Mother nature’s sons

homer.jpgYesterday, two of NZ’s leading newspapers — Fairfax stablemates The Press and the Dominion Post — featured an exciting story by Press science reporter Paul Gorman. The Press headlined it Climate change down to nature, while the Dom Post opted for the slightly more accurate Nature blamed for warming. Big news, obviously, as Gorman explained in the opening sentence in the DP version:

Nature, not mankind, is responsible for recent climate change, according to new peer-reviewed research likely to send ripples around the world.

The first ripples showed up at Hot Topic on Friday morning, alerting me to this apparently ground-breaking piece of research — a paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research titled Influence of the Southern Oscillation on tropospheric temperature . And then I saw the author list: McLean, J. D., C. R. de Freitas, and R. M. Carter. That’s Bob “big lie” Carter, inexpert witness Chris de Freitas, and Aussie “climate analyst” John McLean, as good a cross-section of the southern hemisphere climate crank coterie as you’re likely to find in one journal at one time. And guess what, the paper’s available free of charge from the NZ Climate “Science” Coalition web site [PDF (link now broken, see Update 4 below)], although the AGU want to charge for it. All sorts of interesting questions popped into my mind…

My first instinct, naturally enough, was to read the paper to see what it said. Could a paper that claimed nature was driving warming really have made it through peer-review into a mainstream journal? The answer to that question is easy enough. McLean et al (2009) makes no such claim. The closest it gets is in the closing paragraph:

…this study has shown that natural climate forcing associated with ENSO is a major contributor to variability and perhaps recent trends in global temperature, a relationship that is not included in current global climate models.

“And perhaps recent trends in global temperature”? Nowhere in the paper do they discuss trends in global temperature, and as Tamino points out in an excellent analysis at Open Mind, the procedure they use to compare temperature to the Southern Oscillation Index specifically prevents any conclusions about trends, because it removes them from the data! And just in case there’s any doubt, if you “correct” the global temperature series for the influence of El Niño and La Niña (aka ENSO, the El Niño Southern Oscillation), the underlying (upwards) trends remain the same.

The paper’s basic conclusion, that global temperature is affected by ENSO events is hardly new. Michael Tobis at In It For The Gold describes the finding of a 7 month lag as “modestly useful”, but the rest as a “no brainer”. Given that, one is bound to ask how the authors squeezed their final sentence past JGR’s peer review process? Someone, somewhere inside the AGU, is going to be severely embarrassed. Greenfyre goes so far as to call it “an appalling lack of competence and/or integrity on the part of the authors; [and] a serious lapse of the peer review process at the Journal Of Geophysical Research.”

It’s clear that what science the paper contains is not terribly original, so how come an experienced science journalist is writing a piece describing it as an earth shattering revelation? The answer lies in the way the paper is being presented by its authors, and — unfortunately — by some sloppy journalism on the part of Gorman.

The press release issued by the authors is quoted in full at Mark Morano’s Climate Depot. This is what “corresponding author” de Freitas has to say:

“The surge in global temperatures since 1977 can be attributed to a 1976 climate shift in the Pacific Ocean that made warming El Niño conditions more likely than they were over the previous 30 years and cooling La Niña conditions less likely” says corresponding author de Freitas. “We have shown that internal global climate-system variability accounts for at least 80% of the observed global climate variation over the past half-century. It may even be more if the period of influence of major volcanoes can be more clearly identified and the corresponding data excluded from the analysis.”


“When climate models failed to retrospectively produce the temperatures since 1950 the modellers added some estimated influences of carbon dioxide to make up the shortfall,” says McLean.


“The close relationship between ENSO and global temperature, as described in the paper, leaves little room for any warming driven by human carbon dioxide emissions. The available data indicate that future global temperatures will continue to change primarily in response to ENSO cycling, volcanic activity and solar changes.”

These statements cross the line from exaggeration into downright misrepresentation. This is bullshit masquerading as science.

De Freitas first. His statement confuses variation with variability. ENSO events are certainly an important source of variability — wiggles around the underlying trend — but “variation” can be interpreted to cover all sources, which is what CdF wants us to think.

McLean, on the other hand, is just making stuff up. Climate models do not add some “estimated influences of carbon dioxide” — they include the line-by-line radiation code that describes how greenhouse gases behave in the atmosphere

Carter then completes the triple whammy by suggesting that the paper “leaves little room for any warming driven by human CO2 emissions”. This is particularly disingenuous, because the techniques used in the paper expressly remove the trend that one would expect GHGs to cause. In other words, McLean et al throw away the underlying trend, and then claim it doesn’t exist! If Carter knows this to be the case, then this is academic fraud on a breathtaking scale, and if he doesn’t then he shouldn’t be an author on the paper. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that the JGR is going to be inundated with comments, letters and rebuttals.

