Abusing Science

Number 14 of a series

The above is called the Keeling Curve:

The Keeling Curve is a graph of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere based on continuous measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the island of Hawaii from 1958 to the present day. The curve is named for the scientist Charles David Keeling, who started the monitoring program and supervised it until his death in 2005.

Keeling’s measurements showed the first significant evidence of rapidly increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.[1] According to Dr Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History of Science at Harvard University, the Keeling curve is one of the most important scientific works of the 20th century. Many scientists credit the Keeling curve with first bringing the world’s attention to the current increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Obviously these measurements did not stop with the death of Charles David Keeling. His work inspired others to conduct similar measurements at points around the globe. Ralph Keeling, son of Charles David Keeling, continues the measurements at Mauna Loa, and this work will likely continue through the remaining history of the human species.

But there are other measurements, and Steven J. Allen of the Capital Research Center  wants you to know about them. He holds a Ph.D, in Biodefense from George Mason University, and in 2012 he had this to say:

Scales over our eyes: Using graphs to frighten people about global warming

We’ve been led to believe that the earth faces a global warming catastrophe that will flood coastal cities, turn farmland into desert, and unleash the forces of nature to punish mankind for its use of carbon-based fuels.  But, in fact, the opposite is true: Current projections show that temperatures will plummet in just the next few days.

Here’s the chart, based on data from the online edition of The Washington Post, that proves I am right.  It shows how the temperature in Washington, D.C. fell by half in just 15 hours between yesterday afternoon and this morning.  By half!

Yes, Dr. Allen is going to demonstrate for you that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a hoax, and scientists are using propped-up graphs to trick us. Read the article. He shows a plot of the temperature in Washington, D.C., from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. the following morning. We see what we expect to see. We see the temperature drop, because the sun has gone down in the interim. Now he advises us to extrapolate from this graph, and we see that in the past it was intolerable hot, and in the future it will be intolerably cold. Unlivable. He next explains to us this is what scientist are doing with the temperature history of the earth. He shows this plot:

It looks remarkably like this one, which I previously presented:

And Dr. Allen has more to say, including this (from the same posting):

At least I didn’t use one trick often used by scientist-activists: I didn’t just make up the numbers.  At least I used actual temperature numbers from actual meteorologists.  (News media meteorologists, unlike scientist-activists, tend to be trustworthy because they are held accountable for the accuracy of their predictions. They make mistakes, but they don’t lie.)

Trustworthy journalist (Dr. Allen is one such) may make mistakes, but they do not lie. Scientist-activists do make up numbers and they do lie. Please get that point.

He goes further. He links to other sources, which links have since gone stale, so I cannot vouch for the sources. He points out the numbers are from NASA, a government agency that “was supposed to run the U.S. manned spaceflight program,” ending with a sarcastic comment about the demise of that program. Again, this was in 2012. He pointedly informs us of NASA’s :outreach to the Muslim world,” providing another link that has gone stale. Here is a related link I could find. As a scientist, I have to wonder how “the Muslim world” fits into Dr. Allen’s message. He also mentions NASA has outsourced its work to people with political connections, again providing a stale link. The implication is that these political connections have contravened real science, rendering the results suspect. And NASA promotes belief in AGW.

At this point it becomes difficult to summarize, so I will post an entire paragraph from the original:

For purposes of this post, let’s accept that these numbers are real.  Let’s assume, for the moment, that NASA personnel and their cohorts at organizations like the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change possess the ability to calculate mean surface temperatures worldwide, down to one-hundredth of a degree as they claim, all the way back to 1880.  (Perhaps they use an infinite number of thermometers, plus a time machine.)  Given those assumptions, let’s look at how the numbers are presented in the famous chart.

Journalists “may make mistakes, but they do not lie.” Apparently they do exaggerate to make a point. “[A]n infinite number of thermometers, plus a time machine?” He wants you to know that global average temperatures are being measured to a hundredth of a degree. Here he plays on the readers innocence regarding how data are summarized. Suppose thermometers measure only to 1/10 degree—good ones do. So, how do you report averages to 1/100 degree? That’s what happens when you compute averages? A short lesson in laboratory practice.

I have a thermometer that measures to 1/10 degree. This is not difficult to obtain. Not only do laboratory grade thermometers measure to that precision, they measure to that accuracy. You bring in another thermometer made by a different company from a different country, and both will measure the same beaker full of water to the same 1/10 degree.

Now suppose you are only concerned with temperature changes. Accuracy is no longer a consideration, because any inaccuracy of a measurement by something like a thermometer is most likely in the form of an offset with respect to the correct measurement. When you measure a temperature difference the offset is subtracted out, and the difference will not reflect the inaccuracy. The difference will be accurate.

Now you take a large number of measurements all over the planet, and you average them. The averages will be the sum of a large number of measurements divided by a large number, resulting in an average that has several positions to the right of the decimal point. You may not be measuring to 1/100 degree (although it would be possible), but you are computing averages to that precision. Note the difference between precision and accuracy. Precision does not account for an offset to the correct value, but when you measure the temperature change from one year to the next the accuracy of the difference will be close to solid gold.

Dr. Allen wants to know why the previous plot starts in 1880 and not some other year. He thinks he knows the answer, and that answer is the scientists want to ignore times when the planet experienced other temperature anomalies. He mentions the Little Ice Age of several centuries ago. Let’s have a look at past times:

I advise readers to peruse the Wikipedia entry for a more complete story, but above plot is enlightening. Whatever the cause of the Little Ice Age, the current state of global temperatures cannot be explained by a rebound from that time.

He wants to make a point about the scale of the plot. The vertical axis has been restricted to barely cover the range of temperatures. He says that is to impress upon viewers the enormity of the change. Actually, that is to allow people to see the change with their eyes. If the vertical range were increased to, say, 100 degrees, then it would be difficult to discern any variation. The plot would have the appearance of a straight line. And he presents such a plot:

Not very impressive. This is science? I’m guessing Dr. Allen wants you to believe it is. The truth is, the small variations matter, and without knowing it, Dr. Allen has revealed a terrible truth. Go back to his first plot, a daily temperature variation. The sun is down. It’s cold. The sun come up. Within minutes the temperature is up several degrees. After the sun comes up the temperature will typically climb twenty or more degrees F. And this is not due to a warm wind coming in from the south. It is not due to a nearby forest fire or a volcano. It is the sun. The daily rise in atmospheric temperature illustrates the tremendous driving force of solar radiation. And then the sun goes down, and the temperature drops, and the cycle repeats the following morning.

Now imagine that something tweaked the driving force of the sun, ever so slightly. Suppose it increased a fraction of a percent. There would be a noticeable increase in average temperatures over the entire planet. And that is what is happening. There are many factors affecting the driving force of solar radiation, and carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is one of these. Look at the Keeling Curve. Carbon dioxide levels are going up relentlessly, and there is no indication they will be going down soon. The temperature will rise due to the human contribution to carbon dioxide loading, and the effects of this rise are largely predictable. And nothing that Dr. Allen has written in his posting contradicts this fact.

Dr. Allen writes about political influence, this while propagandizing for an organization with an known political agenda. He uses his platform to disparage the work of real scientists. This is what abuse of science looks like.

2 thoughts on “Abusing Science

  1. Don’t all of these charts suffer from “scale compression”? That is, they only show the top of the scale, thus exaggerating the variations.

  2. Pingback: Abusing Science | Skeptical Analysis

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