Monday, December 7, 2009

Bill Easterly, denialist

“After the EPI gathering, Peter Dorman, an economist at Evergreen State College with a gentle, bearded air, related an e-mail exchange he once had with Hal Varian, a well-respected Berkeley economist who's moderately liberal but firmly committed to the neoclassical approach. Varian wrote to Dorman that there was no point in presenting "both sides" of the debate about trade, because one side--the view that benefits from unfettered trade are absolute--was like astronomy, while any other view was like astrology. "So I told him I didn't buy the traditional trade theory," Dorman said. "'Was I an astrologer?' And he said yes!" – Christopher Hayes, Nation.

After Chris Hayes’ article came out, there was approximately zero voices calling for Varian’s head because he was “suppressing” the other side of the trade debate. On the other hand, Climategate, the latest adventure in rightwing massaging of the news as rightwing coup, has already produced a scalp: Phil Jones, the head of the Climactic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, whose emails showed that he thought “one side – the global warming side – was absolute” enough to deny a venue to climate change denialists, has fallen on his sword.

Here's what happened: Russian hacks (paid by somebody) steal a cache of emails, which show that Jones worked hard to prevent the appearance of the opinion of two dissenting climate scientists in the IPCC report in 1999. And then there is this (from the Times (UK): “Phil Jones, talks about using a “trick” to “hide the decline”. At first reading, this easily translates as “deceiving [politicians, other scientists, everyone] into believing the world is warming when it is actually cooling”.
… Jones is talking about a line on a graph for the cover of a World Meteorological Organisation report, published in 2000, which shows the results of different attempts to reconstruct temperature over the past 1,000 years. The line represents one particular attempt, using tree-ring data for temperature. The method agrees with actual measurements before about 1960, but diverges from them after that — for reasons only partly understood, discussed in the literature."

The news as shock tactic has, by now, a familiar shape. After the rightwing bloggers and tv news people cycle a version of these events, it is time for the brigade of “serious” right wing personalities to show that, more in sorrow than in anger, they too are now coming to see the nefarious business of climatology for what it is. Bill Easterly, well known for his anti-foreign aid positions in economics (and not known at all for protesting at the “suppression” of anti-free trade positions in economics), mentions such well known climate scientists as Clive Crook and George Will as bringing sweetness and light to the subject. Here is how he introduces Crook:

“Clive Crook is such a calm, sensible, non-ideological voice, that if you ever get him really upset, you’re in deep trouble.”

Of course, that introduction is, to say the least, odd. Crook is far from non-ideological, unless by that we mean, committed to a neo-classical version of economic theory with a few neo-Keynsian highlights. More importantly, in those Homeric epithets, we read nothing about his contribution to climate science, or, really, to anything. Rather, Easterly is slyly leading the witness, so that we accept him as a moral entrepreneur.

And as this voice of calm, of course, Crook lashes out – why, the East Anglica suppression of dissent ‘stinks”.
And then we get this bit:

“One problem that Clive points out is that some climate scientists don’t know that much about statistics and show little interest in consulting statisticians even while they are basing their finding on statistical analysis. The Wegman report on the “Hockey Stick” controversy has this amazing summary:

It is important to note the isolation of the paleoclimate community; even though they rely heavily on statistical methods they do not seem to be interacting with the statistical community.

Once the real statisticians looked, one “Hockey Stick” result fell apart: the conclusion that the decade of the 1990s was the hottest decade of the millennium and that 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium cannot be supported by {the} analysis.”

Ah, that’s the spirit. Quote no real statistician whatsoever. Defame some members of the paleoclimate community, but don’t name any names there, either. Don’t reference any paper in which the ‘real statisticians’ looked at the numbers for the 1990s.

Don’t, for instance, reference this easily available account of an Academy of Science 2006 investigation, in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“This is not the first time Mann's work [the hockey stick] has been put to the test. In 2006, Texas A&M climatologist Gerry North was asked to lead an investigation for the National Academy of Sciences.

North worked with three statisticians and several high-ranking climate experts, picking through Mann's arguments and data. He said the panel came away with a few quibbles over Mann's methods and when they re-did it, the graph didn't have as dramatic an upward slant as the original hockey stick.
But overall, "we thought that qualitatively the paper got it right. The last 30 years were warmer than any 30-year period in the last 600 years and plausibly the last 1,000 years."

North said he did not agree with the way that some other researchers created a continuous graph of global temperatures over the last 1,000 years by combining the proxy data in the past with thermometer data in recent years.”

