Neukom's Science By Proxy

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

Over at Climate Audit, Steve McIntyre is engaged in the slow public defenestration of the latest multi-proxy extravapalooza, a gem of a paper yclept “Inter-hemispheric temperature variability over the past millennium” by Neukom et al, hereinafter Neukom2014. Not content with simply creating a thousand-year temperature reconstruction for the Southern Hemisphere, they top it off by comparing that reconstruction to a thousand-year temperature reconstruction for the Northern Hemisphere … the paper is paywalled but the supplemental Information is available, and covers many of the topics (16 mb PDF).

On that Climate Audit thread, someone asked Steve McIntyre why, since he is arguably the world’s foremost expert on the minutia of the various proxies, he doesn’t make his own reconstruction. He replied:

I don’t see any point in dumping a lot of stuff into a hopper and making a weighted average. What specialists need to demonstrate first is that there is consistency among proxies. … I have long urged specialists to examine proxies for consistency as a precondition to presenting a reconstruction. If one has consistent proxies, then you get similar reconstructions regardless of the methodology. Specialists have either ignored the idea or sneered at it. Instead, they prefer to throw increasingly complicated and poorly understood multivariate methods at the problem, yielding poorly interpreted squiggles.

Like Steve, I am a huge advocate of using the tried and true mark one eyeball to examine the proxies for consistency. It’s detail work, but it is of extreme importance. It’s also often very interesting. So with that in mind, let’s look at what Neukom2014 calls “an unprecedented network of terrestrial and oceanic palaeoclimate proxy records”. It is indeed unprecedented, although perhaps not for the reasons he believes … here are the first 24 proxies.

neukom proxies 1 to 24Figure 1. Twenty-four of the 111 proxies used in Neukom2014. Colors indicate the type of proxy. Datasets standardized by Neukom authors, units are standard deviations. Dashed gray lines show ± 3 standard deviations. Note that the proxies cover different time spans. Thick transparent gray lines are loess smooths of the data.The scarlet letter (H) indicates that the data is heteroskedastic (Goldfield-Quant test) at p less than 0.05. (“Heteroskedastic” is a lovely word, almost a skat rhythm, that simply means that the variation changes over time.) Click for larger version.

Dang … already you can see that McIntyre’s “consistency” is not exactly a prominent feature of this dataset. So, only way to do it, jump in, start from the top … onwards.

The first four proxies (top row) are lake sediment proxies (marked “l sed”), which I’ve colored brown like the sediment. The first is a record from Lake Challa in Kenya, where obviously the sedimentation is very low and quite variable. This is evidenced by the flat bottom of dataset. Remember that annual sedimentation rates can vary but they can’t go below zero. Obviously, when the data was standardized, the dataset was moved downwards, so the flat bottom which represents almost no sedimentation is now below zero.

The second proxy, rather than sedimentation rates, is measuring d18O, the change in an oxygen isotope linked to temperature. Also heteroskedastic, but lacking the flat bottom seen in Lake Challa.

The next two lake sediment proxies obviously are not teleconnected. One says no change, dead flat … and heteroskedastic. The other is not heteroskedastic, but drops seriously 1300 -1400, then rises again by 1800 … which one to believe? What are they measuring? In Laguna Aculeo, it is “pigment reflection”, and in Lago Puyeheye, it is thickness of the sediment layer.

The first problem with these lake sedimentation proxies is indicated by the scarlet letter. You can see that the last half of the data has a decidedly greater variance than the first half.

I have to confess, I’m not a big fan of lake sediment as a temperature proxy, for several reasons. The first is that it is what I call a “double proxy”. By that I mean that it is NOT a proxy for temperature. Instead, it is a proxy for some other variable, which is in turn connected to the temperature. In other words, it is a proxy of a proxy. In this case, lake sediment is often a direct proxy for rainfall, and thus only indirectly connected to temperature.

But not always, of course … that would be too simple, and climate is rarely that. For example, in Eagle Lake, Alaska, the “varve thickness” (annual layer thickness) is inversely related to both rainfall and temperature … go figure. It seems to be related to the fact that the lake is glacier-fed. The tongue of a glacier is always moving, one direction or the other. When it is retreating you get less sediment. But when it is advancing (cooling) it acts like a bulldozer, pushing up the soil and creating sediment. So rather than get more sediment from rain, this lake gets more sediment from falling temperatures.

