Thursday November 27th 2014

Yamalian yawns

Steve McIntyre is free to do any analysis he wants on any data he can find. But when he ladles his work with unjustified and false accusations of misconduct and deception, he demeans both himself and his contributions. The idea that scientists should be bullied into doing analyses McIntyre wants and delivering the results to him prior to publication out of fear of very public attacks on their integrity is ludicrous.

By rights we should be outraged and appalled that (yet again) unfounded claims of scientific misconduct and dishonesty are buzzing around the blogosphere, once again initiated by Steve McIntyre, and unfailingly and uncritically promoted by the usual supporters. However this has become such a common occurrence that we are no longer shocked nor surprised that misinformation based on nothing but prior assumptions gains an easy toehold on the contrarian blogs (especially at times when they are keen to ‘move on’ from more discomforting events).

So instead of outrage, we’ll settle for simply making a few observations that undermine the narrative that McIntyre and company are trying to put out.

First of all, it should be made clear that McIntyre’s FOI requests on the subject of Yamal are not for raw data, nor for the code or analysis methodology behind a published result, but for an analysis of publicly available data that has not been completed and has not yet been published. To be clear, these requests are for unpublished work.

Second, the unpublished work in question is a reconstruction of regional temperatures from the region of Yamal in Siberia. Regional reconstructions are generally more worthwhile than reconstructions from a single site because, if there is shared variance, the regional result is likely to be more robust and be more representative – and that makes it more valuable for continental and hemispheric comparisons. The key issues are whether all the trees (or some subset of them) share a common signal (are they mostly temperature sensitive? are some localities anomalous? etc.). It isn’t as simple as just averaging all the trees in a grid box or two. The history of such efforts follows a mostly standard path – local chronologies are put together, different ‘standardisation’ techniques are applied, more data is collected, wider collations are put together, and then regional reconstructions start to appear. Places that are remote (like Yamal) have the advantage of a lack of local human interference, and plenty of fossil material, but they are tricky to get to and data collection can be slow (not least because of the political situation in recent decades).

UK FOI legislation (quite sensibly) specifically exempts unpublished work from release provided the results are being prepared for publication. So McIntyre’s appeals have tried to insinuate that no such publication is in progress (which is false) or that the public interest in knowing about a regional tree ring reconstruction from an obscure part of Siberia trumps the obvious interest that academics have in being able to work on projects exclusively prior to publication. This is a hard sell, unless of course one greatly exaggerates the importance of a single proxy record – but who would do that? (Oh yes: YAD06 – the most important tree in the world, The global warming industry is based on one MASSIVE lie etc.). Note that premature public access to unpublished work is something that many people (including Anthony Watts) feel quite strongly about.

Worse, McIntyre has claimed in his appeal that the length of time since the Briffa et al (2008) paper implies that the regional Yamal reconstruction has been suppressed for nefarious motives. But I find it a little rich that the instigator of a multitude of FOI requests, appeals, inquiries, appeals about inquires, FOIs about appeals, inquiries into FOI appeals etc. is now using the CRU’s lack of productivity as a reason to support more FOI releases. This is actually quite funny.

Furthermore, McIntyre is using the fact that Briffa and colleagues responded online to his last deceptive claims about Yamal, to claim that all Yamal-related info must now be placed in the public domain (including, as mentioned above, unpublished reconstructions being prepared for a paper). How this will encourage scientists to be open to real-time discussions with critics is a little puzzling. Mention some partial analysis online, and be hit immediately with a FOI for the rest…?

