A $100,000 Scam?

You may have heard about a $100,000 contest on climate blogs recently. Different people have been reacting differently to it, pretty much split along partisan lines. That's not really surprising. Some people on the "skeptic" side are promoting it as a meaningful contest, such as at Bishop Hill where it was posted with this statement:

Climatologists often claim that they are able to detect the global warming signal in the temperature records. If they are right then they are going to be having a very happy Christmas indeed, because Doug Keenan is offering them the chance to win a very large cash prize at his expense.

The blogger Anders has described the contest as "A (stupid) $100000 bet," saying:

Anyone who promotes this, or sees it as somehow interesting, or worthwhile, is either somewhat clueless, or particularly dishonest. There isn’t really a third option. This is the kind of thing about which there should be little disagreement. Not dismissing this challenge as silly is why I object to the idea that there aren’t really people who deserve to be labelled as climate science deniers, since it is the epitomy of climate science denial.

I happen to disagree with both of these statements, and I'll explain why below, but I would like to suggest a third interpretation. This is an interpretation I haven't seen anyone else suggest, but it is one I considered the moment I heard about this contest. And to be honest, I'm amazed nobody else seems to be talking about the possibility. It's an obvious and troubling one - what if the contest is a scam?

This was one of my first thoughts when I heard about the challenge. Before I get to it though, I want to point out my first thought. To do that though, you need to understand what the challenge is. A man named Douglas Keenan has created 1,000 data series that are just noise, and he has added a (positive or negative) trend to some of them. He says he will give $100,000 to the first person or group that can correctly identify at least 900 series as having had or not had a trend added to them.

Now, I don't agree with Anders in that I think this is somewhat interesting as a puzzle. I think the process of trying to identify which series did and did not have trends added to them can be interesting. I don't think that makes me "somewhat clueless" or "particularly dishonest."

On the other hand, I don't think being "able to detect the global warming signal in the temperature records" would mean you'd be able to win this contest, so the statement at Bishop Hill is just stupid. The noise Keenan used is not remotely similar to what the real world could experience. The trends he added are significantly different as well. What bothers me more is something that might be less significant but is certainly more noticeable:

I'm sorry, but is this supposed to be serious? In what world is this true:

Each series has length 135 (about the same as that of the most commonly studied series of global temperatures).

Global temperature series are not 135 data points long. They're much longer. They would only be as short as Doug Keenan is claiming if one were restricted to annual temperatures, a completely unreasonable restriction nobody genuinely interested in studying global warming would apply.

Keenan responded to this comment of mine by claiming:

@ Brandon Shollenberger

Regarding the length of the time series, the main temperature series relied upon by the IPCC, in its most-recent Assessment Report (AR5), begins in 1880 and is annual.

But that's just... not true. I don't know how to phrase it any more kindly. Keenan's justification for requiring people use pseudo-annual data for this challenge is that the IPCC uses an annual data set as its "main temperature series," but the IPCC doesn't do anything of the sort. So yeah, I don't know what else to say. I could write at length on this point, post screenshots and and plot a bunch of graphs of monthly data and whatnot, but... lets not dwell.

A short time after I scoffed at the idea of only using 135 data points to represent our knowledge of global temperatures over the last century, I actually started thinking about the challenge, and it occurred to me the whole thing might be a scam. So I said:

You know, while my previous comment is dismissive of this test as having any practical meaning, I have to wonder if Doug Keenan would actually be willing to pony up the $100,000. If so, it might be interesting to see if one could solve the test just to try to get the money. I don't think the test itself has any real value, but $100,000 obviously does.

I just can't help but be skeptical he'd actually pay the money. That's a lot of money, and there's no mention that it's been deposited in an escrow account or anything. Do we have any assurance it'd actually be paid?

Now, I said this before Keenan had responded to my other remark. Keenan responded with his nonsense about the IPCC only using annual data or whatever, but he didn't address this. Nobody else did either. Nobody else chimed in to vouch for Keenan's character, to express concern or even just verify Keenan has that much money to his name. Apparently nobody but me felt it was important to verify that this $100,000 even exists.

