NOAA Climate Change Data Manipulation Charge: Scandal or Nothing to See Here?

Settled science and confirmation bias all the way down



Did National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers rush and manipulate data back in 2015 in order to publish a high-impact study in Science disproving the notion that the rate of man-made global warming has slowed significantly after 2000? That is certainly the way that an explosive article at the Daily Mail portrayed the claims by prominent and just retired NOAA data slinger John Bates against his former (also now retired) colleague Tom Karl. Characterizing Bates as a whistleblower, the Mail reported that Bates …

…accused the lead author of the paper, Thomas Karl, who was until last year director of the NOAA section that produces climate data – the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) – of 'insisting on decisions and scientific choices that maximised warming and minimised documentation… in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming pause, rushed so that he could time publication to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy'.

Specifically, Karl and his colleagues in their "pausebuster" 2015 study used improperly archived and vetted data on sea surface and land temperature trends that showed considerably more warming than other datasets did at the time. "The central estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a 'slowdown' in the increase of global surface temperature," concluded the study.

Bates' claims have reignited the debate over just how "settled" the science of man-made climate change is. Interestingly, Energy & Environment News reports that in an interview with Bates that he expressed a "significantly more nuanced take" about what happened with the NOAA data than the one found in the Mail. According to E&E News:

Bates accused former colleagues of rushing their research to publication, in defiance of agency protocol. He specified that he did not believe that they manipulated the data upon which the research relied in any way.

"The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything it was," he said.

On the other hand, it is the plain fact that Bates did assert in a his February 4 post "Climate scientists versus climate data" over at the invaluable Climate Etc. website run by climate researcher Judith Curry that Karl had put his thumb on the scale by urging colleagues to make adjustments to the temperature data that maximized warming. So what claim is Bates really making? Did Karl and colleagues purposedly manipulate the data to get the result they wanted or were they just irresponsibly sloppy and less transparent than they should have been about what they had done? Or is Bates saying he thinks that the sloppiness and lack of transparency was deliberately used to hide data manipulation?

All too predictably, this contretemps has most everyone rushing to find data that confirms what they already think. "No Data Manipulation in 2015 Climate Study, Researchers Say," headlines The New York Times. "As planet warms, doubters launch a new attack on famous climate change study," reports The Washington Post. "House Committee to 'Push Ahead' With Investigation Into Alleged Climate Data Manipulation at NOAA," reports The Daily Caller, citing claims from Committee on Science, Space and Technology aides that other unnamed NOAA whistleblowers are coming forward. Fox News headlines, "Federal scientist cooked the climate change books ahead of Obama presentation, whistle blower charges."

Defenders of Karl's 2015 NOAA article rightly point to an independent Science Advances study just published in January that basically concluded that the study's temperature adjustments were properly done and that the increase in sea surface temperatures had not slowed down after 2000.

That being said, it is a bit puzzling that the Science Advances study does not cite another prominent study from Nature Climate Change published in February 2016 in which a group of researchers led by Canadian climate scientist John Fyfe concluded that global warming hiatus is real. Bates does cite the 2016 Nature Climate Change study as evidence against the findings reported by Karl and his colleagues in 2015. Clearly, the Nature Climate Change study's conclusions strongly contradicted Karl's 2015 Science article and the new results reported in Science Advances. Interestingly, neither the Times nor the Post stories mention the Nature Climate Change study, but Fox News did.

Apparently, NOAA is considering an investigation into Bates' allegations and House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Chair Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) is renewing his demand that NOAA turn over emails related to the how the 2015 study was managed.

For those who want to wade further into charges and counter-charges click on over to Climate, Etc. where Bates is responding to various critics' claims.