We also came across another large problem with the Eagle Lake varve thickness. This is that the rate of sedimentation, as you might imagine, is greatest near where the creek or river empties into the lake, and decreases outwards from there. The problem is, often a delta builds up where the river enters the lake, and then after a flood or just after some time, the river changes its course through the delta (as they all do eventually). This can lead to huge variations in the varve thickness for a given sampling site. I corresponded with Mike Loso, the author of the study, regarding this question, and he was later generous enough to mention my contribution in his acknowledgements in a paper. In any case, the wandering of the location of the incoming water is a big problem for lake sediment proxies.

Next difficulty with lake sediments is that they are often exquisitely dependent on the local vegetation. If the vegetation dies from any cause, whether fire, humans, bark beetles, or something else, erosion is guaranteed to increase. And the varve thickness will increase with the erosion … so lake sediments are not unlikely to be proxies for things that have only a vague connection to either temperature or rainfall.

In the case of the first lake sediment record, one or the other of the many possible confounding variables has so contaminated the record so much that if we take a running average (yellow line), we end up with a gradually raising average over 2000 years. But that’s not real. You can see the change in the character of the record in about the year 1250. Don’t know what happened then, perhaps the river mouth shifted, but since then the record has a distinctly different appearance than the record before that. And it is exactly that spurious shift that is picked up by the heteroskedasticity test and results in the red “H” …

The second lake sediment proxy is also heteroskedastic. For a thousand years, almost no change. Then for the next thousand years, down and then up. I don’t know what the lake is measuring … seems doubtful that it’s temperature, though. Anyhow, that’s why I’m not a big fan of using lakes as thermometers.

Next, we have a whole bunch of corals. Figure 2 shows the rest of them.

neukom proxies 25 to 48Figure 2. More Neukom proxies, corals, documentary records, and ice cores.

Most of them are on the order of only three or four hundred years in length. Most but not all of them are gradually descending over the time of the record. They are measuring different things in the coral—strontium/calcium ratios (Sr/Ca), change in oxygen-18 isotope (d18O), thickness of annual layers. What are they actually proxies for? I don’t know. If it’s temperature, they are almost all going down over the period. Are they negatively correlated with temperature? Did the authors use them right-side-up? Is “right-side-up” for d18O the same direction as for Sr/Ca? I do not know if the authors have answered all of these questions … but given the number of proxies used upside-down in past reconstructions, I’m not sanguine about the answer.

Next, we have a number of “documentary” records, shown in gray. These are estimates of a climate variable from written records of the past. Of course, these are almost all since the Spanish conquest. A number of them appear to be discrete variables that take one of only a few possible values (e.g. “very high”,”high”, “no mention”, “low”, “very low”).

The bizarre thing about the documentary records is that they document the following subjects in order: precipitation, ENSO, precipitation, precipitation, snow depth, precipitation, snow occurrence … but not a single one of them is a documentary record of temperature! Not one? How crazy is that?

From there we go to the ice cores, in Figure 3 below.

neukom proxies 49 to 72Figure 3. More proxies, mostly ice cores shown in cyan.

Like the coral proxies, various things are measured in the ice. Mostly it is d18O, but some are measuring annual accumulation rates, sea salt levels, and change in deuterium (dD). The only one of these ice core proxies that is not in Antarctica is Quelccaya, which is in Peru. Now … if all of those records are showing the temperature in Antarctica, why are they so different? Are we to believe that some places in Antarctica there has been no change in temperature in the last 400 years, in other places it has warmed steadily for the last 250 years, and in other places it has been cooling over the last 250 years? Because I don’t believe it. In any case, seven of the seventeen ice cores are heteroskedastic.

