Friday, 29 July 2022

The 10th anniversary of the still unpublished Watts et al. (2012) manuscript

Anthony Watts:
Something’s happened. From now until Sunday July 29th [2012], around Noon PST, WUWT will be suspending publishing. At that time, there will be a major announcement that I’m sure will attract a broad global interest due to its controversial and unprecedented nature.

Watts suspended his holiday plans, put his blog on hold over the weekend to work on something really important. With this announcement PR expert Watts created a nice buzz. Out came a deeply flawed manuscript on the influence of the direct surrounding of weather stations (micro-siting) on temperature trends.

Even before reading it the science internet was disappointed. David Appell responded: "Clunk. That, to me, seems to be the sound of the drama queen's preprint hitting the Internet.". William Connolley: "Watts disappoints ... its just a paper preprint. All over the world scientists produce draft papers and send them off for peer review. Only dramah queens pimp them up like this."

Roger Pielke Sr. burned another part of his scientific reputation build by his regional climate modelling work by writing a press release about his godson's manuscript: 

"This paper is a game changer ... this type of analysis should have been performed by Tom Karl and Tom Peterson at NCDC, Jim Hansen at GISS and Phil Jones at the University of East Anglia (and Richard Muller). However, they apparently liked their answers and did not want to test the robustness of their findings.. ... Anthony’s new results also undermine the latest claims by Richard Muller of BEST ... His latest BEST claims are, in my view, an embarrassment."

After all the obvious problems became clear, which somehow this eminent scientist could not find himself, he wrote a new blog post:

"To be very specific, I did not play a role in their data analysis. He sent me the near final version of the discussion paper and I recommended added text and references. I am not a co-author on their paper. I am now working with them to provide suggestions as to how to examine the TOB question regarding its effect on the difference in the trends found in Watts et al 2012."

The Watts et al. (2012) study is so fundamentally wrong in its basic design and execution that it is still not published now ten years later. While Watts naturally keeps on citing it to claim one cannot trust observed temperature trends. This fits to his new job at the Heartland Institute, a company so immoral that they still work for Big Tobacco. 

Below you can find some details on a recent study from Italy, which suggests that had Watts' study been done right, it would have found that micro-siting is a minor problem for climate trends.

The question of how micro-siting influences temperature observations is an interesting one. Expecting to see an influence on trends is another matter. I have no clue how that was supposed to work and Watts et al. (2012) also did not explain the extraordinary physics.

Even if such a thing existed Watts et al. (2012) could not have found convincing evidence on trends; the most fundamental problem of the study setup is that the study tries to analyse trends, which requires at least two points in time, but only had siting information for one point in time. Why this is a problem was explained well at the time by Pete:

Someone has a weather station in a parking lot. Noticing their error, they move the station to a field, creating a great big cooling-bias inhomogeneity. Watts comes along, and seeing the station correctly set up says: this station is sited correctly, and therefore the raw data will provide a reliable trend estimate.

To see an influence of micro-siting you need to something to compare with. You need to either have two points in time with information on micro-siting or two or more points spatially. Our Italian metrological (the science of measuring, not meteorologists, the science of the weather) colleagues of Meteomet did the latter.

Coppa et al. (2021) installed a weather station only 1-meter from a road and as comparison had a weather station 100 meters away from the road, perfectly sited in the middle of a grass field. More precisely they installed seven stations at 1, 5, 10, 20, 30, 50 and 100 m from the road and this is a 2-lane asphalt road, which is half a meter above the grass and leads to an airport in the surrounding of Turin, Italy.

Climatologically the most important plot in the paper is the one below. Let me walk you through it. On the y-axis is the temperature differences in Celsius compared to the seventh station, the one 100 meter from the road. The plot shows six box plot triplets; there are the six temperature differences. The three colors are for the daily maximum temperature (white), the daily average temperature (red) and the daily minimum temperature (blue). Careful, more common would be that the red color denotes the maximum temperature. The thick part of the box plots spans 50% of all observed temperature differences, the horizontal bar inside it the mean temperature difference.

So the temperature difference of the station closest to the road to the well-sited station is ΔT₁, the triplet at the left. The maximum temperature close to the road is 0.12 °C warmer, the average temperature is about 0.2 °C warmer and the minimum temperature is 0.3°C warmer. With increasing distance from the road, these small effects gradually become smaller, which gives confidence that these differences, while small, are real. This is somewhat less true for the maximum temperature, which behaves more erratically.

This metrological study is important for climatology, even if it basically found a null effect. Understanding uncertainties in measurements helps us focus on the real problems. Unfortunately such studies are not cited much and unfortunately too often the importance of science is judged by the number of citations. This study clearly illustrates why this is a bad way to micro-manage science.

What does this mean for observed global warming trends? To make a worst case estimate one could assume that all stations were perfectly sited on lush grasslands in the past and are now close to a road in a subtropical climate with harsh sun light to get a trend error of 0.2 °C in the mean temperature of land stations, which represent a third of the Earth's surface. So even with such unrealistic assumptions this would change the global temperature trend much less than 10%.

