Monday 31 July 2017

Will we be wiped out by machine overlords?

The American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) just aired a piece on artificial intelligence that seems to be quite typical for the American published opinion. The segment — titled "Will we be wiped out by machine overlords? Maybe we need a game plan now" — could not have been more wrong in my non-expert opinion.

They gave examples of the progress of machine intelligence. The example that impressed me the most is computers beating humans at playing Go, a game that starts from an empty board and has a huge number of possible progressions. From these examples of very specific tasks they extrapolate to machines soon having more general intelligent than humans. I think they are wildly optimistic (pessimistic?) about that. This will still take a long time.

A hint of how difficult handling reality and other "intelligent" beings is is the world soccer tournament for robots. And that is still just a game with a well defined surrounding and rules.

Notice that when the robots make a goal, they do not take off their shirts and do not jump on each other to celebrate.

But there will likely be a time where computers are smarter than we are. So what? They have long been better at mental arithmetic, now they are better at Go. That does not make them overlords. Machines are also faster than us, stronger than us, dive deeper than us, explored more of the planetary system than us. So what?

Just because machines are intelligent, does not mean they want to rule and even less that they would be evil. It will be hard enough to program them to survive and not to jump off a cliff. Making them want to survive will be even harder.

Just because they would be intelligent, does not mean they are like us. That is likely the main thinking error people are making: we are intelligent, thus an intelligent entity is like us. We evolved to want to survive and reproduce, mostly by collaborating with each other and nature, if necessary also in conflict. Intelligence is just a side show of this, that was apparently advantageous in our niche.

It is possible to make computers solve problems with methods that mimic evolution. Rather than tell the computer in detail what to do, with these methods you only tell the computer what problem you would like it to solve. That has to be a concrete aim so that the computer can determine if it is getting better at solving the problem. Even if you somehow are able to make the computer solve the problem "general intelligence", the computer would just be intelligent.

Being a human is so much more than being intelligent. There is currently a bonus on the labour market for smart people, but you need so much more capabilities and drive to make something of your life.

If being intelligent were so great, we would have been much more intelligent already. It probably helps if a tribe has a few intelligent people, but a tribe of philosophers would quickly go extinct. Getting the variability right is as important as the mean and bigger is normally not better, there are trade offs.

One wonders where this fear for intelligence comes from. There are so many people more dangerous than a nerd with stick arms. There are also such machine-overlord stories in Europe, but my impression is that is is more common in America and I wonder if this is anti-intellectualism being in vogue. A country where the government thinks scientists are the enemy and need to be defeated. Sad.

Or where the Trump-voter whisperers on the left blame kids who are interested in learning for all the societal ills of America and absolves the rest as innocent victims who cannot be expected to engage with society. This ignores that most of the elite were born into their wealth and have nice diplomas because of the wealth of their parents rather than their yearning for learning.

While I do not see an evil machine overlord ruling over humanity or destroying us, machine intelligence could be a game changer in several ways. Many, at least in newspapers, worry about its influence on the labour market and the creation of mass unemployment. This is possible, but I worry about this a lot less, it is just another step towards more automation and the additional efficiency has just made us more affluent. As far as I can see, we do not understand where unemployment comes from (apart from a small part of it due to changing jobs; [[frictional unemployment]]), so I am surprised that people are confident in making unemployment predictions, especially predictions into the far future.

One would expect that people worrying about mass unemployment would advocate shifting the tax burden away from labour. Making labour cheaper should increase demand. Alternatives would be taxing pollution instead. A reduction in environmental damages and better health would be additional economic benefits next to less unemployment or better wages.

Machine intelligence can change the balance of power. It is most worthwhile to invest in automation of large professions that serve needs for the coming decades. These are the professions everyone knows, which helps fuel the media scare. It will be a long time before someone invests money to make [[bell founders]] redundant. These kinds of jobs are not well known, but combined a decent part of the economy and in future likely even more. Collective bargaining is harder for these kinds of jobs, so labour may lose over capital, but these are also jobs where it is is hard to find replacements, where trust and good relations are important, so it could also be that labour wins over capital.

A recent survey of experts in machine intelligence predicted that in 2049 (pardon the accuracy) bestsellers will be written by computers and 11 years from now create a song that makes the US top 40. I do not believe this one bit. I would be happy to buy a book on coding in FORTRAN written by a computer, but when it comes to novels or a book on politics, I want to hear from a human. The computational methods I use to generate climate time series can also be used to generate pleasing music. That could have been a career option, but I would have hidden that the music was composed by a computer. Otherwise no one would have listened to it more than once. It may provide cheap background music in a supermarket.

Many jobs also need a lot more than just intelligence: sales people, doctors and teachers. At least for fast food workers it would have been easy to automate their jobs decades ago, but people prefer food made by humans handed to them by humans. Even simple restaurant now often have an open kitchen to show that the food it cooked by humans and not just nuked factory food.

If intelligence becomes a commodity that you can buy, the current bonus on the labour market for smart people may be gone. That was anyway just a recent invention. It would be interesting to see how that changes science; intelligence is an important skill for a scientist, but there are many more important ones. Also now a smarter colleague is often happy to do some complicated specialised task.

When worrying about overlords, a more sensible option would be to worry about humans aided by machine intelligence. Looking at ISIS and their "Christian" counterparts is seems that evil people are not particularly intelligent or creative. It could be dangerous if such people could buy their missing intelligence at Amazon. On the other hand maybe there is a reason for the anti-correlations, the more intelligent humans will be less sure of themselves and fundamentalism may disappear.

Initially likely only the elite can afford to buy more intelligence, but we would probably move quite quickly into a regime where everyone has such an add-on and intelligence just becomes normal and nearly worthless.

The main robots to worry about are the amoral machines we invented to create money. Corporations evolved with the aim of gaining money and power. They die, merge, split up and need to survive to make money. As long as they were small and made money by efficiently producing better goods and services within the bounds of the law they did a wonderful job, now they have grown large and started looking for political power. Corrupting the political system is an efficient was to grain money and power. When amoral robots do so, this may not end well for humans who are already squeezed out like lemons.

[UPDATE. I did not have to write this post, it has all been said before. I just listened to an EconTalk interview by Russ Roberts interviewing machine learning expert Pedro Domingos. Good to hear AI researchers seem to agree with me, that AI wiping us out is mainly Hollywood.

Russ Roberts: I love when you wrote--here's another quote from the book:
People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world. But the real problem is they are too stupid, and they've already taken over the world.
Explain what you mean by that, and why you're not worried about some of the issues we've raised on this program before, with Nicholas Bostrom and others, that AI (artificial intelligence) is perhaps the greatest threat to humanity; machine learning could destroy the world; etc.

Pedro Domingos: Well, exactly. I think those worries are misguided, and frankly, I don't know too many, actually, AI researchers who take them too seriously. They are based on this confusion between AIs and people. Because humans are the only intelligent creatures on earth, when we think about intelligence we tend to confuse it with being human. But, being intelligent and being human are very different things. In Hollywood movies, the AIs and the robots are always humans in disguise. But the real AIs and robots are very different from humans, notably because they don't have goals of their own. People have this model of there will be a different set of agents who are competing with us for control of the planet. They are not going to be competing with us for anything, because we set their goals. Their intelligence is only being applied to solve the problems that we set them to solve, like cure cancer. And there, the more intelligent they are, the better.

