The Gergis Saga Continues

As readers likely know, I have long followed The Hockey Stick Debate. It is, in fact, the reason I became interested in the global warming discussion. And while I've written about it a fair amount in the past, to the point of writing two (short) eBooks on the subject, I haven't discussed it much in some time. The reason is simple - the debate has largely died off.

I could go on and on about how climate science has largely abandoned the infamous Hockey Stick, claiming to support it while only publishing results very different from it, but the reality is climate scientists have largely tried to distance themselves from the subject. I suspect they have largely because the problems surrounding the subject became too much for them to bear, meaning a tactical retreat was in order.

Whatever the reason, the point is debates over paleoclimatic reconstructions have died down so much there's been little reason for me to write about them until today. Today, a new story has broken which will be a source of great interest. I came across the news because I saw a link to a news article whose headline says:

How a single word sparked a four-year saga of climate fact-checking and blog backlash

This caught my eye for a variety of reasons, including my interest in the rise in "fact-checking" by the media (which often isn't really fact-checking). Naturally, I clicked on it. I never anticipated it'd be about a subject I know well, a 2012 paper by Joelle Gergis and co-authors.

There's a lot of backstory to this topic, and I'm not going to go into it today. Today, I just want to give people a brief introduction to the subject. According to the article:

Following the early online release of the paper, as the manuscript was being prepared for the journal’s print edition, one of our team spotted a typo in the methods section of the manuscript.

While the paper said the study had used “detrended” data – temperature data from which the longer-term trends had been removed – the study had in fact used raw data. When we checked the computer code, the DETREND command said “FALSE” when it should have said “TRUE”.

Both raw and detrended data have been used in similar studies, and both are scientifically justifiable approaches. The issue for our team was the fact that what was written in the paper did not match what was actually done in the analysis – an innocent mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.

Instead of taking the easy way out and just correcting the single word in the page proof, we asked the publisher to put our paper on hold and remove the online version while we assessed the influence that the different method had on the results.

The difference between using detrended and non-detrended data is an important one, and the choice of which to use raises all sorts of questions and concerns. That's a topic for another day, but a key point to understand is the reason Gergis et al had thought to use detrended data in their methodology was to rebut criticisms related to things like a problem known as the Screening Fallacy. While Gergis now claims this error was merely a "typo" of "a single word in a 74-page document," the reality is the intended analysis was always supposed to have been done on detrended data. That is why authors of the paper, including Gergis herself, wrote things like:

Although it was an unfortunate data processing error, it does have implications for the results of the paper. We wish to alert you to this issue before the paper goes into final production.

This was an error in analysis, not a "typo" that made consisted only of "a single word in a 74-page document." Additionally, while Gergis claims that it was her and her co-authors decision to have the paper put on hold instead of "just correcting the single word in the page proof," the reality is the paper was rejected because of this error. Journal of Climate editor John Chiang wrote to Gergis:

After consulting with the Chief Editor, I have decided to rescind acceptance of the paper- you’ll receive an official email from J Climate to this effect as soon as we figure out how it should be properly done. I believe the EOR has already been taken down.

Also, since it appears that you will have to redo the entire analysis (and which may result in different conclusions), I will also be requesting that you withdraw the paper from consideration. Again, you’ll hear officially from J CLimate in due course. I invite you to resubmit once the necessary analyses and changes to the manuscript have been made.

I hope this will be acceptable to you. I regret the situation, but thank you for bringing it to my prompt attention.

Gergis later wrote to Chiang:

Just to clarify, there was an error in the words describing the proxy selection method and not flaws in the entire analysis as suggested by amateur climate skeptic bloggers.

Over recent days we have been in discussion with colleagues here in Australia and internationally about the use of detrended or non detrended data for proxy selection as both methods are published in the literature .

People have argued that detrending proxy records when reconstructing temperature is in fact undesirable (see two papers attached provided courtesy of Professor Michael Mann) .

While anthropogenic trends may inflate correlation coefficients, this can be dealt with by allowing for autocorrelation when assessing significance. If any linear trends ARE removed when validating individual proxies, then the validation exercise will essentially only confirm the ability of the proxies to reconstruct interannual variations. However, in an exercise of this nature we are also intrinsically interested in reconstructing longer-term trends. It therefore appears to be preferable to retain trends in the data, so that we are also assessing the ability of the proxies to reconstruct this information.

