate system is heat, because below 30 miles elevation LTH (Local Thermodynamic Equilibrium) holds, and even better, we do have an energy conservation law, so in theory energy budget can be both measured and calculated at TOA (Top of Atmosphere) as the difference between ASR (Absorbed Shortwave Radiation) and OLR (Outgoing Longwave Radiation) fluxes. OHC should follow rather closely the temporal integral of this quantity.

    Unfortunately measurement is not up to the task yet. The low temporal frequency part of ASR-TOA (which is amplified by integration) is far too noisy to draw any conclusion. On the other hand OHC, at least in the upper 750 m of oceans, if anything, is slightly decreasing right now. There is no known mechanism to transfer and sequester so much extra heat into the abyss (which is not measured) as projected by climate models.

    Sea level as a proxy to OHC is also problematic. The low temporal frequency part, which determines long term trends, is NOT measured by satellites. It should be calibrated by tide gauges. But they only measure relative elevation changes between sea level and adjacent seashore. As crustal blocks are in continuous vertical motion either up or down comeasurable to sea level changes, the calibration depends on choice of the gauge set to be calibrated against.

    However, all is not lost. At any one place there is a strong correlation between lightning activity and surface temperatures. You don't even have to be a climate scientist to verify this connection. Global lightning activity can be assessed by measuring Schumann resonance amplitudes at any one spot on the face of earth. And it is measured indeed, since mid 1960s (the effect itself was discovered in 1952).

    There is NO long term trend detected in Schumann resonance activity.

    It plainly contradicts current "mainstream" global warming theory.

    If theory is falsified by measurement, it should be abandoned. It is not a communication issue, just this is how science works.

    There is NO contradiction between low vs. high climate sensitivity according to Monckton & Plimer as you claim.

    The very concept of climate "forcing" is flawed. Global climate may be sensitive to some changes (like ice sheet cover, orbital variation or solar UV) while insensitive to others (like CO2). It is not correct to readily covert each forcing to W/m2. They act on different parts of the climate system, can and do have different structural effects.

    It is certainly not the case that rising carbon dioxide levels have no climatic consequences. The atmosphere should reconfigure itself to accommodate to the changing composition. Even if global integrated heat contents of the system is not going to any definite direction, just fluctuates around an equilibrium level, there still may be transients and regional effects.

    However, sticking to already falsified models based on the "constant upper troposphere relative humidity principle" (of course there is no law for conservation of RH) is definitely not the way to proceed. This way you don't even have a chance to guess what atmospheric reconfiguration processes might in fact be going on.

    Once again. Forget communication & messages, it is not the scientist's field of expertise. Go for truth instead.
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  37. The article and the comments are interesting and have opened my eyes a bit more about why such discussions are so difficult.

    In an internet forum discussion when people do not know each other, we naturally tend to relate most to those with whom we agree. Therefore when an 'alarmist' responds impatiently to a 'skeptic' who is simply trolling or flaming or continually interrupting a discussion with silly throw-away lines, other skeptics react as if the impatient response is directed at all skeptics and 'group offense' is taken.

    Re scientists and the public, I'm betting that many scientists rarely mix with people of normal intelligence let alone people of low intelligence. When they socialise outside their field it is generally with people of equal or nearly equal intellect, so they aren't that practiced at communicating with the person in the street. Nor should they have to. That's the job of science communicators.

    Actors like Monckton appeal to emotion not intellect. For many people, emotion is a much more powerful force than reason. I bet most people who attend Monckton's performances don't even remember what his 'arguments' are, but they do remember the force with which he put them and that they agree with him, whatever he said.
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  38. Berényi Péter
    You are definitely speaking in the right direction. I would add that temperature matters as far as total ocean temperature averages. The issue as you say is all about energy, not weather. Weather is but a symptom.

    The other side of the coin are sustainable energy alternatives, which are played way down at this site. Everybody is waving the flag for change, quantifying the problems, but zero quanitifying when it comes to alternatives.
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  39. Yet another article that fails to stimulate a more informed debate between the main protagonists of the pro and anti AGW camps.

    Why was Ian Plimer not invited to respond directly to the contents of this article and the subsequent postings?

    Who knows, we all may learn something from such an exchange of views which could help us to inch forward in creating a broader consensus of the issue of climate change and the most appropriate mitigating measures that should be implemented.
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  40. Berényi Péter,

    you put a lot of different pieces together trying to disprove all of them. Let me pick them one by one and let me not quoting the relevant scientific articles to save time; they can easily be found if you're interested.

    it looks like you are not much confident with indirect measurement. Although the problem of AGW si definitely a problem of energy imbalance, temperature is one of its manifestation. It is (good old) standard practice in science to use indirect measurements to guess what is not accessible directly.

