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Tree Rings and Emails

This article first appeared on Dec 8, 2009.

You have got to love the lengths that some people go to support their own preconceived notions and beliefs. For the evangelists and true-believers of “climate change / global warming”, reality and rational conclusions seems outside their frame of vision.

One area of focus that has recently come to light are estimations of temperature changes allegedly caused by increased greenhouse gases “evidenced” by analysis of the growth patterns of tree rings. This scientific line of research has been one of those at the center of some of the recently-published emails raising serious questions about the veracity of many of the claims.

In the emails, the author is discussing usage of a standard “correction” to their data as well as mourning the fact that even after the corrective action it offers minimal support for their hypothesis. The correction, replacing estimated temperatures over the past few decades with actual temperatures while continuing the comparison with estimated values during earlier periods, has drawn fire from many skeptics who question these actions as potentially manipulative. According to the scientists, the estimated temperatures from tree rings produced lower results than actual measurements reported.

In essence, during the recent past when we have both actual measurements and estimated values (calculated from tree rings), the estimates did not match what was actually observed. To most “scientists”, a model or estimation that did not produce results that as expected would call to question the hypothesis.

Instead, the climate change evangelists decided to use their actual readings (for periods since 1960) in comparison with estimated temperatures for periods before 1960. Not surprisingly, comparing estimated temperatures (that produce lower than actual results) against actual readings (that are higher than their estimated calculations expected for that period) show a trend of increasing overall temperature. The intrepid scientists explain away this methodology with claims that their estimating models are inaccurate only recently, but valid for past timeframes.
With all due respect to these scientists, a much simpler and more plausible explanation could be that their tree ring estimation model has always been flawed and estimated temperatures lower than they actually were. It is equally likely that with current technology our ability to accurately and more consistently measure temperature is better now than it might have been in earlier times.

A more accurate representation might be to either (a) compare tree ring estimates over all the periods or (b) calculating via statistical analysis a deviation or average of the differential beween actuals vs. estimates and applying that corrective action to the past temperatures. In the case of (a), one would be comparing temperatures for all periods that we acknowledge (for whatever reason) appear to be lower than we currently observe. In the case of (b), one would be comparing temperatures for all periods; of recent – the temperatures would be actually observed; of past – the temperatures would have been corrected higher than our current estimations of tree rings would suggest.

Either way, their own data, when viewed through legitimate statistical perspective, appears to refute their hypothesis. As the emails show, the evangelists are frustrated that their results controvert their hypothesis.
This begs some questions:

In the pursuit of scientific fact and truth, do results that do not support a hypothesis represent failure?

Is it not a step toward greater knowledge and understanding that someone made an observation, stated a hypothesis, performed a test, and results led to other conclusions?

Why continue defending the thesis with actions that diverge from science and track to an almost quasi-religious / political fervor?

Could it be that the “observation” and the “hypothesis” had little to do with “science” at all? Might it always have been more about other goals like redistribution and acquisition of power rather than any pursuit of fact or truth?
Might we be viewing the steely cling of a niche market that has been recently been enjoying government financing for their billions in research into something that looks daily more like quasi-science if not complete quackery?

Listen to the trees, indeed!