Next there is one lonely ocean sediment proxy, measuring the magnesium/calcium ratios. Not sure why there is only one, as there are certainly other ocean cores … but what do I know, I was born yesterday. Did the ocean temperature actually take a jog up in 1500 and then drop to 1700? Looks possible, I suppose. Does this mean the medieval warm period (MWP) was warm in sunny Cariaco? Quien sabe, señor …

Then we have a reconstruction, shown in gold. A reconstruction of what? … well, of rainfall on the great barrier reef. Since 1890. Why? who knows.

Then a speleothem, which is generally either a stalagmite or a stalactite in some cave. This is measuring annual lamina (layer) thickness. It’s another double proxy, because lamina thickness is related to rainfall rather than temperature. In addition, lamina thickness is a function of how much water is coming into the cave, how much of that water makes it to the specific spot, the ever-changing underground geometry as the limestone collects and changes and wears away … not a simple story.

And after that? Trees, trees, and more trees, almost 40% of all of the proxies are of tree ring width or density.

neukom proxies 73 to 96

neukom proxies 97 to 111Figures 4 and 5 … da trees …

To start with, about 40% of all the tree proxies are heteroskedastic. Next, according to the trees, the southern hemisphere is warming, cooling and staying exactly the same over the last 250 years or so … go figure.

I’m sorry, but the tree ring datasets don’t impress. The problems with them have been covered extensively in the past. The basic problem is that trees simply don’t make very good thermometers.

So there you have it, all 111 of the “unprecedented” proxies used in Neukom 2014. Steve McIntyre advised looking for proxy consistency. The problem with the Neukom proxies is that there is little consistency to be found anywhere, either between the groups of proxies or within each group of proxies.

Now, if you average all of those proxies together, you get … well, no hockeystick, as shown in gray below. But of course, the authors have their secret sauce which is guaranteed to prepare a hockeystick … Figure 6 shows the average of the proxies, along with their final results.

mean neukom proxies final resultFigure 6. Year-by-year average of the standardized individual proxies, and the final result of the Neukom2014 study.

How dey do dat? Well, that’s a fascinating topic in itself, but for another day …

Conclusions? I can only echo the quote I put up earlier:

I don’t see any point in dumping a lot of stuff into a hopper and making a weighted average. What specialists need to demonstrate first is that there is consistency among proxies.

I can’t say it any better than that …

My best wishes,


AS ALWAYS: If you disagree with me (line forms to the left) please quote the exact words you disagree with … that way we can all be clear regarding just what you think is wrong.

DATA: All of the Neukom14 data is online as .csv files here.


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Alan Robertson
April 3, 2014 11:08 am

Willis, you’re making me get out my dictionary, again.

Shub Niggurath
April 3, 2014 11:10 am

How many of the proxy records are ‘inverted’? How is their orientation determined?

Les Johnson
April 3, 2014 11:26 am

Willis: Any idea why the Final Result in Fig 6 was not carried back to the start of the data?
Using Mk 1 eyeball, the temps 2000 years ago are the same or higher than todays.

Tom O
April 3, 2014 11:30 am

Very good. I have always wondered about proxies to start with. To me, they are something that suggests that things “might” work this way, but the variables that cause their existence don’t always mean that they “actually” work that way. And in the end, they aren’t true data, they are suggested data, but for some reason “science” has decided that “if I think it might be so, it must be so,” thus the proxy of a temperature becomes the equivalent of a measured temperature. In truth, they are guess work – perhaps educated guess work, but they are still guess work.

April 3, 2014 11:34 am

As a river engineer I can also add that bed and bank erosion changes naturally as a river is continually self organising and changes year to year or decade to decade from accumlating bed material, to losing it as it constantly regrades itself in a never ending battle for that perfect energy regime. Changing sediment load each year is only PARTLY related to rainfall (which often isnt correlated to temperature) and PARTLY driven by imposible to know almost random changes in the rivers geo-morphology, bank cover and geological strata its interfacing. Why they keep trying to extract temperature from random data I cant understand – I mean they are well educated people, surely they must see its a futile effort? Are they scared to change career and start actually contributing to our knowledge?

April 3, 2014 11:40 am

In the last graph, the grey Mean Screened Proxies looks warmer say from 500-1000 than current temperatures.
Any explanation by the author why things have cooled recently?

