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Whistleblower: ‘I knew people would misuse this.’ They did - to attack climate science

Posted on 9 February 2017 by dana1981

This weekend, conservative media outlets launched an attack on climate scientists with a manufactured scandal. The fake news originated from an accusation made by former NOAA scientist John Bates about a 2015 paper by some of his NOAA colleagues. The technical term to describe the accusation is ‘a giant nothingburger’ (in this case, a NOAA-thing burger) as Bates clarified in an interview with E&E News:

The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything it was.

Bates later told Science Insider that he was concerned that climate science deniers would misuse his complaints, but proceeded anyway because he felt it was important to start a conversation about data integrity:

I knew people would misuse this. But you can’t control other people.

“Misuse” is the understatement of the year

Misuse it people did – and how! Bates’ complaints boiled down to the fact that the paper didn’t have “a disclaimer at the bottom saying that it was citing research, not operational, data for its land-surface temperatures.” The Mail on Sunday (just banned by Wikipedia as an unreliable source) warped that minor procedural criticism into the sensationalist headline “Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.” 

The story then spread through the international conservative media like a global warming-intensified wildfire - to Breitbart, Fox News, Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Caller, The Washington Times, and more. Scott Johnson summed up the fake news story perfectly in an article at Ars Technica:

At its core, though, it’s not much more substantial than claiming the Apollo 11 astronauts failed to file some paperwork and pretending this casts doubt on the veracity of the Moon landing.

At the same time, real science journalists who investigated the story quickly determined that it was fake news and published stories reflecting that reality. Readers of legitimate news outlets like The GuardianThe Washington PostCarbon Brief, E&E News, Ars Technica, Science Insider, RealClimate, and numerous other science blogs were accurately informed, while consumers of biased right-wing news outlets that employ faux science journalists were grossly misinformed by alternative facts and fake news.

Smith uses the fake scandal to advance anti-science agenda

Lamar Smith (R-TX) is the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Not long after the 2015 NOAA paper was published, Smith launched an inquisition aimed at the agency and scientists who were involved in the study.

This weekend’s faux scandal was conveniently timed for Smith’s hearing two days later, entitled “Making EPA Great Again.” Although the scandal had already been thoroughly debunked, Smith nevertheless featured the story front and center, and pleaded with attendees to believe that “it may be more serious than you think.”

The hearing appeared to be aimed at helping to advance the Secret Science Reform Act. The bill would limit the EPA to using only data that can be replicated or made available for “independent analysis.” While this sounds reasonable at first blush, research that’s relevant to the EPA often relies upon confidential personal information that can’t be made public, or studies of one-time events like oil spills, or decades-long data collections that can’t be replicated.

In short, the Secret Science Reform Act would make it extremely difficult for EPA to implement science-based regulations. The bill comes straight out of the tobacco industry playbook. It’s thus unsurprising that two of the three Republican witnesses in Smith’s hearing have worked for the coal and chemical industries.

Bates’ complaints

It’s worth spending a bit more time examining the details of Bates’ accusations. He claimed that the 2015 NOAA paper correcting for known biases in the global surface temperature record was “rushed” for political reasons without proper data archiving, but the editor-in-chief of the journal Science in which the paper was published noted that the peer-review process actually took longer than average for this paper.

The paper was not rushed in any way. It had an exceptional number of reviewers, many more than average because we knew it was on a controversial topic. It had a lot of data analysis.

The lead author of the study, Thomas Karl responded to Bates’ complaints in an interview with the Washington Post:

The term ‘archive’ means a lot of different things to different people. … In this case, the data were available if anyone asked for it, and then they were archived further down the line after the paper was published.

While NOAA’s data archiving protocols are an internal matter, some outside scientists argue that the process to correct for known biases already takes too long. For example, global temperature data expert Kevin Cowtan told me:

The paper by Karl and colleagues corrected two known problems with the temperature observations: poor coverage of the Arctic, and a change from ships to buoys. Both had been known about since 2008. It took NOAA seven years to produce a paper correcting their temperature data, and even now their monthly updates still omit much of the Arctic.

The agencies face an impossible dilemma - on one hand they have to slowly and carefully evaluate new results, and on the other they have to provide an up-to-date temperature record. Rather than rushing out corrections, they appear to have been extremely conservative.