The opposite scenario might be more realistic. Climate stations often started close to buildings as the then expensive scientific instruments had to be read by observers. Nowadays it is easy to build an automatic climate station with autonomous power and radio communication far from buildings.

The upside of this being the 10th anniversary is that people could check the micro-siting of the stations again and have two time points. It would likely give a null result, but that is valid.

Related reading

My quick review of the Watts et al. (2012) manuscript.


Coppa, G, Quarello, A, Steeneveld, G-J, Jandrić, N, Merlone, A, 2021: Metrological evaluation of the effect of the presence of a road on near-surface air temperatures. International Journal of Climatology. 41: 37053724.
Ronald D. Leeper, John Kochendorfer, Timothy A. Henderson, Michael A. Palecki, 2019: Impacts of Small-Scale Urban Encroachment on Air Temperature Observations. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. 58: 13691380.

Saturday, 25 December 2021

New German Sovereign Tech Fund will fund open source digital infrastructure to avert the next log4j

XKCD cartoon of an intricate tower made of blocks, all resting on a tiny block near the bottom, whose removal would topple the building. The top is called All modern digital infrastrucutre. The tiny block is marked as A project some random person in Nebraska has been thanklessly maintaining since 2003

The famous XKCD cartoon has resulted in an open source digital infrastructure fund. Thank you Randall.

Late in the afternoon, just before a national holiday, is not the best time to get attention. Which is probably the main reason that the press did not (yet) write about what Franziska Brantner (the new Green deputy minister for the economy) wrote on Twitter:

We will tackle the Sovereign Tech Fund! Log4j has shown that sustainably secured and reliable open source solutions are the basis for the innovative strength and digital sovereignty of the German economy. We will therefore promote open source enabling technologies from 2022 onwards.

[[Log4j]] is a security vulnerability in a 21-year old Java library that is used a lot, which is easy to exploit and existed for almost a decade before being noticed. As a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) it was used widely and produces a lot of value, despite there not being much funding for producing FOSS. In this way much of the digital economy depends on the dedication of unpayed hobbyists, as XKCD Explained explains well.

The German Sovereign Tech Fund will step into this gap. We will have to see how the government will implement it, but the name comes from a feasibility study by the Open Knowledge Foundation, which proposed a fund to support "the development, scaling and maintenance of digital and foundational technologies. The goal of the fund could be to sustainably strengthen the open source ecosystem, with a focus on security, resilience, technological diversity, and the people behind the code."

Such a fund had not explicitly made it into the coalition agreement of the new government to the lament of the FOSS community. Although it does fit to the spirit of the agreement. 

Deputy minister Franziska Brantner carbon copied Patrick Beuth, a journalist who recently wrote about log4j in the magazine Der Spiegel and mentioned the Sovereign Tech Fund as a solution. So log4j seems to have been the clincher.

This announcement adds to a period of hope for digital rights. Most of my life they have become worse, more privacy for the powerful, more vulnerability for us. Things which were protected in the analogue world (taking to each other, sending a letter) have been criminalized and subjected to surveillance. The fast creation of abusive monopolies is the official business model in Silicon valley. Social media monopolies sprouted who do not care how much damage they do to society and our democracy, while Europe was increasingly becoming a digital colony. 

However, lately with the EU privacy law, the rise of the Fediverse, the upcoming EU Digital Services Act and a good coalition agreement in Germany, it is starting to look like it is actually possible for digital right to improve.

This proposal is for a fund of 10 million Euro per year, which is a good start. Especially when similar EU proposals also manage to get funded. There is also project funding for new software tools: the Prototype Fund in Germany or the Next Generation Internet (NGI) and NGI-zero initiative in Europe. 

What I feel is still missing are stable public institutions where coders can jointly work on large tasks, such as maintaining Firefox or extending what is possible in the Fediverse. If we would compare the situation in software to science, we now have funding for projects by the National Science Foundation and agencies, but there are no equivalents yet of the National Institute of Health, research institutes or universities.

More in general we need a real solution to invest in goods and services with enormous societal and economic value that do not have much market value (research and development, security, (preventative) healthcare, weather services, justice, software, (digital) infrastructure, governance, media, ...). We are no longer in the 19th century. These kinds of cases are an increasing large part of the future economy.

Related reading

Patrick Beuth (Der Spiegel): Wie löscht man ein brennendes Internet?

XKCD Explained on the XKCD on software dependencies.

The digitization section of the coalition agreement in English.

Monday the 27th of December there is a session on the Sovereign Tech Fund at the remote Chaos Computer Congress.

Digital Services Act: Greens/EFA successes

Micro-blogging for scientists without nasties and surveillance

Thursday, 6 May 2021

We launched a new group to promote the translation of the scientific literature

Tell your story, tell your journey, they say. Climate Outreach advised: tell about how you came to accept climate change is a problem. Maybe I am too young, but still not being 50 I have accepted climate change was a risk we should care about already as a kid.

