Over a period of several months the Met Office has been involved in dialogue and answered a series of questions on the subject of the use of statistical models in relation to the global temperature record.
The Met Office’s Chief Scientist, Julia Slingo, has written a discussion paper on the subject – you can now view the Executive Summary and a link to the full paper in an article on our Research News pages.
Publication of this paper follows a guest article recently published on the Bishop Hill blog site, where one of the people with which the Met Office has been speaking with – Doug Keenan – makes a series of accusations about the Met Office and its science.
Professor Slingo’s paper answers many of the points Mr Keenan makes, and the Met Office has already directly addressed many of the points Mr Keenan raises through considerable previous correspondence we have had with him on this issue. However, here we directly address a few of the key points in Mr Keenan’s article:
1) Mr Keenan says that there is “no basis” for the claim that the increase in global temperatures since the late 1800s is too large to be reasonably attributed to natural random variation. He goes on to argue that this is because we haven’t used the right statistical model.
However, the claim that the increase in global warming is larger than could be explained by natural variability has a clear and well understood grounding in fundamental physics and chemistry. There is very high confidence (using the IPCC’s definition) that the global average net effect of human activities since 1850 has been one of warming. The basis for this claim is not, and never has been, the sole use of statistical models to emulate a global temperature trend. Instead it is based on hundreds of years of scientific advancement, supported by the development of high-quality observations and computational modeling.
2) Mr Keenan suggests that Met Office scientists have been ‘trying to cover it [point 1, above] up’.
The Met Office has entered into email discussion at the working scientific level and responded promptly and transparently on all parliamentary matters and questions. We have also responded to numerous emails from Mr Keenan and invited him to come to the Met Office to discuss statistical modeling in climate science. As he points out in his article, so far those invitations have been declined or unanswered. The invitation still stands.
3) Mr Keenan then goes on to argue that you can only use a statistical model to determine whether the warming we have seen is statistically significant. He argues that the Met Office has used the wrong statistical model and, therefore, our science is flawed.
The study of climate variability and change is broader than the domain of statistics, most notably due to the importance of the underpinning science of the climate system. Our judgment that changes in temperature since 1850 are driven by human activity is based on information not just from the global temperature trend, or statistics, but also our knowledge of the way that the climate system works, how it responds to global fossil fuel emissions and observations of a wide range of other indicators, such as sea ice, glacier mass, sea level rise, etc.
Using statistical tests in the absence of this other information is inappropriate, particularly when it is not possible to know, definitively, which is the most appropriate statistical model to use. In particular, a key test of an appropriate statistical model is that it agrees with everything we know about the system. Neither of the models discussed by Mr Keenan is adequate in this regard. On that basis, this conversation on statistical modelling is of little scientific merit.
4) Mr Keenan details his argument to say that various different statistical models can emulate the global temperature record better and worse than others.
This is something the Met Office has already spoken about and shown analysis on (such as in an answer to a parliamentary question (PQHL62)). However, this assessment of relative likelihood does not ensure that any of the statistical models are scientifically valid. Because the Met Office does not make an assessment of global warming solely on statistics – let alone the statistical models referred to in Mr Keenan’s article, this exercise is of very little, if any, scientific use.
5) Mr Keenan also makes repeated accusations that the Met Office did not, or was not willing to respond to Parliamentary Questions.
This is not the case. The Met Office answered every request for input to Parliamentary Questions and answered them in the most scientifically appropriate way to the best of its knowledge. There has never been a refusal to provide information to answer a Parliamentary Question.