How A Single Word Sparked A Four-Year Saga Of Climate Fact-Checking And Blog Backlash

Re-analysed data shows that Australia has indeed been hotter over the past 30 years than any time in the preceding millennium. Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock
Kristy Hamilton 11 Jul 2016, 21:36

In May 2012, my colleagues and I had a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Climate, showing that temperatures recorded in Australasia since 1950 were warmer than at any time in the past 1,000 years.

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 Conversation

Enter the bloggers

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.

As well as being discussed by bloggers (sometimes with a deeply offensive and sexist tone), the “flaw” was seized upon by sections of the mainstream media.

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