From the perspective of the cranks, however, getting the paper through peer review represents a major coup. However flawed its methods or conclusions, the denialosphere will now point to this article ad infinitum as a demonstration of how GHG forcing is less important than natural variation. It looks to me as though McLean, as principal author, sought help from de Freitas and Carter to get his thesis published in a major journal. They helped in that process by toning down the language, and through having, in Carter’s case at least, a reasonably weighty publication record.

For the three authors, the fallout will be interesting. Carter long ago burned his bridges to academic respectability. He is on record as claiming that modern temperatures are the same as those 60 years ago (see Bob’s big lie). De Freitas has a history of denying the basic science of climate change, and McLean is just another in a long line of amateurs playing with data, trying to bolster a predetermined position. They may be stars within the crank pantheon, but they have set themselves up for academic ridicule.

For those who engage with what passes for a “climate debate” in Australia and New Zealand, or who follow the science of climate change as it evolves, none of the foregoing will be much of a surprise. However, the last question I want to consider is how an award-winning science journalist could so badly misrepresent the paper. On one level, it’s an example of a how a busy journalist can take a press release at face value, turn it into a story, bolt on a mandatory reference to the IPCC orthodoxy, and get published. In most cases, and in many areas of science, this would work fine and ruffle few feathers. After all, science journalists get inundated with press releases all the time, and when they are expected to cover everything from quantum physics to agronomy, it’s hardly surprising that they make the odd mistake. Chalk some of the blame up to the continuing cutbacks in editorial resources that force journalists to cover subjects where they have little experience to provide the context necessary for informed coverage.

But Gorman could have called on the resources of the Science Media Centre and obtained a speedy response that would have enabled him to paint a more balanced picture of what the paper actually says. After all, he obviously knew about the authors’ sceptic links because he mentions them in the story. All the more essential, then, to seek a balancing view from someone qualified to comment on the paper. But that might not have made for a story worth publishing. After all, Climate change down to nature sounds a lot snappier than Climate cranks publish another crap paper, world unshaken.

Update 27/9: Paul Gorman, to his credit, has a piece reporting on the backlash against the McLean et al paper in this morning’s Press. The two Jims (Salinger and Renwick) get a chance to present their views– here’s Jim Renwick’s comment:

It’s the conclusion section in the last part, the things they say they don’t support them with anything they have in the paper. They strike me as being questionable at best not based on anything that’s been shown. It is a real surprise it got through the peer review.

The paper’s authors have been posting comments at RealClimate and elsewhere, pointing out that their paper doesn’t address temperature trends. That being the case, why did they so badly misrepresent their own paper in the press release they issued? (Rhetorical question, I think we all know why…)

Update 2, 27/9: BigCityLib tells me that Bryan Leyland has been boasting about his role in getting Paul Gorman to cover the story at the climate sceptics Yahoo group. In a thread congratulating “John, Bob and Chris” on the The Press coverage, Leyland wrote “I twisted Gorman’s arm – but it didn’t need much twisting.” Even if Leyland is playing to the gallery, it makes Gorman’s original approach to the story the more reprehensible.

Update 3, 29/7: Jim Salinger (pers comm) emphasises the lack of novelty in McLean et al:

… it is no surprise that they found ENSO is one of the main factors in causing seasonal to interannual climate variability. Phil Jones showed this in a paper published in 1990 in Climate Monitor, and we
believe the great Nobel Prize winning Swedish Meteorologist of the 19th century Hildebrandsson may have written about this in the 1890s – so it is nothing new!