It’s particularly absurd that biased media outlets tried to manufacture a scandal out of this story, because just one month prior, Zeke Hausfather, Kevin Cowtan, and colleagues had published a paper demonstrating that the data corrections in the NOAA paper are accurate. Moreover, the corrections themselves were quite small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of long-term human-caused global warming. 

House Science Committee is part of the war on science

It’s disturbing that the House “Science” Committee is launching inquisitions against scientists, spreading fake science news, and trying to prevent the EPA from issuing science-based regulations. Sadly, that’s the era we now live in. Lamar Smith has also written many editorials for Breitbart and said that for accurate information we should rely not on scientists or the media, but solely on Donald Trump.

90% of Republicans agree, believing the Trump administration is truthful and the media is untruthful.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Excellent points. The accusations against NOAA are another beat up, and vicious attack on climate science, without any real foundation. I agree with how you characterise all this. It is certainly a nothingburger, and hopefully it will very soon be a goneburger.

    The bottom line is there is no evidence of significant policy breaches, and the data adjustments make only an incredibly small difference to the data, and have been verified by other agencies anyway. This will of course be lost on the denialist crowd, who obviously don't care about facts, honesty, or the big issues, merely scoring points, destroying careers over trivial issues, and advancing their own agenda. It's almost animal like behaviour.

    The term "war on science" is a big term, but how else can it now be described, if not a war on science?

    I'm intrigued by what would be Bates motivation. Firstly "in principle" whistle blowing has it's place, and that no organisation is above this. In fact I'm a strong believer in whistle blowing, and laws often protect whistleblowers.

    But surely whistle blowing carries some big responsibilities as well? Huge moral responsibilites. You need to get your facts right before blowing the whistle. You could potentially damage peoples lives and your own cause. Surely you also need something substantial?

    I can't see that anything NOAA did rises to these sorts of levels. It seems like Bates has got it all wrong. He has not got his facts right. He has claimed things that he is allegedly in no position to have the full information on, by what is now said.

    It makes me wonder if he is an attention seeker, or disgruntled employee. Every organisation has one of these.

    But it's another pseudo scandal with a lot of smoke and no real fire, and is now in the public domain. Its like climategate or the hockey stick controversy. These things are boldy presented in the media, and are in the public mind, as negative sorts of things, and the enquiries finding there was nothing wrong are posted in the media, usually in the fine print in the back that nobody is going to read. Apart froom a few websites like this, the media are unbalanced, and constantly letting us down, when they do this. 

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  2. Regarding my comment that Bates might be a disgruntled employee, I have since read this on Realclimate, who have a good article today, basically on the same NOAA / Bates issue:

    "12 Susan Anderson says:There may also be something beyond simple “engineers vs. scientists” tension behind Bates’ decision to go public with his allegations. Two former NOAA staffers confirmed to Ars that Tom Karl essentially demoted John Bates in 2012, when Karl was Director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Bates had held the title of Supervisory Meteorologist and Chief of the Remote Sensing Applications Division, but Karl removed him from that position partly due to a failure to maintain professionalism with colleagues, assigning him to a position in which he would no longer supervise other staff. It was apparently no secret that the demotion did not sit well with Bates."

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  3. In communication science it is understood that the First message received about an issue can have more power than any later information.

    People can get away with reinforcing more unbelievable beliefs every time they get to publish a lie or a twist of fact free of immediate challenge for clarification of understanding (like Trump Tweets). Many of their followers have made-up their minds about what to believe.

    Attempts to provide more infomrtaion can reach into some minds and lead to a change. But with powerfully motivated delusions, like the belief that it is OK to want to continue to personally benefit from the burning of fossil fuels, attempting to change the made-up beliefs with added information can trigger a powerful defensive reaction. And the predecessors of the current day likes of Team Trump have created some key misunderstandings in many made-up minds.

    Being Elite (the best of a group) is actually now "bad" in a made-up mind. Anyone who presents a better understanding that is contrary to the beliefs of the made-up mind can be accused of being an Elite.

    That type of twist is a deliberate attempt to innoculate am easily made-up mind against better understanding. And efforts should be started to correct the misrepresentation of the term Elite.

    The same goes for Fake News. That term can be applied to any reporting that is contrary to the interests of those who thrive on the damaging misunderstandings they can develop in easily made-up minds, minds that desire personal benefit/interests more than they care about the potential consequences to others (or even themselves) of what they want to do.

