Duty to Disclose

When prosecutors put together their case at trial (at least in the US) they have a legal duty to share all evidence, including potentially exculpatory evidence, with the defense.  When you sell your house or take a company public, there is a legal requirement to reveal major known problems to potential buyers.  Of course, there are strong incentives not to share this information, but when people fail on this it is considered by all to be fraud.

I would have thought the same standard exists in scientific research, ie one has an ethical obligation to reveal data or experiments that do not confirm one’s underlying hypothesis or may potentially cast some doubt on the results.  After all, we are after truth, right?

Two posts this week shed some interesting light on this issue  vis a vis dendro-climatology.  I hesitate to pile on much on the tree ring studies at this point, as they have about as much integrity right now as the study of alchemy.  If we are going to get some real knowledge out of this data, someone is going to have to tear the entire field down to bedrock and start over (as was eventually done when alchemy became chemistry).  But I do think both of these posts raise useful issues that go beyond just Mann, Briffa, and tree rings.

In the first, Steve McIntyre looks at one of the Climategate emails from Raymond Bradley where Bradley is almost proudly declaring that MBH98 had purposely withheld data that would have made their results look far less certain.  He taunts skeptics for not yet figuring out the game, an ethical position roughly equivalent to Bernie Madoff taunting investors for being too dumb to figure out he was duping them with a Ponzi scheme.

In the second, Judith Curry takes a look at the Briffa “hide the decline” trick.  There is a lot of confusion about just what this trick was.  In short, the expected behavior of tree ring results in the late 20th century diverged from actual measured temperatures.  In short, the tree rings showed temperatures falling since about 1950 when they have in fact risen.   Since there is substantial disagreement on whether tree rings really do act as reliable proxies for temperatures, this is an important fact since if tree rings are failing to follow temperatures for the last half century, there could easily be similar failures in the past.  Briffa and the IPCC removed the post-1950 tree ring data from key charts presented to the public, and used the graphical trick of overlaying gauge temperature records to imply that the proxies continued to go up.

Given the heat around this topic, Curry tries to step back and look at the issue dispassionately.  Unlike many, she does not assign motivations to people when these are not known, but she does conclude:

There is no question that the diagrams and accompanying text in the IPCC TAR, AR4 and WMO 1999 are misleading.  I was misled.  Upon considering the material presented in these reports, it did not occur to me that recent paleo data was not consistent with the historical record.  The one statement in AR4 (put in after McIntyre’s insistence as a reviewer) that mentions the divergence problem is weak tea.

It is obvious that there has been deletion of adverse data in figures shown IPCC AR3 and AR4, and the 1999 WMO document.  Not only is this misleading, but it is dishonest (I agree with Muller on this one).  The authors defend themselves by stating that there has been no attempt to hide the divergence problem in the literature, and that the relevant paper was referenced.  I infer then that there is something in the IPCC process or the authors’ interpretation of the IPCC process  (i.e. don’t dilute the message) that corrupted the scientists into deleting the adverse data in these diagrams.

The best analogy I can find for this behavior is prosecutorial abuse.  When prosecutors commit abuses (e.g. failure to share exculpatory evidence), it is often because they are just sure the defendent is guilty.  They can convince themselves that even though they are breaking the law, they are serving the law in a larger sense because they are making sure guilty people go to jail.  Of course, this is exactly how innocent people rot in jail for years, because prosecutors are not supposed to be the ultimate aribiter of guilt and innosence.  In the same way, I am sure Briffa et al felt that by cutting ethical corners, they were serving a larger purpose because they were just sure they were right.  Excupatory evidence might just confuse the jury and lead, in their mind, to a miscarriage of justice.   As Michael Mann wrote (as quoted by Curry)

Otherwise, the skeptics have an field day casting doubt on our ability to understand the factors that influence these estimates and, thus, can undermine faith in the paleoestimates. I don’t think that doubt is scientifically justified, and I’d hate to be the one to have to give it fodder!

  • Jeff

    Proxies need to be calibrated against known temperatures. If they have been calibrating the proxy data against the last 100 years of temp records how is it possible that the proxies have widely diverged since 1960 ish ?

    In my simplistic view if the tree ring is X width for a given year and the average temp for that year was Y then X width = Y temperature … you average them up over the 100 years of good temperature data and you come up with a factor that you then apply over the entire proxy …

    If they have calibrated their proxies with known temperatures then we should almost never see a wide divergence because the actual temperatures drive the proxy values …

    tree rings already are worse than poor temperature proxies so this sort of sloppy data manipulation makes them even worse …

    Has anyone actually published the raw tree ring measurements ?