Also otherwise, I do not remember suddenly changing my mind often, so that I could talk about my journey. Where the word "remember" may do a lot of the work. Is it useful not to remember such things to make it easier on you to change your mind? Or do many people work with really narrow uncertainty intervals even when they do not have a clue yet?

But when it comes to translations of scientific articles, I changed a lot. When I was doing cloud research I used to think that knowing English was just one of the skills a scientist needs. Just like logic, statistics, coding, knowing the literature, public speaking, and so on.

Working on historical climate data changed this. I regularly have to communicate with people from weather services from all over the world and many do not speak English (well), while they do work that is crucial for science. Given how hard we make it for them to participate they do an amazing job; I guess the World Meteorological Organization translating all their reports in many languages helps.

The most "journey" moment was at the Data Management Workshop in Peru, where I was the only one not speaking Spanish. A colleague told me that she translated important scientific articles into Spanish and send them by email to her colleagues. Just like Albert Einstein translated scientific articles into English for those who did not master the language of science at the time.

This got me thinking about a database where such translations could be made available. When you search for an article and can see which translations are available. Or where you can search for translated articles on a specific topic. Such a resource would make producing translations more worthwhile and would thus hopefully stimulate their production.

Gathering literature, bookmarks on this topic and noticing who else was interested in this topic, I have invited a group of people to see if we can collaborate on this topic. After a series of pandemic video calls, we decided to launch as a group, somewhat unimaginatively called: "Translate Science". Please find below the part of our launch blog post about why translations are important.

(To be fair to me, and I like being fair to me, for a fundamental science needing expensive instruments such as cloud studies it makes more sense to simply do it in English. While for sciences that directly impact people, climate, health, agriculture, two-way communication within science, with the orbit around science and with society is much more important.

But even in the clouds sciences I should probably have paid more attention to studies in other languages. One of our group members works on turbulence and droplets and found many worthwhile papers in Russian. I had never considered that and might have found some turbulent gems there as well.)

The importance of translated articles

English as a common language has made global communication within science easier. However, this has made communication with non-English communities harder. For English-speakers it is easy to overestimate how many people speak English because we mostly deal with foreigners who do speak English. It is thought that that about one billion people speak English. That means that seven billion people do not. For example, at many weather services in the Global South only few people master English, but they use the translated guidance reports of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) a lot. For the WMO, as a membership organization of the weather services, where every weather service has one vote, translating all its guidance reports into many languages is a priority.

Non-English or multilingual speakers, in both African (and non-African) continents, could participate in science on an equal footing by having a reliable system where scientific work written in non-English language is accepted and translated into English (or any other language) and vice versa. Language barriers should not waste scientific talent.

Translated scientific articles open science to regular people, science enthusiasts, activists, advisors, trainers, consultants, architects, doctors, journalists, planners, administrators, technicians and scientists. Such a lower barrier to participating in science is especially important on topics such as climate change, environment, agriculture and health. The easier knowledge transfer goes both ways: people benefiting from scientific knowledge and people having knowledge scientists should know. Translations thus help both science and society. They aid innovation and tackling the big global challenges in the fields of climate change, agriculture and health.

Translated scientific articles speed up scientific progress by tapping into more knowledge and avoiding double work. They thus improve the quality and efficiency of science. Translations can improve public disclosure, scientific engagement and science literacy. The production of translated scientific articles also creates a training dataset to improve automatic translations, which for most languages is still lacking.

The full post at the Translate Science blog explains more about who we are, what we would like to do to promote translations and how you can join.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

The confusing politics behind John Stossel asking Are We Doomed?

As member of Climate Feedback I just reviewed a YouTube video by John Stossel. In that review I could only respond to factual claims, which were the boring age-old denier evergreens. Thus not surprisingly the video got a solid "very low" scientific credibility. But it got over 25 million views, so I guess responding was worth it.

The politics of the video were much more "interesting". As in: "May you live in interesting times". Other options would have been: crazy, confusing, weird.

That starts with the title of the video: "Are We Doomed?". Is John Stossel suggesting that damages are irrelevant if they are not world ending? I would be surprised if that were his general threshold for action. "Shall we build a road?". Well, "Are We Doomed?" "Should we fund the police? Well, "Are We Doomed?" "Shall I eat an American taco?" Well, "Are We Doomed?"

Are we not to invest in a more prosperous future unless we are otherwise doomed? That does not seem to be the normal criterion for rational investments any sane person or corporation would use.

Then there is his stuff about sea level rise:

"Are you telling me that people in Miami are so dumb that they are just going to sit there and drown?”

