Mark Walport, Stephen Belcher And Matt Ridley

  • Date: 13/01/14
  • Bishop Hill

Mark Walport has a letter in the Times, taking issue with an article that Matt Ridley wrote a few days before. Matt’s article was about cherrypicking in science, and mentioned Briffa’s Yamal series.

Sir,

Matt Ridley falls into his own trap in his Opinion column (Jan 6), though the title “Roll up: cherry pick your research results here” is apposite, because that is exactly what Ridley does with respect to the research evidence for global warming.

There can be no sensible arguments against making available the results of properly conducted research for open scrutiny. The arguments for this have been rehearsed very effectively in health — and, in general, the biomedical research community has accepted these arguments. Indeed UK scientists pioneered the controlled clinical trial and the Cochrane Collaboration led the way in the rigorous meta-analysis of all sources of evidence to reach the most reliable conclusions allowing the implementation of “evidence-based” medicine. The pharmaceutical industry, which can certainly be criticised for past practices in not revealing the results of all clinical studies of new drugs, is now moving towards greater transparency, and drug regulators, such as the EMEA, are rightly pressing hard. Iain Chalmers, Ben Goldacre and others deserve much credit for their campaigning for openness.

The same can be said of the climate science community. Following the controversy over leaked University of East Anglia emails there have been substantial efforts in making source data openly available. It is partly through this openness and replicablility of findings by researchers in different institutes the Berkeley Earth Island Institute analysis published last year is a case in point— that drew the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the unassailable conclusion in its most recent report that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”.

This report was a consensus led by 259 scientists, from 39 countries, which assessed the findings of all of the relevant, peer-reviewed scientific literature published between the previous report in 2007 and March of last year. Would that Matt Ridley applied the same rigour when it comes to evidence about the anthropogenic contribution to climate change. The “hockey stick” graphs, prominent as they were at the time, are just one small part of a massive global research effort that provides consistent and overwhelming evidence.

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government

Professor Stephen Belcher, Head of Met Office Hadley Centre

Matt’s reply is as follows:

Dear Mark and dear Professor Belcher,

I am glad to see you recognising in your letter to the Times the need for science, as well as industry, to clean up its act with respect to transparency and data withholding. As for the argument relating to the hockey stick that “following the controversy over leaked University of East Anglia emails, there have been substantial efforts to make source data openly available”, it is good that you acknowledge the role that Climategate played in sparking this improved transparency. Indeed, the surmise by Stephen McIntyre of Climate Audit that the University of East Anglia had failed to report a Yamal regional chronology that did not have a Hockey Stick shape was an important issue leading into Climategate. Yet it was not investigated by any of the East Anglia inquiries. As McIntyre says, “The existence of this unreported adverse result was only revealed by subsequent Freedom of Information requests – requests that were fiercely resisted by the University.” It was wrong that those interested in understanding the hockey sticks had to resort to freedom-of-information requests to get publicly funded data that should have been freely published and wrong that the requests were resisted.

You might be interested in McIntyre’s account (to me) of what has happened since: “In 2013, four years after the Climate Audit criticisms, Briffa and coauthors published a re-stated version of their Yamal chronology with a much diminished blade from the previous superstick.  Rather than “discrediting” the earlier criticisms, the re-statement implicitly conceded the validity of the earlier criticism, as shown by the measures taken by Briffa and coauthors to avoid repetition of the earlier mistakes.  While they have avoided some of their earlier errors, their new attenuated chronology still contains important methodological defects and errors, as discussed at Climate Audit. Nor should much weight be given to findings of the Muir Russell panel. Muir Russell did not even attend the only interview with CRU academics on the Hockey stick.  Nor did the panel interview CRU critics. Nor did the Muir Russell panel even ask Briffa and Jones about their destruction of documents to evade FOI requests.”

You then go on to say that global warming is unequivocal, with which I entirely agree (if we take a 30-50 year period) though it is the evidence, not the number of scientists who have put their name to a report, that convinces me. (It is equally unequivocal that warming has been slower than the models forecast.) But this is a straw man. My article did not claim that the hockey stick was necessary to prove the warming unequivocal. “Unequivocal” is not the same as “Unprecedented”, which was the claim made by the hockey-stick graphs. So I did not “fall into my own trap”. May I urge you in future to address the actual arguments of sceptics rather than the almost entirely mythical claim that they think climate change does not happen.

Best wishes

Matt

Bishop Hill, 13 January 2014