Should you believe anything John Christy and Roy Spencer say?

I don’t. But should you?

spencer.jpgchristy.jpgYou can’t read everything or listen to everybody. Life is just too short. I debated Christy years ago so I know he tries to peddle unscientific nonsense when he thinks he can get away with it.

But some of the more than 360 (!) comments in my recent post “The deniers are winning, especially with the GOP” can’t seem to get enough of the analyses by these two scientists University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) who famously screwed up the satellite temperature measurements of the troposphere.

In the interest of saving you some time, which is a major goal of this blog, let’s see why these are two people you can program your mental DVR to fast forward through. First off, they were wrong — dead wrong — for a very long time, which created one of the most enduring denier myths, that the satellite data didn’t show the global warming that the surface temperature data did. As RealClimate wrote yesterday:

We now know, of course, that the satellite data set confirms that the climate is warming , and indeed at very nearly the same rate as indicated by the surface temperature records. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when pursuing an innovative observational method, but Spencer and Christy sat by for most of a decade allowing — indeed encouraging — the use of their data set as an icon for global warming skeptics. They committed serial errors in the data analysis, but insisted they were right and models and thermometers were wrong. They did little or nothing to root out possible sources of errors, and left it to others to clean up the mess, as has now been done.

Amazingly (or not), the “serial errors in the data analysis” all pushed the (mis)analysis in the same, wrong direction. Coincidence? You decide. But I find it hilarious that the deniers and delayers still quote Christy/Spencer/UAH analysis lovingly, but to this day dismiss the “hockey stick” and anything Michael Mann writes, when his analysis was in fact vindicated by the august National Academy of Sciences in 2006 (see New Scientist‘s “Climate myths: The ‘hockey stick’ graph has been proven wrong“).

In their solo careers, Spencer and Christy are still pros at bad analysis.

RealClimate utterly skewers Spencer’s recent dis-analysis — misanalysis doesn’t seem a strong enough word for what he has done (see RC’s “How to cook a graph in three easy lessons“). RC calls it “shameless cookery.” If you like semi-technical discussions, then I strongly recommend the post. I would add in passing with no editorial comment that the Spencer disanalysis was posted on the website of one Roger Pielke, Sr. [Insert your editorial comment here, or here.]

As for Christy, what can you say about somebody who contributed the chapter “The Global Warming Fiasco” to a 2002 book called Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths, published by Competitive Enterprise Institute, a leading provider of disinformation on global warming that is/was funded by ExxonMobil?

In the Vermont case on the state’s effort to embrace California’s tailpipe GHG emissions standards, the car companies brought in Christy as an expert witness to rebut Hansen (see here). In one footnote on the sea level rise issue, the judge noted, “it appears that the bulk of scientific opinion opposes Christy’s position.” By the way, for all you deniers/delayers/doubters, let me quote further from the judge:

There is widespread acceptance of the basic premises that underlie Hansen’s testimony. Plaintiffs’ own expert, Dr. Christy, agrees with the IPCC’s assessment that in the light of new evidence and taking into account remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last fifty years is likely to have been due to the increase in GHG concentrations. Tr. vol. 14-A, 145:18-148:7 (Christy, May 4, 2007). Christy agrees that the increase in carbon dioxide is real and primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels, which changes the radiated balance of the atmosphere and has an impact on the planet’s surface temperature toward a warming rate. Id. at 168:11-169:10.

Christy also agreed that climate is a nonlinear system, that is, that its responses to forcings may be disproportionate, and rapid changes would be more difficult for human beings and other species to adapt to than more gradual changes. Id. at 175:2-174:11. He further agreed with Hansen that the regulation’s effect on radiative forcing will be proportional to the amount of emissions reductions, and that any level of emissions reductions will have at least some effect on the radiative forcing of the climate.

Christy is (mostly) a delayer these days, now that his denier disanalysis has been dissed and the real science is well verified by real observation.

Christy criticized the Hadley and Canadian models, suggesting that they were extreme and were downscaled unreliably. Tr. vol. 14-A, 121:13-122:4 (Christy, May 4, 2007). Although Christy testified that he had used climate models, however, he did not claim to be an expert on climate modeling. Id. at 78:20-79:3. In fact, his view of the reliability of climate models does not fall within the mainstream of climate scientists; his view is that models are, in general, “scientifically crude at best,” although they are used regularly by most climate scientists and he himself used the compiled results of a variety of climate models in preparing his report and testimony in this case.

