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June 28, 2005

The Barton Letters


Posted to Author: Vranes, K. | Climate Change

As reported briefly yesterday, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has requested information from Michael Mann (and collaborators) and the heads of IPCC and NSF. The tone of the letters places House E&C essentially in ethics investigation mode. (That the committee has any staffers available to pursue this while armoring up for the energy bill conference is partially the subject of this post.)

The letters have been discussed a bit in the science policy blogoworld (link, link and link), but not yet picked up by any media outlets except for, curiously, the stalwart Electricity Daily. (Come on Rick W. and Andy R., this story is waiting for you!)

Here are my thoughts on why this inquiry is both reasonable and unreasonable:

Reasonable

First, this is not a subpoena. Letters of this nature are common and usually begin the process of holding a hearing on a particular topic. While the tone of the letter is accusatory and probably will be construed as alarming by its academic recipients, NSF will be used to this kind of inquiry and will see the letter to Director Bement for what it is: the way Congress often requests information. Keep in mind that Congress is a body used to getting what it wants and loves to play the indignant, outraged, pounding-on-the-table, concerned Congressman role. So while some bloggers are worried that Congress is trying to stifle climate research or stem the flow of climate studies that show that humans are changing the climate, I think that's a misreading. Joe Barton wants to hold an anti-climate change hearing and this is the first step in that process. Hearings aren't that bad.

Second, whatever their hidden, potentially nefarious motivations, House E&C is asking directly for one thing primarily:

"The concerns surrounding these studies reflect upon the quality and transparency of federally funded research and of the IPCC review process two matters of particular interest to the Committee."

...

"As you know, sharing data and research results is a basic tenet of open scientific inquiry, providing a means to judge the reliability of scientific claims. The ability to replicate a study, as the National Research Council has noted, is typically the gold standard by which the reliability of claims is judged. Given the questions reported about data access surrounding these studies, we also seek to learn whether obligations concerning the sharing of information developed or disseminated with federal support have been appropriately met."

On its face this is a completely legitimate request and concern. In fact, this is exactly what Congress is supposed to do but has not been doing much of in the past few years. However, it would more properly be a concern of the NSF authorizing committees (House and Senate), not an authorizing committee clearly peripheral to science integrity in general and paleoclimatology in particular.

Third, the letters raise the issue of conflict of interest (without calling it that):

"For example, one concern relates to whether IPCC review has been sufficiently robust
and independent. We understand that Dr. Michael Mann, the lead author of the studies in question, was also a lead author of the IPCC chapter that assessed and reported this very same work, and that two co-authors of the studies were also contributing authors to the same chapter." (from the letters to IPCC and NSF)

Whatever climatology scientists think of this concern, and whatever IPCC insiders know about its legitimacy, this is absolutely an appropriate concern of Congress, which should be doing a lot more oversight into conflict of interest (especially in writing of Executive Branch regulations and recommendations, but that's a different story). The ultimate consumer of IPCC information is Congress and other major decision-making bodies. If Congress hears that there are questions about the information that they have been given, especially concerning such a politically touchy issue, it is their prerogative to investigate.

Unreasonable

Now what I really think of the E&C letters. First, if House E&C had made the same request of S. Baliunas and W. Soon or the Idso's, we'd be having a different conversation (although we'd certainly still be having it). By any reasonable measure of the consensus of the climatology community, the Baliunas and Soon papers were far more controversial and scientifically questioned than the Mann et al. papers. That this request is being made of one group of authors concerning one study out of thousands of studies and authors makes this clearly motivated not by fact-finding but by the politics of climate change.

Second, the letters to Drs. Mann, Bradley and Hughes stop just short of accusing them of scientific fraud. If the committee was truly interested in investigating such, it could start with investigating something much closer to its purview. How about starting with Hubbert's Peak and how various sources, some funded by the U.S. taxpayer, have come to wildly different conclusions about remaining reserves of light crude?

Third, Congressional meddling in science research has been happening science Senator Proxmire (D-WI) began giving away Golden Fleece Awards in 1975. By ridiculing specific NSF awards (among myriad other federal expeditures, see this link), Sen. Proxmire was essentially putting pressure on the scientific community to fund more "relevant" work. Senator Inhofe's proclamations of hoaxes and other comments on climate change are in a similar vein. However, this is congressional meddling taken to a whole new level and has the potential to set a bad precedent for the future, when the topic and stakes are different and the parties in power have switched. Furthermore, while some Sens and Reps have spoken vociferously against climate change, expressing their opinions of the research, none have yet used the dais to harass climate researchers.

Which brings me to my final point: the letters are primarily meant to embarrass and harass and the hearings, if they ever happen, could be seen as an abuse of power. The science policy system in the U.S., largely unchanged since Vannevar Bush's day, gives the science community the ability and obligation to police its own ethics. In extreme cases, such as questions of fraud that cannot be resolved internally by NSF/NIH, Congress should make their own inquiries. This case does not come anywhere close to fraud (see the affirmations of Mann et al.'s work here), is clearly a technical dispute of data analysis, and thus plainly belongs within the scientific community.

