Wednesday, August 18, 2010

If You're Fishing for a Climate Change Skeptic, Don't Bait Your Hook Genuine Science


I call your attention to the fact that it is always easier to make an accusation than it is to verify it. The real damage occurs when people begin to accept accusations as facts without taking the extra time to discover if they are really true or not.

Back in February, on a short list of major problems with climate science, you posted this:

"To make matters worse, and proving this was not an isolated situation, the same thing happened again, aka AmazonGate, where the IPCC published and promoted claims of the impending endangerment of some 40% of the Amazon rainforest. (Bizarrely, even the WWF's own report on the Amazon forest doesn't support this conclusion. You'd think the IPCC's peer-review process would have caught that...)"

Let's take a closer look at "Amazongate" and see what we can learn about facts and accusations - and specifically, yours. I'll warn you, this is going to be a long post.

First mention of this "controversy" appeared at the website of British blogger Richard North, and was later carried as an article in The Times. Mr North had uncovered a supporting reference in the IPCC's 4th assessment which seemed a little fishy.

In the 2nd Volume (take note: by Working Group II) of the 4th IPCC Report, "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability", under chapter 13, "Latin America", Mr. North found the statement that "40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation...".

Reference for this conclusion was listed as "Rowell and Moore, 2000" ("Rowell, A. and P.F.Moore, 2000: Global Review of Forest Fires. WWF/IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 66 pp. - as it appears in the reference section).

As noted, the Rowell and Moore publication is a product of the IUCN: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature. While it is an excellent report (you can download it here), its authors, Andy Rowell and Peter F. Moore were characterized as "green campaigners". From Mr. North's article:

"Thus, the IPCC is relying for its assertions that "up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation" on a free-lance journalist/activist and a specialist in policy and analysis relating to forest fires in Australia, Asia and South Africa."(my emphasis).

Not only that, but if you read through the article itself (I have), as Mr. North pointed out, you find no reference at all to the 40% Amazonian forest sensitivity figure.

Mr. North concluded:

"In all, then, the IPCC claim is a fabrication, unsupported even by the reference it gives, which it should not in any event have used as it is not a primary source."

Now this is the kind of accusation which really resonates in the denialist blogosphere. It perfectly fits the claim that climate science and global warming are being used by alarmists to further a radical, environmental agenda. But is that actually true?

Along comes George Monbiot, who wrote in a July 6th Guardian article:

"There is no doubt that the IPCC made a mistake. Sourcing its information on the Amazon to a report by the green group WWF rather than the abundant peer-reviewed literature on the subject, was a bizarre and silly thing to do.

...But far from “grossly exaggerating” the state of the science in 2007, as North claimed, the IPCC – because it referenced the WWF report, not the peer-reviewed literature - grossly understated it. The two foremost peer-reviewed papers on the subject at the time of the 2007 report were both published in Theoretical and Applied Climatology.

...The first paper, by Cox et al, shows a drop in broadleaf tree cover from approximately 80% of the Amazon region in 2000 to around 28% in 2100 (Figure 6). That is bad enough, involving far more than 40% of the rainforest...

So what does the second paper say? Betts et al go even further(2). In their model runs:

“By the end of the 21st Century, the mean broadleaf tree coverage of Amazonia has reduced from over 80% to less than 10%.” "

Mr Monbiot goes on to note that both papers were actually cited elsewhere in the IPCC AR4 report. And indeed they are. Here is the link he provides, which leads to a list of references supplied by Working Group I (keep that in mind).

BTW, the papers are:

1. PM Cox et al, 2004. Amazonian forest dieback under climate-carbon cycle projections for the 21st century. Theoretical and Applied Climatology, 78, 137–156. DOI 10.1007/s00704-004-0049-4

2. RA Betts et al, 2004. The role of ecosystem-atmosphere interactions in simulated Amazonian precipitation decrease and forest dieback under global climate warming. Theoretical and Applied Climatology, 78, 157–175. DOI 10.1007/s00704-004-0050-y

Back came Richard North with a July 29th response in The Guardian: " Response to George Monbiot: Why 'Amazongate' matters", in which he writes:

"That he (Monbiot) claims that there is research which supports the general thesis, is not the point. Apart from the fact that its meaning and value is arguable, the fact is that Working Group II of the IPCC did not refer to this work and did not call it in aid of its claim."(my emphasis).

In essence, what Mr North continues to claim is that the original Rowell and Moore reference still matters because it was included in the report in the first place. And, crucially, Working Group II (not WG I) - the group responsible for the section covering the Amazon forest, failed to mention the relevant, peer reviewed literature. In other words, even though peer reviewed literature did exist to support the "40%" claim, Working Group II was not aware of it - a fact which exposes their claim as a fabrication.

However, possibly what Monbiot, and certainly what North didn't realize, is that Working Group II really did cite the appropriate literature. Here is a link to page 253 (references) of Working Group II's report (Chapter 4) on Ecosystems, which is entirely the appropriate place to cite these papers. Note that the "Betts, etal" (and later, on page 255, the "Cox, etal") papers are clearly cited.

But wait, there's more. Remember, the IPCC report had quoted the figure of 40% of the Amazonian Forest's sensitivity to reduced precipitation, where as the Betts and Cox articles appear to support an even higher figure. Why is this?