Related reading

PBS: "Will we be wiped out by machine overlords? Maybe we need a game plan now"

BBC: "The automation resistant skills we should nurture"

Big Think: "Here's When Machines Will Take Your Job, as Predicted by AI Gurus"

The survey itself: "When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts"

Motherboard: How Garry Kasparov Learned to Stop Worrying and Love AI

* Photo Corpo Automi Robot by Bruno Cordioli used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

Thursday 27 July 2017

WMO Recognition of Long-Term Observing Stations

From the July 2017 newsletter of the WMO [World Meteorological Organization] Integrated Global Observing System (WIGOS). With some additional links & [clarifications].

Long-term meteorological observations are part of the irreplaceable cultural and scientific heritage of mankind
that serve the needs of current and future generations for long-term high quality climate records. They are
unique sources of past information about atmospheric parameters, thus are references for climate variability
and change assessments. To highlight this importance, WMO has a mechanism to recognize long-term observing stations. By so doing, the Organization promotes sustainable observational standards and best practices that facilitate the generation of high-quality time series data.

The initiative is envisaged to maintaining long-term observing stations, including in particular stations with more than 100 years observations — Centennial Stations — in support of climate applications (DRR [Disaster Risk Reduction Programme], GFCS [Global Framework for Climate Services], etc.) and research (climate assessment, climate adaptation, etc.). While acknowledging the efforts by Members to run and maintain appropriate observing systems including long-term observing stations, existing and potential difficulties which Members’ NMHSs [National Meteorological and Hydrological Service; mostly national weather services] are facing, due to their overall resource constraints and competing societal interests at national level, are observed by the same time.

The mechanism involves close collaboration between the Commission for Climatology (CCl), the Commission for Basic Systems (CBS), the Commission for Instruments and Methods of Observations (CIMO), the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) through an ad-hoc advisory board, as well as the WMO Members and the Secretariat. The 69th Session of WMO Executive Council (May 2017) recognized a first set of 60 long-term observing stations following an invitation letter from WMO Secretariat to Members to submit no more than three candidate stations. Further invitation letters will be released every second year to extend the list of WMO recognized long-term observing stations. The next call for the nomination of candidate stations will be issued in early 2018.

The recognition mechanism is based on recognition criteria that address the length, completeness and consistency of observations at a station, the availability of minimum station metadata, data rescue, WMO observing standards including siting classification, observational data quality control and the future of the observing station. A self-assessment template for recognition criteria compliance of individual observing stations has been developed for Members to submit candidate stations, which has to be filled in for each candidate station. After review by the above mentioned advisory board, a list of stations is tabled at Executive Council sessions for final decision. It is envisaged to renew the recognition of observing stations every ten years to ensure criteria compliance.

A special WMO Website has been implemented that provides information on the mechanism and lists candidate and recognized stations:

Furthermore, the recognition will be reflected in the WIGOS station catalogues. It is also planned to design a certificate per recognized station as well as a metal plate for installation at the station site.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Is nitpicking a climate doomsday warning allowed?

Journalist and amateur mass-psychic David Wallace-Wells published an article in the New York Magazine titled: "The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think."

Michael Mann responded on Facebook as one of the first scientists. He disliked the "doomist framing" and noted several obvious inaccuracies at the top of the article that all exaggerated the problem.

Some days later seventeen climate scientists of Climate Feedback (including me) reviewed the NY Mag article.

In my previous blog post I argued that this is a difficult, but important topic to talk about. The dangers of unfettered climate change are huge. Also if we do not act faster than we did in the past we are taking serious risks with our civilisation and existence. We should seriously consider that the situation can become worse than what we expect on average. Such cases are a big part of the total risk.

While the danger is there and should be discussed, the article contained many inaccuracies, which typically exaggerated the problem. Thus I have rated the article as having "low scientific credibility", which was the most selected rating of the other scientists as well.

Both the critique of Mann and of Climate Feedback produced quite some controversy. This was exceptional; normally the people who see climate change as an important problem trust the scientists who told them about the problem.

Like other climate scientists I correct both sides when I see something and have enough expertise. Although it is much rarer to have to correct people who see climate change as a problem (let's call them the "concerned"). I guess the real problem is big enough, there is not much need to exaggerate it. The overwhelming amount of nonsense comes from people playing down the problem. Normally the deniers really dislike contrary evidence, but the concerned are mostly happy to be corrected and to be able see the problem more clearly.

It is interesting that this time the corrections were much more controversial. Why was it different this time? Was our "nitpicking" a case of the science police striking again? Could Climate Feedback give more useful ratings?

Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial

Michael Mann followed up his Facebook post with an article in the Washington Post together with communication expert Susan Joy Hassol that "doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial". The key argument was:
Some seem to think that people need to be shocked and frightened to get them to engage with climate change. But research shows that the most motivating emotions are worry, interest and hope. Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.
This is an argument climate activists who want to be effective need to be aware of. The well-known groups already tend to stick to the science. Climate change is bad enough as it is and they rightly value their credibility.

The argument makes me uncomfortable, however, when connected to science. The situation is what it is. Also if that provokes fear, scientists should stick to the evidence and not tone it down to be "effective". It is the job of an activist to be effective. It is our job is to be honest.

If the population would have to fear we are not honest, that would produce additional uncertainty and give more room for the prophets of doom. Thus toning it down fearing fear can also produce fear.

David Wallace-Wells uses the fear that scientists hide the severity to make his story more scary. He is claiming throughout that article that scientists are not giving it straight: scientist are technocrats who are too optimistic that the problem can be solved, "climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious", he talked to many scientists, but does not name most in the original article, thus suggesting they are only willing to tell the truth anonymously, "the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months ... have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion", "Pollyannaish plant physiologists", "Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria", "But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must."

This framing may have made the article more attractive to readers who expect scientists not to be honest and to understate the problems. This in turn may have provoked a more allergic reaction to the Climate Feedback critique than an article mostly read by people who love and respect science.

That the audience matters is also suggested by clear difference in the responses on Reddit sceptic and Reddit Collapse. The people on the Reddit of the real sceptics (not the fake climate "sceptics") were interested, while the people preparing for the collapse of civilisation were more often unhappy about Climate Feedback.

In the Climate Feedback reviews the doomist tone is often not appreciated, but if you look at the details, at the annotations of the scientists, it is clear that the problem is that the NY Mag article contains errors that exaggerate the problem, not the bad news that is accurate. In the summaries spreading doom and exaggerating were sometimes used interchangeably. So let me say clearly: I have never talked to a scientists who was more worried in private than in public.

While scientists say what they think, they do tend to be careful in what they claim. The more careful the claim, the more confident a scientist can be that the evidence is sufficient to support it. We like strong and thus careful claims. This is justified when it comes to the question whether there is a problem. You do not want to cry wolf too often when there is none. However, as I have argued on this blog before we should not be careful about the size of the wolf. Saying the wolf is a Chihuahua is not good advice to the public.

My advice to the public would be to expect problems to be somewhat worse than the scientific mainstream claims, but not to go to prophets of doom and especially to avoid sources with a history of inaccurate information. (At least for mature problems, in case of fresh problem it can go both ways.)


Looking at the high risk tails is uncomfortable for everyone, also for scientists. That provokes more critical reading and an unfortunate claim in such a story will get more comments than a similar one hidden in a middle of the road most accurate story.

However, unfortunately the article also often made statements are clearly inaccurate, wrong or are missing important context. The biggest error in the article — from my perspective as someone who works on how accurately we know how much the Earth is warming — was this line:
there are alarming stories every day, like last month’s satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.
This has been updated by David Wallace-Wells to now read:
there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines).
This was a report on a satellite upper air dataset that was the favourite of the climate "sceptics" because it showed the laast warming. Scientists have always warmed that that dataset was unreliable. Now an update has brought it in line with the other temperature datasets. The "twice as fast" is just for a cherry picked period. That is about as bad as mitigation sceptical claiming that global warming has stopped by cherry picking a specific period.