Barton's letters denigrate this self-governing system and signal that any technical dispute is worth a look from the top. I doubt that in the long run this will serve as a chilling effect on climate research, but it is another extraordinary event in a interannual trend toward increasing politicization of science.

Posted on June 28, 2005 08:57 PM

Comments

I have two questions. Is it standard for NSF to be asked for all research grants associated with a particular field, and such a large one at that? Am I wrong in thinking this is meant, at least in part, to intimidate the climate science community in general?

Posted by: Daniel Collins at June 28, 2005 09:52 PM


I think you seriously mischaracterise the basis for the letters. MBH have refused to yield sufficient access to their methods to enable replication of their results, and Mann has even boasted of this publically.
Given that this paper underpins expensive public policy, replication is an essential for determining whether this is science. The questions are aimed in large part at achieving replication of the original MBH'98 paper.
Your reference to the (currently rejected) abstract of Wahl and Ammann is misguided; just because someone says something in a press release doesn't mean it will ever appear in a scientific journal.
yours
per

Posted by: per at June 29, 2005 01:23 AM


Per's comment is weird. He accuses MBH of not allowing enough access to allow replication, then acknowledges that W&A have indeed achieved exactly that (whilst making unverifiable claims about the state of W&A).

Posted by: William at June 29, 2005 03:11 AM


per,

Here is the MBH source code:
ftp://holocene.evsc.virginia.edu/pub/MBH98/TREE/ITRDB/NOAMER/pca-noamer.f

And here is the top level directory to all of their data:
ftp://holocene.evsc.virginia.edu/pub/MBH98/TREE/

Furthermore, Ammann and Wahl have reproduced MBH98 and several other studies have yielded similar results and drawn virtually the same conclusions as MBH98 and MBH99.

Thus, I fail to see how your argument justifies the level of harassment that has been brought forth by Barton. Have you read all of his demands? See point number 4 in the letters to MBH and remember that they have, combined, produced more than 200 publications related to climate change. Is that a reasonable request to demand in 3 weeks? Honestly, is it even possible to fulfill such a request in that period of time?

As Prometheus says, this is an example of abuse of power by Rep. Barton and I expect that Mr. Barton's net political gain will be negative. On the other hand, it sets a terrible precedent of political intimidation and harassment of widely respected scientists by an elected official. This is shameful and it helps no one... except, perhaps, for Barton's campaign contributors. From 1998-2004, Barton received over $500k from the oil and gas industries... more than any other congressperson. So, we can also talk about conflicts of interest, if you like.

Posted by: Mitch at June 29, 2005 08:27 AM


lil' per has made a few mischaracterizations himself, but I see folks are on to him already. Won't be the last time, I'm sure.

D

Posted by: Dano at June 29, 2005 02:30 PM


In view of the comments, I will respond.
1) significant outstanding difficulties in undertaking a replication of MBH'98 are outlined at: http://www.climateaudit.org/index.php?p=240

you will note that there are a lot of issues that simply cannot be addressed without MBH providing the details.
For example, in december last year on his blog, out of nowhere, Mann announces he used a statistical test called "Preisendorfer's". When, where and how we still don't know.

2) I merely point out that nothing I said could possibly be misconstrued as acknowledging that W&A achieved a replication of MBH'98.
yours
per

Posted by: per at June 29, 2005 03:21 PM


Wow,

You pin you colours to the wall with the statemen: "Now what I really think of the E&C letters [unreaosnable]", then lay down one logical fallacy after another. I thought this was supposed to be a quality blog.

Three points, three paragraphs, three fallacies.

First para.

"if House E&C had made the same request of S. Baliunas and W. Soon or the Idso's, we'd be having a different conversation (although we'd certainly still be having it). By any reasonable measure of the consensus of the climatology community, the Baliunas and Soon papers were far more controversial and scientifically questioned than the Mann et al. papers"

Straw man.
I am not aware of any insinuation that Baliunas and Soon withheld any method or data from others. Do you?


Second para.

"If the committee was truly interested in investigating such [fraud], it could start with investigating something much closer to its purview. How about starting with Hubbert's Peak and how various sources, some funded by the U.S. taxpayer, have come to wildly different conclusions about remaining reserves of light crude?"

Ad Hominem tu quoque, straw man.
Does this make Mann's unwillingness to disclose not worthy of enquiry? And, again, wildy differing conclusions maybe, but evidence of non-disclosure?

Para three

"Third, Congressional meddling in science research has been happening science Senator Proxmire (D-WI) began giving away Golden Fleece Awards in 1975. By ridiculing specific NSF awards (among myriad other federal expeditures, see this link), Sen. Proxmire was essentially putting pressure on the scientific community to fund more "relevant" work"

straw man again.
Stick to the point.


and finally
"Which brings me to my final point: the letters are primarily meant to embarrass and harass "

Appeal to emotion, ad hominem.