    Unfortunately places like the USA have created large pools of easily impressed people, people immersed in misleading messaging (advertising) and believing that they have the right to believe whatever they want and do whatever they please in pursuit of personal interests without needing to better understand if what they do is potentially detrimental to the advancement of humanity to a truly lasting better future (Wall Streeters as well as Trump Team fans).

    Climate science has unwittingly exposed the need to actually undo those Fundamentally Misguided Beliefs.

    That is why I try to introduce the understanding of the unacceptability of burning up non-renewable buried hydorcarbons very early in a discussion about climate science. It leads to the very challenging point that in competitions for popularrity and profitability people willing to behave less acceptably have a competitive advantage until they can't get away with it any more.

    The fundamentally flawed belief that the free actions of everyone in a free market will develop good results has been around for a very long time (it is a core principle of Freedman's Chicago School of Economics preaching). The understanding that it is flawed has also been around for a very long time. Understanding that it is fatally flawed has failed to Win popular support, developing never-ending streams of damaging consequences to advancement of humanity.

    The Serengetti attack on individual climate scientists can potentially be meaningfully countered by all of the diverse groups who strive to help advance humanity to a lasting better future recognising that together they are far more powerful than the few among us who only care about their own short-term interests.

    It could be very powerful if the rebuttals of each climate science related attack were shared in the communications of every other group that strives to overcome the damaging realities created by short-term pursuits of personal interest. And sharing the better understanding/rebuttals of similar attacks on the actions of other groups could grow a very diverse and resiliant team that better understands what is required to effectively advance humanity.

    And what is required to advance humanity needs to be defended against the attempts to deem it things like Socialism or Communism. "Advancing all of humanity to a lasting better future" needs to be understood to be the objective. Giving it a name, or allowing it to be given a name, would be Bad.

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  4. One Planet Only Forever @3

    "Being Elite (the best of a group) is actually now "bad" in a made-up mind. Anyone who presents a better understanding that is contrary to the beliefs of the made-up mind can be accused of being an Elite."

    This rings true. It's a great shame elites are coming into disrepute, because whatever failings they have, and they are human, expert knowledge is preferable to the sort of wild claims we are seeing from some quarters, particularly the Donald Trump crowd.

    I would just say regarding made up minds, modes of human thinking probably exist on a "bell curve" with most people being moderates in the middle, and open minded, a few towards the edges are very fixed or stubborn by nature, maybe quite a big few, and at the other extreme are people that are so flexible they don't know their own mind. But in this respect winning the climate debate is a fight over the middle ground people, like politics is often a fight over moderates or swing voters. It's very hard to convince the extremists or conspiracy theorests.This is mostly so, but of course the election in America has taken on an unusual dimension.

    But given "warmists" are trying to win the hearts and minds of people in the middle, they need to communicate in ways that will persuade these people.

    "The fundamentally flawed belief that the free actions of everyone in a free market will develop good results has been around for a very long time (it is a core principle of Freedman's Chicago School of Economics preaching)."

    Yes it's simplistic. All markets do is allocate resources reasonably well in economic ways on short term time frames. They are provably poor at considering long term consequences, or things that degrade the air or oceans. This is why markets must have rules and boundaries and usually do have, except in Trumpland.

    "And what is required to advance humanity needs to be defended against the attempts to deem it things like Socialism or Communism. "Advancing all of humanity to a lasting better future" needs to be understood to be the objective. Giving it a name, or allowing it to be given a name, would be Bad."

    Yes, this avoids emotive and ideological battles to some extent. It's interesting how some people insist on labels, or obsess over labels.

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  5. nigelj,

    I will clarify that my reference to a Made-up mind is more about the thoughts and beliefs lacking a substantive basis in the known observable understandable reality of things and what is actually going on.

    Which highlights how problematic using "Terms" can be.

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  6. OPOF @5, yes I see that does fit your context. But perhaps deceived mind is more accurate.

    Terms are problematic. I struggle with them. 

    If I'm using a contentious term, eg capitalism, free markets, I now always explain what I understand these things to mean.

    People are using the term elite in a snarling, derogatory sense. It's twisted the meaning of the word from something to be admired to the opposite. It's become almost secret code among a certain group to put the elite down.

