Sunday, November 29, 2009

Off-topic Thoughts Addressed to a Dendrologist Visiting Climate Audit

At about the 113rd comment, a dendrologist entered the thread of Miracles and Strip Bark Standardization at "CB" began"
November 23rd, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I have to agree with Rob Wilson - most of this discussion reveals a fundamental lack of understanding and experience with the subject [of strip bark analysis]...
Happily, CB returned to address technical issues in dendrology and climate reconstruction.

At Comment #195, I wrote
CB --

Thanks again for coming and addressing dendro-related issues, and for providing links to what you view as the literature's "best of" summaries. Given the apparent state of the dendrochronology and climatology professions, it shows considerable integrity that you're here. I'm read-only on the methodology you describe, but I (along with other lurkers, I'd wager) am learning.

You wrote, "It is a little unfortunate that I am in the position of the lone gunman facing the militia here." Well: Not exactly. In the physical science specialties I'm familiar with, vigorous debate on technical issues is expected (You never attended any of our lab meetings or journal clubs in cell/molecular biology). It has become evident to me that paleoclimatology and dendrochronology are unusually insular areas of inquiry. "Everyone who is anybody" agrees on certain foundational principals, allowing the field to keep advancing, e.g. with ever-more-precise temperature reconstructions. It comes as a rude shock to find intelligent, knowledgeable outsiders who do not adhere to these concepts.

In that regard, you dendros and paleos are traveling a well-worn path. Example: Breast cancer surgeons, 1900-1975. I've put Dr Norman Walmark's recent talk up. His concerns are very different from mine, but you can get the point. Surgeons following in Halstead's footsteps concerned themselves with the details of the surgical techniques of the radical mastectomy, and properly so. But in keeping their focus narrow, they lost sight of the most important questions for three-quarters of a century. A quantitative example: reliance on sophisticated models of the riskiness of collateralized mortgage obligations was a key contributing factor to the onset of the 2008 financial meltdown.

A chasm has developed between the analytical approaches that are considered acceptable in dendro/paleo, and those that constitute a minimum in certain other fields. Speaking as one familiar with interpretation of clinical trials, the dendro/paleo standard is at least a decade behind. In some disputes, positions analogous to those taken by prominent people in your field are discredited elsewhere. E.g. compare the current extremely permissive dendro/paleo consensus views on "data selection" and "post hoc analysis" with the sophistication attending the intent-to-treat approach to clinical trials (that's a 9-year-old article). You dendros and paleos would greatly benefit from recruiting some up-and-coming biostatisticians into your laboratories, and heeding their advice.

The reception of the Mann et al (PNAS, 2008) paper has revealed the very poor health of the dendro and paleo communities. This was a high-profile paper by a heavy-hitting scientist in one of the world's most prominent peer-reviewed journals. Yet the paper is a travesty. Opaque data and computer code, slovenly peer review, incorrect calibration, upside-down transposition of multiple climate proxies, erroneous figures, failure to disclose methodology... the list goes on. (Do you agree?) And the response of dendrochronologists and paleoclimatologists has ranged between Silence and Acceptance. For whatever reasons, dendros and paleos have been incapable of voicing criticism, no matter how tawdry the details. E.g. note the cheerleading by pro-Consensus voices here. Perhaps most of you folks are unaware of how far your standards have fallen. Perhaps most of you are more concerned with policy, politics, and professional prospects than some distant Olympian ideal. I don't know.

That's my view of the context of the discussion of strip bark tree analysis. Again, thanks for sharing your perspective. In engaging the CA commentariat, I hope you find that you have learned as well as taught.

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