This complete lack of any logical thread to your argument is mid boggling.

Posted by: Phil at June 29, 2005 04:15 PM


Instead of responding to Phil's too-brief contribution, I offer a meta-analysis of it. If this were a quality blog, with many entries on the record, could one entry with ~3/6 major points considered fallacious bring the whole blog's quality tumbling down? This single data point, an outlier if you will, could not affect the quality of the majority of the blog. I draw a parallel between Phil's statistical approach to information quality and the climate change contrarians' approach to climate reconstruction.

As for the actual content, it was too brief to sway this skeptic.

Posted by: Daniel Collins at June 29, 2005 07:50 PM


Lil' Dano pops his head up to make unfounded and false accusations, as usual. Mitch, that is not all the source code at all, it only deals with PC calculations. Check them out and it is obvious.

Posted by: Ed Snack at June 29, 2005 08:38 PM


So Ed, what parts are missing?

and per, MBH used Preisendorfer's selection rule in their 1998 paper, so it did not appear out of nowhere.
http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/archive/1998/042298climate.pdf

"An objective criterion was used to
determine the particular set of eigenvectors which should be used in the calibration as
follows. Preisendorfer's (25) selection rule "rule N" was applied to the multiproxy network
to determine the approximate number Neofs of signicant independent climatic patterns
that are resolved by the network, taking into account the spatial correlation within the
multiproxy dataset."

Want to take another shot?

Posted by: Eli Rabett at June 29, 2005 11:21 PM


The issue is the alleged unique sensitivity of the Bristle Cone pine series to recent CO2 increases. The question is not, has there be a recent return to temperatures previous to the LIA, but rather does this data show a potential increase to a unprecedented global temperature which might cause unknown climate effects.

Remember, billions and eventually trillions of dollars are being directed at what many believe to be a disastrous witch hunt.

Congress in only doing what NSF has not had the spine to attempt

Posted by: George M Hebbard at June 30, 2005 05:24 AM


Dear Eli
perhaps you would be so good as to acknowledge that the text you quoted refers to the calculation of temperature PCs, and not tree ring networks- the issue at hand.

An application of Preisendorfer's to the tree ring data sets doesn't appear consistent with MBH'98; see http://www.climate2003.com/blog/preisendorfer.MBH98.htm
yours
per

Posted by: per at June 30, 2005 05:54 AM


Per, your statement was

"For example, in december last year on his blog, out of nowhere, Mann announces he used a statistical test called "Preisendorfer's". When, where and how we still don't know."

which did not say, ""In dealing with the tree ring networks....."

My reply was reasonable, MBH98 DID mention Preisendorfer's test as you point out in describing the calibration. On the other hand, while the paper did not specifically deal with the details of PCA for the tree ring networks, pray tell, why would anyone use different criteria for one analysis and not the other?

Posted by: Eli Rabett at July 1, 2005 11:00 PM


Dear Eli
I believe MBH describe the use of Preisendorfer's for temperature PCs, but not for tree rings.

According to you, it is sufficient to guess when MBH may (or may not) have used Preisendorfer's, when they do not say what they did ? Strangely enough, when steve McIntyre looked at the various data sets of MBH'98 using Preisendorfer's as a test, loads of the results MBH did use did not pass Preisendorfer's.

So it seems that guessing is not enough. It needs to be spelled out.
yours
per

Posted by: per at July 2, 2005 05:24 PM


Per, in the MBH09 paper the only mention that any of the sets of tree ring data were represented by PCs was in the caption to a figure. It was also stated in the supplementary material that PCs were used to represent sets of data, and the maximum number of PCs used for each set with the clear implication that fewer were significant the further back one went. I would maintain that yes, in context it was more than reasonable to assume that Preisendorfers criteria was used in all cases including the tree rings. You might want to talk with the editors of Nature on their space limitations. I also am less than impressed with McIntyre's mathematical skills. Have you tried this?

Posted by: EliRabett at July 2, 2005 09:41 PM


implications ? or a scientific paper ?
your talk of guess-work as a means to scientific replication makes clear your approach.
yours
per

Posted by: per at July 3, 2005 05:18 AM


Eli, "so what parts are missing", well, the code is only for the PC tree ring calculations. I urge you to check it yourself. If that was all there was to MBH98, then, yes, we would have it all. However, once you have the PCs, you do need to go a bit further to produce a temperature reconstruction, and so far, the descriptions of the algorithms and methods used in that reconstruction do not permit a complete emulation. Hence the request for the code.

You later state "I also am less than impressed with McIntyre's mathematical skills." Would you care to elaborate and perhaps provide corrections as appropriate ?

Would you also like to defend the inclusion of the Bristlecone Pine records in MBH98, given that the growth of those trees is manifestly not responding to temperature ?

Posted by: Ed Snack at July 5, 2005 07:09 PM




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