You go, judge!

In December 2003, Christy said in a debate:

I don’t see danger. I see, in some cases, adaptation, and in others something like restrained glee, at the thought of longer growing seasons, warmer winters, and a more fertile atmosphere.

Restained glee. Yes, that’s going to be the reaction to widespread desertification, loss of the inland glaciers, sea level rise for century after century, mass extinction….

So, if you have time to burn, and a planet to burn, these are the guys to listen to. Otherwise I’d look elsewhere.


28 Responses to Should you believe anything John Christy and Roy Spencer say?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Joe, here’s an addendum:

    Christy recently was caught in an unrelated but arguably even more monumental screw-up resulting from an attempt to prove that irrigation in the California Central Valley had resulted in warming rather than cooling. EOS took the opportunity to flame him on the front page. Atmoz summarizes the situation here.

  2. Chester says:

    Roy Spencer is a creationist. That tells you everything you need to know about him as a scientist.

  3. kim says:

    Chester flings ad homs. That tells you everything you need to know about him as a rhetorician.

  4. Gavin's Pussycat says:

    kim doesn’t even know what an ad hom is. Why should we take scientists seriously that don’t take science seriously?

  5. kim says:

    GPS thinks bad logic is good science? Real climate scientists would wonder at a cooling globe, and review a few assumptions.

  6. kim says:

    See Spencer’s response to Raymond T. Pierrehumbert at Pielke’s Speaking of a real climate scientist. Two climate scientists there, one pursuing the truth and the other pursuing an agenda. You pays your money and you takes your chances, but the real entertainment is the prostitution of talent.

  7. kim says:

    Thanks for the compliment, Joe, or whoever. I’ve found through the years that my best stuff gets deleted or never posted. If I knew ahead of time what would disappear I could save it and have a book already.

  8. kim says:

    Look, disappearing my comment about climate sensitivity isn’t going to make Spencer’s point go away, but it is touching that you would make the effort.

  9. Joe says:

    Kim — It is touching that you would try to increase the number of comments I get on this post by writing a bunch of really short ones that have no substantive comment, but I do have an obligation to ave my readers from such clutter.

    I agree that the climate sensitivity issue is not going to go away. The IPCC says it is 2 to 4.5 degrees centigrade, most likely 3°C, and almost certainly not below 1.5°C — but that is for the equilibrium climate sensitivity, which only includes fast feedbacks. The actual climate sensitivity — how warm the planet would get if you doubled carbon dioxide concentrations and waited a few decades to see what happened — is almost certainly much higher. Indeed, the point of my most recent tundra post is that if you double CO2, you lose ost of the tundra and that almost certainly will take you well past 1000 ppm.

    So I m inclined to agree with the literature that says the sensitivity with all feedbacks included is probably between 4°C and 6°C.

    Thanks for raising this important issue!

  10. kim says:

    You repeat yourself, but you don’t address Spencer’s point about climate sensitivity and ‘feedback’.

  11. Robert says:


    You deleted my response. Why?

    I will put up with anything apart from out and out censureship. If you delete dissenting voices then all you will be left with is people who echo your own views, in which case you may as well disable comments entirely.

    I won’t bother posting again unless you reinstate my post.

  12. Joe says:

    Kim — As I’ve said, life is too short to read everything and reply to everything. I don’t bother with Spencer and Christy — they don’t deserve serious consideration. You find me credible peer-reviewed stuff to reply to, stuff that hasn’t been a long debunked, and I’m happy to reply — EVEN though there are other blogs whose sole focus is debunking deniers.

  13. Joe says:

    ROBERT — I don’t remember and I don’t still have it. I’m gonna make a practice of sticking stuff in the spam folder instead to be safe.

    There is a (small) possibility I deleted it by accident when I was deleting a couple of nonsensical comments by kim, which included a cryptic poem. But I probably deleted it intentionally.

    I don’t delete dissenting voices — that should be quite obvious from the 360+ comments on the early post.