Both approaches have been widely used in the past, and that both are supported in the literature. Thus we believe that either approach is entirely justifiable. In terms of revisions to our paper, we plan to compare the influencing of using detrended and non detrended proxy selection in a supplementary section but it is very unlikely to result in a rewrite of the paper. Instead, there will be correction of the correct method used in the paper and reference to additional supplementary material where appropriate.

Given this paper was originally submitted for review on 3 November 2011 and was extensively reviewed by three expert assessors, my strong preference would be for permission to submit a revision of the original manuscript rather than an entirely new submission. That said, we will of course follow your advice on how best to proceed.

The journal's Chief Editor Anthony Broccoli saw this and pointed out the inconsistency in Gergis's description, as previously she said it was "an unfortunate data processing error" yet now wrote "there was an error in the words describing the proxy selection method":

Your latest email to John characterizes the error in your manuscript as one of wording. But this differs from the characterization you made in the email you sent reporting the error. In that email (dated June 7) you described it as “an unfortunate data processing error,” suggesting that you had intended to detrend the data. That would mean that the issue was not with the wording but rather with the execution of the intended methodology.

Would you please explain why your two emails give different impressions of the nature of the error?

Chiang added:

Both Tony and I read your initial email (dated June 8 for me, I’m in Taipei) to mean that you had intended to detrend during the predictor selection, but that subsequently you had discovered that you had not. Given that you had further stated that “Although it was an unfortunate data processing error, it does have implications for the results of the paper,” we had further took this to mean that you were going to redo the analysis to conform to the description of the proxy selection in the paper.

Assuming this to be true, my reasoning was that since you are likely to use a different subset of proxies in the recalculation, it allows for the possibility of a significantly different result and conclusion. It was on this basis that I requested that you resubmit the paper (and not because of flaws in the analysis method). I understand that the results may well remain essentially the same after the redo, but this is not something that I can assume to be true .

The communication between Gergis, her co-authors and the journal show this was not merely some "typo" that could be fixed by changing "a single word in a 74-page document." Similarly, that communication shows it was not Gergis or her co-authors decision to have the paper taken offline and its publication put on hold. In fact, the opposite was true. Gergis and her co-authors attempted to simply dismiss the problem as a "typo," but the editors of the Journal of Climate wouldn't accept their argument.

There is much more to this story, including details about how the paper was re-submitted and eventually published four years later, as well as technical points about things like why using non-detrended data would have been wrong. I'm sure many will come up and be discussed over the next few weeks. For now though, I just want to draw people's attention to this development and highlight a bit of how utterly false the narrative being spun by people like Joelle Gergis is.

As a final note, while Gergis writes:

It turned out that someone else had spotted the typo too. Two days after we identified the issue, a commenter on the Climate Audit blog also pointed it out.

The website’s author, Stephen McIntyre, proceeded to claim (incorrectly) that there were “fundamental issues” with the study. It was the start of a concerted smear campaign aimed at discrediting our science.

I should point out I am not part "of a concerted smear campaign," and if she believes I am, she is paranoid. Also, her claim she and her co-authors "spotted the typo" two days prior to anyone else is simply false. The e-mail communication between her and her co-authors shows that is false beyond any doubt.

That and other falsehoods by Joelle Gergis are matters for another day though.

July 13, 10:50 PM Update: I submitted a comment to the site hosting Joelle Gergis's article which pointed out the article contains a number of falsehoods. It was only a few paragraphs long, focused solely on issues raised in the article and didn't use any sort of inappropriate language or tone. This is the result:

Maybe I need to start taking screenshots of any comments I post.anywhere. Censorship seems the norm anymore.

33 comments

  1. I notice that the paper shows
    "Received Date: December 16, 2013
    Final Form: April 4, 2016"
    Seems an unusually long time in review...

    Having only read the abstract, I have to ask: did they, or didn't they, detrend in the end? Mainly out of curiosity, because the whole enterprise seems less certain to me than is claimed.