That remind me of a similar dumb statement by public intellectual Ben Shapiro (I hope people hear the sarcasm, in the US you can never be sure) and the wonderful response to it by H Bomber Guy:

Bomber also concludes that this, this, ... whatever it is, has nothing to do with science:

"How have things reached a point, where someone thinks they can get away with saying something this ridiculous in front of an audience of people? And how have things reached the point where some people in that audience won't recognize it for the obvious ignorant bullshit that it is?
This led me down a particular hole of discovery. I realized that climate deniers aren't just wrong, they're obviously wrong. In very clear ways, and that makes the whole thing so much more interesting. How does this work if it's so paper thin?"

Politically interesting is that Stossel wants Floridians to get lost and Dutch people to pay an enormous price, in this video, while the next Stossel video Facebook suggests has the tagline: "Get off my property". And Wikipedia claims that Stossel is a "Libertarian pundit".

So do we have to accept any damages Stossel wants to us to suffer under? Do we have to leave our house behind? Does Stossel get to destroy our community and our family networks? Is Stossel selling authoritarianism where he gets to decide who suffers? Or is Stossel selling markets with free voluntary transaction and property rights?

In America, lacking a diversity of parties, both ideologies are within the same (Republican) party, but these are two fundamentally different ideas. But either you are a Conservative and believe in property rights or you are an Authoritarian and think you can destroy other people's property when you have the power.

You can reconcile these two ideas with the third ideological current in the Republican party: childish Libertarianism, where you get to pretend that the actions of person X never affect person Y. An ideology for teenagers and a lived reality for the donor class that funds US politics and media, who never suffer consequences for their terrible behavior.

But in this video Stossel rejects this childish idea and accepts that Florida suffers damages:

"Are you telling me that people in Miami are so dumb that they are just going to sit there and drown?”

So, John Stossel, do you believe in property rights or don't you?

Friday, 16 April 2021

Antigen rapid tests much less effective for screening than previously thought according to top German virologist Drosten

Hidden in a long German language podcast on the pandemic Prof. Dr. Christian Drosten talked about an observation that has serious policy implications.

At the moment this is not yet based on any peer reviewed studies, but mostly on his observations and those of his colleagues running large diagnosis labs. So it is important to note that he is a top diagnostic virologist from German who specialized on emerging and Corona viruses and made the first SARS-CoV-2 PRC test.

In the Anglo-American news Drosten is often introduced as the German Fauci. This fits as being one of the most trusted national sources of information. But Drosten has much more expertise, both Corona virusses and diagnostic testing are his beat.

Tim Lohn wrote an article about this in Bloomberg: "Rapid Covid Tests Are Missing Early Infections, Virologist Says." And found two experts making similar claims.

Let me give a longer and more technical explanation than Tim Lohn of what Prof. Dr. Christian Drosten claims. Especially because there is no peer reviewed study yet, I feel the explanation is important.

If you have COVID symptoms (day 0), sleep on it and test the next day the antigen tests are very reliable. But on day zero itself and especially on the one or two days before where you were already infectious they are not as reliable. So they are good for (self-)diagnosis, but less good for screening, for catching those first days of infectiousness. The PCR tests are sensitive enough for those pre-symptomatic cases, if only people would test with PCR that early and would immediately get the result.

Figure from Jitka Polechová et al.

In those pre-symptomatic days there is already a high viral load, but this is mostly active virus. The antigen test detects the presence of the capsid of the virus, the protective shell of the virus. The PCR test detects virus RNA. When infecting a cell, the capsid proteines are produced first, before the RNA is produced. So in that respect one might expect the rapid tests to be able to find virus a few hours earlier.

But here we are talking about a few days. The antigen test can best detected capsids in a probe sample when epithelial cells die and mix with the mucus, which takes a few days. So the difference between the days before and after symptoms is the amount of dead virus material, which the rapid tests can detect to get reliable results. That is the reason why in the time after symptom onset the antigen tests predict infectiousness well. But in those early days possibly not.

This was not detected before because the probes used to study how well the tests work were mostly from symptomatic people; it is hard to get get positive probes from people who are infectious before they are symptomatic. Because you do not often have pre-symptomatic cases with both a PCR and an anti-gen tests, also the observations of Drosten are based on just a few cases. He strongly encouraged systematic studies to be made and published, but this will take a few months.

In the Bloomberg article Tim Lohn quotes Rebecca Smith who found something similar:

In a paper published in March -- not yet peer reviewed -- researchers led by Rebecca L. Smith at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that, among other things, PCR tests were indeed better at detecting infections early on than a Quidel rapid antigen test. But the difference narrowed after a few days, along with when the different tests were repeatedly used on people.

The article also quotes Jitka Polechová of the University of Vienna, who wrote a review comparing PCR tests to antigen tests:

“Given that PCR tests results are usually not returned within a day, both testing methods are similarly effective in preventing spread if used correctly and frequently.”

This is a valid argument for comparing the tests when are used for diagnostics or as additional precautions for dangerous activities that have to take place.

