Jul 152010

(Here is another take on last night’s proceedings, this time from Alex Cull. He confirms some of Robin’s impressions, but with some very perceptive comments on the impression made by some of thevspeakers too. I’ve posted it at the top of the page as it’s newer, but things are getting a bit chaotic I’m afraid. Both accounts are well worth reading.)

I found the debate fascinating in its way, and wouldn’t have missed it – £12 well-spent, in my opinion. I would agree, however, with Robin’s assessment of the discussions and QA session as being disjointed – there was no particular depth to the discussions and it would have been nice to have had some of the important points well and truly thrashed out between the panellists.

I have a sound recording of the whole thing (hopefully!) but it will take a while to extract some worthwhile quotes – my device was very good at picking up coughs and throat-clearing from the next row, not so good with sounds from further off. In the meantime, some impressions:

  • George Monbiot came across as personable and articulate, and I think he handled the proceedings well; while he was in no way a neutral party, I think he gave Steve McIntyre and Doug Keenan as much airtime as the others; it wasn’t a Guardian stitch-up, in other words. I found the selection of who got to ask the questions reasonably fair, although it could be argued that with a minority of women in the audience, his rule of man-woman-man-woman was a little unfair to the blokes. And yes, fellow journalists Roger Harrabin and Jonathan Leake got to ask questions, but then so did the rather eccentric-looking chap who brought an actual hockey stick, and so did the acerbic Piers Corbyn (rather mischievous on George’s part, as he would have known what sort of mayhem might ensue!) So it could have been managed far worse. The audience was lively, with some shouting a commentary (“No!” “Shame!” “Answer the question!”) but there was no danger of  things actually getting out of hand.
  • Steve McIntyre was polite, soft-spoken, not a natural public speaker but came across as a gentleman. At times he appeared rather diffident, and I’m sure that someone who was unacquainted with ClimateAudit or the Hockey Stick controversy might have been forgiven for wondering exactly what all the fuss was about and why this man was so central to the whole business. He also floundered a bit when asked as to how he would account for the warming since 1980; yes, he could have quite easily parried this question in a number of ways, but I know from my (thankfully limited) public speaking experiences what it is like being put on the spot, and how easy it is to prepare the perfect answer, with hindsight.  Ironically, his answer was all about the uncertainties, and acknowledging the uncertainties was one of the evening’s big themes; another questioner from the audience had asserted that sceptics were full of a sense of certainty about climate change themselves, and here was, in a way, an appropriate response. I thought Steve McIntyre shone, though, when it came to the question of who actually questioned Phil Jones during the Muir Russell inquiry, and made the point that Sir Muir Russell had not interviewed Dr Jones after the introductory meeting in January (this was the point in the debate where Professor Trevor Davies came somewhat unstuck.) He demonstrated an excellent memory and an attention to detail that was lacking in the UEA administrator.
  • Prof. Trevor Davies, I thought was the least convincing of the panellists.  About the one thing in his favour was that he said he avoided using the “denier” epithet. Although he insisted that the inquiries were truly independent, listening to him it was difficult to escape the impression that they had been carefully set up to absolve the UEA of blame and to not probe too deeply into that which should not be probed. I actually felt a bit sorry for him when he was put on the spot re the Phil Jones interviews and had to riffle hurriedly through his notes. During the whole Climategate affair, people have often said it showed that scientists were “only human” – the same can also be said for administrators. Mind you, he should really have been a lot better prepared.
  • *Fred Pearce was a good speaker and made basically similar points to the ones he makes in his book, i.e., that he found some of the e-mails unsettling, that he is entirely convinced that the way climate science is carried out needs to be overhauled, but at the same time certain that the case for AGW remains absolutely unchanged. His message was not essentially different to that of Bob Watson, except that he has been openly critical of the UEA administration – in his book, for instance, he describes Prof. Edward Acton as being “smooth and slippery.”
  • Bob Watson was also an effective speaker, as he was in last week’s Newsnight programme. But there was no attempt to get into the details, really – mainly authoritative, big-picture statements about human influences on the climate.  Curiously he revealed that he had not read many of the e-mails (vocal incredulity from the audience!) Also he praised the IPCC as an institution and asserted that it was indeed the best that it could be in the circumstances (I’ll have to check the actual wording, but that’s basically what I seem to recall him saying.) Fine rhetoric indeed, but little or no analysis or reasoning to lay out in support of it – the perfect argument from authority.
  • Doug Keenan was very interesting; he came across as intense and slightly nervous, causing a stir when accusing Phil Jones of outright fraud and standing by his statement when asked by George Monbiot whether he would reconsider. One point that he made – that climate science needs to have the same kind of procedures of due diligence that the business world already has in place – was right on the mark, I think. Another interesting thing that he said was that scientists now appear to be using private e-mail (Gmail) rather than the university’s e-mail system, in order to avoid having to comply with FOI requests; Bob Watson said he knew nothing of this.

