The paper might have been scientifically invalid, but it was a box-office success.
The headlines were everywhere
“1000 years of climate data confirms Australia’s warming” said the press release from University of Melbourne. It was picked up by The Guardian: “Australasia has hottest 60 years in a millennium, scientists find”; The Age and The Australian led with “Warming since 1950 ‘unprecedented’. The story was on ABC 24 and ABC news where Gergis proclaimed:” there are no other warm periods in the last 1000 years that match the warming experienced in Australasia since 1950.” It was all over the ABC including ABC Radio National, and they were “95% certain“! On ABC AM, “the last five decades years in Australia have been the warmest. ” Plus there were pages in Science Alert, Campus Daily Eco news, The Conversation, Real Climate* and Think Progress.
Blog review is where the real science gets tested
Skeptics have been looking through the paper, and three weeks after it was published a team at Climate Audit (kudos to Jean S and Nick Stokes) uncovered a problem so significant that the authors announced that this paper is “on hold”. It has been withdrawn from the American Meteorological Society website. Bishop Hill has probably the best summary of what this means, and how it unfolded.
When Steve McIntyre asked for the full data, she refused. Gergis has an activist past which she has recently tried to hide. She was proud to mention in her biography that her data has been requested from 16 nations: So requests from Tunisia, Cuba, and Brazil are OK; but Canada — not so much. Apparently she didn’t appreciate his expertise with statistics and told him to get the data himself from the original authors, and added ” This is commonly referred to as ‘research’. We will not be entertaining any further correspondence on the matter. “
Will any of these media outlets update their news?
(The Uni Melb news feed is here).
On AM, David Karoly raved about how the study was strong because it relied more on observations not modeling (it is getting to them that skeptics keep pointing out they have no empirical evidence), and claimed he had “high confidence” in the results. (Is that the same kind of high confidence he has in future predictions of warming?)
MATTHEW CARNEY: Professor Karoly says the strength of the study is that it’s relied more on direct observations and measurements than climate modelling.
DAVID KAROLY: Nothing is absolutely certain in science but we say with very high confidence because we have repeated the analysis alone for the uncertainties that the warming in the last 50 years is very unusual and cannot, very likely cannot be explained by natural climate variability alone.
How concerned are they with accuracy? Are all these media outlets happy to leave their readers or viewers with the impression that these results are robust, reliable, and strong? In truth, even before this paper was withdrawn, before it was promoted, investigative reporters had plenty to wonder about.
Did any journalist really ask any hard questions to start with?
Let’s not bother to get into the point that the results of crunching the data 3000 different ways means their “confidence” came from models, not from the 27 proxies, most of which didn’t cover the full 1000 years, or the Australian mainland either.
The litany, the message went on and on and on in the media and apart from Adam Morton in The Age, most investigative journalists never thought to ask the question “How much warmer are we now than 1000 years ago” because if they had, Gergis would have had to say “by a tenth of a degree”. (That much eh?) Technically it was 0.09C.
The certainty of Australia being 0.09 of a degree cooler 1000 years ago comes down to observations from a batch of trees in Tasmania and New Zealand. (If we can calculate the regional temperature so accurately that way, why do we bother with a network of 100 thermometers? We could pop a max-min gauge next to those trees and “interpolate” the rest, No?)
Why not skip the thermometers and just go with the trees? They’re accurate to one hundredth of a degree across a continent and sea.
Funding apparently ran to $340,ooo but may have been nearly a million dollars (at least that’s what Gergis thought in 2009, I can find no official record of it):
“The project, funded by the Australian Research Council’s Linkage scheme, is worth a total of $950K and will run from mid-2009 to mid-2012″. [Source: Joelle Gergis has deleted her blog. Cached copy here. Webcite copy]
UPDATE: Did Gergis get more funding for this from outside the ARC? If so where?
“Proposals for funding under Linkage Projects must involve a Partner Organisation from outside the higher education sector. The Partner Organisation must make a significant contribution in cash and/or in kind, to the project that is equal to, or greater than, the ARC funding.”
Is this how policies are promoted now? The government finds b-grade activist scientists, funds them to produce papers that may or may not stand the test of …a few weeks, and the media rush to rubber stamp and repeat the story without asking hard questions, and in the end the government gets “third party” policy promotion — seemingly independent endorsement of the purest kind. At $340,000, it’s returned decent value some would say.
Cook, E. R., Buckley, B. M., Palmer, J. G., Fenwick, P., Peterson, M. J., Boswijk, G. and Fowler, A. 2006. Millennia-long tree-ring records from Tasmania and New Zealand: a basis for modelling climate variability and forcing, past, present and future. J. Quaternary Sci., Vol. 21 pp. 689–699. ISSN 0267-8179. [abstract]
J. Gergis, R. Neukom, S.J. Phipps, A.J.E. Gallant, and D.J. Karoly, “Evidence of unusual late 20th century warming from an Australasian temperature reconstruction spanning the last millennium”, Journal of Climate, 2012, pp. 120518103842003-. DOI. [ Paper (PDF)]
ARC Funding: ARC Linkage Project Funding Outcomes
[It's hard to find the original grants, this is one, which doesn't add up to $950k could be part of the funding, or extra funding, or perhaps the original offer of $950k didn't come through?...]
2606 ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES
The University of Melbourne
LP0990151 Dr JL Gergis; Prof DJ Karoly; Prof N Nicholls; A/Prof DS Garden; Prof CS Turney; Dr AM Lorrey; Dr K Braganza; Dr RJ Allan; Miss G Skelly; Ms RJ Moran; Dr K Tan; Mr RA Neville; Dr NR Lomb
Approved Project Title Reconstructing pre-20th century rainfall, temperature and pressure for south-eastern Australia using palaeoclimate, documentary and early weather station data.
2009 : $ 65,000
2010 : $ 117,500
2011 : $ 105,000
2012 : $ 52,500
APA(I) Award(s): 1
APDI Dr JL Gergis, Collaborating/Partner Organisation(s), Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Met Office Hadley Centre, Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Department of Sustainability and Environment,
Melbourne Water , National & State Libraries Australasia, National Library of Australia,
State Library of Victoria , State Library of New South Wales, Powerhouse Museum, Administering Organisation The University of Melbourne,
Summary of Linkage Projects Proposals by Primary Class Code for Funding to Commence in 2009
Updated 13 August 2009 Page 14
South-eastern Australia is in the grip of a severe water crisis due to the worst drought in recorded history and increasing temperatures. This landmark project brings together a team of Australia’s leading climate scientists, water managers and historians with the common goal of reconstructing south-eastern Australia’s climate history. The greatly extended record of annual rainfall and temperature variability will allow better planning for water storage and use, and improved testing of climate model simulations. Improving our understanding of the historical impacts of climate extremes on society will assist with planning for life in a hotter and drier future.
Thanks to Geoff Derrick for advice.
*UPDATE #2: Real Climate link fixed