The scientific assessment for the actual warming did not change, certainly not become twice as much. If anything we now understand the problem better, which would mean less risk. The change is also not that much compared to the warming we had over the last century.

Because the actual scientific assessment did not change one could also argue that the mistake is inconsequential for the main argument of the story and the comment thus nitpicking. At least for me it matters. I hope more people feel this way.

There were many more mistakes like this and cases where missing context will give the reader the wrong impression. I do not want to go through them all in this already long post; you can read the annotations.

There were also cases which were also nitpicking from a scientific viewpoint. Where these comments were mine, I included them for completeness. They also did not influence my rating much.

Apparently I have to add that parts of the text without annotations are not automatically accurate. Especially for such a long article annotating is a lot of work. At a certain moment there are enough annotations to make an assessment. In addition even with 17 scientists it will happen that none of the scientists has relevant expertise for specific claims.

Climate Feedback rating system

We may want to have another look at the rating system used by Climate Feedback; see below. Normally finding a grade is quite straight forward. In this case I had to think long and was still not really satisfied.

Suggested guidelines for the overall scientific credibility rating
Remember that we do not evaluate the opinion of the author, but instead the scientific accuracy of facts contained within the text, and the scientific quality of reasoning used.
  • +2 = Very High: No inaccuracies, fairly represents the state of scientific knowledge, well argumented and documented, references are provided for key elements. The article provides insights to the reader about climate change mechanisms and implications.
  • +1 = High: The article does not contain major scientific inaccuracies and its conclusion follows from the evidence provided.
  • 0 = Neutral: No major inaccuracies, but no important insight to better explain implications of the science.
  • -1 = Low: The article contains significant scientific inaccuracies or misleading statements.
  • -2 = Very Low: The article contains major scientific inaccuracies for key facts supporting the author’s argumentation and/or omits to mention important information and/or presents logical flaws in using information to reach his or her conclusion.
  • n/a = Not Applicable: The article does not build on scientifically verifiable information (e.g., it is mostly about politics or opinions).

The scale is not symmetrical in the sense that if you get X facts wrong and X facts right you are in the middle. It might be that some people expect that. I would argue that getting only 50% right is pretty bad for a science article.

A problem in this case was that we can only give integer grades. So I gave a -1. I thought about neutral, but decided against it because that would mean "no major inaccuracies" and there were. For the part I could judge I found several mistakes and cases of missing important context (that is the description of -1). Had it been possible, I would have given the article a -0.5., because the tag "low scientific credibility" sounds a bit too harsh.

The rating of the article and the summary is made independently by all scientists and most made the same consideration. Had I been able to see the other "low" rating, I might have opted for "neutral" for balance. (We can see the annotations of the other scientists and can also respond to them. Sometimes when I am one of the first to make annotations, I wait with my rating to see what problems the others find.)

The relativity of wrong is very important. This same week Climate Feedback reviewed a Breitbart story about the accuracy of the instrumental warming estimate (my blog post on it). That was a complete con job and got "very low" rating. Giving the New York Magazine piece half the Breitbart rating does nor feel right. A scale from 0 to 4 may work better than one from -2 to 2. A zero sounds a lot worse than one and "low" would not be half of "very low".

The actual problem may be only -2 means inaccuracies influencing the main line of the story. It is more a scale for a science nerd looking for a high quality article than a scale for a citizen wanting to know how reliable the main line of the story is. Up to now that was mostly correlated, for this piece is was not, which made grading hard.

The more concrete a claim is, the more objective it can be assessed. Thus I would personally prefer to keep it a scale for science nerds and not go to a more vague and subjective assessment whether the main line is accurate.

A previous Feedback on a climate nightmare article by climate journalist Eric Holthaus got plus and minus ones. That shows that such an article can get positive ratings. That the article was never rated "neural" suggests that we may have to reconsider its description. That it states "no important insight" may make neutral almost worse than -1. It sounds like the famous quote: "not even wrong."

Based on the above discussion of the NY Mag review my suggestion for a new rating system would be the one below. It should be seen if it also fits well to other articles. I changed the numbers, the short descriptions and the long description for neutral.

Suggested guidelines for the overall scientific credibility rating
Remember that we do not evaluate the opinion of the author, but instead the scientific accuracy of facts contained within the text, and the scientific quality of reasoning used.
  • 4 = Excellent science reporting: No inaccuracies, fairly represents the state of scientific knowledge, well argumented and documented, references are provided for key elements. The article provides insights to the reader about climate change mechanisms and implications.
  • 3 = Very good science reporting: The article does not contain major scientific inaccuracies and its conclusion follows from the evidence provided.
  • 2 = Good science reporting: Mostly accurate statements and only minor inaccurate ones.
  • 1 = Some problems: The article contains significant scientific inaccuracies or misleading statements.
  • 0 = Major errors: The article contains major scientific inaccuracies for key facts supporting the author’s argumentation and/or omits to mention important information and/or presents logical flaws in using information to reach his or her conclusion.
  • n/a = Not Applicable: The article does not build on scientifically verifiable information (e.g., it is mostly about politics or opinions).

Why climate feedback?

There were people asking why we, Climate Feedback, were doing this. This could be interpreted in two ways:
1) Why do you nitpick this article I feel is an important wake-up call?
2) Why do you do this at all?

First of all, we do not know in advance what the outcome will be. Many articles on climate change are also very good and get great ratings. That is the kind of feedback journalists appreciate and which may help them in their careers and stimulate them to write better articles. Some journalists have even asked for reviews of important pieces to showcase the quality of their work.

We had a few authors who updated their article. David Wallace-Wells also did so and added more sources and transcripts. As far as I know such updates have only happened on the side that accepts the science. Also in that way our work improves science journalism, although such updates will come too late for most readers.

Most people will likely only get a general impression of how reliable news sources are when it comes to climate change. When we have enough reviews Climate Feedback will also make "official" assessments of the reliability of media sources. For more prolific writers also their individual credibility starts to become clear.

The reviews have already made clear that people who accept that climate change is real typically write accurate articles, while writers who do not want to solve the problem typically write error-ridden and misleading articles. That is good to know.

Only criticising the climate "sceptics" is not in the nature and in the training of good scientists. More utilitarian: solving climate change is a marathon, the energy transition will not be completed before 2050. Adaptation to limit the consequences of climate change will also be a job for generations to come. It is thus important that scientists are seen as trustworthy and only picking on one group would damage our reputation.

There are people who want to understand the details and when they meet misinformation being able to explain what is wrong with it. On reddit these people gather in /r/skeptic/. They normally accept climate change is real and like details/nitpicking, quality arguments and a rational world.

I do worry that there is also a downside to science policing in that people are less comfortable speaking about climate change fearing to be corrected. That is one reason to let minor cases slip and in bigger cases be gracious when it is the first time making a mistake. David Wallace-Wells responded graciously to the critiques, it were others that objected.

Making a mistake is completely different from the industrial production of nonsense on WUWT & Co.

It would be progress if scientists had a smaller role in this weird US "debate". It was forced on us by a continual stream of misinformation on the science from climate "sceptics". There should be a debate what to do about it and that is a debate for everyone. If you would see less scientists in US debates around climate change that would probably mean that the important questions are finally being addressed.

It would also be progress because scientists are typically not very good communicators. Partially that is because most scientists are introverted. Partially that is the nature of the problem, some things are simply not true, some arguments are simply not valid and there is little room for negotiation and graciousness.

On the other hand, science communication works pretty well in countries without the systemic corruption in Washington and the US media. So I do not think scientists are the main problem.

Related reading

Part I of this blog series: "How to talk about climate doomsday scenarios."