    I delete long-debunked stuff, and off-topic ad hominem stuff, and it (not surprisingly) comes to very little, probably not 1 post in 100. It isn’t censoring because there is no right to post here unedited — read the TOU.

    But I have repeatedly posted my comment policy. I won’t waste time continuing to debunk that which has been be long debunked — since wasting my time and my readers’ time is a core strategy of many posters. BUT I can’t leave disinformation unchallenged, because some people come to these posts without having read any other posts. So you see the dilemma.

    I can waste time responding over and over and over again to the same nonsense — and subject my readers to it. Or, with fair warning, which I’ve given many times, just delete the stuff.

    I don’t moderate all the posts as many places do.

    Anyway, the laws of physics do not allow me to reinstate your post. If you remember what it was, post it and I’ll let it go through.

  14. JCH says:

    Why attribute all missing posts to Joe’s censorship? We all know there could be a yet unidentified internal radiative censorship placed into the blogopheric system by an intelligent designer.

  15. kim says:

    Uh, Spencer’s paper has been peer reviewed, as if that were the be-all and end-all of scientific truth. Care to address his point?

  16. kim says:

    Have you even read it? Or his response at C’mon, ‘fess up.

  17. Dano says:

    Uh, Spencer’s paper has been peer reviewed, as if that were the be-all and end-all of scientific truth. Care to address his point?

    Let us point out the illiteracy, one last time, for a point.

    It passed peer review to get published, so the discipline can read, discuss, and test. It’s only halfway there.

    Mann’s paper passed peer-review too, and look at all the ululation that occurred because of it.

    Come now.

    A sentence here, an irrelevancy there. It’s not even good trolling. It wastes bandwidth. It wastes our time reading it too. Perhaps I should contact the Greasemonkey guy…

    in the meantime, [ignore]



  18. David B. Benson says:

    I’ll remind everyone that the internet is only ‘best effort’. With ever increasing traffic, it appears that more and more messages just end up in the bit bucket.

  19. Alex J says:

    Although I haven’t yet seen a direct response to Spencer’s rebuttal to the Realclimate piece, the comments over there seem to address his point on the mixed layer depth. Apparently, Spencer’s single-layer ocean model is an inadequate representation, but Ray constrained himself to using it for the purposes of his analysis.

  20. kim says:

    AJ, too much physics and not enough meteorology. Heh.

    H/t P. Pere

  21. Rob says:

    Well it took RC long enough to try to rebut Spencer, the whole team must have been burning the midnight oil over that one, long live the hockey stick.

  22. peter bartner says:

    i completely distrust anyone who still believes in mann’s hockey stick.
    lets forget about the worldwide records showing the medieval warming and the little ice age that the hockey stick left out. lets forget about the thames and new york harbor freezing over often during the little ice age, the vikings growing grain in greenland during the medieval warming and the collapse of their settlements during the little ice age, that someone (unknown) charted the northern coast of greenland (artic circle) in a wooden boat during the medieval warming. lets just stick to science.

    1) a group of phd statisticians under the auspices of the national academy of science determined (2006) that the peculiar results producing mann’s hockey stick resulted from a mathematical error. this mistake would multiply any upward trend found in the data set (also random numbers) in the most recent data sets by a factor of 200 to 300 while de-emphasizing those occuring earlier.

    2) the data set used to create this effect was used dispite the fact that the authors of this specific paper stated very clearly in the title that the tree ring accelerated growth in these pines was not due to temperature increase (suggested due to co2 increase). this conclusion was reached because their was a temperature station close by that showed a decline in temperature for this period.

    3) sloppy work up of data; repeat of data sets, extrapolation of data points when data were missing, etc.

    4) tree rings are a terrible proxy for temperature studies. it is impossible to distinguish the forcing of temperature from co2 level change, variations in precipitation, variation in the richness of soil, disease, relative amounts of competition (crowding).

    if you are this wrong on the hockey stick, can you be trusted the discuss the statements of spencer and christy.

  23. Joe says:

    Peter — You can distrust science all you want, but reality has a way of intruding upon your elite system. The hockey stick was vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences. Everything else you’ve written is denier talking points.

  24. Paul Adler says:

    I need to contact John Christy. There is a live opportunity for him in the U.S.. Send me his contact information (email and phone) as soon as possible. / 202 250 9249 .