This information is available to Easterly. Because he is a tenured academic, he can shovel misleading information all day and all night on his blog, and nobody will “suppress” him. But we should emphasize again and again that Easterly could not name a single “real” statistician who has published any paper in any journal with the results he claims, or rather quotes our non-ideological puppy dog as claiming. Unfortunately, Easterly is one of the pr academics, so they will quote him as an expert as he carries water for a rightwing propaganda machine. That is who he is.

Now, if we want to actually ask ourselves what this controversy is about, we should do a little research. I did some. I went to factiva, Jstor and Ebsco. Relatively easy things to do. I know, researching for such as Easterly might be hard to do – that is why he has grad student factotums. I don’t even know if he has ever heard of JSTOR. He should check out the wonderful world of research some time, though. He might even bump into a “real” statistician.

I did. As has been pointed out, the problem climatologists face, at the moment, is not the fudging of the temperatures. It is the paucity of temperature readings. After all, climate change involves shifts not only in day peak temperatures, but ground temperatures, water temperatures, and night temperatures. We did not have satellites a hundred years ago. But paleoclimatologists have learned to use indirect clues. They use, for instance, the presence of fossil evidence of animals whose habitats they know about to map older regimes of climate. They use fossilized pollen to understand what flora flourished in this or that geographic zone. And they use tree rings.
Generally, when trees are growing under optimum conditions, the rings are farther apart – the growth is more robust – then when they are growing under sub-optimum conditions. Weather is a part of this. So, too, are insect infestations, or indirect results oif weather – for instance, a canopy of higher deciduous trees can shadow a conifer, which would produce suboptimum growth.

Thus, we are looking for a variety of factors. This is a classic problem – it pops up in, for instance, measuring inflation. If I broke into the emails exchanged between members of the Boskin commission, which re-wrote the measurement of inflation in the 1990s, I am almost positive I’d find reference to tricks. As Easterly probably knows, the word trick is often used for technique – the trick is to do such and such. So when we apply hedonics to products to estimate how much better they are, we are applying a trick. But in fact, even before the Boskin commission, inflation estimates are always full of tricks. We have to weight variables. So, too, we have to weight variables in the case of the evidence of climate change. Just as the inflation of the price of, say, housing might not indicate overall inflation, so, too, the record of tree rings does not straightforwardly indicate climate change.

This is so supersecret, so covered up in the climatology community that it has a special name - the divergence problem – and a whole issue of Climate Change, edited by Jan Esper and David Frank, two Swiss scientists, was devoted to the issue this June.

Those are good names to remember, because Esper, Frank, Wilson, Carrer, and Urbanati wrote a paper that is statistically heavy entitled Testing for tree-ring divergence in the European Alps. It has statistics that even a genius, a sheer calm non-ideological titan like Clive Crook might be impressed – might even utter a non-ideological sigh, as he summoned, via ESP, his “real” statistician. Who I suspect is his booky.

This team had an advantage in that the Swiss Alps is a pretty well recorded area for the last 150 years. The record shows, as one would expect, that since the end of what Brian Fagan calls the little ice age – in around 1850 – temperatures have been rising in this area. So, they looked at the tree ring record and asked whether it can be reconciled to the temperature reports. If it couldn’t, that would be bad news, of course – that would mean that our projection of tree ring records into the past was skewed.

I’ll simply quote the abstract, here: “Here, we present a network of 124 larch and
spruce sites across the European Alpine arc. Tree-ring width chronologies from 40 larch and 24 spruce sites were selected based on their correlation with early (1864–1933) instrumental temperatures to assess their ability of tracking recent (1934–2003) temperature variations. After the tree-ring series of both species were detrended in a manner that allows low-frequency variations to be preserved and scaled against summer temperatures, no unusual late 20th century DP is found. Independent tree-ring width and density evidence for unprecedented late 20th century temperatures with respect to the past millennium further reinforces our results.”

Now, there is nothing as exciting here as, say, a totally convincing, unreferenced superreal, indeed surreal statistician, who is just pounding away on the temperature record. But this is a humble, like, real reference to real scientists studying real evidence. This is generally a foreign and yucky thing to economists. We know that Easterly could not, if challenged, find a single credible source for saying that the temperatures of the 90s were not the hottest of the decade. He just can't, which is why he hides conflates criticism of Mannn's hockey stick model with the temperature record. Easterly's blog post is sheer charlatanism. To quote our ever non-ideological friend, Crook, Easterly “stinks.”

PS - for more about the Wegman committee, see this link. I was amused to see that the Wegman group spent some time making up a social network chart to show how climatologists were 'incestuous' - too closely linked to each other. Meanwhile, Wegman appointed two other people to investigate the global warming stats, one of whom was a former student. I must say, the right is nothing if not boldfaced.


duncan said...

