Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NASA, Data Integrity, and Global Warming

Microsoft isn't the only ones lately with data integrity problems. NASA released some hyperventilating news last week that October 2008 was the warmest ever recorded. The usual suspects in the Media (you know the ones I'm talking about, the ones who slept through science class because it was "wicked boring") took that ball and ran with it.

Except there was no ball. It seems that NASA's data was a crock. People are starting to notice.
Based at Columbia University in New York, GISS is the division of NASA that is responsible for global climate data and is used by the media in assessing global warming. After analyzing the data, GISS reported that October 2008 was the warmest October since reliable record-keeping began in 1880. But there was something very wrong with the numbers.
First was the ZOMG We're All Going To Die!!!!1! part:

Wow. Read = Hot, right? But wait - let the backpedling commence:

All set now? See - Siberia is still teh Hotzup. Oh, waitaminute ... Again?
Oh. Siberia isn't Teh Hotzup after all. And this is where it gets interesting:
NASA acknowledges the changes, but other than that provides no details nor any explanation whatever. The older versions of the maps are removed from their site. So why did neither GISS nor NOAA see fit to take a second look?
Here's what we know:

1. Someone at NASA copied September temperature data from 90 weather stations into the spreadsheet for October. Who, how, and why are not explained.

2. Someone else at NASA looked at the output, and instead of a wrinkled brow and a "Hmmm, I've haven't heard anything about record heat in Siberia ..." the reaction was "Quick, Robin, to the PRmobile!"

3. Yet someone else at NASA has decided to use data sources of questionable quality, such as weather stations that have been surounded by lots of hot asphalt parking lots, rather than more reliable data sources. What might those sources be, you might ask? Satelites. You know, space thingies. The ones that NASA runs.

Steve McIntyre was the guy who broke this story, because he smelled something fishy (although NASA didn't credit his work when it made its corrections). He disects what's been going on, and it's not pretty:
Are you like me and a little puzzled as to exactly how the GHCN-GISS problem happened? GISS blamed their supplier (NOAA GHCN). Unfortunately NOAA's been stone silent on the matter. I checked the Russian data at and there was nothing wrong with it. Nor is there anything wrong at GHCN-Daily for stations reporting there. So it's something at GHCN-Monthly, a data set that I've been severely critical of in the past, primarily for the indolence of its updating, an indolence that has really reached a level of negligence.

[Lots of informative scientific climate stuff removed, but you should RTWT - ed]

I don't plan to spend time doing an inventory of incidents - surely NASA and NOAA have sufficient resources to do that. However, this one incident is sufficient to prove that the present incident is not isolated and that the same problem exists elsewhere in the system. I'm perplexed as to how the problem occurs in the first place, given that the error doesn't occur in original data. I'm sure that we'll find out in due course.

The bigger issue is, of course, why NOAA and NASA have been unable to update the majority of their network for 20 years.

The more interesting question is why didn't NASA notice? Trevor Butterworth has an answer: Confirmation Bias.

A colder than usual fall does not mean that global warming is not happening, nor does one or more errant sets of data suggest that it’s all a bunch of hooey; but the admission that there isn’t “proper quality control” over how this data is collected should be seen as alarming - as should the failure to spot the anomalous findings until critics began speaking up.

What it suggests is a bad case of confirmation bias: Goddard’s researchers are so focused on confirming that global warming is getting worse that they were overly disposed to accepting data which confirmed their worst fears and under disposed to double check its veracity. This is how science gets skewed.

Confirmation Bias is when you interpret new information in a way that confirms your existing world view, and discount new information that does not support that world view. It's "Sentence first, then the trial."

Smart Economy weighs in as well, with a comparison of stories about Global Warming vs. Global Cooling ones.

If you search Google News to see if the media is reporting on both sides of the story, you only get 297 hits with stories that include the term “global cooling” , compared 25,757 for global warming – a 2 order of magnitude difference or a 1 to 86.7 ratio.

Ok that's the media. But in theory, scientists are supposed to be balanced --looking at both sides of a theory or controversy. They are not and their bias is evident in most articles.Using Google scholar you see slightly more papers on global cooling but a equally skewed ratio - 6400 papers mentioning global cooling. vs 198,000 on global warming . ( a 1: 30.9 ratio).

We all knew that you have to take what the media reports on Global Warming with a huge grain of salt; now we know that the basic data from NASA on global temperature is at best shoddy, and at worst being manipulated for political purposes.

Too bad; I remember when NASA was the best of the best. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Read all the links, it's worse than I say here. You also might check out my post Why I'm A Global Warming Skeptic.

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