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August 22, 2005

Reader Request: Comments on Michaels and Gray

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change

A Prometheus reader asked if I might read an article by Pat Michaels, affiliate of the conservative Cato Institute and Virginia State Climatologist and an interview with Bill Gray of Colorado State University and offer a critique. Specifically, the reader asked if I might comment on Gray's allegations of funding being cut and whether or not Michaels misrepresented the work of me or Emanuel. So here are some reactions.

Michaels is no stranger to over-the-top rhetoric, and there is some of this here. But in this essay he accurately characterizes my work and quotes me accurately. I'd say more about the relationship of my work and Kerry's recent paper, but I have a comment on Kerry's recent paper submitted to Nature and they require no discussion of finding prior to publication. When that is either published or rejected I'll be happy to say more in this subject. Michaels is correct to call out both Kevin Trenberth and Bill Gray for comments unbecoming a leading scientist. I agree in both cases that the comments are inappropriate.

Michaels does make one important mistake. He mischaracterizes the total funding for climate research citing a total of $4.2 billion. This number surely includes investments in technology which have nothing to do with climate science research. And of the $1.8 billion on climate science the vast majority is spent on satellites. He is correct to suggest that such large funding creates a constituency, but I disagree with him when he argues that climate scientists make decisions on papers based on funding. There are important sociological factors at play, but they are subtle and perhaps not even recognized by many climate scientists.

Bill Gray is by all accounts simply a genius. I've known him for about 10 years and have a lot of respect for him. I like him too; he is a nice guy. I've heard comments to the effect that every scientist studying hurricanes today is a product of Bill Gray's work in one manner or another.

His interview in Discover magazine accurately reflects what I've heard Dr. Gray say in other fora. Gray states, "Our feeling is that the United States is going to be seeing hurricane damage over the next decade or so on a scale way beyond what we have seen in the past." There seems to be a pretty robust consensus on this point among all hurricane scientists.

It is a fact that his funding has been cut in his later years as compared to his earlier years. I'd venture that this has much more to do with changing preferences for model-based research over statistical-based research rather than anything to do with the politics of climate change. Dr. Gray has most likely be the victim of generational change in climate research and the corresponding changes in scientific preferences.

Dr. Gray comments, "Nearly all of my colleagues who have been around 40 or 50 years are skeptical as hell about this whole global-warming thing." This is a very accurate comment. My colleague Myanna Lahsen, an anthropologist, studied the "tribe" of climate modelers for her 1998 dissertation and found a pronounced generational influence on how scientists view the climate debate. Dr. Gray is a great example of this skepticism of some senior scientists. My reading of Myanna's work suggests that the views of some of these senior scientists have much less to do with partisan politics than generational differences.

Dr. Gray says, "So many people have a vested interest in this global-warming thing-all these big labs and research and stuff. The idea is to frighten the public, to get money to study it more. Now that the cold war is over, we have to generate a common enemy to support science, and what better common enemy for the globe than greenhouse gases?"

Just like with Michaels I disagree with this overly simplistic interpretation of what is going on. There are without a doubt strong influences on climate researchers, but they are more subtle and behind-the-scenes than acknowledged here.

Posted on August 22, 2005 09:12 AM


The human quest for status and money is rarely subtle.

Surely you are not arguing for the extraordinary nobility of climate researchers as a class.

'Who benefits' does not seem to be an overly simplistic question.

Posted by: D. F. Linton at August 22, 2005 09:47 AM

D.F.- Thanks for your comments. Climate researchers are probably no more no less noble than anybody else. Dan Sarewitz and I discussed this issue here:

Pielke, Jr., R. A. and D. Sarewitz, 2003. Wanted: Scientific Leadership on Climate, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, pp. 27-30.

Please have a look.

Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at August 22, 2005 09:50 AM

Is it possible that Gray's loss of funding might have had something to do with promotion for many years (while he had all that funding) of a hurricane prediction model (statistically-based, as you note) that was subsequently completely discredited.

I'm curious if the Lahsen study considered the question of the extent to which senior scientists exert inter-generational influence through their former grad students (e.g., Gray and Landsea).

Posted by: Steve Bloom at August 22, 2005 11:58 AM


Thanks for your comments. It is absolutely incorrect to say that Gray's work has been discredited. His work forms the intellectual basis for NOAA's current official seasonal hurricane forecast product. See it here:

For details on Gray's work, including references to the literature see:

Bill Gray may be called many things, but on seasonal forecasting, "discredited" is not among them.

Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at August 22, 2005 12:06 PM

With ref to "Nearly all of my colleagues who have been around 40 or 50 years are skeptical as hell about this whole global-warming thing.", I had noticed that many of the sceptics seem to be of advanced years - two of themm (Daly and Landscheit) died quite recently, for example.