However, at least in Germany, rapid tests are also used as part of opening up the economy. Here people can, for example, go into the theatre or a restaurant after having been tested. This is something one would not use a PCR for, because it would not be fast enough. These people at theatres and restaurants may think they are nearly 100% safe, but actually 3 of the on average 8 infectious days would not be detected. If, in addition, people behave more dangerously, thinking they are safe, opening a restaurant this way may not be much less dangerous than opening a restaurant without any testing.

So we have to rethink this way of opening up activities inside and rather try to meet people outside.

Related reading

Original source: Das Coronavirus-Update von NDR Info, edition 84: "(84) Nicht auf Tests und Impfungen verlassen". Time stamp: "00:48:09 Diagnostik-Lücke bei Schnelltests"

Northern German public media (NDR) article: 'Drosten: "Schnelltests sind wohl weniger zuverlässig als gedacht."' Translated: Drosten: "Rapid tests are probably less reliable than expected"

Tim Lohn in Bloomberg: "Rapid Covid Tests Are Missing Early Infections, Virologist Says."

Jitka Polechová, Kory D. Johnson, Pavel Payne,Alex Crozier, Mathias Beiglböck, Pavel Plevka, Eva Schernhammer. Rapid antigen tests: their sensitivity, benefits forepidemic control,and use in Austrian schools. Not reviewed preprint.

Friday, 22 January 2021

New paper: Spanish and German climatologists on how to remove errors from observed climate trends

This picture shows three meteorological shelters next to each other in Murcia (Spain). The rightmost shelter is a replica of the Montsouri (French) screen, in use in Spain and many European countries in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Leftmost, Stevenson screen equipped with conventional meteorological instruments, a set-up used globally for most of the 20th century. In the middle, Stevenson screen equipped with automatic sensors. The Montsouri screen is better ventilated, but because some solar radiation can get onto the thermometer it registers somewhat higher temperatures than a Stevenson screen. Picture: Project SCREEN, Center for Climate Change, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Spain.

The instrumental climate record is human cultural heritage, the product of the diligent work of many generations of people all over the world. But changes in the way temperature was measured and in the surrounding of weather stations can produce spurious trends. An international team, with participation of the University Rovira i Virgili (Spain), State Meteorological Agency (AEMET, Spain) and University of Bonn (Germany), has made a great endeavour to provide reliable tests for the methods used to computationally eliminate such spurious trends. These so-called “homogenization methods“ are a key step to turn the enormous effort of the observers into accurate climate change data products. The results have been published in the prestigious Journal of Climate of the American Meteorological Society. The research was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.

Climate observations often go back more than a century, to times before we had electricity or cars. Such long time spans make it virtually impossible to keep the measurement conditions the same across time. The best-known problem is the growth of cities around urban weather stations. Cities tend to be warmer, for example due to reduced evaporation by plants or because high buildings block cooling. This can be seen comparing urban stations with surrounding rural stations. It is less talked about, but there are similar problems due to the spread of irrigation.

The most common reason for jumps in the observed data are relocations of weather stations. Volunteer observers tend to make observations near their homes; when they retire and a new volunteer takes over the tasks, this can produce temperature jumps. Even for professional observations keeping the locations the same over centuries can be a challenge either due to urban growth effects making sites unsuitable or organizational changes leading to new premises. Climatologist from Bonn, Dr. Victor Venema, one of the authors: “a quite typical organizational change is that weather offices that used to be in cities were transferred to newly build airports needing observations and predictions. The weather station in Bonn used to be on a field in village Poppelsdorf, which is now a quarter of Bonn and after several relocations the station is currently at the airport Cologne-Bonn.

For global trends, the most important changes are technological changes of the same kinds and with similar effects all over the world. Now we are, for instance, in a period with widespread automation of the observational networks.

Appropriate computer programs for the automatic homogenization of climatic time series are the result of several years of development work. They work by comparing nearby stations with each other and looking for changes that only happen in one of them, as opposed to climatic changes that influence all stations.

To scrutinize these homogenization methods the research team created a dataset that closely mimics observed climate datasets including the mentioned spurious changes. In this way, the spurious changes are known and one can study how well they are removed by homogenization. Compared to previous studies, the testing datasets showed much more diversity; real station networks also show a lot of diversity due to differences in their management. The researchers especially took care to produce networks with widely varying station densities; in a dense network it is easier to see a small spurious change in a station. The test dataset was larger than ever containing 1900 station networks, which allowed the scientists to accurately determine the differences between the top automatic homogenization methods that have been developed by research groups from Europe and the Americas. Because of the large size of the testing dataset, only automatic homogenization methods could be tested.

The international author group found that it is much more difficult to improve the network-mean average climate signals than to improve the accuracy of station time series.

The Spanish homogenization methods excelled. The method developed at the Centre for Climate Change, Univ. Rovira i Virgili, Vila-seca, Spain, by Hungarian climatologist Dr. Peter Domonkos was found to be the best at homogenizing both individual station series and regional network mean series. The method of the State Meteorological Agency (AEMET), Unit of Islas Baleares, Palma, Spain, developed by Dr. José A. Guijarro was a close second.