The updated New York Magazine piece By David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. (The reviewed original, the version with annotations.)

The Climate Feedback Feedback: Scientists explain what New York Magazine article on “The Uninhabitable Earth” gets wrong.

New York Magazine now also published extended interviews with the scientists interviewed for the piece: James Hansen, Peter Ward, Walley Broker, Michael Mann, and Michael Oppenheimer.

Introduction to Climate Feedback: Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism

Wednesday 19 July 2017

How to talk about climate doomsday scenarios

David Wallace-Wells wrote a 7000 word cover story in New York Magazine on how unchecked climate change may make the Earth uninhabitable. With 2.5 million readers this longread was the most read article in the magazine's history.

That shows the impact a well written article can have. It also points to a change in the mood in America. Since Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, happy to risk climate rapture for the quarterly earning of his donors, attention for climate change in America has spiked.

Americans are living through a nightmare, where you see the danger coming, but cannot convince others to stand up to it. Until you wake up bathing in sweat and pick up your phone from the night stand to read tweets from climate "sceptics" mocking you for facing reality. The same people that make a nightmare out of a perfectly solvable problem.

Sixteen climate scientists of Climate Feedback (including me) reviewed the NY Mag article. This number of reviewers may also be a record.

My summary would be that while the dangers of unfettered climate change are real, we found many inaccuracies, which typically exaggerated the problem. Thus the article was rated as having a "low scientific credibility". Both the NY Mag article and the Climate Feedback rating and earlier criticism by Michael Mann have sparked some controversy.

This post will be about how I would prefer the media to report on worse case scenarios. A second post will be about whether our "nitpicking" was the science police striking again?

I have no idea how 2100 looks like. Put yourself in the place of a well-informed citizen of 1900 and what they may have thought today looks like. Meters of horse shit on the streets due to the growth of traffic? Or imagine how an American thought this time would look like 50 years ago. Flying cars and Mars colonies?

Maybe in 2100 humanity has gone extinct, maybe civilization is gone, maybe humans are enslaved by corporations, maybe currently poor countries are also affluent and corporation can no longer repress us, maybe after another century of development we lead wonderful lives, maybe we are building our first intersolar cruiser, maybe no one cares about intersolar cruisers and people impress each other with poetry and four dimensional chess. Very likely they will be painfully embarrassed for me for the options I gave.

I have no idea how they view climate change in 2100. Do they see it as the biggest historical liability put on them? Are they annoyed at the tax burden for the huge necessary geo-engineering program? Do they wonder why people in 2017 thought it was such a big problem, while it was so easy to solve? Are they happy that due to the geo-engineering program they now have weather satellites and it only rains at night in urban areas?

Even in the best case scenario we are taking the climate system out of known territories. There will be many surprises and to be honest those are what worry me the most. The Uncertainty monster is not our friend and that makes it very hard to say which worst case scenarios are unrealistic.

It is custom to accept smaller risks the bigger the stakes are. Cars and smoking kill many people, but one at a time. A risk someone may be willing to take personally will be larger than the risk one takes with a community, a country or our civilization. The risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 84 (1.2 %), this would be an unacceptable risk for civilization or humanity. Thus we have to look at the tails.

Finally, we expect the impacts of climate change to accelerate: Because some variability is normal, the first degree of warming makes much less problems than the next. Thus the risks of above average warming are expected to contribute much to the total risk. It is thus good that the article explores what surprises may be in store and talks about scenarios that are not likely, but risky.

Four horsemen of the apocalypse

The article reaches the worst case scenarios in four ways:
  1. The worst case for the emissions of greenhouse gases.
  2. The worst case for how sensitive the climate system responds.
  3. The worst case for the impacts and how humanity responds.
  4. The worst case for the scientific assessment of the evidence.
1. The worst case emission scenario was the [[RCP8.5 scenario]] of the IPCC. These scenarios are really just that: scenarios. No probability is assigned to them.

This is the IPCC report from 2013 and the scenarios were created well before that. My impression is that with the [[Paris climate agreement]] and the fast drop in the prices of renewable energy and storage, the RCP8.5 scenario is no longer very realistic. Another optimistic sign is that industrial emissions have stabilized the last 3 years. However, the US mitigation sceptical movement and their president will keep on fighting to make this dystopia a reality. So it is a legitimate question what kind of a world fossil fuel companies and these people want to create.

2. It is completely legitimate to explore the tails of the probability distribution of the climate sensitivity. Even if it had only 30% probability, Trump did get elected. Even if the chance is just one out of six, you sometimes role a six. And let's not start about Russian roulette. Unfortunately the tail of the distribution is not well constrained and very high sensitivities are hard to exclude.

3. The uncertainty of some impacts can be quantified reasonably well. These are the ones with the most physics in them such as heat waves and large-scale increases in precipitation. Then it is legitimate to go into the tail.

Other impacts are not understood well enough yet (Will ice sheets collapse? How much greenhouse gasses will the soil release due to heating?) or will never be fully predictable because of societal and technological influences (Will The Netherlands evacuate before or after Noah's flood? Will plant breeding keep up with climate change? Will societies be able to cope with climate refugees?). In such cases I would like to hear a balanced spectrum of views, including extreme ones.

Because the broad sweeping article discussed many climate change impacts it could not do justice to complexity of individual impacts. Climate change is typically just one stressor of many. When The Netherlands floods, the climate "sceptics" will not suddenly wake up and say "silly me, I was wrong, now I recognize that climate change is a problem, sorry about that". They will say the storm was to blame and it was really bad luck the storm came from the North West and its maximum coincided with high tides, the dikes were not strong enough, the maintenance not good enough and especially the government is to blame.

Looking at history or at the future only from a climate change perspective brings back bad memories of [[climate determinism]]. The Age recently reported on farm workers in Central America suffering and dying from chronic kidney disease. The regions where this new decease happens is well predicted by warming and changes in insolation. Simultaneously the problem is that these people are so poor that they have to work on hot days and also have a strong work ethic that promotes this. They tend not to drink during work and when they do it are often soft drinks because they are perceived as safer. A large part of the problem is funding for preventative care and people die because they cannot afford dialysis.

This example shows two things. First of all, like the dikes breaking in The Netherlands, the problem has many aspects. Secondly, this was a problem because it was new. There will be many surprises due to climate change. The study of (rare) diseases helps in understand how a healthy body works. It shows what is important for healthy functioning. Medicine can study many bodies, we only have one Earth and will very likely be surprised what the Earth did for us without us realising it.

4. Like for non-physical impacts, where I am hesitant to go into the tail is when it comes to the interpretation of the evidence. That quickly ends in cherry picking experts that say what you want to hear. Those are strategies for mitigation sceptics. Even if those experts do not stray from the evidence and only hold a pessimistic view; I feel this is not for serious science reporting. It is fine to explain the ideas of such experts, but they should be balanced with other views.

Concluding, for the objective part of the problem: if you clearly say you are looking at the worst case feel free to go deep into the tail of the probability distribution. Only looking at mean changes understates the risks. The tail is a big part of the risk and thus very important. Do not forget to talk about many further surprises and that the Uncertainty Monster has an ugly bite.

When it comes to the more subjective parts, please balance pessimistic with optimistic voices. Subjective judgements are unavoidable when it comes to worst case scenarios and the far future where the changes will be largest. People can legitimately have different world views and as a science nerd I would like to hear the full range of legitimate views.

An article needs a focus, but please consider that climate change is one stressor of many. Climate change impacts are complicated, do them justice like a great novelist would and do not make a cartoon out of them.

Related reading

The updated New York Magazine piece By David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. (The reviewed original, with annotations)

The Climate Feedback Feedback: Scientists explain what New York Magazine article on “The Uninhabitable Earth” gets wrong.

