An ugly new paper shows why the climate policy debate is broken

Summary: An important (but fatally flawed) new peer-reviewed paper about climate change reveals much about climate science, the public policy debate, and the role of science institutions in America. Here is a quick look at it and its lessons for us.

Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
Your affectionate uncle,
– Screwtape {From C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters}.

Postcards from the frontier of science

Posted yesterday in Bioscience (an Oxford Academic journal).

By Jeffrey A. Harvey, Daphne van den Berg, Jacintha Ellers, Remko Kampen, Thomas W. Crowther, Peter Roessingh, Bart Verheggen, Rascha J. M. Nuijten, Eric Post, Stephan Lewandowsky, Ian Stirling, Meena Balgopal, Steven C. Amstrup, and Michael E. Mann.

This is an important new paper by a team of blue-chip authors. It reveals much about modern science, and shows one reason the campaign for policy action to fight climate change has produced so little despite so much invested over the past three decades. It defies standard analysis, so I will take you on a page by page tour. Each page makes a new low! You can draw your own conclusions.

First section of the paper.

The opening repeats scientists’ consensus about global warming, as described in the IPCC’s reports (which I support). But it quickly goes off the rails.

“However, much of the public …believes scientists continue to debate AGW causes or even process …”

People believe that because it is true. The Working Group 1 report in the IPCC’s AR5 (2014) describes the confidence of its conclusions and forecasts. A large fraction of these conclusions are rated “likely” or less, which the IPCC defines as …

“In this Report the following terms have been used to indicate the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result: Virtually Certain 99–100% probability, Extremely Likely: 95–100%, Very Likely 90–100%, Likely 66–100%, About As Likely As Not 33–66%, Unlikely 0–33% …”

To see the many fundamental issues debated by climate scientists, look at the “Climate Change Statement Review Workshop” Climate held by the American Physical Society (APS) in NYC on 8 January 2014. See this summary by Rupert Darwall and the full transcript.

“A blog is a website that contains regularly updated online personal ideas, comments, and/or hyperlinks provided by the writer (Nisbet and Kotcher 2013).”

With commendable precision, the authors define the term “blog” (although that citation does not appear in the references and Google does not show the quote). But the authors do not define the more important and vaguer terms “denier”, “science denier”, “climate change denier”, and “AGW-denier.” Worse, they use these different terms interchangeably. Peer review should have caught this.

“Indeed, credible estimates suggest that the entire Arctic may be ice-free during summer within several decades (Snape and Forster 2014, Stroeve and Notz 2015, Notz and Stroeve 2017), a process that, as has been suggested by both theoretical and empirical evidence, will drastically reduce polar-bear populations across their range …”

The authors fail to mention previous “credible estimates” that have proven to be false. To mention a few…

2002: “Arctic melting will open new sea passages“, in which Peter Wadhams of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge says “Within a decade we can expect regular summer trade there.” Not by 2012. Not by 2017.

2007: “Arctic summers ice-free ‘by 2013’.” “Professor Wieslaw Maslowski told an American Geophysical Union meeting that previous projections had underestimated the processes now driving ice loss. …So given that fact, you can argue that may be our projection of 2013 is already too conservative.” Nope.

2008: “NSIDC — Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did.” But the polar ice minimum extents in 2008 and 2017 were almost identical.

“To characterize how blogs and related online sources frame the topic of AGW, we identified a total of 90 blogs covering climate-change topics that mentioned both polar bears and sea ice.”

This is climate science, so the paper neither identifies the 90 blogs nor the methodology used in this analysis. There is no Supplement with that additional information.

About Susan Crockford and her work.

The next section is the core of the paper, examining her writings about polar bears. The authors misrepresent her qualifications and her analysis. Any competent peer review would have forced revisions.

“Approximately 80% of the denier blogs cited here referred to one particular denier blog, Polar Bear Science, by Susan Crockford, as their primary source of discussion and debate on the status of polar bears. Notably, as of this writing, Crockford has neither conducted any original research nor published any articles in the peer-reviewed literature on polar bears. …scientists such as Crockford who are described as “experts” on denier blogs in fact typically have little in the way of relevant expertise, and their expertise is often self-manufactured to serve alternative agendas.”

This is a serious misrepresentation of relevant facts. The authors fail to mention her Ph.D. in zoology (her dissertation mentions polar bear evolution) and her peer-reviewed publications (details here). She is even cited in a paper published in Bioscience. As for relevance, there is a long tradition of scientists leveraging their basic training into other fields. Darwin’s education before joining HMS Beagle gave him little preparation to discover evolution. Stephen Jay Gould — the great paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science — did his empirical research studying snails.

“Crockford vigorously criticizes, without supporting evidence, the findings of several leading researchers who have studied polar bears in the field for decades.”

This is a deliberate lie. Nobody who has read her work can honestly say that. See this post, for example. Also see her major paper, described below. One can question her evidence and logic, but not that she provides much evidence.

“A primary approach of Crockford’s and other denier blogs is to frame uncertainty by focusing on the present and to question the accuracy of future predictions — implying that the rapid loss of Arctic ice recorded over the past 40 years induced by AGW cannot serve as a guide to future conditions.”

The authors give no citation for this claim. I have never seen Crockford say anything remotely like that.

More claims.

