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Monday, January 11, 2010

Joseph Romm: Lindzen debunked again: New scientific study finds his paper downplaying dangers of human-caused warming is “seriously in error”

Lindzen debunked again: New scientific study finds his paper downplaying dangers of human-caused warming is “seriously in error”

Trenberth: The flaws in Lindzen-Choi paper "have all the appearance of the authors having contrived to get the answer they got."

by Joseph Romm, Climate Progress, January 11, 2010

Consistently being wrong and consistently producing one-sided analyses that are quickly debunked in the literature should lead scientific journals and the entire scientific community (and possibly the media) to start ignoring your work.

But when you are one of the last remaining “serious” professional scientists spreading global warming disinformation who retains a (nano)ounce of credibility because you are associated with a major university — M.I.T. — and your name is Richard Lindzen, apparently you can just keep publishing and repeating the same crap over and over and over again.

It’s not just that Lindzen’s popular disinformation tracts have been widely debunked — see RealClimate here.  Or that his one remaining big idea — that clouds are negative feedback — has been refuted in the literature [see Science: “Clouds Appear to Be Big, Bad Player in Global Warming,”an amplifying feedback (sorry Lindzen and fellow deniers)].   That idea of course meant ignoring the myriad observations that climate impacts are occurring faster, not slower, than the models had predicted, and that therefore the multiple strong amplifying feedbacks are overwhelming whatever few week negative feedbacks occur in the climate system — see Study: Water-vapor feedback is “strong and positive,” so we face “warming of several degrees Celsius” (and below).

At the Heartland conference of climate-change disinformers last year, Lindzen went from disinformation to defamation as he smeared the reputation of one of the greatest living climate scientists, Wallace Broecker (see “Shame on Richard Lindzen, MIT’s uber-hypocritical anti-scientific scientist“).

But still his shoddy work manages to make it through the peer review process of a few journals, and the antiscience crowd eat it up and regurgitates it over the blogosphere like a toddler with H1N1.  His latest nonsense is about to be thoroughly eviscerated in the literature, and RealClimate his multiple posts on how flawed Lindzen’s analysis was and how the peer review process failed.  You should start with “Lindzen and Choi Unraveled” by climate scientists John Fasullo, Kevin Trenberth and Chris O’Dell:

A recent paper by Lindzen and Choi in GRL (2009) (LC09) purported to demonstrate that climate had a strong negative feedback and that climate models are quite wrong in their relationships between changes in surface temperature and corresponding changes in outgoing radiation escaping to space. This publication has been subject to a considerable amount of hype, for instance apparently “[LC09] has absolutely, convincingly, and irrefutably proven the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming to be completely false.” and “we now know that the effect of CO2 on temperature is small, we know why it is small, and we know that it is having very little effect on the climate”. Not surprisingly, LC09 has also been highly publicized in various contrarian circles.

Our initial reading of their article had us independently asking, how we could have missed such explicit evidence of the cloud feedback as shown in LC09? Why would such a significant finding have gone undiscovered when these feedbacks are widely studied and recognised as central to the projections of climate change? We discovered these common concerns at a meeting last year and then teamed up to address these questions.

With the hype surrounding the manuscript, one would think that the article provides a sound, rock solid basis for a reduced climate sensitivity. However, our examination of the study’s methods demonstrates that this is not the case. In an article in press (Trenberth et al. 2010 (sub. requ.), hereafter TFOW), we show that LC09 is gravely flawed and its results are wrong on multiple fronts. These are the major issues we found:
The LC09 results are not robust….
LC09 misinterpret air-sea interactions in the tropics….
More robust methods show no discrepancies between models and observations….
LC09 have compared observations to models prescribed with incomplete forcings….
LC09 incorrectly compute the climate sensitivity.
The paper itself is behind a firewall, but finds:
Atmospheric model results are explored and found to be consistent with observations.  From 1985 to 1999 the largest perturbation in TOA [top-of-atmosphere] radiative fluxes was from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and clearly models which do not include that forcing will not simulate the effects. Consequently, regressions of radiation with SSTs in the tropics may have nothing to say about climate sensitivity….

As shown here, the approach taken by LC09 is flawed, and its results are seriously in error.  The LC09 choice of dates has distorted their results and underscores the defective nature of their analysis….
I’m shocked, shocked that Lindzen did shoddy, one-sided analysis and was wrong about feedbacks and sensitivity.

But, seriously, how could such crap make it into a serious journal?  Gavin Schmidt prints a long explanation from O’Dell:
Given the large number of comments on the peer-review process in general and in the LC09 case in particular, it is probably worthwhile to give a bit more backstory to our Trenberth et al. paper. On my first reading of LC09, I was quite amazed and thought if the results were true, it would be incredible (and, in fact, a good thing!) and hence warranted independent checking.
Very simple attempts to reproduce the LC09 numbers simply didn’t work out and revealed some flaws in their process. To find out more, I contacted Dr. Takmeng Wong at NASA Langley, a member of the CERES and ERBE science teams (and major player in the ERBE data set) and found out to my surprise that no one on these teams was a reviewer of LC09. Dr. Wong was doing his own verification of LC09 and so we decided to team up.

