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.


  1. Good stuff, Victor, thanks.

  2. 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.

    I've thought the same thing for a long time now. It is such an obvious point -- with many billions of dollars of annual revenue and trillion dollars of assets held by fossil fuel companies at risk -- that it is another case where deniers have to work very, very hard to ignore the obvious. But that is what they do, and is only to be expected. I am angrier at the lazy media and centrist politicians who have let disinformation muddy the waters for 30 years now in the goal of pursuing false equivalency and spurious middle-ground compromises.

  3. This seems to be an extension of the
    Both no more than websites after the noise in the echochambers died down.

    Two teams is nothing but a publicity stunt. If they do it properly they get the same conclusion as the main stream. They load it with has beens and the wayward they get gibberish.

  4. Victor, I don't think BEST was funded by the Heartland Institute. They don't list it at all on the funders page, and it would get in the way of the money the Heartland Institute already spends on the NIPCC reports (which provide the desired outcomes to HI).

    BEST did get funding from one of the Koch Foundations, but only in the first year, and it was much less than half of the total funding that first year.

    Weirdly, in some later years money was obtained from "Anonymous Foundation". Who the frick are they?

  5. "Climate science" isnt done wrong as such. However, those of us who have been engaged in these studies know that thousands of decisions are made along the way which can distort results. A lot of it arises from simple human error, some of it is caused by career politics (it's easier to please the boss) and some of it is politically driven.

    I've advocated a review of the EPA work because it was based on what I consider a "co2 emissions pathway on steroids". These pathways are given almost no attention, and most climate scientists aren't educated in this field, which explains why I usually find myself in a sealed chamber and it has taken me almost half a decade to get this point across.

    And I must add, as long as work continues to use these poorly backed pathways, it will continue to yield meaningless results. Millions of hours have been spent on studies I know will have to be tossed out. Maybe this coming effort by the trump administration will lead to more focus on this problem?

  6. Marco, it looks like you are right and I misremembered. The Wikipedia page on BEST mentions direct funding by the Charles G. Koch Foundation and does not mention any indirect funding by the Heartland Institute. Have updated the text.

    The amount is not that important. BEST clearly had their seal of approval and the funding quickly stopped when it became clear BEST was doing real science not PR:´. Also the funding by private individuals was limited to the first year.

    The "Anonymous Foundation" is interesting. A big BEST funder: three times 250,000$.

  7. magmacc, I really like asking mitigation sceptics why big Oil does not fund alternative research. Sometimes they even answer that also big Oil is part of the global climate conspiracy to enslave mankind with renewable energy. Maybe we should have a lookout for the Exxon branch on Mars.

  8. Griff, yes, I should also have mentioned the GW Policy Foundation botched "review". Another example of a PR exercise intended to confuse the public, create a fake impression that the fundamentals of climate science are not clear yet. I wrote a post about this fake review and their silly questions at the time.

    I wonder if they only intended to launch it to get one more newspaper article spreading doubt and never intended to follow through. Or whether they are so incompetent that they are not able to follow through. Same for the OAS.

    I really look forward the silly questions of Scott Pruitt. They want to go after the endangerment finding? If that means in legalise what it means in normal people language that they think they can show that climate change is not dangerous, they are completely deluded.

    If they can put more doubt on the impacts of climate change, that only increases the risks. Uncertainty goes both ways. The uncertainty monster is not our friend.

  9. Fernando Leanme, may I just say for the other readers that you provide no evidence for your claims of group think in the direction of too much alarm of a size that is politically interesting for the dysfunctional US "debate" where many people still claim the greenhouse effect itself does not exist.

    Some group think will naturally exist. Scientists are humans. Our institutions are build to fight it, but there always be something left, if only as overcompensation. I would especially be interested in your evidence that the group think does not go into the direction of too little alarm.

    In my experience most scientists are very careful and only make claims if they have strong evidence for it. That leads to a tendency to understate the case because then you can present strong evidence for that that more limited case holds up.

    For example, in my field, when it comes to the global mean temperature increase, there have been many studies on whether this could be due to urbanization around the station (finding that this is a small effect). That was important to make the case that the world is warming due to the greenhouse effect. Many other effects that could bias our estimates of how much warming we had towards too little warming (smaller sensors, better screens and siting, irrigation, ...) have not been investigated (much) yet.

    Studying urbanisation was important to make a strong case and were primary. The cooling effects would "only" make the warming bigger and are secondary. That is likely a pattern you would see for many scientific questions, that is how science works.

    Your political movement is fighting to make the worst case scenario a reality. Please stop whining that scientists compute the consequences of your favourite scenario. People need to know what the consequences of a a broad range of policies would be.

    It looks as if the worst case is no longer realistic with the enormous drops in the prices of renewable energy, fast growth rates and the international commitment of the Paris Agreement. The mitigation sceptical president of the United States makes an effort to reverse this progress, we need to know bad the world would be this corrupt nationalist wave would conquer the world. Fortunately, it looks as if the open incompetence and ugliness of Trump has cooled down global enthusiasm for mitigation sceptical parties.

  10. Need to be very careful about this initiative. Unlike Trump, Pruitt is no idiot and does little without a carefully conceived gameplan. In 2009 the Epa declared CO2 a 'public danger'. This was an important step as it legally allowed the Epa to regulate CO2 emissions without any approval from the Senate or Congress (both of which had blocked all previous measures for CO2 reduction). Pruitt knows he must overturn this declaration, otherwise he is legally removing measures needed for protection of the American people, and will face legal challenges. I expect this red/blue exercise to be set up as a kangaroo court out of which they will force a legal conclusion that CO2 emissions are not a public danger. If he achieves this Pruitt will be free to dismantle all action against fossil fuel emissions with no risk of legal challenge.

  11. Robert P Bruce, agree we have to be careful and agree that Pruitt is smart. However, also note that this debate has been going on for some time. My previous post was from April and Pruitt is not camera shy, but he did not make the proposal this week, some anonymous operatives did. Less smart Rick Perry and Ted Cruz did go on record as supporting the idea.

    Rumour has it that Pruitt also does not want to go after the endangerment finding. Rightly fearing it will fail in court and only be a waste of time in which he could otherwise destroy the environment and subsidise his donors more effectively. But many Republicans and donors are so radicalised and stupid that they do want that. The question is who wins. The first months of the Trump regime suggest the extremists often win internally and then the Republicans lose.

    I guess also the people who support climate science have only limited time and cannot judge with confidence how solid it is. But when it comes to the basics or whether climate change is dangerous it is rock solid. At least when the word "dangerous" means the same thing in the courts as it means for normal human beings.

    That there is still 3% not convinced has nothing to do with the evidence. I do not think you need to know much about climate, anyone with some scientific training and time can see how weak the "arguments" are that are used by the mitigation sceptical movement. The contrast between the strength of the arguments of the Red and the Blue team is so large that it is not credible that scientists prefer the Red Team because of the evidence.

    The IPCC may also fool people by being excessively careful in its formulations. Scientists are already very careful, but the IPCC really tops it; they seem to be very afraid of making too strong claims. They may be right to be careful: such mistakes would be abused enormously and would damage climate science strongly.

    Maybe it is nothing like evolution or gravity (in its domain of applicability) but climate science is very solid due to the many different lines of evidence. Even if one line contained a mistake, the others would stand. And none of these lines can be very wrong, otherwise they would not fit to the others.


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