NZ Willy
April 3, 2014 11:55 am

Their hockey blade looks much like Marcott’s which was made by reducing the calculational baseline as you approach the right edge, with the right edge itself having a baseline of one year. In this way the right-hand data points are increasingly shielded from the LIA data, as they approach the right edge. This is called an “edge effect” and is just a calculational artifact. Artifacts are supposed to be necessary evils, and not the point of the research.

Bloke down the pub
April 3, 2014 11:56 am

If fig6 shows the result of the torture that they put the data through, then I’m suprised I didn’t hear the screams from here.

Richard Ilfeld
April 3, 2014 12:04 pm

I could have sworn that they simply let 111 planeria squiggle over 111 coated glass plates, then gave each one a fancifull name and genesis. Twould mean as much.

April 3, 2014 12:17 pm

“How dey do dat? Well, that’s a fascinating topic in itself, but for another day …”
Seriously? We gotta wait til next season to find out who shot J.R.?

Les Johnson
April 3, 2014 12:18 pm

Willis: It looks they just picked an arbitrarily round number (1000) for the start date.
I count 5 proxies going back to Neukom’s start date, and 3 before that.
It would be interesting to find that “secret sauce”, and extend the Final Result back to 2000 years BP.
Or, to start when they have more proxies, like 1500-1700.
But, I smell cherry pie….

Svend Ferdinandsen
April 3, 2014 12:20 pm

They don’t need to use them upside down. It is more or less done automaticly when using these matrix manipulations they love so much.

a jones
April 3, 2014 12:25 pm

As I always used to teach my students you must use the raw data and if on simple visual inspection you can perceive a clear trend you almost certainly have a major effect whereas if you cannot there might be a minor effect or not: and moreover no amount of mathematical trickery is going to tell whether you are looking at a real minor effect or a chimera.
Of course this was long before the microcomputer and later Matlab and its ilk which allow instant twiddlery but the result does not necessarily mean anything: and the more so if you do not understand what you are doing. All too commonplace I fear, and so called climate science is not the only offender. .
The simplest observations are the best, if you observe around the globe ice is advancing from the poles towards the tropics and record and plot it over a long time then you can be sure the world is cooling, and vice versa. But that is far too straightforward for a world of poorly educated so called scientists who want instant results when none are actually available.
I find it all very depressing.
Kindest Regards

April 3, 2014 12:27 pm

The problem is obvious – all of these data were collected in the southern hemisphere. It is well known that water spins the other way when it goes down the drain south of the equator and there is a similar effect on climate data. The polarity of the data heteroskadism is reversed, which means that it cannot be correctly analyzed in the northern hemisphere, unless you stand on your head. This phenomenon also goes a long way toward explaining the difficulty we have understanding studies emanating from UWA.

NZ Willy
April 3, 2014 1:26 pm

They are certainly using Marcott’s method, as the “mean screened proxies” are of decreasing amplitude from left to right, but the right edge suddenly has a big amplitude because that year’s data is *unscreened* because its baseline is only that one year. So the “mean” for year 10 (that is, 10 years left of the right edge) is over a 21 year baseline, i.e., from 10 years earlier to the right edge, and similarly the “mean” for year 100 is over a 201 year baseline. In this way the last 100 years of the red line increasingly don’t use the cold Little Ice Age data, and so rebound into a warmer value. If so, then Neukom’s final output is total phony-baloney.

April 3, 2014 1:28 pm

I thought “yclept” was some sort of typo but it also had a vague feeling of familiarity.

Clype (pronounced to rhyme with ripe and having the alternative spelling clipe) is a Scots verb meaning to tell tales, in other words to tell a teacher about a piece of wrongdoing carried out by another pupil. For once, something is known about the origin of the word. Clype is related to the Old English word, meaning to name or call.

April 3, 2014 1:31 pm

The variability (inconsistancy) of these proxies looks a lot like the variability (inconsistancy) of climate models, indicating both collections have little scientific value when averaged.