    OCH is a good indicator and it has been increasing for decades. Do you want to bet using just a few recent years? Is this a "standad statistical practice"? And why limit to a depth of 750 m? In the end, OCH in not so well characterized as anyone may wish and surface temperature do a good enough job.

    On this last point, you are missing that most part of the temperature record does not come from land. Indeed throughout the oceans the surface temperature is assumed to be the sea surface temperature and, surprise!, there's no controversy between the various data sets, at least if the "standard statistical practice" applies.

    Sea level measurements do NOT depend on any particular tide gauge and crustal upward/downward motion is quite well known and often measured. The relation between SLR and temperature is uncertain to the extent the other contribution (other than temperature) can be evaluated. It can be done and, allowing for the uncertainties, the are not contradictory.

    Please excuse me if i'll be i little harsh in what follow, but too often you sceptics claim to have found the smoking gun, the nail in the coffins, the final word. It just makes apparent your desire to put the discussion to an end. The last "infatuation" for the lightnings is silly. It's not a well characterized technique and, above all, it does not represent the whole water vapour content, even of just the upper troposphere/lower stratosphere. True that water vapour is carried there by strong upward transport in thunderstorms but it's not the whole story, not even the largest part but what is measured is the frequency of the events, not the amount of water vapour carried up in the atmopshere. There are no nails in the coffin here, just one more little piece of information; claiming that it "falsify the models" is absurd and inviting us to "go for truth" is arrogant.
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  41. RSVP,
    not sure to represent the thinking of our guest, but it looks like this site is devoted to science more than technology. Although very interesting and important, it's outside the scope of this blog. IMHO.
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    Response: My original plan was to begin with a focus on science and as the public debate moved on from the scientific question of what's causing global warming into the question of what to do about it, Skeptical Science would move into that area too. I must confess we're not as far along as I expected to be at this point.
  42. > Berényi Péter

    I agree with you that monitoring the global average of the surface temperature is not the best way to measure climate change, and that OHC sounds like a more interesting number. As you say, it might not be so easy to measure this. You might be able to estimate how much heat going in or out at the surface of the ocean, but there might also be unknown heat exchange between the ocean and the underlying rocks - or maybe you can ignore this?

    Anyhow, you claim that OHC is decreasing. This does not seem to agree with the source cited at Do you have some reference to back up your claim?

    I do not understand the relevance of lightening activity - why is there a strong relation between this and global temperature? Even granted this and granted your claim that global lightening activity is constant, why does this measure anything more relevant than surface temperature which we measure directly anyhow, and which we seem to agree is not necessarily the best parameter to monitor.
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  43. I'm new here. Can someone explain how the proxy records validate that the Medieval warm period was cooler? I thought McIntyre demolished the Hockey stick(Mann), and the Yamal tree(Briffa)?

    What other reconstructions are out there that prove it?
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    Response: EdB, welcome to Skeptical Science. Just one reminder - please post comments on the relevant page. A search for hockey stick (note the search form in the left margin) would point you towards the hockey stick is broken page. Here, you will learn that since Mann's hockey stick paper in 1999, there have been a number of temperature reconstructions made using a variety of techniques (not just the PCA analysis employed by Mann) from a number of different proxies (eg - stalagmites, ice cores, boreholes, tree rings, etc).

    Then if you have any further questions, you can continue the discussion there which is the best place for such a topic.
  44. EdB,
    unfortunately the hockey stick is stil there, up and running. More on the divergence problem here
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  45. Keep your hasty judgments to yourself RSVP, my computer is powered by hydro.
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  46. Someone has been talking about global thunderstorm activity and global warming. First, it is important to remember that we do not have a long record of reliable global lightning flash data (accuracy ~500 m, detection rate >80%). In N. America there are only about 10 yrs worth of spatially and temporally continuous lightning data (and coverage over the Tundra and Arctic is not great). This is not really long enough to draw any conclusions regarding trends.
    There are some global lightning networks which use a variety of technologies, but they miss a large portion of the strikes/flashes. There are also remotely sensed lightning data from space, but these can only detect nocturnal lightning.
    Anyhow, so we still do not have a monitoring system that adequately captures and quantifies global lightning activity.
    For a thunderstorm to form one requires: 1) Instability; 2) Low-level moisture and 3) A trigger mechanism to lift a "parcel" to its level of free convection (LFC). Note that temperature does not appear explicitly(it is included implicitly in all three though, e.g., increase in instability through differential heating in the vertical, air can hold more WV as temp. goes up, surface heating may be enough alone to lift parcels to their LFC), and that each one of these requirements is alone not a necessary and sufficient condition for a thunderstorm. All three need to be satisfied simultaneously.
    So, as someone who has some expertise int his area, would argue that lightning is not necessarily the best metric for tracking global warming, and also, that we are really not in a position yet to adequately monitor global lightning activity.
    There are suggestions that lightning actvity may be increasing over high latitudes of continents in the N. Hemisphere in response ot the warming there, although we do not really have sufficient data yet to speak to trends.
    Anyhow, my point is that is there is a strong lightning signal to GW, then it will likely be evident in lightning activity over high-latitude continental areas in the N. Hemisphere during the warm season.