A general observation – the debate seemed to be divided into those who wanted to focus on the detail (McIntyre and Keenan) and those who wanted to look at the big picture (Watson and Pearce.) Some of the audience who asked questions seemed to be more concerned with the big picture, and the message from Watson and Pearce was that the picture (the science underpinning the theory of man-made global warming) has not fundamentally been affected by Climategate (although they allow that public perception has changed, and trust has to be restored,  etc.) But in my opinion, what those who talk of “overwhelming evidence” might not appreciate is that whenever the detail people (McIntyre and Keenan) start getting close up and inspecting the nuts and bolts, they start to find errors.  In a way, I think the venue was appropriate (RIBA, the The Royal Institute of British Architects) – if people with architectural knowledge started to examine the foundations of a grand building and consistently found problems, serious questions would need to be asked about the safety of the entire edifice.

Another observation (and this is something that Robin and I discussed yesterday)  – listening to the various speakers, it would be very good if there had been a sceptic who had both the science background and the debating ability and rhetorical skills to hold his/her own against the relative eloquence of the AGW proponent side. Despite the (on the whole) courteous and even-handed tone of yesterday’s debate, this was something that we both felt was lacking.

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The Guardian has posted an audio recording of the debate here and some video here

h/t  to Alex for the links.

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(Since putting up this post early this morning, I have received an excellent report of the proceedings from Robin Guenier. I have therefore changed the layout considerably in order to accommodate what he has to say. I will be updating this post as more information emerges. It may be worth checking the bottom of the page from time-to-time to see if anything new has been added.)

Guardian Debate

Climategate: The greatest scandal to hit climate science or a storm in a teacup?”

The debate, hosted by the Guardian, was held in the RIBA, London, on Wednesday, 14th July 2010. It was described on the Guardian website as a discussion about “what the affair has – and has not – revealed about the study of global warming”. Did it achieve that? Yes, I think so – and the mood of the meeting (it wasn’t a debate as such and much of the discussion was disjointed, inconclusive and bitty) was that the study of global warming would never be the same again. More openness and communication of uncertainty were essential and would happen in future. There was agreement that none of the recent enquiries had done an adequate job.

The event was well attended – several hundred people. George Monbiot, Guardian columnist, was chair and did a good job: fair, clear and amusing. The Panel (mutually friendly and respectful) consisted of Professor Trevor Davies, pro-vice-chancellor (research), UEA and former director of the CRU; Professor Bob Watson, chief scientific advisor, Defra, visiting professor at the UEA and former head of the IPCC; Fred Pearce, environment journalist and author of “The Climate Files”; Steve McIntyre, proprietor of climateaudit.org; and Doug Keenan, blogger and independent researcher.

Hardly a balanced Panel – and it showed. This was especially so as Bob Watson, who spoke strongly and well, used the event as an opportunity to emphasise several times that Climategate had done nothing to undermine what he was clear was the basic problem: that man-made climate change was real and a huge challenge for the mankind. Fred Pearce, who also spoke well, was more subtle – and engaging – but implied that that was obviously his view also. Unfortunately, neither Steve McIntyre nor Doug Keenan seemed really interested in addressing that wider issue, keeping instead to a narrow focus on the CRU’s failures (where they were very convincing). Steve even refused to answer when challenged (by a member of the audience) to say whether or not he believed that man-made global warming was happening. That looked bad. Trevor Davies was surprisingly poor – he spoke badly and seemed, to me, not really to have a sound grasp of the facts or issues.