The only novelty in the paper is the disconnect between what it says, and what the authors pretend it says…

Update 4, 29/7: The NZ Climate “Science” Coalition, who until recently were quite happy to host a copy of the full paper, have removed that PDF and replaced it with a version of the original press release (minus quotes), the abstract, and a “Technical note” which attempts to address some of the many and various criticisms of the paper, its methodology and findings that have emerged in the last few days (link to PDF here). They seem to be trying to justify their comments by expecting readers to eyeball a figure in the paper: One would see the temperature line rising away from the SOI line if, for example, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations had a significant influence. There is little or no sign of this. Such penetrating statistical analysis… leaves me quite breathless. 😉

Update 5, 31/7: Deep Climate provides definitive coverage of the whole McLean et al (2009) story in this post: Is ENSO “responsible for recent global warming?” No. DC covers everything, from the way the story broke to the statistical errors in the paper. His conclusion is damning:

To sum up:

  • The McLean, de Freitas and Carter paper presented unsubstantiated conclusions that are contradicted by a cursory analysis of the very data presented.
  • There is widespread agreement among climate scientists that this paper should not have passed review and should not have been accepted for publication.
  • The authors actively participated in a deceptive public relations campaign that trumpeted and exaggerated the paper’s claims, a campaign that even substituted a press release headline for the true title of the paper.
  • The authors permitted an egregious breach of copyright in the dissemination of the paper in its published form at the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition website.
  • What more is needed to prod the AGU and the Journal of Geophysical Research to do the right thing? The paper should be withdrawn, and the editor responsible disciplined. Now.

    Quite so.


    13 thoughts on “Mother nature’s sons”

    1. What the journalists should be investigating is why Auckland University is letting de Freitas get away with this sort of thing. He is perfectly entitled to hold a dissenting view, but he is not entitled to ignore the basics of science in order to promote that view. Drawing a conclusion that the data does not support is one of the most serious errors a scientist can make. AU should be drawing him over the coals for this, and if they don’t that would seriously undermine their credibility.

    2. I love it.

      This is a great victory for the global liberal/commie/pinko climate change conspiracy…..a master stroke, the Trojan horse for the denialosphere.

      Consider the standard denialist claim that they are shut out of the peer reviewed literature…and, let them in…. have a prestigious journal let in a paper which on one level can appear plausible (and even modestly useful) but with a sub-plot of breathtaking stupidity that even the denialists can’t ignore – well, maybe they can, but the fence sitters will finally see “denial” for what it is.

      The only question now is whether CDF and Carter are in on it…have they been got to? The ‘conspiracy’ must be so huge these days that maybe they could have been offered research grants that would make Exxon blanche. I expect them to recant, very soon.

      I’m suspending exhalation………

    3. I noticed on Stuff this morning. My favourite bit is this De Freitas quotation which denies that their paper has anything to say about CO2 while at the same time implying that it shows that CO2 has a minor role in ‘affecting the climate’ … which, of course, will be interpreted to mean ‘has a minor role in climate change’:

      “We are not saying there are not other things. Carbon dioxide (CO2) could be one of those many things affecting climate but, if it is, I don’t think it’s a very big one. The paper is quiet clear we don’t tread on the CO2 ground at all.”

      1. Opinion, such as is expressed on a blog like this, is rarely subject to libel laws. It is not libel to say “I think Joe Schmo is an idiot”, whereas it would be libel to say “Joe Schmo has been arrested and charged with eating babies” when in fact he had not been arrested.

        Gareth has not said anything that is not factual, as far as I can see. Unless you are suggesting it is illegal to hurt someone’s feelings, I don’t see why the lawyers would be needed.

    4. de Freitas said: “The surge in global temperatures since 1977 can be attributed to a 1976 climate shift in the Pacific Ocean that made warming El Niño conditions more likely than they were over the previous 30 years and cooling La Niña conditions less likely”

      McLean on RealClimate said: “The paper by McLean et al (JGR, 2009) does not analyse trends in mean global temperature (MGT)”

      How on earth did de Freitas reach his conclusion on temperature trends from a paper that does not analyse temperature trends?

      He’s not just in denial, he’s on another planet.

      1. If Carter tells a lie as blatant as global average temperature is now about the same as it was in 1940 (and he did, in an article in Quadrant), then what does that make him? And it’s not ad hominem (please look it up).

        To me, it looks very much the cranks are backing themselves into a corner, and getting more and more shrill. The world has moved on, you’ve all been left behind.

      2. Au contraire, Dewhurst. It is the denialist community that is getting desperate, in the face of ever-mounting evidence for AGW. It’s noticeable how any criticism of “skeptics” immediately prompts denialist sheeple to pop up and howl about ad hominem attacks. They can’t produce any convincing science to back up their arguments, so can only resort to claiming persecution.

        Interesting comment over at RealClimate, showing just how organised the anti-science crowd are.

    5. Thanks for sharing, Roger. We’re about as worried about that reference as we were all those months ago when it was actually news……Of course, it didn’t take long to get the rational viewpoint from James Annan

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