  2. "I suspect they have largely because the problems surrounding the subject became too much for them to bear, meaning a tactical retreat was in order"

    My guess is that it's much simpler - the hockey stick was important as a PR stunt and threw Mann to his grandiose fame and so on, but it (and its validity) is not really important to the activists any more. It was during an early PR campaign to convince "the masses" but now, contrary to many skeptics' self assertion, I think that the AGW crowd has largely won what comes to politics and public "understanding". No government or international organization or even media outlet or scientific body is openly questioning the dogma. It's become a FACT. The question is primarily what is the speed to fulfill the Paris agreement and most of the media stories are just about "it's worse than expected". Plus, whatever people reading you, Brandon, or Climate Audit or any other sites like that might think, they (we) are a minuscule minority. I'm sure "the masses" are not aware of any controversy around the stick. And this Gergis article is another good example of pure dishonest PR campaign. She knows perfectly well that she is lying, but it does not matter to her because it's PR and most of the readers are not well enough informed to ask any questions. And the tiny few who do, do not matter in the big picture. It's prince(ss) valiant against the evil dragon, you know...

  3. And ... they come from the fact that the stick has been accepted by everybody but the very very few who have really bothered to look more deeply into it. Continuing with paleoclimatic reconstructions re- and reconfirming the hockey stick would just show that they still have to prove something or that there might still be some room for debate. So, I think even this Gergis paper would not have seen the light of the day if it had not been initiated 4 years ago. They (whoever the they are) do not want it to be a debate or people to think that there might be one. And at this stage the easiest way to achieve this is to remain silent. Like two teams pulling the rope - there is a time to pull and there is a time to hold. They are in a hold phase.
    Just my speculation, of course

  4. Suppose it was only a data processing error. Why should that prevent publication, if the end results are different?
    Wouldn't it have the same value even if it were not a hockey stick?

  5. The editors had concerns regarding "Just to clarify, there was an error in the words describing the proxy selection method and not flaws in the entire analysis".

    Am I correct in assuming that the proxys are selected to give 'certain data'?

    No wonder it took for year to get the 'correct' answer.

  6. Sven, even if what you say were true (and I don't think it is), it's clear there is still a ton of activism to try to drive up concern and support for actions to combat global warming. Activists are still looking for new talking points to drive their message home, and they routinely appeal to the temperature record for this. They even routinely talk about how much temperatures have risen since pre-industrial times.

    It is difficult for me to believe the almost complete silence on the hockey stick is due to a lack of interest. There are tons of talking points which generate little interest. The hockey stick debate received far greater interest, especially as a tool to belittle their opposition. I don't see any reason the talking points would be useless now.

    On the other hand, a number of people have clearly started trying to avoid the subject. For instance, Gavin Schmidt used to talk about it with great frequency, but after he mounted a tireless quest to defend Michael Mann's 2008 hockey stick only to then realize the work was rubbish, he almost immediately stopped talking about the subject all together (without ever attempting to correct his many false and even derogatory remarks on the subject). That doesn't seem like a coincidence.

    Nowadays people still defend the hockey stick on occasion, but they've almost all stopped bringing the subject up. Maybe I'm reading too much into the transition, but I don't think so.

  7. HaroldW:

    Having only read the abstract, I have to ask: did they, or didn't they, detrend in the end? Mainly out of curiosity, because the whole enterprise seems less certain to me than is claimed.

    I'm not sure. My suspicion is they didn't detrend the data, but I don't have access to the materials I'd need to be able to tell due to paywalls. Even the Supplementary Material is paywalled.

    Steve Richards:

    The editors had concerns regarding "Just to clarify, there was an error in the words describing the proxy selection method and not flaws in the entire analysis".

    Am I correct in assuming that the proxys are selected to give 'certain data'?

    >

    It's not quite that simple. The process used by Gergis et al was to compare the proxies they had to the modern temperature record to see which ones seemed to match up.. The idea was you don't want to use data which has no relation to temperatures to try to reconstruct past data.

    The problem with this is if you screen your proxies by assuming they must have a specific signal in them (one which is similar to the modern record), then you bias your results toward having that specific signal. This is known as the "Screening Fallacy."