New York Magazine now also published extended interviews with the scientists interviewed for the piece: James Hansen, Peter Ward, Walley Broker, Michael Mann, Michael Oppenheimer.

A balanced article in The Atlantic: Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says? Why it's so hard to talk about the worst problem in the world.

Michael E. Mann: The ‘Fat Tail’ of Climate Change Risk

Fans of Judith Curry: the uncertainty monster is not your friend

Introduction to Climate Feedback: Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism

Michael E. Mann, Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles in the WP: Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial. Good people, but I am not buying it: one negative journalistic story in a full media diet does not make people despair, hopeless and paralysed. Plus reality is what it is.

* Painting of the Four Horsemen by Viktor Vasnetsov -, Public Domain, Link

Monday 10 July 2017

An ignorant proposal for a BEST project rip-off

It looks like the "Competitive Enterprise Institute" (CEI) just conned their dark money overlords with a stupid report rehashing all the same old claims of the mitigation sceptical movement the BEST project of Richard Muller already studied as a Red Team.

Conservative physics professor Richard Muller claimed that before his BEST project he "did not know whether global warming was real, was completely bogus or may was twice as bad as people said". He was at least open to all sides.

Joe D’Aleo, co-author of the CEI-affiliated report, made the embarrassingly uninformed and wrong claim that “nearly all of the warming they are now showing are in the adjustments.

The report "On the Validity of NOAA, NASA and Hadley CRU Global Average Surface Temperature Data & The Validity of EPA’s CO2 Endangerment Finding - Abridged Research Report" (with annotations) by James P. Wallace III, Joseph S. D’Aleo, and Craig D. Idso provides no evidence for this claim; the graph above shows the opposite is true.

They don't do subtle. But really? You want to claim the Earth is not warming? In 2017?

Glaciers are melting, from the tropical [[Kilimanjaro]] glaciers, to the ones in the Alps and Greenland. Arctic sea ice is shrinking. The growing season in the mid-latitudes has become weeks longer. Trees bud and blossom earlier. Wine can be harvested earlier. Animals migrate earlier. The habitat of plants, animals and insects is shifting poleward and up the mountains. Lakes and rivers freeze later and break-up the ice earlier. The oceans are rising.

Even without looking at any thermometer data, even if we would not have invented the thermometer, physics professor Muller was not sure the Earth is warming? Some corporate lobbyists of the CEI claim the Earth is hardly warming? Really? And the same group of people like to say scientists should get out of the lab more often.

Richard Muller explained in the New York Times the main objections of the mitigation sceptics, which he studied and the CEI wants to study:
We carefully studied issues raised by skeptics: biases from urban heating (we duplicated our results using rural data alone), from data selection (prior groups selected fewer than 20 percent of the available temperature stations; we used virtually 100 percent), from poor station quality (we separately analyzed good stations and poor ones) and from human intervention and data adjustment (our work is completely automated and hands-off). In our papers we demonstrate that none of these potentially troublesome effects unduly biased our conclusions.
In the end Muller and his team found:
Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.

The CEI report carefully avoids any mention of the BEST project. If fact it avoids any mention of previous studies on their "issues". That could be because they are uninformed henchmen, because they want to con their even dumber sponsors or because they want to deceive their friends and keep the public "debate" going on ad nauseam.

If they were real sceptics they would inform themselves and if they do not agree with a claim respond to the arguments. A scientific article thus starts with a description of what is already known and then puts forward new arguments or new evidence. Just repeating ancient accusations, ignoring previous studies, does not lead to a better understanding or a better conversation.

Global mean temperature estimates

Before going over the main mistakes of the report, let me explain how much the Earth is estimated to have warmed, why adjustments need to be made and how these adjustments are made.

The graph below shows the warming since 1880. The red line is the raw data, the blue line the warming estimate after adjustments to account for changes in the way temperature was measured. Directly using raw data, the warming estimate would have been larger. Due to adjustments about 10% of the warming is removed.

This would be a good point to remember that Joe D’Aleo wrong claimed that “nearly all of the warming they are now showing are in the adjustments.”  It is really really hard to be more wrong. Joe D’Aleo gets points for effort.

The main reason why the raw data suggests more warming is how sea surface temperature was historically measured. The ocean surface warming estimates of the UK Hadley centre are shown below. The main adjustment necessary is for the transition of bucket observations to measurement at the engine cooling water inlet, which mostly happened in the decades around the WWII. The war itself is an especially difficult case.

Bucket measurements are made by hauling a bucket of water from the ocean and stirring a thermometer until it has the temperature of the water. The problem is that the water cools due to evaporation between the time it is lifted from the ocean and the time the thermometer is read.

This is not only a large adjustment, but also a large uncertainty. Initially is was estimated that the bucket measurements were about 0.4 °C colder. Nowadays the estimate, depending on the bucket and the period, is about 0.2 °C, but it can be anywhere between 0.4 °C and zero. We studied these biases with experiments on research vessels, in labs and numerical modelling and by comparing measurements made by different nearby ships/platforms.

The graph below shows the warming over land as estimated from weather station data by US NOAA (GHCNv3). Over land the warming was larger than the raw observations suggest. The adjustments are made by comparing every candidate station with its nearby neighbours. Changes in the regional climate will be the same in all stations, any change that only happens at the candidate station is not representative for the region, but likely a change in how temperature was observed.

There are many reasons why stations may not measure the regional climate correctly. The best known is urbanization of the local surrounding of the station. Cities are often warmer than the surrounding region and when cities grow this can produce a warming signal. This is a correct measurement, but not the large-scale warming of interest and should thus be removed. The counterpart of urbanization is that city stations are often moved to the outskirts, which typically produces a cooling jump that also needs to be removed. This can even be important for small villages.

City stations moving to cooler airports can produce an artificial cooling. Also modern equipment generally measures a bit cooler than early instruments.

Where the CEI report gives examples of data before and after adjustment, do you want to guess whether they showed the sea surface temperature or the land surface temperature?

Sea or land? What do you think? I'll wait.

If you guessed the land surface temperature you won the price: a free twitter account to tell the Competitive Enterprise Institute what you think of the quality of their propaganda.

The ocean is 71% of the Earth's surface. Thus if you combine these two temperature signals taking the area of the land and the ocean into account the net effect of the adjustments is a reduction of global warming.

The Daily caller interviewed D'Aleo and calls the report a "peer-reviewed study". Suggesting that it underwent the quality control by scientists with expertise in the field that is typical for scientific publications. There is no evidence that the report is published in the scientific literature and the blog science quality, lack of clarity how the figures were computed and where their data comes from, the lack of evidence for the claims, the lack of references to the scientific literature makes it highly unlikely that this work is peer reviewed, to say it in a friendly way. There is no quality bar they will not limbo underneath; they don't do subtle.


The estimation of the climatic changes at a station using neighbouring stations to remove local artefacts is called statistical homogenisation. The basic idea of comparing a candidate station with its neighbours is easy, but with typically multiple jumps at one station and also jumps in the neighbouring stations it becomes a beautiful statistical problem people can work on for decades.

Naturally scientists also study how well they can remove these artefacts. It is sad this needs to be mentioned, but the more friendly blog posts of the mitigation sceptical movement (implicitly) assume scientists are stupid and don't do any due diligence. Right, that is how we got the moon and produced smart phones.

Such a study was actually how I started with this topic. The homogenisation community needed an outsider to make a blind benchmarking of their methods. So I generated a dataset with homogeneous station data where you need to get the variability of the stations right and the variability (correlations) between the stations. As the name of this blog suggests just the job I like.