    It's similar to the use of the term "politically correct" which carries massively critical connotations, yet defines accurate definition.

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  7. I have been struggling to understand the real controversy John Bates brings to the table, rather than the hoax reported in the media. John claims he knew it would be misused. OK. So the proper use? The best I have been able to ascertain is this:

    John Bates claim was that the archiving of the data wasn’t complete until six months after the paper appeared, and there was no format statement for the DATA, making it not in machine readable form, and it used a 90% rather than 95% confidence standard.

    That is completely different than “all DATA from NOAA is worthless or tampered”.

    In fact even the data in that controversial paper would have value, because although late to archive, it is there now. And although a format statement wasn’t made, The Data is in ascii format, which actually is machine readable, it simply lacked a format statement to that effect. And a 90% vs a 95% standard is simply a matter of recalculating the conclusions made from the data to the new higher standard. The actual measurements were not tampered with at all. So it is timing and format rather than fudged data.

    How close am I? Did I understand the real issue brought up by Dr Bates? Or is there more? Thanks for your help. 

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  8. Red Baron @7, I read the same thing somewhere that the data is actually machine readable. My initial reaction to this whole issue was that perhaps some minor procedural mistakes were made,  but it appears even that may not be the case.

    I think Bates is an angry, disgrunted former employee looking to score points. There's plenty of evidence he had conflcits with his employer. His emotional involvement could mean he has jumped to conclusions. Like with so many similar scandals, we will probably never really get to the bottom of it as he will become totally defensive, and will close up.

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  9. The E&E article is terrible.  Meandering, random quotes from the supposed interview.  Just like climate data, the actual interview should be published not just this mashup.  It is not helpful at all.

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  10. Speaking of communicating clearly - what responsiblity do scientists have in that regard?  Specifically I've spent a lot of time looking at Fyfe 2016 and it is about a poorly and counter-productively written as I can imagine - but better not call them on it.  All ya get is hurt feelings and slammed doors, no matter how carefully or constructively one constructs their arguments.

    Fyfe et al. 2016: stamp collecting vs informing and clarifying. Examining a failure to communicate
    ... and a question of perspective.
    Alternately, Behold Seepage in Action.

    (Skipping my introduction here)

    Fyfe 2016 introduction:
    It has been claimed that the early-2000s global warming (b) slowdown or hiatus (a)(e), characterized by a reduced rate of global surface warming (c), has been overstated, lacks sound scientific basis, or is unsupported by observations. The evidence presented here contradicts these claims (d).

    The problem >>>

    Why the labyrinthian phrasing? Simplify wording. Clarify meaning.

    (a) Creates a false equivalence between “slowdown” and “hiatus” - hiatus means STOPPED! But, Global Warming never stopped!

    (b) Creates a false equivalence between “global warming” and “global mean surface warming.”

    (c) Furthermore: “early-2000s global warming slowdown or hiatus, characterized by a reduced rate of global surface warming” - implies “surface” warming slowdown (or faux hiatus) is a symptom of a “global” warming slowdown.

    (d) “Evidence presented here contradicts these claims.” Given the paragraph's convoluted wording one could easily conclude this is saying: the “hiatus” (that is global warming stopping) is not contradicted

    … which is exactly what the contrarian PR machine was hoping they could twist any science into. Why make it so easy?

    (e) Why even use the politically charged term “hiatus” beyond a footnote? What possible purpose does it serve other than to fatally wound clarity and invite gross misinterpretation?

    This paper seems a textbook example of “seepage” in action. Or as I would phrase it, unconsciously adapting the contrarian’s script. Please keep this in mind as you continue.
    Fyfe: ¶1 A large body of scientific evidence — amassed before and since the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR5)1 — indicates that the so-called surface warming slowdown, also sometimes referred to in the literature as the hiatus,
    “sometimes referred to...” ? What purpose is there in reinforcing the faux “hiatus” meme?
    Fyfe: was due to the combined effects of internal decadal variability and natural forcing (volcanic and solar) superimposed on human-caused warming2.

    “internal decadal variabilities” - that would be heat transport?

    Why not get explicit and point out that Atmospheric Physics are what's causing Global Warming - not Heat Transport between the oceans and the surface?


    But that's just the beginning highlights.  For the entire exercise in futility visit:

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