    To avoid it, Gergis et al thought to detrend their data before doing their screening. The idea is to remove any long-term trend from the series being compared (e.g. modern warming) and instead only compare the smaller changes, like year-to-year ones. The idea is a proxy series is a useful one if it matches up with the modern temperature record on short scales, and since you didn't use any long-term trend in the comparison (having detrended the series), you are not artificially biasing your data to have a specific long-term trend.

    It's a good idea. The problem, of course, is Gergis et al didn't implement it. They said they did, and it made their results sound good, but it was bogus. As it turns out, if you detrend the series like they claimed to have done, you don't get the same results. In fact, you don't really get any results because few of the series pass the screening test if you detrend them.

    Basically, they came up with an approach that seemed good and decided to use it. They went so far as to write a paper using it, submit the paper and have it accepted for publication. Then it was discovered they hadn't actually used the approach they had claimed to have used, and if they had used it, all their results would turned out to be useless.

    Naturally, rather than address the problem, they've decided to try to cover it up by pretending the never really meant to use that approach in the first place. It was just a "typo."

  8. You might be right. This is definitely true that they need new scare stories. But I still feel that they think that they do not need hockey stick in the game any more. This part is ticked as "done". The main talking point about that today is that Man''s old picture is not even relevant any more as there are gazillion trillion independent studies that have verified it. The new stories are about nasty weather, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, vanishing species and so on. The consequences. The stick was to convince that the shit is real (just as "the inconvenient truth". This has been achieved.

  9. These people (Gergis, Mashey, etc.) are just incredible.

    In terms of the level of dishonesty I mean. What a buch of charlatans.

  10. Brandon, Geoff Chambers has recently written a blog post about censorship at the Conversation,

    https://cliscep.com/2016/07/06/censorship-at-the-conversation/

    He has been banned completely from their site, as has Brad Keyes.
    When they delete a comment, you should get an email back from them including your comment, so you have a record.
    Because they delete most comments that dare to question their agenda, I now only write very short comments there.
    My most recent one to be deleted just said, in response to a Cook article promoting the fossil-fuel-funded conspiracy theory,
    "The most prominent skeptic blogs have intrusive adverts and tip jars. Why is this the case if they are flooded with oil money?"

    If you can find an email from them with your comment, perhaps you could put it at Geoff's blog post and/or here?

    This matters because (a) The Conversation is funded by universities, including mine (b) they claim to be free of political bias.

  11. This article and the following censorship by The Conversation is quite a new level even in this horrible war like climate debate. Really disgusting.

    I'm quite certain that in most other every day life situations Gergis et al (incl. The Conversation moderator) are decent and honest people but I guess they strongly believe that the "other side" is evil (paid by Big Oil) and so in vanquishing them all means are allowed, including lies. The good old question - can good people do bad things (what I've myself seen asked by many Israelis in the context of treatment of Palestinians, quite a common theme in the US after September 11th in the context of "why do they hate us" etc.). The answer usually is no. So, as they are good, and their cause is good, whatever they do against the evil is good. I don't think that Gergis will loose any sleep because of been caught on lying.

  12. Paul Matthews, thanks for the link. Unfortunately, for some reason I've never received an e-mail from The Conversation when they've deleted a comment of mine. If they had sent me a response with a copy of my comment, I'd post it for everyone to see. I didn't even know they sent e-mails out like that.

    This matters because (a) The Conversation is funded by universities, including mine (b) they claim to be free of political bias.

    Anyone who believes that site is free of political bias is either incredibly naive or deranged. Many sites and news organizations are biased to a meaningful degree, but that one doesn't even try to hide its biases.

  13. I replied to somebody else's comment. My comment was removed, when their comment was removed.

    I did receive an email, and it listed possible reasons for removing it.

    As a piece of data: I signed in with my Google account, so I received the email notifying me they'd taken down my comment on that account too.

  14. Carrick, I suppose it could be what I used to sign in with. I think I used my Twitter account, so maybe they don't have an e-mail address "on file"? I'm not sure. It doesn't really matter though. I don't intend to comment there again.