To this homogeneous data we added inhomogeneities. For me that was the biggest task, talking with dozens of experts from many different countries how inhomogeneities typically look like. How many (about one per 20 years), how big (about 0.8 °C per jump), how many gradual inhomogeneities and how big (to model urbanization), how often do multiple stations have a simultaneous jump (for example, due to a central change in the time of observation).

I gave this inhomogeneous station dataset to my colleagues, who homogenised it and, after everyone returned the data, we analysed the results. We found that all methods improved the quality of monthly temperature data. More importantly for us was that modern homogenisation packages were clearly better than traditional methods. The work of the last decade had paid off.

The figure to the right is from a similar blind validation study for the homogenisation method NOAA used to homogenise GHCNv3 and shows something important. The four panels are four different assumptions about how inhomogeneities and the climate looks like. This study chose to make some inhomogeneity cases that were really easy and some that were really hard.

On the horizontal axis are three periods. The red crosses are the trends in the inhomogeneous data, the green crosses the ones in the homogeneous data, which the homogenisation algorithms are supposed to recover and the yellow/orange crosses are the trends of the homogenised data.

The important thing is that the yellow cross is always in between: homogenisation improved the trend estimates, but part of the error in the trend remains. In the most difficult case of this study, which I consider unrealistic, the homogenised result was in the middle. Half of the trend error was removed, half remained.

Because real raw station data shows too little warming and statistical homogenisation makes the trend larger, better homogenisation thus also means stronger temperature trends over land. Homogenisation became better because of better homogenisation algorithms and because we have more data due to continual digitisation efforts. With more data, the stations will on average be closer together and thus experience more similar weather. This means that it becomes easier to see homogeneities in their differences.

CEI claims from Daily Caller

Michael Bastasch of the Daily Caller makes several unsupported or wrong claims about the report. Other claims are already wrong in report.
A new study found adjustments made to global surface temperature readings by scientists in recent years “are totally inconsistent with published and credible U.S. and other [New Zealand and upper air] temperature data.”
No shit, Sherlock. Next you will tell me that cassoulet does not taste like a McDonald’s Hamburger, sea food or a cream puff. The warming of different air masses is different? Who would have thought so?

This becomes most Kafkaesk when the authors want to see the high number of 100 Fahrenheit days of the 1930s US [[Dust Bowl]] in the global monthly average temperature and call this a "cyclical pattern". Not sure whether a report aimed at the Tea Party folks should insult American farmers and claim they will mismanage their lands to produce a Dust Bowl in regular cycles.

The report is drenched in conspiratorial thinking:
Basically, “cyclical pattern in the earlier reported data has very nearly been ‘adjusted’ out” of temperature readings taken from weather stations, buoys, ships and other sources.
They do not even critique the methods used or even mention them and do acknowledge that adjustments are necessary, but the pure outcome being inconvenient for their donors is enough to complain.

It also illustrates that the mitigation sceptical movement is preoccupied with the outcome and not with the quality of a study. Whether a new study is praised or criticized on their movement blog Watts Up With That depends on the outcome, on whether it can be spun as making their case against solving climate change stronger or weaker. On science blogs it depends on the quality and the strength of the evidence.

As I already showed above, the adjustments make the estimated warming smaller. The exact opposite is claimed by the Daily Caller:
In fact, almost all the surface temperature warming adjustments cool past temperatures and warm more current records, increasing the warming trend, according to the study's authors.
The study provides no evidence for this. They do not show the warming before and after adjustment for the global temperature, only for the land temperature.

Is it too much to ask to inform yourself before you accuse scientists of wrongdoing? Is it too much to ask if you write a report about the global temperature to read some scientific articles on data problems in the sea surface temperature? Is is too much to ask if you talk about the 1940s to wonder whether the WWII might have influences the measurements?
“Each dataset pushed down the 1940s warming and pushed up the current warming.”
The war increased the percentage of American navy vessels, which make engine intake measurements, and decreased the percentage of merchant ships, which make bucket measurements. That produces a spurious warm peak in the raw data.

Modern data also have a better coverage over the Earth. Locally there is more decadal variability, what they call "cyclical pattern". A better coverage will remove spurious decadal variability from the global average.

I have no clue why they would think this:
“You would think that when you make adjustments you’d sometimes get warming and sometimes get cooling. That’s almost never happened,” said D’Aleo, who co-authored the study with statistician James Wallace and Cato Institute climate scientist Craig Idso.
The transitions in the measurements methods due to technological and economic changes can naturally affect the global average temperature. For example ships in the 19th century used bucket measurements, now most sea surface temperature data comes from buoys.

If you assume inhomogeneities can have no influence on the global mean, like D'Aleo, then why are the mitigation sceptics claiming to be worried about the influence of urbanization on the global mean temperature? If that were the main problem, the adjustments would tend to produce cooling more often than warming to remove this problem. They would not "sometimes get warming and sometimes get cooling".

The report was an embarrassing mixture of the worst of blog science. The Daily Caller post managed to make it worse.

The positive side of Trump claiming that his inauguration was the biggest evah, is that the public now understands were such wild claims come from. Science is harder to check than crowd sizes. Even if you do not know them personally, there are people on this globe willing to deny the existence of global warming without blinking an eye.

Related reading

Quality of climate data

The climate scientists of Climate Feedback had a look at an Breitbart article on the same report. Seven scientists analyzed the article and estimate its overall scientific credibility to be 'very low'. Breitbart article falsely claims that measured global warming has been “fabricated”.

Fact checker of urban legends Snopes judged the Breitbart article to be: False. Surprise. Had Breitbart known it to be true, they would not have published it.

Ars Technica: Thorough, not thoroughly fabricated: The truth about global temperature data. How thermometer and satellite data is adjusted and why it must be done.

John Timmer at Ars Technica is fed up with being served the same story about some upward adjusted stations every year: Temperature data is not “the biggest scientific scandal ever” Do we have to go through this every year?

Steven Mosher, a climate sceptic and member of the BEST project: all the adjustments demanded by the "sceptics".

The astronomer behind And Then There's Physics writes why the removal of non-climatic effects makes sense. In the comments he talks about adjustments made to astronomical data. Probably every numerical observational discipline of science performs data processing to improve the accuracy of their analysis.

Nick Stokes, an Australian scientist, has a beautiful post that explains the small adjustments to the land surface temperature in more detail.

Two posts of mine about some reasons for temperature trend biases: Temperature bias from the village heat island and Changes in screen design leading to temperature trend biases.

You may also be interested in the posts on how homogenization methods work (Statistical homogenisation for dummies) and how they are validated (New article: Benchmarking homogenisation algorithms for monthly data).

Just the facts, homogenization adjustments reduce global warming.

Zeke Hausfather: Major correction to satellite data shows 140% faster warming since 1998.

If you would like to read a peer reviewed scientific article showing the adjustments, the influence of the adjustments on the global mean temperature is also shown in Karl et al. (2015).

NOAA's benchmarking study: Claude N. Williams ,Matthew J.Menne, Peter W. Thorne, 2012: Benchmarking the performance of pairwise homogenization of surface temperatures in the United States. Journal Geophysical Research, doi: 10.1029/2011JD016761.

On my benchmarking study: New article: Benchmarking homogenisation algorithms for monthly data.

Corporate war on science

The Guardian on the CEI report and their attempt to attack the endangerment finding: Conservatives are again denying the very existence of global warming.

Another post on the CEI report: Silly Non-Study Supposedly Strengthens Endangerment Challenge.

My first post on the Red Cheeks Team.

My last post on the Red Team idea: The Trump administration proposes a new scientific method just for climate studies.

Great piece by climate scientist Ken Caldeira: Red team, blue team.