That baffles me. Why in the world would people compete for $100,000 based on nothing more than the word of some guy on the internet? Where is the skepticism? If I had a $100,000 I was putting up for a contest, the first thing I'd do is put it in an escrow account and get documentation of the terms of payment so people would know I was for real. I wouldn't just create a webpage saying, "Hey guys, I'll give you $100,000 if you do X."

And let's talk about that webpage for a second. The contest's web page had to be updated a after the contest began because, get this, it didn't say how to enter the contest. Yes, this $100,000 contest is so legitimate and serious it didn't even have a way for people to enter it. Sounds believable, right? I mean, I'd totally give money to the person behind that...

Yes, that's right. The contest requires each submission be accompanied by a $10 entry fee. Its web page says:

Each entry in the contest must be accompanied by a payment of $10; this is being done to inhibit non-serious entries.

Now mind you, it said this even before there was any information about how to enter the contest. Yes, we had information about how we'd have to pay to enter the contest before we had information about how to actually enter the contest. I don't know if that actually tells us anything about the priorities of the contest's creator, but it certainly isn't a good sign.

What's also not a good sign is while the updated web page tells the user how to submit an entry:

Contest entries should be emailed to me (doug dot keenan at informath.org). Each entry in the contest must be accompanied by a payment of $10; this is being done to inhibit non-serious entries.

There is no explanation as to how an individual would submit the entry fee. This poses a problem as entries must be accompanied by a payment, but there is no way to submit a payment. This is a rather unbelievable situation. Nobody designing a legitimate $100,000 contest would first forget to allow people to enter the contest then forget to allow people to pay to enter the contest.

Still, I wanted to give Douglas Kennan the benefit of the doubt. After all, when people asked how to submit entries for the contest, he updated the contest's web page to include his e-mail address. It seemed reasonable to think e-mailing him a question about the payment issue might have some effect. So today, I sent this e-mail:

I had been considering submitting an entry for your contest, but originally I couldn't find any information about how to enter. Now that you've posted your e-mail address, I still cannot see how anyone is supposed to submit the entry fee you say must accompany their entry.

Could you clarify how people are supposed to participate in your contest given there is currently no way to submit an entry under the stated rules?

This is a simple and straightforward question. The rules of the contest say entries should be e-mailed to Douglas Keenan's e-mail account. However, they also say each entry must be accompanied by a $10 entry fee without saying how a person is supposed to pay that fee. This creates an impossible situation. A person who sends an entry in without the $10 fee is breaking the rules, but what else are they supposed to do?

Keenan didn't e-mail me back. I did, however, get an e-mail. The e-mail was probably Keenan's response:

11_21_money-request

There are a multitude of problems with this. The most obvious of which is, this doesn't answer my question. I asked how people are supposed to participate in the contest. This e-mail may be Keenan requesting a $10 entry fee from me, but that isn't a statement saying this is how all people are supposed to pay. Am I supposed to just assume that's what he means?

Mind you, I didn't even say I wanted to submit an entry. I said I was considering it and I wanted information about the process. Turning around and simply asking me for the entry fee is not only rude, it's non-responsive. And what if I wanted to submit more than one entry? What if I wanted to enter two, five or ten times? This doesn't tell me how to do that.

But it gets worse. How do I even know this is legit? Sure, PayPal says the money request is from Douglas Keenan, but that doesn't mean anything. You can create accounts under anyone's name. The only connection there is between my e-mail and this money request is the timing. That's certainly suggestive, but it is in no way conclusive. All it would have taken is for someone to have seen my e-mail to Keenan. If they had done that, they could easily have sent me a fake request.

Sure, it's not likely, but what if someone happened to have access to Keenan's e-mail account? Or mine? If this went to court, the fact the request had the name "Douglas Keenan" would never be enough on its own to establish that I actually sent money in for this contest. The fact Keenan didn't respond to my e-mail could potentially allow him to deny having formed any sort of contract with me, meaning he could potentially avoid having to pay out $100,000 in a lawsuit.