    Thank you,

  25. Larry Coleman says:

    Spencer and Christy are both kind of sad in my opinion. They have been so much the darlings of the Inhofe’s that is is hard to be objective anymore. It is hard to reverse course when you have been working within the denier culture for so long and when the deniers have said so many nice things about you. It would take a exceptionally courageous person to backtrack. They never will, no matter how solid the evidence against them.
    What they both have done through the years (aside from their debacle of satellite measurements) is look at small issues that are poorly understood and try to raise them to the status of Popperian falsification. It won’t wash of course but they hope the reader will not realize this, if indeed they realize it. I have some knowledge of this as I debated Spencer a few years ago.
    And it simply is not true that their background belief systems are irrelevant, as suggested by some. They are as relevant as the backgrounds of the opponents of Galileo, whose backgrounds made it impossible for them to view the evidence and see what was there for all to see…so they got it wrong. The consequence in that case was relatively benign; science, which Galileo almost single-handedly invented, moved out of Italy into northern Europe. Today, when people like Christy and Spencer are wrong, it is also because their backgrounds interfere with their reason, but the consequences for the Earth are potentially much, much greater. I wonder whether they think about this, the extent to which they will bear responsibility for what happens.
    Probably not. Christy was a missionary in Africa and worries that policies to mitigate GW will negatively affect the meager existence of peoples there. Apparently, he thinks it will be a problem if they have to give up their SUVs because they don’t make enough to buy Priuses.

  26. psi says:

    Joe, it is comments like this that disgust me and turn me away from the AGW “consensus”:

    “Peter — You can distrust science all you want, but reality has a way of intruding upon your elite system. The hockey stick was vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences. Everything else you’ve written is denier talking points.”

    What about Peter’s post signals to you that he “distrusts science.” No organization or individual has a monopoly on science, or scientific methd. You have a right to disagree with Christy and Spenser. If you want to influence intelligent bystanders who are trying to determine the truth in these matters, you should refrain from this kind of mudslinging. It is not fair to accuse them of “screwing up” tropospheric T measurements. For decades, they were the only ones making them. They used state of the art methods for doing so. As science and technology evolves, so do data collecting methods. By obscuring this reality, it seems to me that you are engaging in politics, not science.

    This is confirmed for me by your response to Peter, who raised a number of pertinent points about method that you ignored in your response. You say that reality will intrude on his “elite system,” whatever that is supposed to mean. It seems to me that this kind of thing will work only so long as a herd mentality pervades public thinking on this subject. But reality is starting to intrude, as the evidence for imminent global cooling begins to mount.

  27. caerbannog says:

    It is not fair to accuse them of “screwing up” tropospheric T measurements.


    That is a rather unkind bit of phrasing, but the discrepancy between the Spencer/Chrisitie mid-tropospheric temperature estimates and the climate-model predictions was mostly the result of a sign error in Spencer/Christie’s math. See for details.

    Mistakes like that aren’t unknown (especially in “cutting edge” work), but the major problem that many folks have with Spencer/Christie is not that they made that error, but that they did not work hard enough to ferret it out. That work was left to others.

  28. calvininjax says:

    It all comes down to money. If a scientist perceives a theoretical problem, he will seek government funding to research the problem. It is obvioulsy in the scientist’s interests to exaggerate the problem in order to retain the funding.

    The public seems okay with government funding of a scientist because governments are so “trustworthy,” unlike those nasty multi-national companies.

    The scientist continues to come up with domesday scenarios, selects his data to support those scenarios, the government pays up and the scientist pursues whatever agenda it is that drives his research.

    Science and the truth fly out the window.

    Look at Dr Romm’s unscientific remarks rubbishing those who happen to disagree with him. And then look at his proud claim about the $1 billion of research he directed looking at clean energy. Do I detect a political agenda here?

    Consider also that the greatest protagonist of global warming is Al Gore who has no scientific credentials whatsoever. The man is a plagiarist and a charlatan; worst of all, he is a politician.

    And no I am not some raving right-wing Christian fundamentalist. I believe in the old-fashioned virtues of common sense and independent thought.

    I hold a doctorate from a British university and believe in sound scientific research that seeks the truth; the very thing Al Gore and his kind are afraid of.