The history of this oddity (and it is odd) dates back to McIntyre’s early obsession with a reconstruction called the “Polar Urals” Briffa et al. (1995). This was a very early attempt at a local multi-proxy reconstruction, using a regression of both tree-ring widths and densities. McIntyre has previously objected to observations that 1032 was a particularly cold year in this reconstruction (though it was), that the dating of the trees was suspect (though it wasn’t), and that no-one revisited this reconstruction when reprocessed chronologies became available. [Little-known fact: McIntyre and McKitrick submitted a comment to Nature complaining about the dating issues in 1995 paper around Dec 2005/Jan 2006, which was rejected upon receipt of Briffa's response (which was an attachment in the second tranche of CRU emails). Neither this submission, the rejection (for good cause), nor the Polar Urals dating issue have been mentioned on Climate Audit subsequently.]

Around this point, McIntyre got the erroneous idea that studies were being done, but were being suppressed if they showed something ‘inconvenient’. This is of course a classic conspiracy theory and one that can’t be easily disproved. Accusation: you did something and then hid it. Response: No I didn’t, take a look. Accusation: You just hid it somewhere else. Etc. However, this is Keith Briffa we are talking about: the lead author of Briffa et al, (1998)(pdf) describing the “inconvenient” divergence problem in some tree ring density records, a subject that has been described and taken up by multiple authors – Jacoby, D’Arrigo, Esper, Wilson etc. Why McIntyre thought (thinks?) that one single reconstruction was so special that people would go to any lengths to protect it, while at the same time the same people were openly discussing problems in reconstructions across the whole northern hemisphere, remains mysterious.

Similarly, McIntyre recently accused Eric Steig of suppressing ‘inconvenient’ results from an ice core record from Siple Dome (Antarctica). Examination of the record in question actually demonstrates that it has exceptionally high values in the late 20th Century (reflecting the highest temperatures in at least the last 700 years, Mayewski et al.), exactly counter to McIntyre’s theory. McIntyre made these accusations public “a couple of days” – his words – after requesting the data, since apparently university professors have nothing more pressing to do than than respond instantly to McIntyre’s requests. In short, you have to give McIntyre what he wants within 48 hours or he will publicly attack your integrity. Unsurprisingly, no apology for that unjustified smear has been forthcoming.

So on to Yamal. The original data for the Yamal series came from two Russian researchers (Rashit Hantemirov and Stepan Shiyatov), and was given to CRU for collation with other tree-ring reconstructions (Briffa, 2000). As a small part of that paper, Briffa reprocessed the raw Yamal data with the regional curve standardisation (RCS) technique. The Russians published their version of the chronology with a different standardization a little later (Hantemirov and Shiyatov, 2002). McIntyre is accusing Briffa of ‘deception’ in stating that he did not ‘consider’ doing a larger more regional reconstruction at that time. However, it is clear from the 2000 paper that the point was to show hemispheric coherence across multiple tree ring records, not to create regional chronologies. Nothing was being ‘deceptively’ hidden and the Yamal curve is only a small part of the paper in any case.

Another little appreciated fact: When McIntyre started to get interested in this, he asked Briffa for the underlying measurement data from Yamal and two other locations whose reconstructions were used in Osborn and Briffa (2006). In May 2006, Briffa politely replied:

Steve these data were produced by Swedish and Russian colleagues – will pass on your message to them
cheers, Keith

Briffa was conforming to the standard protocol that directs people to the originators of data series for access to the underlying data, as opposed to the reconstructions which had been archived with the paper. McIntyre expressed great exasperation at this point, which is odd because in email 1548, McIntyre is quoted (from Sep 26, 2009 (and note the divergence in post URL and actual title)):

A few days ago, I became aware that the long-sought Yamal measurement data url had materialized at Briffa’s website – after many years of effort on my part and nearly 10 years after its original use in Briffa (2000).

To which Rashit Hanterminov responds:

Steve has an amnesia. I had sent him these data at February 2, 2004 on his demand.

Thus at the time McIntyre was haranguing Briffa and Osborn, McIntyre had actually had the raw Yamal data for over 2 years (again, unmentioned on Climate Audit), and he had had them for over 5 years when he declared that he had finally got them in 2009 (immediately prior to his accusations (again false) against Briffa of inappropriate selection of trees in his Yamal chronology).