  • Foxgoose

    A very articulate, low key but convincing summary of the problem.

    Thank you

  • John Galt

    Who would imagine that tree rings are a good proxy for temperature anyway? I’d expect they would be more dependent on rainfall than temperature. I would expect that they aren’t a proxy for anything during the part of the year that the tree is dormant.

  • Fred

    Simplified version . . It is OK for us to lie because we KNOW we are right.

    How green of them.

  • You don’t get it, do you? Your naivete is shown in your statement, “I would have thought the same standard exists in scientific research.” The standards for scientific misconduct are defined in The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45, Chapter 4, National Science Foundation, in section 698. It covers Fabrication, Falsification and Plagarism, all easy to understand. But the key, the part that we outside the scientific community may not relate to is, “689.2 (c) A finding of research misconduct requires that—(1) There be a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community….” So the relevant research community gets to define the standards. I hope that you did not take offense at my opening statements, I was expressing my scarcasm and disgust at the lack of standards in the climate science community. I have written more about this on my website, http://socratesparadox.com/?p=178#more-178

  • Dave

    This is a perfect example of what famous physicist Richard P. Feynman warned us about, in his discussion of “cargo cult science”:


  • Sean

    Judy pointed out that the real problem with the hockey stick graph was that the blade where the divergent data tree ring data was was truncated, if it has been included, would have invalidated the “stable” climate data in the handle. But I think there is something even more fundamental going wrong other than that the “prosecutors” on the IPCC team withheld exculpatory data, this group was also the judge and jury.

  • Eric Anderson

    Good post. I especially like this analogy: “In the same way, I am sure Briffa et al felt that by cutting ethical corners, they were serving a larger purpose because they were just sure they were right. Excupatory evidence might just confuse the jury and lead, in their mind, to a miscarriage of justice.”

    I think this is a big part of what is going on: self-assurance in a righteous cause leading to small (. . . then larger . . . then blatant) breaches of objectivity. Over time there is no longer a search for the truth, but instead an effort to continue promoting the story (after all, the reasoning goes, the story just has to be right and eventually other evidence will come along to support it, even if we’re lacking such evidence now).

    BTW, I haven’t seen any decent reason yet to think that tree rings are useful as a temperature proxy. The burden is on those proposing that they are to demonstrate it. Until then, I don’t think we have any obligation to take tree rings seriously as a temperature proxy.

  • dearieme

    “can undermine faith”: the climate pontificate smells heresy. McIntyre is lucky that he’s not been burned at the stake.

  • netdr


    I can’t disagree with a single statement.

    Cheating or withholding exculpatory evidence for the “public’s own good” is simply wrong.

    I think Judith curry is leading the parade of understanding of the science “warts and all”.

  • Bill Long

    Yeah, weren’t they just “cleared” by the Commerce Department?


  • sabril

    “But I think there is something even more fundamental going wrong other than that the “prosecutors” on the IPCC team withheld exculpatory data, this group was also the judge and jury.”

    I agree 100%. The shenanigans of these “scientists” would be a lot more tolerable if it were accepted by all involved that they are advocates; that they have an agenda; and that their normal practice is to put the best possible spin on things in order to favor their position.

    It’s also worth mentioning that in the legal system, you are normally entitled to a judge and jury which have no personal interest in the outcome of the case. Obviously it’s impossible to achieve this in scientists, since every scientist’s continued funding rests in whole or in part on the outcome of his research. Still, it’s worth keeping this in mind.

  • mememine69

    Climate Change Postmortem:
    When all was said and done, the following example sums up this level of mass insanity that we were dealing with, before climate change died when Obama dropped it from his State of the Union Speech:
    “A group of over 200 environmentalists were in an auditorium listening to a symposium about climate change, i.e. global warming or climate disruption. One of the speakers asked, “If I could instantly produce a genie with a magic wand to stand here before you today. And if, that genie could wave his magic wand and voila….carbon dioxide would no longer be a greenhouse gas that produced uncontrollable global warming….How many in this room would be happy, satisfied and pleased?” Two people out of two hundred hesitatingly raised their hands. Of the others, some smirked, some laughed and some yelled out, “No, no. Hell no.””
    Greenzism 2011? Almost!
    *Note: The Republican Majority voted to pull American IPCC funding on Feb20/11 and there are rumblings of federal charges being laid as a demonizing ploy for the neocons. Nice job boys!
    Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over a quarter of a century of climate control instead of needed population control.
    REAL planet lovers are happy the crisis was averted.