“Denier blogs that downplay the threats of AGW to Arctic ice and polar bears rely heavily on arguments that …it is therefore difficult or even impossible to predict what will happen in the future.”

That is part of a long paragraph of unclear meaning. But this claim attributed to “denier blogs” is quite correct. How did this error pass even a cursory peer review? As climate scientist Kevin E. Trenberth said (repeating what so many others have said during the past two decades)…

“In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers ‘what if’ projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios. There are a number of assumptions that go into these emissions scenarios. They are intended to cover a range of possible self consistent ‘story lines’ that then provide decision makers with information about which paths might be more desirable. But they do not consider many things like the recovery of the ozone layer, for instance, or observed trends in forcing agents. There is no estimate, even probabilistically, as to the likelihood of any emissions scenario and no best guess.”

Given the difficulty of making predictions, the IPCC’s reports describe various scenarios of future events. AR5 uses four Representative Concentration Pathways, scenarios ranging from good to horrific.

There is another page of analysis and claims in this paper, but it is more of the same. The authors conduct a complex — and only sketchily described — classification and analysis of “denier” blogs. Given their gross misrepresentation of Crockford and her work, I see no reason to consider it seriously.

One last oddity: many of the attacks in the paper apply just as well to itself. Reverse the white and black hats in these two claims and they make just as much sense.

“For example, scientific blogs provide context and associated evidence, whereas denier blogs often remove context or misinterpret examples. …Rhetorical devices to evoke fear and other emotions, such as implying that the public is under threat from deceitful scientists, are common tactics employed by science-denier groups.”

My Conclusions

This paper follows the forms of science without its substance. In this respect is resembles pseudoscience more than science.

This paper demonstrates the often discussed institutional failures in modern science. Papers whose claims are easily disproven. Sloppy peer review. Politicization. These are the elements creating the replication crisis, slowly spreading through the science (details here). That would have been a small problem in 1817, but is one we cannot afford in 2017.

Let’s hope that scientists begin institutional reforms as soon as possible. The rot seen in this paper, directed as it is at a major public policy issue, can have ugly repercussions.

Polar Bear on small ice flow


Decide for yourself. See her major paper

Crockford documents her theory in “Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus)”, posted at Peer J Preprints (not peer reviewed) — Abstract…

“The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) was the first species to be classified as threatened with extinction based on predictions of future conditions rather than current status. These predictions were made using expert-opinion forecasts of population declines linked to modeled habitat loss – first by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List in 2006, and then by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), based on data collected to 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Both assessments predicted significant population declines of polar bears would result by mid-century as a consequence of summer sea ice extent rapidly reaching 3-5 mkm2 on a regular basis: the IUCN predicted a >30% decline in total population, while the USFWS predicted the global population would decline by 67% (including total extirpation of ten subpopulations within two vulnerable ecoregions).

“Biologists involved in these conservation assessments had to make several critical assumptions about how polar bears might be affected by future habitat loss, since sea ice conditions predicted to occur by 2050 had not occurred prior to 2006. However, summer sea ice declines have been much faster than expected: low ice levels not expected until mid-century (about 3-5 mkm2) have occurred regularly since 2007. Realization of predicted sea ice levels allows the ‘rapid sea ice decline = population decline’ assumption for polar bears to be treated as a testable hypothesis.

“Data collected between 2007 and 2015 reveal that polar bear numbers have not declined as predicted and no subpopulation has been extirpated. Several subpopulations expected to be at high risk of decline remained stable and five showed increases in population size. Another at-risk subpopulation was not counted but showed marked improvement in reproductive parameters and body condition with less summer ice. As a consequence, the hypothesis that repeated summer sea ice levels of below 5 mkm2 will cause significant population declines in polar bears is rejected, a result that indicates the ESA and IUCN judgments to list polar bears as threatened based on future risks of habitat loss were scientifically unfounded and that similar predictions for Arctic seals and walrus may be likewise flawed.

“The lack of a demonstrable ‘rapid sea ice decline = population decline’ relationship for polar bears also potentially invalidates updated survival model outputs that predict catastrophic population declines should the Arctic become ice-free in summer.”

Her paper was ignored, using their role as “gatekeepers” to keep challenges out of the debate. Now they have taken a second step: rebuttal by smears and lies. Let’s respond to this unscientific behavior by scientists: circulate this paper and force them to rationally respond to it.

About the author

Susan Crockford is a zoologist with more than 35 years of experience, including published work on the Holocene history of Arctic animals. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia (a “non-remunerated professional zooarcheologist associate”) and co-owner of a private consulting company, Pacific Identifications Inc. See her publications here and her website Polar Bear Science.

See her book at the end of this post. See this review of her other book by Kip Hansen: “Polar Bear Facts and Myths – A Science Summary for All Ages”. She has also written a novel, Eaten — a polar bear attack thriller.

For More Information

For more information about polar bears, about the keys to understanding climate change and these posts about the politics of climate change…

  1. Mother Jones sounds the alarm about the warming North Pole — Exploiting the polar bear story for political gain.
  2. Twenty stories of good news about polar bears!
  3. Are 30 thousand species going extinct every year?
  4. Good news about polar bears, thriving as the arctic warms!

via Watts Up With That?

November 30, 2017 at 11:01AM

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