Wrecked in a Hurricane

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

Bemused by claims about connections between solar radiation, shipwrecks, and hurricanes in the pre-publication press release of a paywalled study highlighted by Anthony here on WUWT, I thought I’d take a look. I got a copy of the study thanks to my undersea connection, much appreciated … they’re working with three datasets. One dataset, called “TCsupp”, uses years of “suppressed” tree growth in the Florida Keys as a proxy for local hurricanes. It covers the period from 1708 – 2009. Here’s the map of the location of the trees, along with recent (post-1850) hurricanes, from their Supplemental Information, which also contains their data in table form.

caribbean hurricane tracks tree ringsFigure 1. Original Caption: Geographical location of the BPK tree-ring site (red dot), HURDAT-derived (1851–2010 CE) (17) category 1–5 Tropical Cyclones (white lines) that tracked within 100 km (red buffer ring; n = 23) and 300 km (dashed red ring; n = 60) of the site.

The second dataset is a subset of the HURDAT historical hurricane dataset for 1851-2009, giving the hurricanes in the local area around the trees.

The final dataset, called “TCship”, covers a period starting before the Maunder minimum, from 1495 to 1825. It is a dataset of the numbers of selected shipwrecks per year as a proxy for the number of hurricanes. The problem, of course, is that the time period for which we have shipwreck data doesn’t overlap with the HURDAT hurricane records. Well, that’’s not the only problem with the shipwreck dataset. They say:

The TCship time series thus consists of the number of Spanish ships that wrecked per year in the Caribbean region due to storm activity or for unspecified causes.

Now, including “unspecified causes” is a worrisome choice. Particularly back then, ships went down for many reasons other than hurricanes. First, many square-rigged ships of the day couldn’t go to windward well at all, so if they got caught on a lee shore they often couldn’t stay off the rocks. In addition, the navigation of the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s was very primitive—no accurate charts, no accurate clocks, few sextants and fewer trained to use them, no lighthouses, buoys, or other aids to navigation. And setting aside the hurricanes, there were no weather satellites warning of small craft advisories that could easily force a ship into danger, or of periods of reduced visibility that could result in the loss of the ship, or of predicted squalls that could topple a mast.

As a result, a ship foundering on an unsurveyed reef with the loss of all hands or going down in a sudden squall was a common occurrence back in the day … and that doesn’t even count the wrecks from non-weather-related causes like fire and shipworms and inept commanders and pirates and poor maintenance and sleepy lookouts and lightning strikes. The list is long.

Finally, the causes of shipwrecks would assuredly have changed in the three plus centuries from Columbus’s time at the start of the record to 1825, and thus the composition of the reasons for the wrecks would also change.

So when I see that they are using storm-caused wrecks as a proxy for hurricanes, I scratch my head. Even losses in a storm are often for other reasons, most storms are not hurricanes, and most years don’t even have hurricanes in a pre-selected location.

But when I see they’ve included wrecks from “unspecified causes”, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. That’s special pleading, and something like that is rarely done without the reason being that it “improves” the analysis … but I digress.

Let me start by complimenting the authors for including the datasets in question. Without them, it would have been impossible to analyze their results. Well done, would that more authors followed the practice.

Their claim rests on three testable legs. The first is that suppressed tree rings are a good proxy for local hurricanes. The second is that shipwrecks are a good proxy for tree ring data. The third claim rests on the other two. It is that IF shipwrecks are a good proxy for tree ring suppression data, and IF tree ring suppression data in turn is a good proxy for hurricanes, then it follows that shipwrecks are a good proxy for hurricanes. This is how they say they get around the fact that they have no contemporaneous hurricane and shipwreck data.

Let me start with the first leg of the tripod, the idea that tree rings are a good proxy for local hurricanes. It turns out that yes, they are a good proxy for hurricanes in the sense that there is a low p-value, less than 0.001 … but what makes them a bad proxy is that the tree ring data only explains about 10% of the variance in hurricanes.