Phil Newell: One Team, Two Team, Red Team, Blue Team.

Why doesn't Big Oil fund alternative climate research? Hopefully a rhetorical question. They would have had a lot to gain if they thought the science were wrong, but they fund PR not science.

Union of Concerned Scientists on the funding of the war by Exxon: ExxonMobil Talks A Good Game, But It’s Still Funding Climate Science Deniers.

The New Republic on several attacks on science by Scott Pruitt: The End Goal of Trump’s War on Science.

Mother Jones: A Jaw-Dropping List of All the Terrible Things Trump Has Done to Mother Earth. Goodbye regulations designed to protect the environment and public health.

Sunday 2 July 2017

The Trump administration proposes a new scientific method just for climate studies

What could possibly go wrong?

[[Scott Pruitt]] is the former Oklahoma Attorney General who copied and pasted letters for pro-pollution lobbyists onto his letter head. Much of his previous work was devoted to suing the EPA. Now he works for the big money donors as head of the EPA.  This Scott Pruitt is allegedly working on formulating a new scientific method to be used for studying climate change alone. E&E News just reported that this special scientific method will use "red team, blue team" exercises to conduct an "at-length evaluation of U.S. climate science."

Let's ignore that it makes no sense to speak of US climate science when it comes to the results. Climate science is the same in every country. There tends to be only one reality.

Previously [[Rick Perry]], head of the Department of Energy (DOE) who campaigned on closing the DOE before he knew what it does, had joined the group calling to replace the scientific method with a Red Team Blue Team exercise.

A Red Team is supposed to challenge the claims of the Blue Team. It is an idea from hierarchical organisations, like the military and multinationals, where challenging the orthodoxy is normally not appreciated and thus needs to be specially encouraged when management welcomes it.

Poking holes is our daily bread

It could naturally be that the climate "sceptics" do not know that challenging other studies is build in into everything scientists do; they do not give the impression to know science that well. In their Think Tanks and multinational corporations they are probably happy to bend the truth to get ahead. They may think that that is how science works and they may not able to accept that a typical scientist is intrinsically motivated to figure out how reality works.
At every step of a study a scientist is aware that at the end it has to be written up very clearly to be criticised by peer reviewers before publication and by any expert in the field after publication. That people will build on the study and in doing so may find flaws. Scientific claims should be falsifiable, one should be able to show them wrong. The main benefit of this is that it forces scientists to very clearly describe the work and make it vulnerable to attack.

The first time new results are presented is normally in a working group seminar where the members of the Red Team are sitting around the table, ask specific questions during the talk and criticise the main ideas after the talk. These are scientists working with similar methods, but also ones who work on very different problems. All and especially the group leaders have an interest in defending the reputation of the group and making sure no nonsense spoils it.

The results are normally also presented at workshops, conferences and invited talks at other groups. At workshops leading experts will be there working on similar problems, but with a range of different methods and backgrounds. At conferences and invited talks there are in addition also many scientists from adjacent fields in the audience or scientists working with similar methods on other problems. A senior scientist will get blunt questions after the talk if anything is wrong with it. Younger scientists will get nicer questions in public and the blunt ones in private.

An important Red Team consists of your co-authors. Modern science is mostly done in teams. That is more efficient, reduces the chances of rookie errors and very easy due to the internet. The co-authors guarantee with their reputation for the quality of the study, especially for the part where they have expertise.

None of these steps are perfect and journalists should get away from their single-study fetish. But together these steps ensure that the quality of the scientific literature as a whole is high.

(It is actually good that none of these steps are perfect. Science works on the boundary of what is known, scientists that do not make errors are not pushing themselves enough. If peer review would only pass perfect articles that would be highly inefficient and not much would be published, it normally takes several people and studies until something is understood. It is helpful that the scientific literature is high quality, it does not need to be perfect.)

Andrew Revkin should know not to judge the quality of science by single papers or single scientists, that peer review does not need to be perfect and did not exist for most of the scientific era. But being a false balance kind of guy he regrettably uses "Peer review is often not as adversarial as intended" as argument to see merit in a Red Team exercise. While simultaneously acknowledging that "All signs point to political theater"

Red Team science

An optimistic person may think that the Red Team proposal of the Trump administration will follow the scientific method. We already had the BEST project of the conservative physics professor Richard Muller. BEST was a team of outside people have a look at the warming over land estimated from weather station observations. This project was funded in part by the Charles G. Koch Foundation. the Heartland Institute, hard core deniers funded by Koch Brother organisations.

The BEST project found that the previous scientific assessments of the warming were right.

The BEST project is also a reason not to be too optimistic about Pruitt's proposal. Before BEST published their results mitigation sceptics were very enthusiastic about their work and one of their main bloggers, Anthony Watts, claimed that their methods were so good and he would accept the outcome no matter the result. That changed when the result was in.

Judith Curry was part of BEST, but left before she would have had to connect her name with the results. Joseph Majkut of Niskanen Center, who wrote an optimistic Red Team article, claims there were people who changed their minds due to BEST, but did not give any examples yet.

It also looks as if BEST was punished for the result that was inconvenient for the funders. The funders are apparently no longer interest in studying the quality of climate observations. Berkeley Earth now mainly works on air pollution. While BEST did not even look at the largest part of the Earth yet: the oceans. The nice thing of being funded by national science foundations is that they care about the quality of the work, but not the outcomes.

If coal or oil corporations thought there was a minute possibility that climate science was wrong, they would fund their own research. Feel free to call that Red Team research. That they invest in PR instead shows how confident they are that the science is right. Initially Exxon did fund research, when it became clear climate change was a serious risk they switched to PR.

Joseph Majkut thinks that a well-executed Red Team exercise could convince people. In the light of the BEST project, the corporate funding priorities and the behaviour of mitigation sceptics in the climate "debate", I am sceptical. People who did not arrive at their position because of science will not change their position because of science.

Washington Republicans will change their mind when the bribes, aka campaign contributions, of the renewable energy sector are larger than those of the fossil fuel sector. Or when the influence of money is smaller than that of the people, like in the good old days.

Science lives on clarity

As a scientist, I would suggest just wait and see at this time. Let the Trump administration make a clear plan for this new scientific method. I am curious.

Let them tell us how they will select the members of the Red Team. Given that scientists are always critiquing each others work, I am curious how they plan to keep serious scientists out of their Red Team. I would be happy to join, there is still a lot of work to do on the quality of station data. Scientific articles typically end with suggestions for future research. That is the part I like writing the most.

Because the Trump administration is also trying to cut funding for (climate) science, I get the impression that scientists doing science is not what they want. I would love to see how they excuse keeping scientists like me out of the Red Team.

It would also be interesting to see how they will keep the alarmists out. Surely Peter Wadhams would like to defend his position that the Arctic will be ice free this year or the next. Surely Guy McPearson would like to explain why we are doomed and mainstream science, aka science, understates the problem in every imaginable way. I am sure Reddit Collapse of Civilization can suggest many more people with just as much scientific credibility as the people Scott Pruitt would like to invite. I hope they will apply to the Red Team.

That is just one question. Steven Koonin proposes in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal that:
A commission would coordinate and moderate the process and then hold hearings to highlight points of agreement and disagreement, as well as steps that might resolve the latter
Does this commission select the topics? Who are these organisers? Who selects them? What are the criteria? After decades of an unproductive blog climate "debate" we already know that there is no evidence that will convince the unreasonable. Will the commission simply write that the Red Team and the Blue Team disagreed about everything? Or will they make an assessment whether it is reasonable for the Red Team to disagree with with evidence?

