Correcting Overheated Math in Alarming Ocean-Warmth Study

There was a rare glimpse of camaraderie between researchers on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum following the release of a beleaguered new climate study. That study, broadcast in the journal Nature, asserted that ocean-warming calculations done by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were too conservative. Alternatively, the researchers contend that sea warmth is 60% higher what the IPCC declares.

However, mathematician Nic Lewis discovered a discrepancy shortly after the study went public. Lewis wrote that “a quick review of the first page of the paper was sufficient to raise doubts as to the accuracy of its results.” He went on to reveal, “Just a few hours of analysis and calculations, based only on published information, was sufficient to uncover apparently serious (but surely inadvertent) errors in the underlying calculations.”

The authors, it turns out, acknowledged Lewis’s complaint. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Ralph Keeling, a study partaker, responded, “When we were confronted with his insight it became immediately clear there was an issue there. We’re grateful to have it be pointed out quickly so that we could correct it quickly.” He also stated, “Our error margins are too big now to really weigh in on the precise amount of warming that’s going on in the ocean. We really muffed the error margins.”

While the acknowledgment is refreshing, Lewis remains circumspect. In an email to Reason magazine, he cautions:

In general terms, if [Keeling] is only saying that they acknowledge that their study underestimated the uncertainty in their ocean heat uptake estimate, that is not enough. They should also acknowledge that another consequence of their mishandling of the treatment of uncertainty was that their central estimate of ocean heat uptake was overstated by approximately 30%. … I would hope that Nature will have any changes made by the authors to their assumptions examined carefully by peer reviewers who are experts in the same field as [the authors] as well as by statistically expert peer reviewers. However, the failure of the original peer review and editorial process to pick up the fairly obvious statistical problems in the original paper do not engender confidence in Nature’s approach.

This is an important point. National Center for Atmospheric Research climatologist Gerald Meehl says, “This is how the process works. Every paper that comes out is not bulletproof or infallible. If it doesn’t stand up under scrutiny, you review the findings.” Fair enough. However, Lewis was able to discern the problem in “a few hours of analysis and calculations, based only on published information.” This should create general alarm over other studies whose shaky underpinnings could be recklessly unseen or ignored. Indeed, few agenda-driven researchers are as deferential as Keeling. Either that, or the flaw was hidden in such plain sight that he had no choice but to accept correction.

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