Let me give an example. There are 159 years in the overlap period of the hurricane records and the tree ring data, 1851-2009. Of those, 125 years had no hurricanes. The problem is that of the 125 hurricane-free years, no less than 80 of them had suppressed tree rings. This means that at a bare minimum about two-thirds of the suppressed tree rings occurred in years without hurricanes. And even when we discount the year after the hurricanes, there are still 50 years which are neither the hurricane year or the year after, but still have suppressed tree rings. This is not good news for the use of suppressed tree rings as a proxy for hurricanes.

Nor does it get much better if we just look at the years with lots of suppressed tree rings. There were 41 years when over half of the tree rings were suppressed … but 24 of those occurred in years with no hurricanes. So even when we only consider years with over 50% suppressed tree rings, more than half of the suppressed tree rings occurred in years without hurricanes. And even when we discount the year after the hurricanes, there are still 12 years which are neither the hurricane year or the year after, but still have suppressed tree rings. That’s about 30% of the suppressed tree ring years that are not caused by hurricanes.

So despite a very good p-value, there is a big problem with using the tree rings as a proxy—with only 10% of the variance explained by suppressed tree rings, there is just not enough of an effect for the suppressed rings to be a useable proxy for hurricanes. The method throws up far too many false positives to be useful.

Let me move on to the second leg, the idea that shipwrecks are a good proxy for tree-ring data. The overlap period of those two datasets is from 1708 to 1825. Bear in mind that the later part of the shipwreck dataset is likely to be much more accurate than the earlier part, both because of better record keeping and less lost records, and also because of less navigation related wrecks in the later years as charts and navigation improved greatly. With those provisos (which on their own might be enough to sink the ship of state, it’s unknown), here’s the good and the bad news.

The p-value of shipwrecks and tree rings is 0.005, again very good … but once again the same bad news. The shipwrecks only explain a small amount of the variance in tree ring suppression, in this case about 7% (R^2=0.065). And this low explanatory value is what we’d expect, given that the tree rings represent hurricanes in only one small area, but they’ve counted shipwrecks all over the Caribbean, viz:

We compiled all Spanish shipwreck events that were recorded to have occurred (i) due to storm activity (66%) or for unspecified causes (34%), (ii) during the hurricane season (July–November) or with unknown seasonality, and (c) in Florida (21%), on the Atlantic Coast of Mexico (25%), in Hispaniola (22%), Cuba (13%), the Lesser Antilles (5%), and Puerto Rico, Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and the Bahamas (less than 5% each.

Why would we expect hurricanes in the Florida Keys to correlate well with shipwrecks in e.g. Bermuda?

So … now that we have the data, let’s look at the numbers. Given the fact that shipwrecks only explain 7% of the variance in tree ring suppression, and given that tree ring suppression in turn only explains 10% of the variance in hurricanes, how much of the variance in hurricanes would we expect the shipwrecks to explain?

I believe the correct answer is … nowhere near enough to draw any serious conclusions.

And note that this does not include any problems with changes over time in the underlying datasets, or problems in the selection criteria for the wreck data, or issues relating to the threshold chosen for inclusion as a “suppressed” tree ring, or increased uncertainties due to the small number of trees in the early period of the record, or …

My conclusion?

Not.

Not enough data. Not good enough data. Not enough correlation. Not enough explained variance. Not enough overlap between datasets. Not. That’s all. Not.

Anyhow, that’s the news from my delightfully soggy part of the world … the El Nino has indeed brought the rains. The cat mopes around the house looking for the door into summer.

Best to all,

w.

My Usual Request: Clarity is crucial for scientific discussions. If you disagree with me or anyone, please quote the exact words you disagree with. I can defend my own words. I cannot defend someone else’s interpretation of some unidentified words of mine.

My Other Request: If you think that e.g. I’m using the wrong method on the wrong dataset, please educate me and others by demonstrating the proper use of the right method on the right dataset. Simply claiming I’m wrong doesn’t advance the discussion.