When it comes to removing systematic trend errors from many networks, and especially of networks where alike spurious changes happen in many stations at similar dates, the homogenization method of the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) performed best. This is a method that was designed to homogenize station datasets at the global scale where the main concern is the reliable estimation of global trends.

The earlier used Open Screen used at station Uccle in Belgium, with two modern closed thermometer Stevenson screens with a double-louvred walls in the background.

Quotes from participating researchers

Dr. Peter Domonkos, who earlier was a weather observer and now writes a book about time series homogenization: “This study has shown the value of large testing datasets and demonstrates another reason why automatic homogenization methods are important: they can be tested much better, which aids their development.

Prof. Dr. Manola Brunet, who is the director of the Centre for Climate Change, Univ. Rovira i Virgili, Vila-seca, Spain, Visiting Fellow at the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK and Vice-President of the World Meteorological Services Technical Commission said: “The study showed how important dense station networks are to make homogenization methods powerful and thus to compute accurate observed trends. Unfortunately, still a lot of climate data needs to be digitized to contribute to an even better homogenization and quality control.

Dr. Javier Sigró from the Centre for Climate Change, Univ. Rovira i Virgili, Vila-seca, Spain: “Homogenization is often a first step that allows us to go into the archives and find out what happened to the observations that produced the spurious jumps. Better homogenization methods mean that we can do this in a much more targeted way.

Dr. José A. Guijarro: “Not only the results of the project may help users to choose the method most suited to their needs; it also helped developers to improve their software showing their strengths and weaknesses, and will allow further improvements in the future.

Dr. Victor Venema: “In a previous similar study we found that homogenization methods that were designed to handle difficult cases where a station has multiple spurious jumps were clearly better. Interestingly, this study did not find this. It may be that it is more a matter of methods being carefully fine-tuned and tested.

Dr. Peter Domonkos: “The accuracy of homogenization methods will likely improve further, however, we never should forget that the spatially dense and high quality climate observations is the most important pillar of our knowledge about climate change and climate variability.

Press releases

Spanish weather service, AEMET: Un equipo internacional de climatólogos estudia cómo minimizar errores en las tendencias climáticas observadas

URV university in Tarragona, Catalonian: Un equip internacional de climatòlegs estudia com es poden minimitzar errades en les tendències climàtiques observades

URV university, Spanish: Un equipo internacional de climatólogos estudia cómo se pueden minimizar errores en las tendencias climáticas observadas

URV university, English: An international team of climatologists is studying how to minimise errors in observed climate trends


Tarragona 21: Climatòlegs de la URV estudien com es poden minimitzar errades en les tendències climàtiques observades

Genius Science, French: Une équipe de climatologues étudie comment minimiser les erreurs dans la tendance climatique observée A team of climatologists is studying how to minimize errors in observed climate trend


Friday, 20 November 2020

Yes, it makes sense not to have diner parties while the schools are still open. Think of it as a Corona contact budget.


Can the kids go to school in restaurants

Jessica Winter, editor New Yorker


Analogies can be enlightening. Bad faith actors will always find something to nit pick, but for those interested in understanding analogies can help to open a toolbox of existing ideas and argumentative structures.

I wondered whether it may be useful to talk about Corona contacts as a budget.

It would avoid arguments like "if churches can be open, why can't we have concerts under similar conditions". "If you cannot meet indoors with more than 15 people, then why are schools open? Math!" 

One would never argue "if we just bought his flat, why can't we buy a summer house?" Maybe you have the budget to buy a summer house, but buying a flat does not mean you can also afford the summer house.

Similarly in the political realm: "if we can have social security, why can't we have a basic income (social security for all)?" For me a basic income is freedom, fulfilment of human potential and prosperity, but you will have to find the money. "If we can spend 10% of our GDP on healthcare as an average OECD country, why can't we spend 20%?" You can, and America does, but it will still be hard to find the funding for the additional 10% if countries with universal health care wanted to destroy their system and adopt the American partial system.

When it comes to budgets it is immediately clear that you have to set priorities and invest wisely.

The reproduction number of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is between two and three. Let's assume for this article that it is two to get easier numbers. This means that one infected person on average infects two other people. If we reduce number of infectious contacts by more than half the virus would decline.

The "on average" does a lot of work. How many people one person infects varies widely. As a rule of the thumb for SARS2: Four of five infected people only infect one other person or none, while one in five infects many people. It is only two on average.

And you have to average over a population that is in contact with each other. When in France no one has any contacts, while in Germany life continues as normal, the virus will spread like wildfire in Germany. But if inside the city of Bonn half of the people disappear, the remaining people have less contacts than before. The remaining half should not especially seek each out for the analogy to hold.