It would be a cheap shot to say that people get set in their ways and resistant to change as they get older. But it's probably broadly true nevertheless :-) I wonder if the younger sceptics will ever reach the relatively lofty postions of eg Lindzen and Michaels, or whether they will find their view (and/or performance) stunts their careers.

Maybe there is a parallel with the ~30 year lag for plate tectonics to be widely accepted.

Posted by: James Annan at August 22, 2005 07:11 PM

Thanks for this article and your other article "The other Hockeystick".

These go a long way to answering some of My questions in regards to scientists and there selective citing and interperetation of the literature on climate change.
This is not the preserve of one side or the other both sides seem to be pretty good at it.
This was highlighted to me recently by the debate over changes to the Satelite temperature records.
You have on the one side the "pro AGW" people almost shouting "ding dong the witch is dead" and on the other side the "sceptics" saying "well it doesn't really matter anyway".
This is exactly the same views but reversed for the original "hockeystick", "sceptics" "witch is dead", "pro AGW" "doesn't matter anyway".
When I looked at the issue Spencer and Christy still seemed to disagree with what the RSS team published but on a separate matter the RSS team pointed out an error in their calculations which they accepted and have subsequently ajusted their records.
Isn't this how science is supposed to work? An error was pointed out and it was ajusted. No jumping behind the baricades to defend their postion.
The upshot is that The UAH team and the RSS team still apear to disagree on exactly how to interperate the data but their figure are now closer. If you look at both their figures and include their ranges for margin of error there is a substantial overlap.
What does this tell us about AGW? Well nothing really all it says is that the trend predicted by the models and that shown by the satelites are now more in agreement. But once again if we include the margin for error then tehre was already significant overlap.
Does this remove the debate about the ability of the models to acurately predict future trends? Not really. Because we are dealling with very small decadle trends then small movements either way neither validate or invalidate the models. They have to stand on their own scientific merit.

I agree when you say that you doubt that status and money are the prime motivators for climate scientists. Once again this is the same as the argument leveled at "sceptics" that they are all employed by the oil and coal industries.
Scientists are very strong advocates for their work. This is totally understandable they are usually very passionate about their work therefore if they have disovered "something" they expect that action should be taken on it. If you got a dozen scientists from different fields in a room they would all be able to produce cogent arguments for why their work is important and advocate strongly for action to be taken. This is not a bad thing it is important that they do it for science to advance. What gets priority and what action should be taken however can not be left to scientists to decide, there are monetary constraints, there can be conflicting interests, there can be ethical considerations, etc. So others have to make the policy decisions this does not mean that scientists should not be involved but that they can not be the only voice. I feel we have to be somewhat suspicious of scientists very publicly advocating their position especially if there are also dissenting views. It may be necessary to set up committees to examine the science the risk here is that they could become dominated by the very scientists advocating the position. It is therefore necessary that the commitee have a balanced representation which includes dissenting views. It should not only be incumbent on the committee to produce a report that shows the majority opinion but also minority reports on areas on controversy.
Science should not be decided by consensus but by making all positions known so that the policy descisions can be made in an open environment not one were disenting views are supressed. I note that your father appears to have had a problem with these very types of committees and their attempts to push a consensus view.
Incidentally I am puzzeled as to why "Industry" should be excluded from discusions. There seems to be a feeling that they should not be allowed to do any research in this field. Surely if they are willing to fund research it can not simply be dismissed because it may be biased. As you have shown with this article you do not have to be in "industrty" to produce a biased and partisan view. But if the science or methodology is "bad" then it is not hard to point this out as you have done here.

Posted by: Ross McNaughton at August 22, 2005 07:25 PM

" I wonder if the younger skeptics will ever reach the relatively lofty positions of e.g. Lindzen and Michaels, or whether they will find their view (and/or performance) stunts their careers." Given the politicization of "climate science" by the advocates of AGW, I'm sure their careers will be non-existent, to the detriment of science.

Posted by: Paul at August 22, 2005 07:50 PM

I wouldn't argue that industry research is bad, but that it provides a clear conflict of interest which will make bad science when that science effects its bottom line. That has to be taken into account. A company that researches a better drug to sell will do good science because it's in their interests to do so. A company researching whether their drug causes birth defects will not.

If scientists produce biased research, that does not mean we should therefor insert more conflicts of interests into the system. It means scientists are biased enough on their own without having to give them MORE incentive to distort their findings.

The reason the media latches onto consensus is that they are trying to keep from falling victim to interested parties cherry picking pieces of data that can make well substantiated claims seem controversial, or give equal weight to the claims of a small minoirty of dissenters. Just because you can point to an instance of a bouncy ball moving upwards does not mean the downward pull of gravity is controversial.