    Speaking of censorship, the blogger Anders has a thread on this article, and it is rather hilarious. He writes in his post:

    So, how have bloggers responded to Joëlle Gergis’s article. I’ve seen three so far, all of whom are accusing her of lying. So, a climate scientist points out that being attacked will discourage climate scientists from engaging online, and she is immediately attacked. Kudos. To be clear, I don’t know if what she presents in her article is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but I don’t really care. Most of this happened before I started engaging in this topic, so I’m only vaguely aware of the background story. From what I’ve seen, however, climate scientists are indeed attacked on blogs that dismiss mainstream climate science, so that bit certainly seems true.

    Joelle Gergis wrote an article which was pure fantasy, saying many things that are obviously untrue to anyone who puts any effort into examining them. She even goes so far as to make the absurd suggestion it took four years to get a paper published when all that was wrong with it was a typo, single word in a 74 page document. In response to this, Several people have written blog posts pointing out her narrative is completely bogus.

    Anders offers this as an example of climate scientists suffering abuse. At the very same time, he says he doesn't care if Gergis told the truth or not. So Gergis gets to post complete fabrications. Anders promotes her article then says he doesn't care if what she says is true or not as climate scientists "are indeed attacked on blogs," so this incident further confirms his views. And when a commenter points out her story is false, Anders writes:

    However, my overall point is that I don’t hugely care. Partly because I don’t see what we achieve by running around shouting liar, liar. Partly because I can’t see how it would ever really be resolved; one side will say it’s not true, the other will say it is; it’ll just be another example of an issue that divides people. Partly, because I do have sympathy with those who’ve been abused and insulted on climate “skeptic” blogs. Scientists do make mistakes; it happens. Ultimately our goal should be to improve our understanding of the system being studied. Fights about whether or not something someone said in the media, or on a blog, is true, or not, is unlikely to be constructive.

    Maybe I can ask you a question. What would be achieved by trying to determine who is lying and who is not, or by delving into something that mainly happened 3 to 4 years ago? I can’t see how this would be a positive, or constructive, thing to do. Furthermore, a lot of Joëlle Gergis’s article was about the abuse she recieved as a consequence of the error in this paper. How does maligning her further help to reduce this issue, which I think is real.

    So Anders doesn't care whether or not Gergis lied. He offers accusations she is lying as proof she is being attacked like climate scientists so often are while simultaneously saying he doesn't think it matters if the accusations are true. He even goes so far as to suggest it is unfair for people to say she lied, regardless of whether or not she did, as it is just "maligning her further" and it won't "held to reduce" the abuse climate scientists receive.

    It is so crazy. According to Anders, accuse Gergis of lying, and you're maligning her which is wrong. It doesn't matter if she is lying or not. Saying she is wrong, regardless.

  15. By the way, I'm curious if my post is one of the three Anders referred to as attacking Joelle Gergis. If so, I'd love to hear what it says that is so unacceptable.

  16. I forget, is this the article that RealClimate advertised as 'Fresh Hockey Sticks from the Southern Hemisphere"?

  17. Anders as you call him is really not a model of objectivity. He makes a lot of vague and misleading statements trying to counter honest skepticism. Pauls old post "And then there's hypocracy" sums it up perfectly. Now Anders avoids Paul as a vampire avoids the cross.

  18. The great thing about living in a Joelle Gergis universe is that an "amateur climate skeptic blogger" can probably be treated with the same dismissive contempt as would be a "professional climate skeptic blogger". It's a win-win when it comes to heaping scorn on critics of global hyperthermia claims.

    But was the zombie paper snuck-through, attemptedly under the radar after after several years in purgatory, because a grant required papers as evidence of 'work done', or just for reasons of personal pride?: We'll probably never know.

  19. There is a new comment at the Conv by "Cassandra Sancus", copied below and screengrabbed. I wonder how long it will last:

    Hi Joelle,

    I cannot but feel a tad uneasy at the response you have, toward the bloggers / etc that discovered your error. The implication in your article, and below in the comments, being that they are a bunch of idiotic, fevered deniers, trying to pull down valid science.