How does this analogy help? If we look at the budget of a country like Germany, it makes clear that we should look for reductions where we spend a lot. Work, school, free time. I am as annoyed by the anti-Corona protests as many complaining about them, but compared to 80 million inhabitants that see each other at work and school (indoors) every day, these protests, even if they were really big, are a completely insignificant number of contacts. And the right to protest is a foundation of our societies and should thus have a high priority. I think it is fine to mandate masks at protests and if you do so you should uphold the rule of law.

Less than 20% of Germany is younger than 20. So we could afford to spend our contacts there and ask the other 80% to do more. People often argue that children not going to school is disruptive for the economy. I would also argue a pandemic last one year is a large part of their lives, while additionally young people mostly do this to protect others. There is naturally no need to squander our budget, we could  require older kids to wear masks to reduce the effective number of contacts, install air filters or far UC-V lights in class rooms or reduce the number of days children go to school.

Some feel we should close the schools to protect teachers, but the main reason to care about avoiding contacts is, even now, not about the people being infected today, but about the spreading the virus and all the people who will die because of that. 

If we life above our contact budget most of the dying happens after several links in the chain of infection and no longer close to the school: The teacher or student infects 2 others, they infect 4 other, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, ... Those 128 will reside all over the city/county, if not state and have many different professions. If we would life within our Corona budget and the level of infection would be and stay low, the entire community, including teachers, would be safe.

The exponential growth of a virus also nicely fits to the exponential growth of money in your [[savings account]]. I added a link for young people. A savings account used to be a place where you would keep you money and the bank would give you a percentage of the amount as a thank you, which they called "interest". People who are into money and budgets likely still remember this and how it was normal to "invest" money to have more money later. 

When the press talks about exponential growth, I tend to worry they simply mean fast growth. Economic growth is much slower than the pandemic, but when it comes to money people get glowing eyes and talk enthusiastically about compound interest and putting something aside for later.

Similarly when a society invests in less contacts, we can have more freedom later.  Even more so because once the number of infections is low enough track and trace becomes much more efficiently and you get double returns on investment. Like an investment banker who has to pay less taxes because ... reasons.

At least the financial press should know the famous example of exponential growth: the craftsman who "only" asks the king for rice as payment for his chessboard: one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third square and so on. 


What is true for infections is also true for hospital beds and ICU beds. Once half of your patients are COVID-19 patient, it is only a matter of one more doubling time and the capacity is filled. Exponential growth is not just fast, it overwhelms linear systems like hospitals where you cannot keep on doubling the number of beds. 
If we let it get this far we are forcing doctors to choose who lives. Who is in the ICU too long and would likely stay there a long time while this capacity could be used for multiple new patients. Who is removed for the ICU to die. A healthy society does not put doctors in such a position.

With good care around 1 percent of people die in the West (in young societies in Africa less). Supporters of the virus tend to use this number or even much lower fantasy numbers. However, if we let it get out of control like this, ignore the exponential growth and the delay between infections and deaths, the hospital care would collapse and a few percent would die.

Many more people need to got the hospital. In Germany this is 17%. A recent French study reported that after 110 day most patients are still tired and have trouble breathing, many did not yet work again.
At the latest when the hospitals collapse people will reduce contacts, even if not mandated. It is much smarter make an investment earlier, to reduce our number of infectious contacts earlier. 
A well-know American president said it is smart to go bankrupt. It is smarter to make money.
Investing early pays of even more because then more subtle measures are still possible, while in an emergency a much more invasive lockdown will be necessary and, for those that only care about money, more damage to the economy will be done.

(As many of my readers are interested in climate change, let me add that I find it weird that when it comes to protecting the climate people often talk about it as a cost and not as an investment that will pay good dividends in the future, just like any other investment. If you mind that our kids will thus have it better than we have it, you can finance the investments with loans, like any business would.)

Related reading


Monday, 9 November 2020

Science Feedback on Steroids

Climate Feedback is a group of climate scientists reviewing press articles on climate change. By networking this valuable work with science-interested citizens we could put this initiative on steroids.

Disclosure, I am member of Climate Feedback.

How Climate Feedback works

Climate Feedback works as follows. A science journalist monitors which stories on climate change are shared much on social media and invites publishing climate scientists with relevant expertise to review the factual claims being made. The scientists make detailed reviews on concrete claims, ideally using web annotations (see example below), sometimes by email.



They also write a short summary of the article and grade its scientific credibility. These comments, summaries and grades are then summarized in a graphic and an article written by the science journalist. 

Climate Feedback takes care of spreading the reviews to the public and to the publication that was reviewed. Climate Feedback is also part of a network of fact checking organizations giving them more credibility and they add metadata to the review pages that social media and search engines can show their users.



For scientists this is a very efficient fact checking operation. The participants only have to respond to the claims they have expertise on. If there are many claims outside my expertise I can wait until my colleagues added their web annotations before I write my summary and determine my grade. Especially compared to writing a blog post Climate Feedback is very effective.