Well, even before the Monbiot article, on June 20th, The Times had already published a correction of the North article, along with an apology for running it. From the correction:

"In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary."

and perhaps more to the point:

"In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this."

So now let's look back and again consider Mr. North's less substantial accusation that the 40% figure had to be a fabrication because: "the fact is that Working Group II of the IPCC did not refer to this work and did not call it in aid of its claim..."

Is this accusation credible?

No, it isn't - and for reasons which Mr. North, had he been a more responsible journalist, could easily have discovered. Here's why:

First of all, peer reviewed papers dealing with Amazonian Forest sensitivity to lower precipitation were appropriately referenced by Working Group II in a related chapter. STRIKE 1. Secondly, the 40% figure cited was actually backed up, as the Times Correction states, by published, peer reviewed research from IPAM (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia) STRIKE 2.

Finally, the reference to Rowell and Moore had to be a typo. Why? Well, every single author and reviewer on Chapter 13 were drawn from institutions in South or Central America - and without doubt would have been familiar with the work of IPAM. Not only that, but many, if not all of them would almost certainly have previously cited IPAM material, if not collaborated with that institution first hand. Thus, since they had access to and knowledge of the IPAM material, they had absolutely no reason to fabricate the 40% figure and back it up with the wrong reference. STRIKE 3*.

So, after a patient examination of all the facts, "Amazongate" goes up in a puff of smoke, and turns out to be nothing more than an effort by a biased, right wing blogger to manufacture a controversy out of a mere typo. I want to conclude this post with a few important observations...

First of all, no matter how many times you repeat it, a lie is still a lie. This is something we should have learned back during the Red Scare and the McCarthyism of the 50's. Somebody makes an accusation, others pick it up, add to it, and the whole thing gets repeated over and over until it acquires the semblance of fact. Everybody's saying it, so it must be true - no?

The sad truth is, this is a game played with a stacked deck which favors the accusers. They make the accusations, and a credulous American public with a short attention span buys into them. Not necessarily because we are ignorant, but because we are intellectually lazy.

Now if those right-wing sources we rely on for judgements about climate science were really interested in the truth, they would have researched this phony controversy, as I have, and concluded it amounted to absolutely nothing. But Steve, they're not interested in the truth. All they really want is a means to discredit the science and the scientists which fairly calls their political views into question. Facts don't matter to these people.

Steve, it took me over half a day and well over a thousand words to refute a single accusation which took you only a single paragraph and a few seconds to make. This is the kind of odds the establishment of climate science is up against. I can't tell you how many times I've asked myself, "What's the point?". If you are so determined to believe these false accusations that you will not do this research yourself, why should I waste my time doing it for you?

I decided to create this post, not specifically to refute "Amazongate". I could have done the same thing with any of the other accusations you made in your earlier posts. My point here is to demonstrate that should you have the desire, you have the means to check these things out for yourself.



* note: If you question this conclusion, I'll go back and check academic references and resumes. However this process is very time consuming and in my opinion unnecessary in view of the fact that it is no more plausible to believe an expert physicist would not know about Einstein's work than a South American climate scientist would not know of IPAM.


  1. I like the very first paragraph of your post. I agree with it 110%. I like it because it applies equally to *both* sides of the AGW issue, and especially to all scientists and research teams involved in the research. 'Nuff said.

  2. Another thought...

    The Scientific Method consists of formulating falsifiable hypotheses. The problem is, unless you know (and test against!) the exact mechanisms involved, how do you know that an hypothesis has been or CAN BE falsified? Sometimes, the data used to formulate the theory is inexact or incomplete. Frequently, assumptions are made or inferences are derived from the available (inexact) data. This doesn't help.

    As for AGW: what data do we need to falsify the hypothesis? Remember, we're NOT trying trying to decide whether or not the theory is *plausible* or if there is another completing explanation.

    TRUE peer-review is all about trying to DISPROVE a theory or at least find areas / data that doesn't fit. And this can only happen via unrestricted access to the data and all supporting mechanisms the theory is based upon. AGW proponents in general (and Mann specifically) has been reluctant to give that unfettered access. "Why?" is a question best left to the student.

    My point is the better we understand a phenomenon, the more narrow (in scope) a hypothesis we can make, and thus the more refined our collection of relevant data will be. This greater level of understanding, will, by definition, lead to better quality of the data used. And THEN, we will be able to test the falsity of our hypotheses.

    It doesn't matter whether or not there's another explanation. It doesn't matter if the theory is 'reasonable': It's all about: Observe... Develop Theory... Test to disprove... Repeat as needed.

    During a properly conducted testing process you will *always* discover new and additional areas for study. This allows you to refine the theory for greater precision.

    I am always impressed by a researcher who publicly withdraws his presentation saying, "I've got new data that doesn't fit the theory. I'll get back to you."

    I am aware of few AGW proponents that are willing to admit their conclusions *might* be wrong. All too frequently, they resort to, "if you can't think of anything better, *I* must be right!" Not true in all cases, of course, but it does happen.

    Let's get back to doing Real Science and let the chips fall where they may. I can (and did) line up behind the AGW proponents at onetime. I can do so again. I only expect AGW proponents to exhibit the same willingness.

    - Steve