Clearly Scott Pruitt himself would be the worst possible choice to select the commission. Then the outcome would trivially be: the two teams disagree and Commission Coal Industry declares the Red Team as winner. We already have an NIPCC report with a collection of blog "science". There is no need for a second one.

The then right-wing government of The Netherlands made a similar exercise: Climate Dialogue. They had a somewhat balanced commission and a few interesting debates on, for instance, climate sensitivity, the tropical hotspot, long-term persistence and Arctic sea ice. It was discontinued when it failed to find incriminating evidence. Just like funding for BEST stopped and confirming the general theme of the USA climate "debate": scientists judge studies based on their quality, mitigation "sceptics" based on the outcome.

A somewhat similar initiative in the US was the Climate Change National Forum, where a journalist determined the debating topics by selecting newspaper articles. The homepage is still there, but no longer current. Maybe Pruitt has a few bucks.

"This is yet another example of politicians engaging in unhelpful meddling in things they know nothing about."
Ken Caldeira

How will Pruitt justify not asking the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), whose job these kind of assessments is, to organise the exercise. Surely the donors of Pruitt will not find the NAS acceptable, they already did an assessment and naturally found the answer that does not fit their economic interests. (Like the findings on climate change of every other scientific organisations from all over the world does not fit their corruption-fuelled profits.)

I guess they will also not ask the Science Division of the White House.

Climate scientist Ken Caldeira called on Scott Pruitt to clarify the hypothesis he wants to test. Given the Trumpian overconfidence, the continual Trumpian own-goals, the Trumpian China-hoax extremism, the Trumpian incompetence and Trump's irrational donors wanting to go after the endangerment finding, I would would not be surprised if they go after the question whether the greenhouse effect exists, whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas or whether the world is warming. Pruitt said he wanted a "discussion about CO2 [carbon dioxide]."

That would be a party. There are many real and difficult questions and sources of uncertainties in climate science (regional changes, changes in extremes, the role of clouds, impacts etc.), but these stupid greenhouse-CO2-warming questions that dominate the low-rated US public "debate" are not among them.

The mitigation sceptical groups are not even able to agree with themselves which of these stupid three questions is the actual problem. I would thus suggest that the climate "sceptics" use their new "scientific method" themselves first to make their chaotic mess of incompatible claims into something.

Red Team PR exercise

Donald Trump has already helped climate action in America enormously by cancelling the voluntary Paris climate agreement. Climate change is slow and global. Everyone hopes someone else will solve it some time and attends to more urgent personal problems. When the climate hoaxer president cancelled the Paris agreement the situation became more dangerous and Americans started paying attention. This surge is seen above in the Google searches for climate change in the USA. This surge was noticeable in Reddit where there was a huge demand for reliable information on climate science and climate action.

The Red Team exercise would give undue weight to a small group of fringe scientists. This is a general problem in America, where many Americans have the impression that extremist positions are still under debate because the fossil fuel industries bought many politicians who in turn say stupid things on cable TV and in opinion sections. These industries also place many ads and in return corporate media is happy to put "experts" on TV that represent their positions. Reality is that 97% of scientists and scientific studies agree that climate change is real and caused by us.

On the optimistic side, just like cancelling Paris made Americans discover that Washington is completely isolated on the world stage in their denial that climate change is a risk, the Red Team exercise could also lead to more American learning how broad the support in the scientific community for climate change is and how strong the evidence.

If the rules of the exercise are clearly unfair, scientists will easily be able to explain why they do not join and ask Pruitt why he thinks he needs such unfair rules. While scientists are generally trusted, the opposite is true for Washington and the big corporations behind Pruitt.

The political donors have set up a deception industry with politicians willing to lie for them, media dedicated to spreading misinformation or at least willing to let their politician deceive the public, they have "think tanks" and their own fake version of the IPCC report and a stable of terrible blogs. These usual suspects writing another piece of misinformation for the EPA will hardly add to the load.

The most tricky thing could be to make clear to the public that science is not resolved in debates. The EPA official E&E News talked to was thinking of a "back-and-forth critique" by government-recruited experts. In science that back and forth is done on paper, to make sure it is clearly formulated, with time to check the claims, read the cited articles and crunch the data. If it is just talk, it is easy to make false claims, which cannot be fact checked on the spot. Unfortunately history has shown that the Red Team will likely be willing to make false claims in public.

If the rules of he exercise are somewhat fair, science will win big time; we have the evidence on our side. At this time, where America pays attention to climate change, that could be a really good advertisement for science and the strength of the evidence that climate change is a huge risk that cannot be ignored.

Concluding, I am optimistic. Either they make the rules unfair. It seems likely they will try to make this exercise into political theatre. Then we can ask them in public why they make the rules so unfair. Don't they have confidence in their position that climate change is a hoax?

If they make the rules somewhat fair, science will win big time. Science will win so much, you will be tired of all the winning, you will be begging, please mister scientist no more winning, I cannot take it any more.

Let me close with John Oliver on Coal. Oliver was sued over this informative and funny piece by coal Barron Robert Murray who also stands behind Scott Pruitt and Trump.

Related reading

Red/Blue & Peer Review by the presidents of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) & the National Academy of Sciences: "Is this a one-off proposal targeting only climate science, or will it be applied to the scientific community’s research on vaccine safety, nuclear waste storage, or any of a number of important policies that should be informed by science?"

Are debatable scientific questions debatable?

Why doesn't Big Oil fund alternative climate research?

My previous post on the Red Cheeks Team.

Great piece by climate scientist Ken Caldeira: Red team, blue team.

Josh Voorhees in Slate: EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Wants to Enlist a “Red Team” to Sow Doubts About Climate Change.

Andrew Freedman in Mashable: EPA to actually hold 'red-team' climate debates, and scientists are livid.

Ars Technica: Playing fossil’s advocate — EPA intends to form “red team” to debate climate science. Agency head reported to desire “back-and-forth critique” of published research by Scott K. Johnson.

The pro-climate libertarian Niskanen Center: Can a Red Team Exercise Exorcise the Climate Debate? May I summarise this optimistic post as: if this new "Red Team" scientific method turns out to be the normal scientific method it would be useful.

Talking Points Memo: Pruitt Is Reportedly Starting An EPA Initiative To Challenge Climate Science.

Audobon's letter to Scott Pruitt: "The oil and gas industry manufactures a debate to avoid legal responsibility for their pollution and to eke out a few more years of profit and power."

Rebecca Leber in Mother Jones (May 2017): Leading Global Warming Deniers Just Told Us What They Want Trump to Do.

Scott Pruitt will likely not ask a court of law. Then they would lose again.

The Red Team method would still be a better scientific method than the authoritarian Soviet method proposed by a comment on a large mitigation sceptical blog, WUWT: Does anyone know if the [American Meteorological Society] gets any federal funding like the National Academy of Science does? ... People sometimes can change their tune when their health of their pocketbook is at stake. Do you really want to get your science from authoritarians abusing the power of the state to determine the truth?

Our wise and climate-cynical bunny thinks the Red Team exercise is a Team B exercise, which is the kind of exercise a Red Team should prevent.

Brad Plumer and Coral Davenport in the New York Times: E.P.A. to Give Dissenters a Voice on Climate, No Matter the Consensus.

Steven Koonin in the Opinion section of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal (April 2017): A ‘Red Team’ Exercise Would Strengthen Climate Science. (pay-walled)

Kelly Levin of the World Resources Institute: Pruitt’s “Red Team-Blue Team” Exercise a Bad Fit for EPA Climate Science.

Statement by Ken Kimmell, President, Union of Concerned Scientists: EPA to Launch Program Critiquing Climate Science

* Photo at the top of Scott Pruitt at CPAC 2017 by Gage Skidmore under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.