Back to the main story. Of course, regional reconstructions are a definite goal of the dendro-climatology community and Briffa and colleagues have been working on these for years. Some of those results were published in Briffa et al (2008) as part of a special issue on the boreal forest and global change. Special issues come with deadlines, and as explained in a submission to the Muir Russell inquiry, a regional Yamal reconstruction putting together multiple sources of tree ring data was indeed ‘considered’ but wasn’t finished in time. McIntyre’s claim of deception comes from a strained reading of the MR submission (it is actually quite good reading). In response to extended (and yet again false) accusations from Ross McKitrick in the Financial Post:

Between these [two other reconstructions] we had intended to explore an integrated Polar Urals/Yamal larch series but it was felt that this work could not be completed in time and Briffa made the decision to reprocess the Yamal ring-width data to hand, using improved standardization techniques, and include this series in the submitted paper [Briffa et al., 2008].

Subsequently, in response to the issues raised by McIntyre, we explored the use of additional ring-width data local to the Yamal sub-fossil data. This work established the general validity of the published Yamal chronology information, albeit with significant statistical uncertainty, including during the medieval time and the late 20th century. [Refers to the online Oct 2009 response]

We still intend to publish an extended review paper that will compare and contrast features of the different published (and unpublished) versions of various regional composite chronologies in northern Eurasia and the effect on the character of climate reconstructions of calibrating them using different regression techniques.

So, Briffa et al did consider a regional reconstruction and are indeed working on it for publication, and it didn’t get into the 2008 paper due to time constraints. Clear, no?

However, a little later on in the submission, there is this paragraph:

(From McKitrick):

Thus the key ingredient in most of the studies that have been invoked to support the Hockey Stick, namely the Briffa Yamal series, depends on the influence of a woefully thin subsample of trees and the exclusion of readily-available data for the same area.

McKitrick is implying that we considered and deliberately excluded data from our Yamal chronology. The data that he is referring to were never considered at the time because the purpose of the work reported in Briffa (2000) and Briffa et al. (2008) was to reprocess the existing dataset of Hantemirov and Shiyatov (2002).

(my highlights).

This is clearly a response to McKitrick’s unjustified accusations, and in using the reference to the 2008 paper is a little contradictory to the paragraphs above which were much more explicit about the background and purpose of the 2008 paper. However, to take a slight mis-statement in a single sentence, when copious other information was being provided in the same submission, and accusing people of deliberate deception is a huge overreach. Were they trying to deceive only the people who hadn’t read the previous page? It makes no sense at all. Instead, McIntyre conflates the situation at the time of the 2000 paper with the very different situation around 2008 in order to paint a imaginary picture of perfidy.

The one new element this week is the UK ICO partial ruling on McIntyre’s appeal for access to the (still unpublished) regional Yamal reconstruction. For reasons that are as yet unclear (since the full ICO ruling has not yet been issued), the list of components from which the regional reconstruction might be built were released by UEA. All of this data is already public domain. And of course, since Briffa et al have been working on regional reconstructions since prior to the 2008 paper it is unsurprising that they have such a list. McIntyre then quotes an email from Osborn sent in 2006 in support of his claim that the reconstructions were finished at that point, but that is again a very strained reading. Osborn only lists the areas (and grid boxes) in which regional reconstructions might be attempted since “most of the trees lie within those boxes”. It makes no statement whatsoever about the work having already been done.

McIntyre’s subsequent insta-reconstruction from the list is apparently the ‘smoking gun’ that the results are being withheld because they are inconvenient, but if any actual scientist had produced such a poorly explained, unvalidated, uncalibrated, reconstruction with no error bars or bootstrapping or demonstrations of common signals etc., McIntyre would have been (rightly) scornful. Though apparently, scientists are supposed to accept his reconstruction at face value. The irony is of course that the demonstration that a regional reconstruction is valid takes effort, and needs to be properly documented. That requires a paper in the technical literature and the only way for Briffa et al to now defend themselves against McIntyre’s accusations is to publish that paper (which one can guarantee will have different results to what McIntyre has thrown together). In the meantime, they can’t discuss it online or defend themselves because the issue with the FOI appeal is precisely their ability to work on projects prior to publication without being forced to go public before they are finished.

