Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Climategate and reality

There's a scene in the 1967 film "A Guide for the Married Man" that I remember well. Our protaganist, wolf Ed Stander (Robert Morse), counsels his friend, family man Paul Manning (Walter Matthau), on how to cheat on his wife without repercussions. In an imagined scene, Morse is surprised by his wife while in bed with another woman. He deals with the situation by just pretending that it didn't happen: He calmly gets out of bed, gets dressed, and ushers the mistress out of the house. To his wife's cries ("How could you?"), he simply replies, "How could I what? What are you talking about?" In the face of his persistent denials, his wife eventually becomes disoriented and thinks that perhaps she has imagined the whole thing. In Standers's words, the best strategy is "Deny, deny, deny."

Millions of words have now been written about "Climategate". There's not much I can add, and nothing I say is going to change anyone's mind. But the right's pounding on one of Phil Jones's emails reminds me very much of Ed Standers's strategy: If something's inconvenient, just ignore it. Many have explained what Jones is actually saying in this particular email, and they've done so accurately (see, for example, the seventh paragraph of this RealClimate post), but there's one thing I haven't seen mentioned anywhere: That pesky four-letter word, real.

In this email, Jones talks about a paper he's working on and says that
I've just completed Mike [Mann]'s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from 1961 for Keith [Briffa]'s to hide the decline.
Obviously Jones is manipulating the data, hiding an actual decline in temperatures. Right?

Well, there's an inconvenient word in there that the right is, Standers-like, simply ignoring. Pretending that it's not there ("How could I what?"). That word is real, as in "real temps". Jones clearly says that he has used the real temperatures to hide the decline.

Now, the "skeptics'" assumption is that the "decline" being hidden is a decline in global temperatures. A real decline. So, how do you hide a real decline using real temperatures?

Well, you can't. Obviously. It's not possible to hide a real decline in temperatures using real temperatures. That doesn't make any sense. The only thing you can possibly hide with real temperatures is a false decline in temperatures. So, what decline is Jones talking about? It can't be a real decline in global average temperatures, as the "skeptics" assume, since (a) not even "skeptics" argue that temperatures actually declined between 1961 and 1998, which is the time frame in question, and (b) even if there were such a decline, you couldn't hide it using real temperatures.

In fact, the decline he's referring to is a false decline in temperatures shown by some tree rings. The particular set of tree rings used in this paper suffers from what's known as the divergence problem: After about 1960, they no longer accurately reflect what we know the actual temperatures were. They show a decline in temperatures that we know did not actually occur. So, there's a word missing from Jones's email: What he actually "hid" was a false decline. (And, just to be clear on how bad Jones is at hiding things, he clearly disclosed exactly what he had done in the published paper.)

How does the "skeptical" camp deal with this little problem? They don't. They simply ignore it. They pretend the word real isn't there. They don't say anything about it at all.

"How could I what?"

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