April 3, 2014 1:34 pm

End result: hockey stick.
Imagine my surprise. /sarc

April 3, 2014 1:36 pm

Concerning deepsea sediment cores there are two issues: 1) sufficient accumulation to allow close sampling in terms of years between samples, 2) bioturbation that mixes the sediment and smears the data. In other words, the sediment is constantly reworked by organisms and no longer reflects an exact date of deposition. Cores from anoxic basins beneath high productivity waters can overcome some of the problem, but these are rare. That may be why there’s only one such series in the bunch.

Follow the Money
April 3, 2014 1:51 pm

“The basic problem is that trees simply don’t make very good thermometers.”
How many of these SH “readings” are actually from timberline trees? I have read SH studies where the chosen tree-mometers do not even bother to pretend to be timberline specimens. All NH studies I have seen keep with the pretense that it is the cold-determined timberline species/specimens (cherry picked at that) which produce tree rings that are proxy thermometers.

Evan Jones
April 3, 2014 1:53 pm
April 3, 2014 2:02 pm

Is a proxy of a proxy like hearsay evidence?

April 3, 2014 2:25 pm

yclept and cleped are both used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, both meaning ‘named’ or ‘called’. eg: the Prioress was ‘cleped madame eglentyne’.

April 3, 2014 2:59 pm

Changes in sedimentation can occur for a number of reasons. One that doesn’t seem to be popular in the Climate community is the introduction of grazing animals. That looks to be a possible cause for the step change at Lake Challa about 1,000 C.E. Of course a change in climate can do this as well. During the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in California the foothill belt of the Sierra Nevada was evidently seriously denuded of vegetation for a span resulting in erosion and the formation of the “foothill cobble colluvium”. The distinction between alluvium and colluvium is that the latter is the result of unstable slopes with little vegetation to protect them from erosion. It’s only alluvium after it has made it into a stream.
Another landmark geomorphological event, again in California, is the historical, widespread ranching of sheep, cattle and horses, but especially sheep. This resulted in increased erosion in the Sierran foothills and coast ranges with new gullying in small seasonal and ephemeral stream channels that have become incised over the last century and a half, though since around 1970 the sheep business has really collapsed. Logging, the Gold Rush, and hydraulic mining had their effects, but the more pervasive and wide spread effects are from sheep herding and to a lesser extent cattle grazing. All of this would have effects on downstream sedimentation rates that would, in fact, appear to correlate with post-LIA warming.

April 3, 2014 4:36 pm

As expected the proxy data shows nothing.. no change. Intelligent mankind has been on earth for ad extremis 100,000 years its amazing how climate is in fact so stable. Sorry guys and gals we will not see ANY change in our lifetimes.

April 3, 2014 5:37 pm

All this data, all this analysis, all the theories, all the time, money and study….Yet, not one flippin’ word on whether the fishing was any good!
I’m going back to the Old Farmers Almanac for something useful.

April 3, 2014 5:51 pm

but not a single one of them is a documentary record of temperature! Not one? How crazy is that?
makes sense because water, not temperature is the single most important factor in human civilization.
with shelter and clothing you can survive months of hot or cold weather. However, without water you are dead in 4 days.

April 3, 2014 6:02 pm

Let us guess. The secret sauce is “selection on the dependent variable”. The result is inevitably a hockey stick shape.
Selection on the dependent variable is forbidden in statistics because it routines generates spurious correlations. But of course this is a positive boon in Climate Science.
ps: selection on the dependent variable is better know as “calibration” in tree ring science.

Lew Skannen
April 3, 2014 6:34 pm

Willis, I am amazed that you find the time to write all these articles let alone learn all the stuff but I just want to say Thanks!
I am glad you are on our side … and yet, given that you are in favour of rigorous scientific analysis you have little choice in that matter.

Theo Goodwin
April 3, 2014 7:03 pm

Standard Operating Procedure for climate scientists. Any two proxy records are comparable. But they do not stop there. Any two temperature records are comparable. Alarmist Climate Scientists are the most anti-empirical group ever to exist. Compared to Alarmist Climate Scientists, holy roller bible thumpers are sophisticated empirical scientists.