Finally, a couple of observations regarding the follow-through from Andrew Montford and Anthony Watts. Montford’s summary is an easier read than anything McIntyre writes, but it is clear Montford’s talents lie in the direction of fiction, not documentary work. All of his claims of “why paleoclimatologists found the series so alluring”, or that the publication “must have been a severe blow”, or “another hockey stick” was “made almost to order to meet the requirements of the paleoclimate community” and other accusations are simply products of his imagination. He also makes up claims, that for instance, McIntyre asking Briffa for the Yamal data “was, as expected, turned down flat” (not true – the actual response was given above) and he imagines even more ‘deceptions’ than McIntyre. Since he assumes the worst of the people involved, everything he sees is twisted to conform to his prior assumptions – if there is an innocent explanation, he expends no time considering it. As for Watts, the funny thing is that he immediately thinks that Michael Mann needs to answer these accusations, and attempts a twitter campaign of harassment when Mike, rightly, points out that Yamal doesn’t actually impact that much and, in any case, it has nothing to do with him at all. Watts is clearly a cheerleader for the ‘Blame Mike First’ campaign, so maybe his next post will be on why Mike is responsible for the Greek bank default (have you seen those bond yield curves?!?).

It should also go without saying that sometimes life gets in the way of work, and suggestions that academics have to work on issues according to a timetable dictated by hostile and abusive commentators is completely antithetical to the notion of free inquiry or the inevitable constraints of real life. McIntyre is of course free to do any analysis he wants, but he has no right to demand that other people do work for him under fear of highly public false accusations of dishonesty. We can nonetheless look forward to more of these episodes, mainly because they serve their purpose so well.

References


  1. K.R. Briffa, V.V. Shishov, T.M. Melvin, E.A. Vaganov, H. Grudd, R.M. Hantemirov, M. Eronen, and M.M. Naurzbaev, “Trends in recent temperature and radial tree growth spanning 2000 years across northwest Eurasia”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 363, 2008, pp. 2269-2282. DOI.

  2. K.R. Briffa, P.D. Jones, F. Schweingruber, S. Shiyatov, and E. Cook, “Unusual twentieth-century summer warmth in a 1,000-year temperature record from
    Siberia”, Nature, vol. 376, 1995, pp. 156-159. DOI.

  3. K.R. Briffa, F.H. Schweingruber, P.D. Jones, T.J. Osborn, I.C. Harris, S.G. Shiyatov, E.A. Vaganov, and H. Grudd, “Trees tell of past climates: but are they speaking less clearly today?”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 353, 1998, pp. 65-73. DOI.

  4. P.A. Mayewski, K.A. Maasch, J.W.C. White, E.J. Steig, E. Meyerson, I. Goodwin, V.I. Morgan, T. van Ommen, M.A.J. Curran, J. Souney, and K. Kreutz, “A 700 year record of Southern Hemisphere extratropical climate variability”, Annals of Glaciology, vol. 39, 2004, pp. 127-132. DOI.

  5. K.R. Briffa, “Annual climate variability in the Holocene: interpreting the message of ancient trees”, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 19, 2000, pp. 87-105. DOI.

  6. R.M. Hantemirov, and S.G. Shiyatov, “A continuous multimillennial ring-width chronology in Yamal, northwestern Siberia”, The Holocene, vol. 12, pp. 717-726. DOI.

  7. T.J. Osborn, “The Spatial Extent of 20th-Century Warmth in the Context of the Past 1200 Years”, Science, vol. 311, 2006, pp. 841-844. DOI.


This article was originally posted on Real Climate