Sunday, December 02, 2012

How scientists pull the wool over the eyes of the public 

A study just out in "Science" has already been ingested by media outlets all over the world and then pooped out in considerably altered form.  Why it has been taken so seriously is a bit of a mystery as it is in fact pretty run of the mill stuff.

It has been taken as "proving" human-caused warming but in fact it didn't address human influence at all!

What the article does is a type of meta-analysis:  It tries to combine ALL the information on the subject to produce a more reliable conclusion than any single study could do.  Such studies are often relied on in the medical literature due to the deluge of conflicting claims there.

As it happens, I know a little bit about meta-analyses and know how important goodwill is to their usefulness.  To put it bluntly, you can prove just about anything you like in a meta-anaysis by what you select to include.  Selecting the date from which you begin to assemble data is a classic dodge  -- and one that seems to have been used in the present study -- but it gets as crude as  ignoring hundreds of articles and datasets that you simply dislike.

So a good, sincere and unbiased attitude in the researcher is vital.  If you start off with (say) a Warmist bias you will usually produce Warmist results.

As it happens, the bias readily apparent in the present study is mild.  It seems to show only in the chosen starting point for the analysis.  Why 1992 and not (say) the beginning of satellite measurements in 1979?  1992 must just have produced the best results.

But, even so, the results are not spectacular.  As one summary put it:
They’re saying that only E Ant is gaining mass, and that at a low rate, so overall Ant is losing, and Greenland is losing even more. Still – that adds up to 0.6 mm/yr. So it will have to grow if its to become interesting by 2100. And undoubtedly it will, but that means predicting it remains interesting, since (linear) extrapolation is obviously pointless.

In case that's still not clear, the sea-level rise they assert is tiny and even if it continued in a steady way (most unlikely given past known variations in polar ice) it would take 100 years or more to become noticeable.

So the only way in which the study is notable is its claim to produce pooled wisdom  -- and how influential that claim is depends very much on how much we believe in the objectivity of the researchers.  As they would not be in their jobs if they were global warming skeptics,  believing in their objectivity would be quite heroic.  It's just another dodgy appeal to authority

I append the journal abstract.

Higher temperatures over the past two decades have caused the polar ice sheets to melt at an accelerating rate, contributing to an almost half-inch rise in global sea levels, according to the most comprehensive study done so far.

Scientists long have struggled to get a fix on whether the permanent ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are gaining or losing ice. Past satellite-based measurements either were limited in scope or suffered from methodological inconsistencies.

The new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, estimates that the melting of the ice sheets as a whole has raised global sea levels by 11.1 millimeters (0.43 inch) since 1992. That represents one-fifth of the total sea-level increase recorded in that period.

In the 1990s, melting of the polar ice sheets was responsible for about 10% of the global sea-level rise, but now it represents about 30%, the data suggest.

Higher temperatures can raise sea levels in several ways. Some estimates suggest that roughly half of the increase relates to the thermal expansion of the oceans: as the water warms, it becomes less dense and expands.

Another source is the runoff from melting glaciers. A third is the increased melting of the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland.

Greenland in particular has seen a greater melting of its permanent ice. One reason is that Northern Hemisphere ocean currents are warmer, which leads to more vigorous melting.

In addition, the air temperature in Greenland is much warmer than that in the Antarctic, so a rise in temperature in Greenland has a more profound effect.

"If you extrapolate these results, Greenland is going to be a serious contributor to global sea-level rise" in coming years, said Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, England, who wasn't involved in the Science study. "Its contribution, relative to other sources, is becoming greater and greater," he said.

The issue of rising sea levels has gained more attention in recent months. The destructive flooding caused by the storm Sandy, which struck the U.S. East Coast in late October, revived anxieties about rising ocean levels in heavily populated coastal regions.

To assess the contribution from melting ice sheets, scientists try to measure "mass balance," which is the difference between the annual snow that falls on the permanent ice sheets each year, and the total mass of ice that melts or breaks off the sheets.