The initiative recently branched out to reviewing health claims with a new Health Feedback group. The umbrella is now called Science Feedback.

The impact

But there is only so much a group of scientists can do and by the time the reviews are in and summarized the article is mostly old news. Only a small fraction of readers would see any notifications social media systems could put on posts spreading them.

This is still important information for people who closely follow the topic, helps them to see how such reviews are done, assess which publication are reliable and helps to see which groups are credible. 

The reviews may be most important for the journalists and the publications involved. Journalists doing high quality work can now demonstrate this to editors who will mostly not be able to assess this themselves. Some journalists have even asked for reviews of important pieces to showcase the quality of their work. Reversely editors can seek out good journalists and cut ties with journalists regularly hurt their reputation. The latter naturally only helps publications that care about quality.

The Steroids

With a larger group we could review more articles and have results while people are still reading it. There are not enough (climate) scientists to do this. 

For Climate Feedback I only review articles on topics where I have expertise. But I think I would still do a decent job outside of my expertise. It is hard to determine how good a good article is, but the ones that are clearly bad are easy to identify and this does not require much expertise. At least in the climate branch of the US culture war the same tropes are used over and over again, the same "thinking" errors are made over and over again. 

Many who are interested in climate change are interested in scientific detail, but are not scientists, would probably do a good job identifying these bad articles. Maybe even better. They say that magicians were better at debunking paranormal claims than scientists. We live in a bubble where most argue in good faith and science-interested normal citizens may well have a better BS detector.

However, how do we know who is good at this? Clearly not everyone, otherwise such a service would not be needed. We would have the data from Climate Feedback and Health Feedback to determine which citizen scientist's assessments predict the assessments of the scientists well. We could also ask people to classify the topic of the article. I would be best at observational climatology, decent in physical climatology and likely only average when it comes to many climate change impacts and economic questions. We could also ask people how confident they are in their assessments.

In the end it would be great to ingest ratings in a user friendly way with 1) a browser add-on on the article homepage itself, 2) replying to posts mentioning the article on social media, like replying to a tweet adding the handle of the PubPeerBot automatically submits the tweet to PubPeer.

A server would compute the ratings and as soon as there is enough data create a review homepage with the ratings as metadata to be used by search engines and social media sites. We will have to see if they are willing to use such a statistical product. Also an application programming interface (API) and ActivityPub can be used to spread the information to interested parties.

I would be happy to use this information on the micro-blogging system for scientists Frank Sonntag and I have set up. I presume more Open Social Media communities would be grateful for the information to make their place more reality-friendly. A browser add-on could also display the feedback on the article's homepage itself and on posts linking to it.

How to start?

Before creating such a huge system I would propose a much smaller feasibility study. Here people would be informed about articles Climate or Health Feedback are working on and they can return their assessments until the one of Climate Feedback is published. This could be a simple email distribution list to distribute the articles and a cloud-based spread sheet or web form to return the results. 

This system should be enough to study whether citizens can distinguish fact from fiction well enough (I expect so, but knowing for sure is valuable) and develop statistical methods to estimate how well people are doing, how to compute an all over score and how many reviews are needed to do so.

This set-up points to two complications the full system would have. Firstly, only citizen's assessments that are made before the official feedback can be used. this should not be too much of a problem as most readers will read the article before the official feedback is published.

Secondly, as the number of official feedbacks will be small many volunteers will likely not review any of these articles themselves or just a few. Thus the assessment of how accurate the predictions of person A of articles X, Y and Z are may have to be assessed comparing their assessments with those of B, C and D who review X, Y or Z as well as one of the articles Climate Feedback reviewed. This makes the computation more complicated and uncertain, but if B, C and D are good enough, this should be doable. Alternatively, we would have to keep on informing our volunteers of the articles being reviewed by the scientists themselves.

This new system could be part of Science Feedback or an independent initiative. I feel, it would at least be good to have a separate homepage as the two systems are quite different and the public should not mix them up. A reason to keep it separate is that this system could also be used in combination with other fact checkers, but we could also make that organizational change when it comes to that.

Another organization question is whether we would like Google and Facebook to have access to this information or prefer a license that excludes them. Short term it is naturally best when they also use it to inform as many people as possible. Long-term it would also be valuable to break the monopolies of Google and Facebook. Having alternative services that can deliver better quality due to our assessments could contribute to that. They have money, we have people.

I asked on Twitter and Mastodon whether people would be interested in contributing to such a system. Fitting to my prejudice people on Twitter were more willing to review (I do more science on Twitter) and people on Mastodon were more willing to build software (Mastodon started with many coders).

What do you think? Could such a system work? Would enough people be willing to contribute? Is it technologically and statistically feasible? Any ideas to make the system or the feasibility study better?

Related reading

Climate Feedback explainer from 2016: Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism
Discussion of a controversial Climate Feedback and the grading system used: Is nitpicking a climate doomsday warning allowed?