But that brings us back to the real problem of all this, the $100,000. That is such an absurd number. I don't know how much money Douglas Keenan has. Maybe he really does have $100,000 he can just throw away. I don't know. What I do know is the idea people can be sure he'd give it away just because he says so is absurd.

The reality is if somebody wins this competition, Keenan doesn't have to give them the prize money. If he had put the money in an escrow account and set up terms of payment declaring the money would go to the winner of this contest (if any), then yes, we'd have reason to believe winning the contest would actually result in winning the money. But just because Keenan says so?

Seriously?!

I don't know Keenan. Maybe he's a standup guy. Maybe he really would pay $100,000 out of his own pocket on nothing more than his word. Maybe he wouldn't though. To me, he's just some guy on the internet. I read a story published by a news organization on the internet, and I'm skeptical. I read some guy telling me I can win $100,000 on the internet if I pay $10, and the first thing I'm thinking is, "Is this guy a Nigerian prince?"

Mind you, I'm not saying Douglas Keenan is running a scam. What I am saying is he has done absolutely nothing to engender any trust. The idea people should pay him money simply because he says he is running a contest is absurd. People who run $100,000 competitions do a lot of things to try to make them trustworthy, but Keenan hasn't done any.

On top of this, the entire premise for Keenan's competition is a joke. The preface for his challenge says:

There have been many claims of observational evidence for global-warming alarmism. I have argued that all such claims rely on invalid statistical analyses. Some people, though, have asserted that the analyses are valid. Those people assert, in particular, that they can determine, via statistical analysis, whether global temperatures are increasing more that would be reasonably expected by random natural variation. Those people do not present any counter to my argument, but they make their assertions anyway.

In response to that, I am sponsoring a contest: the prize is $100 000. In essence, the prize will be awared to anyone who can demonstrate, via statistical analysis, that the increase in global temperatures is probably not due to random natural variation.

But nothing about this challenge will speak toward the global warming debate. Keenan's choice of noise models for his data series has no connection to what we could observe in the real world, and his choice to limit the series to 135 data points on the basis people analyzing global temperatures would only use annual data is absurd on its face.

I think the problem Keenan poses is interesting as a puzzle. I spent a bit of time looking into it because I thought it interesting to try to distinguish between noise and trends when you didn't know whether or not a series even had a trend. I think it would be particularly interesting to try to work out what noise model(s) Keenan used.

That's all this will ever be though - an interesting little puzzle to work on. It's not some earthshaking, mind-blowing $100,000 challenge which will change everything. The $100,000 may well not even be real, and the challenge itself won't tell us anything about anything important.

As a final thought, I'm generally pretty forgiving of typos. I didn't make an issue of the one in Anders's quote. I'm sure I make plenty myself. However, the idea of a $100,000 contest being run by someone who can't even be bothered to use spellcheck is laughable. It may be petty of me, but I still snicker every time I read $100,000 will be "awared" to the winner of the contest.

4 comments

  1. Oh boy. So Keenan changed his test series after people suggested it might be possible to crack the encrypted answer file. He says:

    The purpose of the Contest is to test researchers' claimed capability to statistically analyze climatic data. If someone were to win the Contest by exploiting a PRNG weakness, that would not conform with the purpose of the Contest. Ergo, I regenerated the 1000 series using a stronger PRNG, together with some related changes.

    What he doesn't say is those "related changes" actually impact the noise/signals of the test series in significant ways, meaning he's altered the challenge after seeing people discuss it and receiving submissions based on the earlier, easier version. That is unbelievable. It is completely unacceptable to take people's money for an entry in a contest then change the nature of that contest to make it more difficult to win the prize.

    So yeah, this is a scam. It's a complete and total scam. Anyone who has promoted his "challenge" should be embarrassed and should publicly call him out on his dishonesty.

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