It is an extremely complex measurement, because there are so many factors at work: shifting ocean currents, the dynamics and movement of large ice shelves, and the varying temperature and saltiness of water at different places.

Consequently, researchers don't yet know exactly how much of the ice-sheet melt is caused by a warming atmosphere and how much by a warming ocean.  [That's easy.  There has been NO significant atmospheric warming in the atmosphere over the study period]

The last major assessment of mass balance was published in a 2007 report on climate change issued by the United Nations. But those findings were based on limited observations, and many scientists considered them to underestimate the melting.

The latest effort reconciles the differences among dozens of earlier measurements and includes new data to compile an estimate that is believed to be twice as accurate as previous ones, according to researchers involved.

"It allows us to make some firm conclusions," said Andrew Shepherd, a professor of earth observation at the University of Leeds in England and a lead author of the study. "It wasn't clear if Antarctica was gaining or losing ice. Now we can say with confidence it is losing ice."

The 2007 U.N. report, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggested that similar amounts of ice were being lost at both the polar regions. By contrast, the new study concludes that two-thirds of the ice loss was in Greenland and the remainder in Antarctica.

The latest findings show that the rate of ice loss in Greenland has increased almost fivefold since the mid-1990s, while Antarctica overall has been losing relatively small amounts of ice at a more or less constant rate.

"Antarctica is so cold that even if warming occurs it won't melt" at the rate seen in Greenland, said Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and a co-author of the new paper.

One tricky question is whether the overall accelerated melting of the ice sheets can be linked to man-made climate change.

The shrinkage of the permanent ice sheets can't entirely be explained by any of the decades-long or century-long natural shifts in climate cycles, according to Prof. Shepherd.

Scientists note that current climate-change models predict that some parts of the Antarctic ice sheet will grow while other parts will shrink, and that parts of the Greenland ice also will melt. Observations have borne out these projections so far.

"The signals suggest there is no immediate threat" from rising sea levels, Prof. Shepherd said. "But we can at least warn people that there are instabilities that need to be investigated."

The study involved 26 laboratories and was supported by the European Space Agency and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The data used for the study were based on measurements from 10 separate satellite missions

A Reconciled Estimate of Ice-Sheet Mass Balance

By Andrew Shepherd et al.


We combined an ensemble of satellite altimetry, interferometry, and gravimetry data sets using common geographical regions, time intervals, and models of surface mass balance and glacial isostatic adjustment to estimate the mass balance of Earth’s polar ice sheets. We find that there is good agreement between different satellite methods—especially in Greenland and West Antarctica—and that combining satellite data sets leads to greater certainty. Between 1992 and 2011, the ice sheets of Greenland, East Antarctica, West Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula changed in mass by –142 ± 49, +14 ± 43, –65 ± 26, and –20 ± 14 gigatonnes year−1, respectively. Since 1992, the polar ice sheets have contributed, on average, 0.59 ± 0.20 millimeter year−1 to the rate of global sea-level rise.

Science 30 November 2012, Vol. 338 no. 6111 pp. 1183-1189

Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

1 comment:

Doom said...

I finally made purchase of the book you suggested some while back, regarding statistics. Now, I had a general knowledge of the statistical shenanigans to start with, but this adds tools and specifics. Some harsh statistic courses, an interest, and too many grad and post-grad friends who were just as serious set me on the right path. The problem is? No matter how well you explain it, most people can't, won't, or just don't, grasp the explanation.

Isn't double the risk the same no matter where it is doubled? Well, no... Let's take a look at the... *zzz* Yeah, okay, we'll get back to that... later. Neither, I think, do most care. As long as they get their check next Friday. So Friday comes, and they go to the bar, and they order a scotch, a whiskey, and uhm beer. A triple shot of that stuff. Next! Don't even think even more than a handful of "academics" are any better than Joe-down-the-street, either. Bleh.


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