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McKitrick mucks it up

August 26th, 2004

Late last year, the debate over climate change was stirred up when an environmental economist, Ross McKitrick and a mining executive, AndrewSteven McIntyre, published a piece claiming to refute climatological research crucial to the claim that the last few decades have seen unparalleled global warming (the ‘hockey-stick‘ paper of Mann, Bradley and Hughes). According to McKitrick and McIntyre, the work of Mann et al was riddled with errors, The paper was loudly publicised by the American Enterprise Institute (home of John Lott) and, as you would expect, Flack Central Station. Mann et al produced an immediate rebuttal, and despite many promises of a rejoinder, McKitrick and McIntyre have never responded on the substantive issues[1].

This would be par for the course, except that McKitrick somehow managed to attract the attention of Tim Lambert, famous for his demolition of Lott’s shonky research, which purported to show that guns reduce crime. The result: McKitrick’s work is even shoddier than Lott’s.

Update 27/8 I’ve had some run-ins with John Brignell of Number Watch, who generally takes a contrarian line on global warming and other environmental issues. So I emailed him pointing out this absurdity to see what would happen. I’m pleased and impressed to say he checked the numbers and posted a link almost immediately (scroll to bottom of page).

Lambert has mainly focused not on the McKitrick and McIntyre paper but on a subsequent piece by McKitrick and Pat Michaels, which contains a regression purporting to show that it is GDP growth that causes (measured) climate change. McKitrick and Michaels take this as support for the generally-discredited ‘urban heat islands’ hypothesis, that measured warming is an artifact produced by weather stations in or near big cities.

In previous rounds of the debate, Lambert has shown that McKitrick messed up an analysis of the number of weather stations, showed he knew almost nothing about climate, flunked basic thermodynamics, couldn’t handle missing values correctly and invented his own temperature scale.

But Tim’s latest discovery really takes the cake. It’s well-known that the rate of warming varies with latitude, but McKitrick and Michaels find no such effect for their variable, which is the cosine of absolute latitude. Lambert checked and, amazingly enough, found that the data set used by McKitrick and Michaels had latitude in degrees, but the cosine function in the SHAZAM econometric package, they used expected input in radians (which is what any mathematically literate person would expect). If you apply this function to angles measured in degrees you get nonsense.

Once Lambert did the correct analysis, latitude was highly significant and the economic variables became much less important. The results reported by McKitrick and Michaels can be explained by an obvious confounding effect. Rich countries tend to be at high latitudes, and so GDP acts as a proxy for latitude.

Although Tim is almost invariably right in such matters, it was hard to believe that such a gross error could go undetected – it would show up immediately if you looked at descriptive stats on the variables, for example. So I checked myself. The descriptive statistics in the McKitrick and Michaels paper (available here) include the latitude, which is clearly in degrees, but not the cosine variable. The SHAZAM documentation, here, indicates that input to the sine function is in radians ( McKitrick and Michaels derive cosine using a transformation of this).

Bear in mind that McKitrick’s main claim to fame is his assertion to have done a painstakingly careful check of the work of others and to have found numerous errors. Looking at Lambert’s demolition of this paper, I’m reminded of what Julian Sanchez had to say about Lott – if he told you the time was 12 o’clock, you’d check your watch before you believed him[2].

And Michaels was a reputable climate scientist before he sold out to the fossil fuel lobby. It looks as though, as long as he says what his employers want to hear, they don’t feel the need for quality control.

fn1. There was a secondary dispute about the provision and labelling of data, as a result of which Mann et al published a very short corrigendum in Nature, noting that they had incorrectly described some parts of the data set, but that this had no implications for the results.

fn2. Interestingly, Sanchez, like Michaels, has worked at the Cato Institute, which shows that it’s not safe to make generalizations about institutions based on a few, or even a lott, of bad apples. Even TCS publishes some work by reputable people, to add cachet to its real output of lobby-fodder.

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  1. Dave Ricardo
    August 26th, 2004 at 11:04 | #1

    So what’s the conclusion: were M&M sloppy or something worse?

  2. Peter Murphy
    August 26th, 2004 at 14:11 | #2

    Perhpas it’s just a bad case of RTFM.

  3. alphacoward
    August 26th, 2004 at 14:30 | #3

    I’ll continue to argue my position on this :)

    Climate Change is real. We must accept that we have the ability to change the atmosphere.

    Global warming is a generalization, and not statiscally proven. Some parts of the world are heating up, while other parts are cooling. Specifically urban heat islands are a good example of this, while many of our deserts are cooling.

    I argue for the implementation of the Kyoto protocol because it should promote a rational move away from non renewable resources and slow atmospheric pollution, not because it will target the myth of global warming.

  4. ml
    August 26th, 2004 at 16:15 | #4

    Creation of appropriate new collective noun appreciatively noted.

  5. August 26th, 2004 at 16:46 | #5

    Not “the” ability to change the atmosphere, some ability – that’s the point. If we had full control we’d have no real problem; if we ever made a mistake, say poisoning the atmosphere with prussic acid, we’d just say “oops, prussic acid? let’s get rid of that, then”.

    But we are more in the position of needing to apply prevention than being able to resort to cure. And it’s long been my position that the same ignorance and incapacity afflicts proposed Green remedies, so that we also ought to treat those with caution for fear of making things even worse.

  6. Ken Miles
    August 26th, 2004 at 18:25 | #6

    Isn’t it Steven McIntyre, not Andrew McIntyre?

  7. John Quiggin
    August 26th, 2004 at 23:17 | #7

    Fixed, thanks, Ken

  8. John Quiggin
    August 27th, 2004 at 08:55 | #8

    My guess is that the mistake was “half-honest”. That is, M&M were running lots of regressions, trying to find a specification that gave them the answer they wanted.

    In particular, I’ll bet they used absolute latitude before trying the cosine and found it highly significant. When they found that their cosine variable was insignificant, and the economic variables came out “right”, they didn’t look to hard at the diagnostic stats.

  9. Anon
    August 27th, 2004 at 11:58 | #9

    “Isn’t it Steven McIntyre, not Andrew McIntyre?”

    Andrew Macintyre works for the IPA, so it’s an understandable mistake.

  10. August 27th, 2004 at 13:26 | #10

    It may be the case that global warming is a ‘generalisation’, and that the actual picture is very complicated, but to jump from that claim to the claim that global warming is a myth is a very large jump indeed. The most cautious position that the evidence might warrant would be a reserving of judgement, certainly not a bald dismissal.

  11. August 27th, 2004 at 13:26 | #11

    It may be the case that global warming is a ‘generalisation’, and that the actual picture is very complicated, but to jump from that claim to the claim that global warming is a myth is a very large jump indeed. The most cautious position that the evidence might warrant would be a reserving of judgement, certainly not a bald dismissal.

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