My Formal Educational Qualifications:  For some reason this became an issue in my last post, gotta love trolls. Regarding educational qualifications, I have none. Get over it. My formal scientific education is a year each of college freshman physics and chemistry, period. Despite that, I now have five peer-reviewed papers published in the scientific journals, including a 2004 peer-reviewed “Brief Communications Arising” in Nature magazine (my conclusions were finally upheld more than a decade after publication by two other studies), and over fifty citations to my work. In addition, my posts and ideas have been discussed in the New York Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the UK Telegraph, and other papers around the world. Heck, I even inadvertently and unknowingly set the stage for Climategate by making the very first Freedom of Information Request to Phil Jones. Go figure. But setting all that aside, the scientific issue is never qualifications—the only valuable question is, are my claims valid or not? If someone’s scientific claims are valid, their qualifications are immaterial … and if their claims are not valid, all the qualifications in the world won’t help their claims in the slightest. So please … can we skip the ad hominem attacks on my education, my ancestry, and my manifold sins of omission, commission, and emission, and stay focused on the science?

137 thoughts on “Wrecked in a Hurricane

  1. Dodgy proxies? I don’t really see what information the writers of the study thought they could derive from tree rings (with multiple causes) or shipwrecks (ditto).

    • Tom
      Shipwrecks – you (and WE) are right. Hurricanes, of course, did cause shipwrecks.
      But the causes WE has listed above – and others; mutiny, drunkenness, sheer incompetence [believing the other man was keeping the look out, say], plus, plus – have, most certainly, caused shipwrecks.
      Many in the Caribbean. And beyond, of course.

      At least, nowadays, we get few instances of running aground on completely ‘unknown’ shoals.

      Many such are named for the ship that – inadvertently – found them.
      Some date from the 1960s and 1970s with ‘supertankers’ drawing 20 metres (plus) venturing new routes for ships of that draft.
      At the start of the Somali pirate problem, I advised my ships, ‘suddenly’ obliged [for comfort] out away from the African coast, out to well into the Indian Ocean, to check their courses carefully, as there was a likelihood that no ship of their draft [40 feet/12 metres] had ever sailed that way – down the middle of the western Indian Ocean.

      Happily, none came to grief.

      The MH370 search has highlighted how little we truly known about the deep ocean bottom.
      More men have been to the moon than have visited [and returned from (!!!!)] the deepest parts of our oceans on Planet [uhh] Water.

      Auto

  2. Thanks for that WIllis. Also agree with your comments regarding formal qualifications, I have a couple but that doesn’t necessarily make my reasoning any better than the next guy and have worked with a few with formal qualifications that have no idea at all.

  3. This study is a case of dumb people trying to have a bright idea.– Eugene WR Gallun

    • Agreed. But, I’ll go one step further with the following disclaimer and assumption. I’ve not read the paper yet, and I’m taking as valid, this WE analysis as accurate (because WE has given plenty of reasons in this post, and in other similar “peer review” posts, that his methodology and resulting conclusions are logical and accurate). Yes, I have some more homework to do.

      the further step…
      I’ve been a grade school and high school Science Fair judge on a number of occasions (in addition to participating myself as a youth, pretty successfully). If this were a Science Fair project and resulting presentation, it wouldn’t even come close to winning a medal. I’d say that this illustrates a problem with the peer review process, rather than illuminating us on the workings of the physical world.

      I don’t begrudge the attempt the authors made, and I also applaud them for allowing a close look at their data and methods. But at some point, don’t you have to say, “well we gave it the old college try but this methodology just doesn’t cut it because of all the big holes”? It seems so easy for WE to put a torpedo into the hull of this study such that it settles to the bottom next to one of the shipwrecks in the authors’ data. How did they and their peer reviewers not see these major shortcomings? What are we teaching scientists in college these days?

      Finally, I couldn’t find the funding source quickly, but if I had to help pay for this, I am putting myself on record as being in protest.

      • ah, while this was an original thought as I posted it, I see that down the post, similar points were made earlier in time by: Ben of Houston March 9, 2016 at 2:19 pm

        I agree with you Ben.

    • Sorry, Eugene, I don’t agree. This study is a case of poorly educated people trying to have a bright idea. I will not say they are dumb, but the quality of their education is suspect. Then again, since education has been degraded heavily in the last few decades, it is not something I blame them for. They are a product of the system that has developed around CAGW, and that system skews the curriculum. As the saw goes, “history is written by the winners,” and for the last 30 years the winners have been the CAGW crowd, and as the winners, they have chosen to push their ideas down into the education system to gain greater traction. This study is merely an example of what comes out of a flawed educational base..