In cases where conesnsus is overwhelming (anthropogenic warming, evolution), I think the media has to take that into account and present it to the public. The good reporters will say something along the lines of "the general view among biologists" or something. When it comes to an issue of climate change that is not established (the effect of GW on weather, as Pielke noted above), then it is more appropriate to present different sides of the debate in tit for tat.

In situations of overwhelming consensus, scientists need to help reporters see the forest through the trees, so to speak.

Posted by: Dylan Otto Krider at August 23, 2005 08:49 AM

Roger, as I noted in my e-mail I appreciate your acceptance of my admittedly obnoxious challenge.

Nonetheless, I find some oversights in your analysis. Specifically, the failure to point out where Michaels goes astray in the correlation of hurricane intensity and damage. Michaels builds an argument against Emmanuel’s article based on flawed logic. Michaels claims that, “Damages caused by doubling the strength of hurricanes would be massive and increasing dramatically.” First, Michaels misrepresents Emmanuel’s findings. The doubling to which Emmanuel refers is a doubling of hurricane power dissipation. As Emmanuel explains, “The large increase in power dissipation over the past 30 yr or so may be because storms have become more intense, on the average, and/or have survived at high intensity for longer periods of time.” Neither of the explanations would necessarily result in increased damage as Michaels argues. Many TCs don’t ever do any damage because they don’t hit land. Thus, more intense TCs wouldn’t produce any more damage than less intense TCs, a house destroyed by a level four hurricane suffers the same fincial loss as a house destroyed by a level five, etc...

Second, Michaels writes, “If hurricanes had actually doubled in power, the losses in the insurance industry would be catastrophic.” While recent hurricane damage has not been “catastrophic” for the insurance industry it certainly has been serious (even though the recent financial damage has not been caused by increased intensity/global warming). The need for public insurers like Citizens Property Insurance Corporation certainly points to the insurance industry’s unwillingness to take on future liabilities.

Finally, while Michaels seemingly “calls out” Bill Gray on his “nastiness,” the rest of the analysis indicates the inclusion of Gray’s comment as rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Paralipsis is a rhetorical trick by which the speaker or writer emphasizes something by professing to ignore or denounce it.

Posted by: Bob at August 23, 2005 12:40 PM

Bob- Thanks for your comment. The relationship between the power dissipation index and "destructiveness" is indeed the focus of my comment to Nature, so I'd just ask for your patience as that makes its way through the review process. I will be happy to say more about this hopefully soon. In the meantime you might want to take a look at this paper which discusses a relationship between a climate index and hurricane intensity/frequency and destruction:

Pielke, Jr., R.A., and C.W. Landsea, 1999: La Niña, El Niño, and Atlantic Hurricane Damages in the United States. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 80, 10, 2027-2033.

On the Gray comment, perhaps you are right. My view is that both comments are out of bounds.

Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at August 23, 2005 01:16 PM

Excellent overview, I would recommend only one change and that is your last sentence would have more been more precise if phrased: "There are arguably strong influences on climate researchers. But in my opinion, they are more subtle and behind-the-scenes than acknowledged here. ;-)

Posted by: Vexare at August 30, 2005 09:03 PM

Pat Michaels (and Robert Balling) in "The Satanic Gases" discuss the work of Buchanan and Tullock on "Public Choice Theory" which won a Nobel Prize.
As I understand it, this theory basically states that government scientists are just as subject to
bias as non-government scientists. So government, academic and industry scientists all depend on some sort of grants or subsidies to do
their research. Yet, one often only hears that the industry based research is biased and is some sort of capitalist plot. It seems that all researchers are liable to be biased and must be
constantly aware of this influence. The rest of us must recognize this and evaluate accordingly. This seems obvious but in the heated rhetoric of
today's pervasive politics one must be on guard.
Just today we have kooks like Robert F. Kennedy, Cindy Sheehan and others blaming Pres. Bush and Gov. Barber for the Katrina Hurricane because they
didn't approve the Kyoto Treaty (of course, some scientists have pointed out that if all nations met all requirements of Kyoto, the resulting reduction in world temperature would be less than the natural variation in world temperature - thus, undetectable). Yet, Dr. Gerry
Bell, National Weather Service scientist, on a 8/2/2005 press conference on C-SPAN stated very clearly several times that global warming had "very little" to do with hurricanes. Instead,
the "multi-decadel signal" of tropical climate
patterns affecting ocean temperatures is the real cause. This is a 10-40 year cycle and the current cycle of warming ocean temps started in 1995 versus the cooling ocean temps from the 1970s to 1995. Kennedy (NRDC), Sheehan (Code Pink, Int'l. Answer) are typical examples of how some groups with "supposed" scientists backing them up are just pushing political agendas and unfortunately the "gullible" in the population will believe them.

stated very clearly several time

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