A few other observations:

Davies, Watson and Pearce agreed that scientists needed to explain uncertainty better than they had. Davies and Watson, however, stressed that, although there was uncertainty, that didn’t mean there was anything wrong with the basic science. Watson said that, although he accepted the need for more balance in public discussion, that didn’t mean that a sceptical view should be given an equal hearing to what he regarded as the established scientific view, based on a 90/95% majority of scientific opinion. He wasn’t challenged on this.

Steve McIntyre assumed that the audience was familiar with the nuances of the CRU affair – and concentrated (very well) on specific issues such as the hockey-stick affair, the “Nature trick”, the absurdity of Russell not being present when evidence was taken from Phil Jones (where McIntyre had a clear grasp of the facts and Davies looked rather foolish by not seeming to know what really happened) and how data released to one researcher was denied to him because of alleged confidentiality. His conclusion that none of the enquiries had done an adequate job went unchallenged.

Bob Watson’s slipped up when he said that he hadn’t read many of the emails. But he rejected claims such as the suggestion that CRU had interfered with peer review and stressed that the integrity of the CRU’s temperature data could not be in doubt as two independent data sets showed the same trends. He insisted that much of the data that was said to be hidden was, in fact, publicly available; there had been multiple reviews of these data and no errors had been found. He gave credit to UEA for initiating the CRU reviews and stated that, yes, mistakes had been made and lessons had been learned. He praised the IPCC for dealing with the Himalayan glacier mistake quickly and professionally. No one challenged him on these issues. He said that there would always be uncertainties in science (McIntyre agreed) and politicians in his experience had no difficulty in handling that. So it was inevitable that the IPCC would adopt a position, bringing together “thousands of the world’s best climate scientists” to do so. We had, he said, to balance “the cost of action against the cost of inaction”. It was a classic case of risk management. But the basic point was that the magnitude of what was happening to climate now was essentially unprecedented and could be explained only by human activity. Certainly he wouldn’t trust any one paper – but he would certainly do so when the same message emerges (as it does) from a range of papers. He didn’t, however, seem able to answer a questioner who couldn’t see how any degree of certainty was possible when economists seemed to have no part to play in IPCC deliberations.

Doug Keenan was scathing. He insisted (after Monbiot’s probing) that Jones was guilty of fraud (over the Chinese weather station affair), speaking of “widespread bogus research” and a failure to report problems he knew to exist. He said that, when challenged, Jones simply didn’t reply. The basic problem in his view was a lack of systemic accountability in climate science. None of the reviews should have happened – instead a system to ensure proper accountability should have been established. He claimed that much of the mathematics done (by the IPCC) was erroneous – if, he said, government policy was based on mathematical error, how many poor people in the world were going to die? (This was a rare flash of genuine sceptic anger.) Trevor Davies commented that the Chinese weather stations represented a tiny aspect of an overall issue and, in any case, it had been shown that what Keenan had identified made no practical difference to the global picture as weather station changes “cancelled each other out”. This wasn’t very convincing – as Keenan made plain.

Fred Pearce said a problem with reviews was that they simply accepted the science and were concerned only with process. He was disturbed by the emails when he read them – and he still is. (Monbiot agreed that he felt, and feels, betrayed.) Some of it was “grubby” but, although climate science had been damaged, there wasn’t, he insisted, a conspiracy. No, it was a tragedy: the researchers, adopting a siege mentality in the belief that they were assailed by financially and politically motivated “enemies”, made bad mistakes. They overlooked the reality that some of their critics (such as Steve and Doug) were honourably motivated. As a result, the whole affair became an unnecessary war. Nonetheless, the way, for example, FOI was ignored was unacceptable – although he felt there was a danger that FOI, though well intentioned, could “have a chilling effect on science”. (He observed that science was asleep when FOI was “coming down the track”.) Although none of the reviews got properly to grips with all this, none was a whitewash. Looking to the future, he said, we needed to let people with different views argue it out openly and without rancour although he agree with Bob that it wasn’t possible or sensible to expect the IPCC to reconcile all viewpoints and the public needs to be more “grown up” about uncertainty. He accepted, however, that there were real issues with feedbacks – a point Steve McIntyre strongly endorsed.