  4. So please … can we skip the ad hominem attacks on my education, my ancestry, and my manifold sins of omission, commission, and emission, and stay focused on the science?

    Not a chance .

    • Thanks, Bob. There’s a whole cottage industry out on the intarwebs that’s based on attacking everything about me except for my scientific claims, so you may be right that haters gonna hate. It is indeed a curious thing to be personally abused simply because someone a) doesn’t like my scientific conclusions and analyses, and despite that b) can find no significant flaws in my scientific work.

      The inability to falsify my claims seems to drive some folks to strike out in angry, vindictive despair. I’m working on finding compassion for that response … although some folks make it awful hard. I’m a work in process, and my responses to the personal attacks are getting better, although not at the rate I might like, at least in the proper direction. My rule of thumb in these matters is, don’t judge yourself based on where you are, judge yourself based on the direction you are going …

      Regards,

      w.

      • But setting all that aside, the scientific issue is never qualifications—the only valuable question is, are my claims valid or not?

        That is true. On the other side, being truly unqualified often leads to claims that are both outrageously wrong and laborious to debunk in a way that would be understandable to a non-professional of the field.

        I don’t believe a second unknown-reasoned shipwrecks work as a proxy for hurricanes (storms maybe). But I really want everybody to understand that one fool asks more questions and does more assertions than ten wise and knowledgeable can debunk. That is the reason why bad science flies so long, and that is why many scientists hate crackpots, i.e. active laymen with no clue.

      • Hugs March 8, 2016 at 11:11 pm

        That is true. On the other side, being truly unqualified often leads to claims that are both outrageously wrong and laborious to debunk in a way that would be understandable to a non-professional of the field.

        Thanks, Hugs, you are right. Unfortunately, the same is far too often true of the qualified as well … I’ve laboriously disassembled and falsified the “outrageously wrong and laborious to debunk” claims of more than one very experienced PhD, including some truly unbelievable assertions.

        As an example of such claims, look at the difficulty Steve McIntyre encountered in falsifying the work of one Michael Mann …

        w.

      • Hugs, “debunk” is sloppy, but extraordinarily revealing semantics, and reflects the user’s likely intent to not address the actual claims made or data presented. It means that the basic argument – in ANY field where you see it used – is that “we all know better and the individual we are ‘debunking’ is in fact a waste of time, which we “already” know are wrong because [insert Great Theorist’s name] has already shown us the one, true and only light. If the writer were to do so, the questions would be addressed, the data assessed, and the claim found to be either disproven or provisionally accepted as a legitimate problem with what ever current theory has been flung at it. “Debunk” automatically indicates sloppy scholarship, sloppy thought processes, and the reality that the “debunker” is addressing the public rather than peers. It also is automatically an argument to authority and the very reason that “consensus” is not a scientific argument as well. In short to attempt to “debunk” is to reveal one’s self as a lazy supporter of the status quo. To disprove or weaken an argument means to actually use data and theory driven arguments to show why it appears wrong to you, and that does involve lack of “professional” training, personal traits or an assumption that because one doesn’t like the individual that their ideas can be discounted, or worse, because you don’t like their ideas that they can be discounted as reasoning humans.

      • If you don’t upset the ‘right’ people then you aren’t trying hard enough. It should be a measure of success that you get such a level of personal attack as it shows that they have no counter case to argue. Laugh back in their faces.

      • Duster,
        It is interesting that the main opponents of debunking are UFO true believers and climate true believers.
        Your rationale for disparaging debunking is entertaining, in a pathetic sort of way.

      • One of the reasons I became skeptical of CAGW, was all the pro warmist sites all attacked the person, not what the person was saying. Since I didn’t know your background, I just read what you presented rather than spend time trying to look up your credentials.

      • Duster,

        I am guilty as charged of sometimes using ‘debunked’. I use it out of frustration, usually when someone is at the ‘Say Anything’ stage of their argument, such as when the Narrative requires them to use the new talking points of ‘global warming never paused’, or ‘surface stations are more accurate than satellites’.