The pundit-response that's pissed me off most in this 'climategate' nonsense is George Monbiot's - he thinks that the emails "could scarcely be more damaging". He was actually apologising to denialists on the Guardian comment thread. It takes a special kind of idiocy to work for years at establishing yourself as the UK commentariat's voice of environmentalism, and then pull a stunt like that.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Roger. Duncan, I agree Monbiot had no need to make that concession. His piece in today's Guardian gets back on track, though.

Roger Gathmann said...

I have not been entirely down on Easterly before - in fact, his paper on building a road in, I think, Ethiopia, where he shows how many levels of bureaucratic bs have to be gone through in order to get "foreign aid", is quite good. But that blog post was thoroughly ignorant and arrogant, and when one reads about "real statisticians" - thinking of how economists have devised the way we measure inflation and unemployment - I had to laugh. Economists are so often so full of themselves that they don't realize what funny puffed up roosters they look like to the rest of us. The whole thing wreaks of the kind of con job material that pro-gas company think tanks love to put into circulation.
But I do hope someone bugs him, now, to come out for giving marxist and anti-free trade economists more space at economics conventions. After all, he doesn't want to "suppress" dissent, does he? Which, of course, he will find some hypocritical way of distinguishing from climatology.

Roger Gathmann said...

Me and O: at last, Obama has taken to reading my comments on Economist's view. Why else would he take up the idea of a massive infusion of credit to small businesses, which I suggested last week?

"There's an interdependence between the public and the private. There was once a time that the private sector depended less on the private sector - in the 1820s, perhaps - but that is not coming back, ever.

So the question to me is: how can public revenues kickstart research and investment in industries and services that will expand and bring delight to the populace in the future? It seems to me that military R and D is now a bust - we need energy R and D. We need ways to live energy efficiently, and we need long term investments that our system of capital allocation cannot, by its nature, countenance. I'd love to see the latter addressed - for instance, putting curbs on the ratio of price to earnings in the stock market to diminish the speculative sector - but I don't think that is going to happen. But at least we can revamp certain programs that aren't working - the 70 billion that has been allocated for mortgage modifications is, in my opinion, 70 billion that should be going to a low interest loan program for small businesses, for instance. The Mittelstand is under fire, and the goverment can really do something very quickly about that."

So, for once, the Prez is getting his cues from me. Now if he would just read me about Afghanistan...

Ed said...

I'm really not too bothered by this.

If climate change is really happening, then the deniers and their children will presumably suffer the effects along with everyone else. Its not like they will all climb aboard a spaceship to Titan in twenty years while laughing at us.

If the deniers are actually right, the debate will be put into the books next to the whole debate over ether and we can return to worrying about all the other negative effects of pollution.

They could be keeping us from implementing absolutely essential and effective measures to head this off, but where I'm sceptical is that I'm not sure such measures actually exist.

Roger Gathmann said...

Ed, I'm not at all sceptical such measures exist. I am sure that the American republic - which has faced far greater problems two hundred fifty years - could make a difference. I'm puzzled by the inertia that pervades the American discourse: does anybody think that, say, the internal combustion engine, invented in 1880, is god's last word on the subject of transporation? In fact, we are at this moment, fortunately, in a pretty fucked position, economically, and - just as people like to say wwii took us out of the depression because the entire young male population was mobilized, the government basically planned mass manufacturing and innovations, rationing was introduced, and the state borrowed 5 times its GDP - we now face the opportunity presented by green tech. This is a matter of changing many, many things - but these things themselves are only the results of 60 years of planning. Your idea is that the system is so locked in that it is disaster any way. My idea is that the system is relatively new, and the parts are fungible. For instance, the suburbs, you know, that ultimate state sponsored project (from the financing to the zoning) only came of age after 1945.
It is a sign of America's progressive Sovietitus - the arthritis of empire - that the idea has spread that we 'can't do anything about it", which coexists with the idea that we "can't cut down our military" and we "can't leave Afghanistan" and we "can't leave Iraq" because, uh, because that is the divine order. No sir. Reality will batter that attitude down right quick.

Ed said...

I know that the suburbs were mostly built post World War II, but that may be the problem. The post World War II decades were the American Golden Age. I don't think the public and the elites want to dismantle anything from that era. The "right" wants the 1950s and the "left" wants the 1960s.

I've been researching alot about declining countries, and yes, one thing that keeps coming up is a refusal to make even simple changes, though there is plenty of discussion of those changes and plenty of evidence that needs to be changed.

Also, some countries just never come out of their declines. Sicily is a good example. Also, and this is pertinent to our present problems, Iraq and Afghanistan. With countries that do, its a very slow process and for empires in particular they have to give up their empire or have it taken from them.