Trevor Davies totally rejected Steve’s implication that the reviews were set up to get a predetermined outcome and insisted they were “wholly independent”. He insisted also that the science was addressed. All this sounded hollow. As did his assertion that, although the engagement of sceptics sounded desirable, it was difficult in practice as they represented such a wide range of opinion and many were poorly informed and, although he wouldn’t use the term himself, “deniers” of the essential facts.

Overall the evening was entertaining, not very informative (participants’ views being well known) and, as Monbiot said, totally inconclusive. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to think it indicated that Climategate will have a beneficial effect on climate science in the long run. Time will tell.

RWG: 15vii.2010

Geoff Chambers has also provided a couple of useful links:

Trevor Davies, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of UEA who was closely involved in organising the Oxburgh and Russell inquiries has this take on Climategate in today’s Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/15/uea-hacked-emails-climat
e-change

And here is a pretty fair sketch of the event from what appears to be a warmist blogger:

http://merryenvironmentalist.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/the-guardian-climate
gate-debate-verdict-panel-–-exellent-audience-–-childish…/

One of the points he reports  from Fred Pearce’s presentation caught my eye.

 The reviews were done with relatively little grasp of the context

This criticism could easily have been averted if sceptics had been allowed to play a full part in the inquiry process, and I have posted about this problem here.

This site is run by Jim Durdin, a post grad. who is studying sustainability and climate change.  I wonder how it feels when the foundations of the subject that you have chosen to put a hell of a lot of work into studying, and presumably hope to build a career on, begin to look wobbly? This is not a snark in any way, just an observation.

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(For completeness, and because I adhere to the convention that once a post is put up there should be no substantial changes (other than correction of spelling, typo’s, grammar etc) which are not notified to readers, I have copied the text that was originally at the top of this post below.)

Here is a brief summary of what happened at the debate last night which Latimer Adler posted at Bishop Hill. I hope that neither he nor the Bishop will mind me using it.  Transcripts of some of the highlights may be available later today and I will be updating this post as more information emerges. It may be worth checking the bottom of this post from time-to-time to see if anything new has been added.

Just back from the Climategate debate run by the Guardian tonight. We’re assured that the Guardian website will have a full video of the whole proceeding sometime tomorrow. So just some very sketchy impressions.

Steve Mc obviously read the remarks from last night’s meeting and insisted on speaking from a lectern. This was a good move as it gave him more ‘authority’. And he was (mostly) crisper…making his points more directly. The others spoke while seated.

George Monbiot chaired the meeting and I think he did a fair job of it. He tried hard to be unbiased, and only once or twice strayed into partisan territory. And he managed to keep the speeches and questions mostly to time and to the point

Fred Pearce took a longer perspective than the others. He spoke well and described Climategate as a tragedy rather than a conspiracy…the tragedy being that the CRU guys had adopted siege mentality. Climategate has certainly widened his perspective.

Trevor Davies representing UEA/CRU was appallingly bad. He mouthed platitudes by the shedload, but was unfamiliar with the details of any of the subjects likely to be raised. And was several times embarrassed by doing so. Apart from the fact that he had a sharp suit. I can find nothing positive to say about him. Struck me as a devious smooth cove.

Bob Watson opening remark was that he hadn’t read the e-mails in question. This was a bad mistake – many in the audience were very familiar with them, and not happy to be lectured by somebody who wasn’t. IPCC was imperfect but the best that could be devised 95% of scientists agree…it is now just a risk management exercise. Errors corrected quickly…As good as having Ravendra, but no need for the extra slot at Heathrow for him to land his jet. Very much the Scientific Establishment figure.

Keenan was interested in research fraud and the lack of accountability in science as a whole. He accused Jones of committing fraud, even after being given a chance to withdraw the remark. Davies tried to defend Jones but had no details. Keenan showed a more street-savvy business approach than any of the other participants. I’d like to have heard him at greater length.

Overall conclusion: there was no conclusion. Everybody agreed that openness and transparency were good, that debate should be with all parties and that uncertainties should be made more clear.