        Or when Michael Mann comes up, since he was forced to write a Corregendum in the journal Nature. Wouldn’t you agree that being required to admit that you were wrong is similar to being ‘debunked’? And can you imaging how the Corregendum would have been written by McIntyre & McKitrick, instead of that very mild self-debunking by the Mann himself?

        Anyway, in my view ‘debunk’ is a very mild pejorative compared with someone repeatedly labeling another commenter a “liar” and “deceptive”, simply because a graph they linked to ended before the current year.

        But to each his own, I guess. Different opinions and points of view are what makes a market…

      • dbstealey March 9, 2016 at 1:33 pm

        I am guilty as charged of sometimes using ‘debunked’. I use it out of frustration, usually when someone is at the ‘Say Anything’ stage of their argument, such as when the Narrative requires them to use the new talking points of ‘global warming never paused’, or ‘surface stations are more accurate than satellites’.

        Anyway, in my view ‘debunk’ is a very mild pejorative compared with someone repeatedly labeling another commenter a “liar” and “deceptive”, simply because a graph they linked to ended before the current year.

        But to each his own, I guess. Different opinions and points of view are what makes a market…

        Thanks, db. The problem is not that it is pejorative. For me, the term “debunked” is a red flag indicating someone with an axe to grind, as it is an emotion-laden substitute for “falsified”. “Falsified” is a scientific term, meaning that you’ve shown some provable fault in their logic, data, math, or the like. “Debunked” is an emotional term, meaning that you’ve shown that their logic, data, or math is “bunk”.

        Bunk, of course, is a good old American word meaning something of no value, absolute nonsense. Hang on … ok, here you go, a bit of research turns up a most curious story about American politics:

        bunk (n.2)
        “nonsense,” 1900, short for bunkum, phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a county in North Carolina. The usual story (by 1841) of its origin is this: At the close of the protracted Missouri statehood debates, supposedly on Feb. 25, 1820, N.C. Representative Felix Walker (1753-1828) began what promised to be a “long, dull, irrelevant speech,” and he resisted calls to cut it short by saying he was bound to say something that could appear in the newspapers in the home district and prove he was on the job. “I shall not be speaking to the House,” he confessed, “but to Buncombe.” Bunkum has been American English slang for “nonsense” since 1841 (from 1838 as generic for “a U.S. Representative’s home district”).

        To summarize: “bunk”, short for “bunkum”, means total nonsense. To “falsify” means to show something contains a demonstrable error. “Debunk”, on the other hand, means to show something is irrelevant nonsense. As a result, I don’t use debunk, and I’m always suspicion when it appears in comments or posts.

        Best to you, and to everyone,

        w.

      • Willis,

        I always learn something from your comments. I had no idea that ‘Buncombe’, a county in the US, was the genesis of ‘bunkum’.

        I stll like it, though. It has a certain flavor that imparts meaning. And yep, it’s an emo-term that means ‘falsified’, but with, umm-m… some emotion.

        I suppose I should be a good boy and curl my pinkie when referring to Michael Mann when he’s been debunked. But that’s what makes a market; everyone has their own POV.

        Yes, ‘bunkum’ means ‘total nonsense’. That’s my view, when someone attempts to erase the MWP and the LIA.

        My best to you, Willis my friend, as always,

        ~ db. ☺

      • Willis, your entries on WUWT should be top of your list of credible and worthy publications.

      • Not to worry about ad hominem attacks. You would not even be noticed if your critiques did not leave mark.

      • As Willis said, “… The problem is not that it is pejorative. For me, the term “debunked” is a red flag indicating someone with an axe to grind, as it is an emotion-laden substitute for “falsified”. …” The word is fashionable, but reveals a sad reliance on authority. It is emotional rather than rational and as I said, it indicates the user does not plan to advance a logical counter argument. The use of “debunk” is frequently accompanied by attacks on the competence, education. and antecedents of the target. I note that one responder actually mentioned that believers in “UFOs” were likely to complain about the use of “debunked”, and IIRC believing in UFOs was a position that “climate sceptics” were predicted to assume by Lewandowski.

      • Willis, as usual none of your analysis makes any sense and your mother wears army boots.

        Sorry as much as I enjoy your posts the love fest is getting boring!