April 3, 2014 8:20 pm

“…someone asked Steve McIntyre why, since he is arguably the world’s foremost expert on the minutia of the various proxies, he doesn’t make his own reconstruction. ”
That “argument” has always struck me as a bit like saying that you can’t criticize someones perpetual motion machine until you’ve built a better one of your own.

April 3, 2014 8:24 pm

By any chance does Neukom give assurances that the 114 series he published are all the series he looked at.
Are there any on the cutting room floor, and if so, what criteria were used to reject them?
I think one can say, I don’t trust lake sediments as valid proxies and reject the lot.
I think one could say, I’ll take a lake sediment if and only if I have at least 3 from different locations from the same lake and I treat the samples the same.
But to reject a sample after looking at its trend it is a no-no, How do you control for that, especially when the samples are provide to you by other people?

Mark Luhman
April 3, 2014 8:58 pm

a jones You are like me, you say it better than I but it seems that only fools do not understand that they are on a fools errand. To bad at this date and time we have so many fools in position of power, I think it has to do with the lack of quality education we have seen in the last sixty years.

Mark Luhman
April 3, 2014 9:29 pm

Willis thanks for you thoughs and my God where do you find the time.

Steve R
April 3, 2014 11:25 pm

Climate scientists have utterly twisted the entire concept of the “proxy”! If someone wants to introduce a data set as a proxy for anything, they must put forward a reasonable description of the proxy relationship AND provide a mathematical model of the relationship to be used. For example, if You wanted to study total dissolved solids in water, you might argue that you could collect much more data, more easily and less expensively, by simply measuring the water’s electrical conductivity. Your responsibility, in using electrical conductivity as a PROXY for total dissolved solids concentration would be to explain why the two are related, the limitations of the relationship, and the mathematical conversion from the proxy to the target data. If you can’t (or wont) do that, you have no business calling it a proxy! You can’t just put forth a set of data, call it a proxy, and presume that a computer will identify the proper relationship.
Why do they get so irate when people call them on their BS? (Mr. Mann) I would think they would hang their heads in shame!

Joel O'Bryan
April 3, 2014 11:37 pm

looks like a flat Aztec atlatl, not a hockey stick.

Dr Burns
April 3, 2014 11:38 pm

Good work Willis. The magic pudding kicks up at 1924 but none of the proxies show an increase anywhere near that date. How do they do it will indeed be interesting.

lemiere jacques
April 3, 2014 11:40 pm

And don’t forget that no body is able to define what temperature of the southern hemisphere is….
it can vary according to the way you decide to calculate it, in quite a similar way with what they do with proxy : individual choice…
so you have to assume proxies are..proxies regardless we don’t have clear idea what temperature actually was…
you have to combine them in a sexy way regardless another way gives another result
and last coat of crap
you built a global temperature with that regardless global temperature is meaningless.

lemiere jacques
April 3, 2014 11:42 pm

and sorry it is not a fraud because you are honest.
in the same way if i take your money it doesn’t mean i steal it, because i am honest.

April 4, 2014 12:44 am

This proxy selection process reminds me of Monty Python’s logic of witch burning:
If she weighs the same as a duck… she’s made of wood….and therefore….a witch!

Jeff Alberts
April 4, 2014 7:37 am

Did the ocean temperature actually take a jog up in 1500 and then drop to 1700?

Just like there is no “global temperature”, I suspect there is no “the ocean temperature”. Any of these single-outcome graphs are simply not realistic, and pretty useless, IMHO.

April 4, 2014 8:14 am

As Steve McIntyre points out, if proxies show agreement, then the paleoclimate reconstruction does itself, pro forma. The converse is that if proxies are inconsistent, then no valid climate reconstruction is possible. But such an attitude will not get your funding.

April 4, 2014 10:08 am

The use of “yclept” caught my attention – the only time I’d ever seen it before was once in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series. Now I have to go back and actually read the article…

April 4, 2014 11:36 am

“How dey do dat? Well, that’s a fascinating topic in itself, but for another day …”
This is a post I would really like to read. How did they come up with that red graph? It’s hard to imagine any well merited statistical method that would change the grey to the red.

david moon
April 4, 2014 5:04 pm

I don’t know about that hetero thingy but I learned that yclept is not the same as verklempt!

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