    The fact is that sure, you’d made a ‘typo’ (which did affect data), but also that it was missed during peer review and located by ‘bloggers’ (as an unpaid hobby), whereas you were, to paraphrase Bob Carter and Joanne Nova, “Gergis used 300,000 dollars and took three years to produce a flawed paper. Bloggers corrected Gergis’ mistake for free in three weeks. Peer review had missed it completely in the first place, then took four years to get it right.”

    Remember, these are unpaid bloggers, with an interest in climate. You were paid to do this, and reviewed by anonymous colleagues (presumably in a similar paid field).

    In regard to you discovering the issue independently, Stephen McIntyre’s response is “Gergis’ account of events is a fantasy. Among other things, her claim to have discovered the error two days prior to Climate Audit is a fabrication.” Of course, he’s only a ‘blogger’ but is does have time coded postings as proof. I presume you have earlier timed emails which you’ll release to ensure we all know he is wrong!?

    Anyway, good luck with the next one, perhaps we should change things from peer review to blogger review! Cass

  20. For those not well-versed in Roman theology (such as myself), here's Wikipedia: "In ancient Roman religion, Sancus (also known as Sangus or Semo Sancus) was a god of trust (fides), honesty, and oaths."

  21. “Anyone who believes that site is free of political bias is either incredibly naive or deranged.”

    That's true of any site treating topical subjects. The point about the Conversation is that its Australian, UK and French sites are financed by universities which have policies on such matters as truthfulness and censorship, and ethics committees to enforce them. They have no business financing a site like the Conversation.

    But how to make them understand that?

    To make your point, you might try placing a comment under the Gergis article which simply links to this article, saying you have outlined your criticisms of the Gergis paper here.

    I'd be happy to cooperate in a joint effort to alert universities to their responsibilities. Someone wth a legal mind would be a useful ally.

  22. Sadly, I don't think the people arranging funding for The Conversation are unaware of its biases. Universities may have policies against truthfulness and censorship, but that doesn't mean they will actually apply those policies or the spirit behind them to their decisions. I suspect a significant number of the people involved in deciding to provide funding to The Conversation either know, or wouldn't care if they knew, about its actions.

    That said, if I were going to try to do anything about this, I wouldn't focus on the universities. Convincing students/professors that the university shouldn't fund The Conversation due to its censorship seems more effective than trying to change the minds of administrators. I don't know that it could work though. At least in the United States, this type of censorship would likely be welcomed by many at universities.

    Put simply, I think you'd have a difficult time getting people to care about this. People like to talk about integrity and principles, but when it comes down to it, they rarely hold to any.

  23. HI Brandon, You may be overly sanguine about the quietude over the hockeystick. See the new paper in press http://wires.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WiresArticle/wisId-WCC418.html which will mislead many people who don't know the background issues. Smerdon glosses over the Jesus Paper (http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2008/8/11/caspar-and-the-jesus-paper.html ) and the issues around it. I suppose some might consider Smerdon is damning with faint praise, but when he doesn't deal with the issues that have been clearly documented, he is distorting the literature.

  24. Brandon your summation of the story was very well done. Thank you.

    Paul, I am agreeing with Cass, blog review is the way to go. I recently read when CA caught the flaw in the GISTEMP algorithm, the Y2K issue with the way it treated the TOBS adjustment. Hansen never gave credit and tried to minimize the the whole thing by invoking the 70% sea surface being more important than land.

  25. Joelle Gergis is a backroom joke hackademic. She's one of those forgotten weirdos reaching for the limelight, a liar proven liar.

    As such every bit of science the torturer touches is not reliable

    She also discarded the Law Dome proxy even though it has a higher tstat than 24 of her 28 retained proxies.

  26. Brandon, I'd love to read your disappeared comments—aren't they visible (to you) at your Conversation profile, under Activity? When I go to your profile I just get useless links back to the OP, but I'm hoping you can read (and copy) your actual words.

  27. Brad Keyes, sadly not. All it shows me is the comment removed message everyone else can see. I've never been able to get a copy of the text of any comments of mine that get removed. Apparently some people get e-mails containing their comments when they get deleted, but I never have. That might be because I logged in with a Twitter account and that doesn't work with their e-mail alert system.

  28. Oh, those were the days. Before I got banned from The Conversation I would receive a burst of 30 emails in a row shortly after the moderator got out of bed for the day.

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