    PS: One must also remember that GW may also result in more lightning activity in some areas, but less activity in others b/c of desertification, for example.
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  47. Berényi Péter at 21:45 PM on 30 January, 2010

    "Once again. Forget communication & messages, it is not the scientist's field of expertise. Go for truth instead. "

    Many scientists have made human communications their primary field of inquiry. Humans of course must be treated as something akin to molecules of gas when it comes to making predictions of aggregate populations, but it is possible to make predictions about human integration of new ideas into existing mental models with a fair degree of confidence

    Unfortunately, scientific research on communications indicates that conveying truth is not always a simple or easy task, even when the truth being conveyed is not accompanied by controversy and competing attempts to distort understanding.

    Even when a third party is not waving a brightly colored, distracting blanket and yelling "Hey, look over here!", effectively conveying such things as the difference between weather and climate is fairly challenging. Selecting a means of conveying a concept that is robust against such challenges improves the probability that any given recipient's understanding will be improved.

    As to ocean heat content, the measurement issues you mention can be resolved easily enough for relatively microscopic amounts of money, sufficient to yield numbers with reasonable confidence. The very little that has been spent on that effort is entirely encouraging.
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  48. Berényi Péter at 21:45 PM on 30 January, 2010

    "Once again. Forget communication & messages, it is not the scientist's field of expertise. Go for truth instead. "

    Read up on Hugh Hammond Bennett, scientist and 'political player', and how both his scientific endeavour plus ability to play the political game led to solving the Dust Bowl problem of the Great Depression.

    Pay close attention to the trick he used during a crucial Senate committee in March 1935; something many scientists would be pilloried for today, but then most in the US would also be eating sand today ;)
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  49. Riccardo: your response to my question about the hockey stick. I am puzzled by your references as the records I Googled shows that the hockey stick is broken:

    The Wegman report to the US Senate says this:

    Mann's decentred methodology is simply incorrect mathematics …. I am baffled by the claim that the incorrect method doesn’t matter because the answer is correct anyway. Method Wrong + Answer Correct = Bad Science.

    And in Wegmans reply to Senator Stupak he says the following about Wahl and Ammann (2006):

    It is our understanding that when using the same proxies as and the same methodology as MM, Wahl and Ammann essentially reproduce the MM curves. Thus, far from disproving the MM work, they reinforce the MM
    work. The debate then is over the proxies and the exact algorithms as it always has been.
    The fact that Wahl and Ammann (2006) admit that the results of the MBH methodology does not coincide with the results of other methods such as borehole methods and atmospheric-ocean general circulation models and
    that Wahl and Ammann adjust the MBH methodology to include the PC4 bristlecone/foxtail pine effects are significant reasons we believe that the
    Wahl and Amman paper does not convincingly demonstrate the validity of the MBH methodology.
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  50. EdB at 05:55 AM on 31 January, 2010

    Useful to read this:

    "Wegman had been tasked solely to evaluate whether the McIntyre and McKitrick (2005) (MM05) criticism of Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) (MBH) had statistical merit. That is, was their narrow point on the impacts of centering on the first principal component (PC) correct? He was pointedly not asked whether it made any difference to the final MBH reconstruction and so he did not attempt to evaluate that. Since no one has ever disputed MM05’s arithmetic (only their inferences), he along with the everyone else found that, yes, centering conventions make a difference to the first PC. This was acknowledged way back when and so should not come as a surprise. From this, Wegman concluded that more statisticians should be consulted in paleo-climate work. Actually, on this point most people would agree – both fields benefit from examining the different kinds of problems that arise in climate data than in standard statistical problems and coming up with novel solutions, and like most good ideas it has already been thought of. For instance, NCAR has run a program on statistical climatology for years and the head of that program (Doug Nychka) was directly consulted for the Wahl and Ammann (2006) paper for instance.

    But, and this is where the missing piece comes in, no-one (with sole and impressive exception of Hans von Storch during the Q&A) went on to mention what the effect of the PC centering changes would have had on the final reconstruction – that is, after all the N. American PCs had been put in with the other data and used to make the hemispheric mean temperature estimate. Beacuse, let’s face it, it was the final reconstruction that got everyone’s attention.Von Storch got it absolutely right – it would make no practical difference at all. "

    Illustrations here:
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