After some further checking, I came across a paper very similar to LC09 but written 3 years earlier – Forster & Gregory (2006) , hereafter FG06. FG06, however, came to essentially opposite conclusions from LC09, namely that the data implied an overall positive feedback to the earth’s climate system, though the results were somewhat uncertain for various reasons as described in the paper (they attempted a proper error analysis). The big question of course was, how is it that LC09 did not even bother to reference FG06, let alone explain the major differences in their results? Maybe Lindzen & Choi didn’t know about the existence of FG06, but certainly at least one reviewer should have. And if they also didn’t, well then, a very poor choice of reviewers was made.

This became clear when Dr. Wong presented a joint analysis he & I made at the CERES science team meeting held in Fort Collins, Colorado in November. At this meeting, Drs. Trenberth and Fasullo approached us and said they had done much the same thing as we had, and had already submitted a paper to GRL, specifically a comment paper on LC09. This comment was rejected out of hand by GRL, with essentially no reason given. With some more inquiry, it was discovered that:
  1. The reviews of LC09 were “extremely favorable”
  2. GRL doesn’t like comments and is thinking of doing away with them altogether.
  3. GRL wouldn’t accept comments on LC09 (and certainly not multiple comments), and instead it was recommended that the four of us submit a stand-alone paper rather than a comment on LC09.
We all felt strongly that we simply wanted to publish a comment directly on LC09, but gave in to GRL and submitted a stand-alone paper. This is why, for instance, LC09 is not directly referenced in our paper abstract. The implication of statement (1) above is that LC09 basically skated through the peer-review process unchanged, and the selected reviewers had no problems with the paper. This, and for GRL to summarily reject all comments on LC09 appears extremely sketchy.
In my opinion, there is a case to be made on the peer-review process being flawed, at least for certain papers. Many commenters say the system isn’t perfect, but it in general works. I would counter that it certainly could be better. For AGU journals, authors are invited to give a list of proposed reviewers for their paper. When the editor is lazy or tight on time or whatever, they may just use the suggested reviewers, whether or not those reviewers are appropriate for the paper in question. Also, when a comment on a paper is submitted, the comment goes to the editor that accepted the original paper – a clear conflict of interest.

So yes, the system may work most of the time, but LC09 is a clear example that it doesn’t work all of the time. I’m not saying LC09 should have been rejected or wasn’t ultimately worthy of publication, but reviewers should have required major modifications before it was accepted for publication.
It is typical for the few bad papers that make it through peer-review to fail to reference the multiple analyses in the literature that prove the opposite position.  The question is why journals allow that.

Shouldn’t the fact that it had Lindzen’s name on it wrung alarm bells that called for extra scrutiny.  Few people have been as consistently wrong as he has.

UPDATE:  I see climate scientist Tom Wigley commented on Gavin’s first post here:
You say “LC09 was not a nonsense paper – that is, it didn’t have completely obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer review." I beg to differ.

It is a priori obvious that one cannot determine the climate sensitivity from an incomplete energy balance over the tropics. LC09 ignores the fluxes of heat into and/or out of the region via the atmosphere, and the flux of heat into the ocean. As Trenberth et al. point out, these are large terms, and they simply cannot be ignored. This is a glaringly obvious error that any competent reviewer should have picked up. It undermines the whole analysis and makes it worthless. In my view, the other issues raised by Trenberth et al. are important, but secondary to this fundamental problem.
DotEarth’s Revkin interviewed Trenberth, who has some choice quotes:
In a telephone interview today, Dr. Trenberth told me that the flaws in the Lindzen-Choi paper “have all the appearance of the authors having contrived to get the answer they got.”
… I asked Dr. Trenberth to run the numbers on how much the difference in analysis amounts to in terms of warming from a doubling of the carbon dioxide concentration that long prevailed before the industrial revolution. He said that, if done correctly, the Lindzen-Choi analysis would have produced a 1.5 degree Fahrenheit warming instead of the 0.9 degree warming the paper initially contained. But rectifying an additional flaw — the paper’s selection of sea temperatures in a way that did not appear to be objective — produces a warming of 4.1 degrees, a level at the heart of what most climate simulations and other studies project. That did not include issues related to the original paper restricting its analysis to the tropics, he added.
And again, most climate models focus on the getting the fast-feedbacks right, like water vapor and polar amplification, but utterly neglect the ones that operate over decades:
Truly only one negative feedback in the planet’s overall carbon cycle can act with sufficient speed and strength to avert catastrophic climate impacts: The dominant carbon-based life form on this planet will have to respond to the already painfully clear impacts of our carbon emissions by slashing those emissions sharply and eventually running the planet on carbon-negative power.

The time for this negative feedback is now.

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