But my own view is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. This one still has legs and will run and run.

http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2010/7/10/hsi-in-the-national-post.html?currentPage=2#comments

29 Responses to “Guardian Debate: no conclusion to Climategate”

  1. The link in the previous post doesn’t seem to work. Try this instead:
    http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=12877

  2. Max

    You ask “Now I am really curious, Peter, how you became a believer in the dangerous AGW premise.”

    I’m sure I’ve answered this one before. I just tend to ignore what’s written in papers like the Australian, The Watchtower, The Spectator, Intelligent Design Weekly, the Daily Mail, Flat Earth Society Gazzette, and the Sun and take my information or at least check it, no not from Al Gore, but what is often referred to the scientific consensus or a website like the NAS or Royal Society.

    And, yes, I do know that the scientific consensus could be wrong, and if I knew enough about a particular subject to know it was I’d certainly speak up. Of course, we can reject the consensus. We can claim that AIDs isn’t caused by HIV, or that Homeopathy really does work. But that’s what I would refer to as a “belief”. Is having faith in science just another belief. Well, yes, according to some it is. What do you think?

    Tony N,

    You’ve still not answered my question of, if you are not a scientist, how you know that the NAS and RS have got it wrong? And how you know the Daily Mail have got it right?

    I hope you don’t give me another feeble answer along the lines of re-reading a particular post. If you can’t answer the question then just say so.

  3. PeterM

    Thanks very much for explaining how you became a believer in the “dangerous AGW” premise.

    Like you, I also do not place much faith in rehashes of the data with pre-conceived conclusions drawn in order to “sell” a particular viewpoint, be it from the journals you have listed, from scientific or non-scientific journals or blogsites promoting the “dangerous AGW” premise or from political outfits like IPCC, who have a particular message to sell.

    The AIDS (or smoking) analogy to AGW is weak, as we have also discussed repeatedly. People are dying daily from the effects of AIDS and from lung cancer and smoking related coronary and vascular diseases. AIDS has been shown to be related to the HIV virus as have the other mentioned diseases to smoking (while there is a bit more uncertainty regarding the threat from “second hand smoke” exposure).

    No one can be shown conclusively to have died from AGW, total climate related deaths have diminished sharply over the 20th century and the past warming cannot conclusively be shown to have been caused principally by AGW (as we have discussed ad nauseam on this and the NS thread), so these are the key differences.

    But, leaving possible political differences aside (which, in my opinion, play only a secondary role here), I believe the key differences in our approach is that I tend to be more rationally skeptical of claims made until they can be validated by empirical data, even if these claims are made by a majority of scientific experts or the leaders of venerable societies, such as those you have mentioned.

    I prefer to analyse the empirical data that are available and see if I can relate these to the claims being made, rather than simply accepting these claims out of hand, even if they come from “good authority”.

    You ask:

    Is having faith in science just another belief?

    It could be, if the “faith” is unconditional and unquestioned. But, whether or not one classifies it as a “belief”, you and I both “have faith in science”, Peter. That is not the issue.

    It is just that I am apparently more rationally skeptical (in the scientific sense) than you are when it regards the “dangerous AGW” premise and, therefore, more demanding of those who make climate prophesies for the future based on scientific deliberations and model simulations to back up these prophesies with empirical data.

    So we now know where we both stand and how we got there.

    A good start for (maybe) understanding one another a bit better.

    Max

  4. Max,

    When you say you are “…more demanding of those who make climate prophesies for the future based on scientific deliberations” you really mean you want to set bar just out of reach. Just beyond what is possible.

    And, of course that phrase sounds quite a lot more reasonable than “use your common sense its all a hoax!” I notice you don’t use that one quite so often now.

    More generally speaking, if you feel that scientific study is likely to be the best guide, you shouldn’t pick and choose which areas of science you’re prepared to accept and which you aren’t. Its obvious why those who dislike the idea of international co-operation, dislike the idea of not having complete freedom to pollute the atmosphere, dislike the idea that taxes may have to be used as part of a general solution, in fact dislike being told they should have a more responsible environmental attitude don’t like the implications of scientific findings on AGW.

    But it still doesn’t make any sort of logical sense to reject them, scientifically, on that basis. At least admit the possibility that bodies like the NAS and RS are right and you are wrong.

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