Friday, May 25, 2012

Climategate Is Still With Us

For many years, scientists have used tree-ring data to try to measure temperatures from the distant past, but the idea is problematic in and of itself. Why? Because tree-ring data reflect many variables besides temperature. Russian tree growth, like that of trees around the world, also reflects changes in humidity, precipitation, soil nutrients, competition for resources from other trees and plants, animal behavior, erosion, cloudiness, and on and on. But let’s pretend, if only for the sake of argument, that we can reliably determine the mean temperature 1,000 years ago or more using tree cores from a remote part of Russia. The central issue that emerges is: How do you choose the trees?

It was the way Briffa picked the trees to include in his analysis that piqued the interest of Steve McIntyre, a maverick amateur climatologist from Canada. The Climategate e-mails make it clear that McIntyre earned the public scorn of the most powerful U.N. climatologists, including James Hansen, Michael Mann, and Phil Jones, while simultaneously earning their fear and respect in private.

McIntyre noticed a few problems with the way Briffa chose the sampling of Russian trees, and he wrote to Briffa requesting the data Briffa used in a published tree-ring paper. Briffa declined. And so began a four-year saga involving multiple peer-reviewed journals, behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Briffa and his closest confidants, and a Freedom of Information Act request on the part of McIntyre that appears to be on the verge of being granted. Even without the final set of data, however, McIntyre has shown beyond the shadow of doubt that Briffa may have committed one of the worst sins, if not the worst, in climatology — that of cherry-picking data — when he assembled his data sample, which his clique of like-minded and very powerful peers have also used in paper after paper.

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