Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An Example of Willie Soon's (Bad) Science

Regardless of any issues of Willie Soon's funding and what he should have disclosed, there is also this: his science is bad. Quite bad. It would be bad even for a first-year graduate student. Or an advanced undergraduate. And it's easy to understand why it's bad.

If you assume Soon was doing honest research, and that the oil money found him instead of the other way around (which I can accept), you have to wonder what they thought they were paying for. As Gavin Schmidt said, "The science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless.”

Here's the example I know best, from the Soon and Baliumas 2003 paper in Climate Research, "Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years." They concluded (from the abstract)
Across the world, many records reveal that the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium.
The first thing to note about their methodology is that it's not quantitative. Forget all the research of paleoclimate scientists who had worked diligently to understand temperaure proxies and tree rings and how to incorporate these findings into quantative, mathematical models. Soon told me they weren't even trying to be quantaitative:
"I was stating outright that I'm not able to give too many quantitative details, especially in terms of aggregating all the results," Soon says.
So what were S&B doing, if it wasn't quantitative? They settled for categorizing -- grouping the research done by others into supporting or not supporting a Medievel Warm Period (MWP), and the same for the Little Ice Age, and seeing if they were "anomalous."

So how did they define "anomalous?" Very loosely. I'll focus on their Medievel Warm Period:

But look at this. Anomalous wetness or dryness has no a priori connection to temperature. So a 50-year period would be counted as evidence for the MWP even if the temperature was perfectly constant.

In fact, the temperature could have been decreasing all that time, and they'd  have still count it as "anomalous" if it was unusually wet or dry.

Worse, the "stipulated interval" for the MWP was 800 to 1300 A.D. So if the years 800-850 AD were unusually dry, that interval would count as evidence for a global MWP, regardless of what the temperature did over those 50 years, or the full 500 years.

So you can see how this classification was either (a) nonsense, or (b) trickery.

In either case, it's impossible to take seriously. It's so bad I don't see how S&B could have taken it seriously.

What do they mean by "unusually?" Or "objectively discernible," which they use in the table that lists their categorizations? They never really say, especially quantitatively.

They also wrote:
Past researchers implied that unusual 20th century warming means a global human impact. However, the proxies show that the 20th century is not unusually warm or extreme.
First of all, we don't need proxies for the 20th century -- we have thermometers. Second of all, the warming since 1975 started 28 years before their paper -- so it can't be included, by their definition. And the warming in the early 20th century happened from about 1910 to about 1945 -- only 35 years. Again, not long enough for them to include.

So, by definition, Soon and Baliunas do not find any "unusual" warming in the 20th century. Slick, huh?

These are some pretty glaring issues with paper. Anyone smart reader can understand them, which makes me suspect S&B thought they would publish this paper in an obscure place that no one would notice, and then have (just) a citation to be used by those who don't really care about the science. But I don't know their motivations.

Stoat has another good example of Soon's poor science: talking about land temperatures on an "aquaplanet" -- a planet that, by definition, has water across its entire surface.

And the fact that Soon's work jumped around -- from the MWP & LIA to solar reconstructions to polar bears to mercury -- doesn't speak well of him as a scientist, in this day and age. Instead it showed a lack of expertise.... It looks like he was casting about for material that could get funded, being sure to hit all the hot spots. Like he was writing term papers.

Added: By the way, Soon's correspondence (not about this paper) with Southern Company Services (SCS) called his work a “deliverable.” That's one of those corporate term that, along with "milestone" and "world class" and "value added," etc., that gets hijacked into your brain when you work in corporate America. (You're usually too tired and stressed to resist.) I'm not surprised SCS would use it. I don't see what's so bad about it. Don't all grant winners, from the government or otherwise, have to give some accounting for their grant money?


Dano said...

Right. As we know from way back then, even if you take out their categorization, all the multiproxy reconstructions they looked at supported Mann's conclusions.



Lars Karlsson said...

Let us not forget this classic from International Journal of Forecasting!

"Dangerous manmade global warming became an issue of public concern after NASA scientist James Hansen testified on the subject to the US Congress on June 23, 1988 (McKibben, 2007), after a 13-year period from 1975 over which global temperature estimates were up more than they were down. The IPCC (2007) authors explained, however, that “Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750” (p. 2). There have even been claims that human activity has been causing global warming for at least 5000 years (Bergquist, 2008).

It is not unreasonable, then, to suppose, for the purposes of our validation illustration, that scientists in 1850 had noticed that the increasing industrialization of the world was resulting in an exponential growth in “greenhouse gases”, and projected that this would lead to global warming of 0.03 C per year.