        (All sarc)

      • “…don’t judge yourself based on where you are, judge yourself based on the direction you are going…”

        A nautical corollary suitable for studies using models: ‘Don’t steer the ship by watching the wake’.

    • So please … can we skip the ad hominem attacks on my education, my ancestry, and my manifold sins of omission, commission, and emission, and stay focused on the science?

      You neglected to say yo mamma stayed in school so she could afford to offset the proxy-guestimation of your carbon footprint to an acceptable P-value. Hope that clears the slate for everybody.

      Best regards.

  5. Thanks Willis for your report and I am, as you are, sick of the attacks, one question : on the graph with the two circles (South West of Florida) you mentioned a red dot as the center, I have an old screen and that dot isn’t very well defined. To me that dot appears to be off the SSW coast of Florida on the edge of the Gulf.
    Is there info on what island those trees grew and what specific kind of trees they grew there?

    After the first article you wrote I made a comment about how there seems to have been serious “cherry picking”. Some of the conclusions in this “Paper” the other day mentioned tree ring data going only back as far as 1707 but then the paper expanded this to a period starting 70 years prior. ( sorry if I am not clear but the other night that seemed to be obvious). Anyway I am glad you are getting some much needed water, I hope it not only rains in the Northern California but also in the Southern parts ( and elsewhere of course). Cheers.

  6. asybot March 8, 2016 at 11:48 pm

    … one question : on the graph with the two circles (South West of Florida) you mentioned a red dot as the center, I have an old screen and that dot isn’t very well defined. To me that dot appears to be off the SSW coast of Florida on the edge of the Gulf.
    Is there info on what island those trees grew and what specific kind of trees they grew there?

    Good question. From the paper:

    TCsupp is based on 38 south Florida slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa) trees from Big Pine Key.

    w.

  7. Nice work Willis.

    It was fairly obvious that this was silly science as soon at it appeared but I suppose someone had to do it formally.

    Tree rings are new tea leaves. You just need to concentrate really hard on what you want to know and the pattern will instantly be revealed in the patterns of the tree rings.

    MAGIC isn’t it ? ( Rhetorical question ).

  8. I had similar thoughts about this when I saw it posted, there are just too many things that could cause variation in the results ships going to the Caribbean might not have even got there but been recorded as lost there etc etc.
    As for learning and qualifications, our elder son described most schooling as being taught how to pass the next exam not learn the subject.
    I think this sums up how to learn very well.

    Through wisdom a house is built,
    And by understanding it is established;
    By knowledge the rooms are filled
    With all precious and pleasant riches.

    Proverbs 24:3,4

    James Bull

    • Debatable.
      But mostly the pirates stole the ship and/or cargo and threw the crew, dead or alive, overboard.
      Just as they still do today.

      • Isn’t there a strong possibility that pirate theft would be indistinguishable from shipwreck in the records? In other words the ship did not reach its destination on its voyage. That would appear to the record keepers as a wreck.

      • JustAnOldGuy;
        Yes and no. If it were reported by others that they had seen pirates seize and destroy the vessel then that would be recorded as a loss by piracy. On the other hand if the vessel just never arrived no-one would know whether the loss was due to piracy or not.
        But pirates seizing a ship would often use it rather than destroy it and this “change of ownership” would become well known anyway.
        As I said, it is debatable.
        ( And just as a nit-pick, seize is one of the few words where ” i before e except after c ” does not apply.)

      • I before E except after C, usually. This raises another possibility, ships lost due to, ah, earthquake activity.

      • Thank you that has made my morning. I once saw someone who was trying to claim the “Triangle” extended to not far short of the Irish coast…LOL

        James Bull

    • Write some racy novels and grope some women and you could be the next boss of the IPCC. (just kidding)

    • An observation: All these railway engineers –
      Adams, Armstrong, Baldwin, Blenkinsop, Brunel, Churchward, Gooch, Dean, Gresley, Hackworth, Joy, Locke, Marsh, Robinson, Stephenson, Stroudley, Trevithick, Webb, Westinghouse (& 100s of others ); did all of their work without any degrees.

      As Willis said-
      “If someone’s scientific claims are valid, their qualifications are immaterial … and if their claims are not valid, all the qualifications in the world won’t help their claims in the slightest.”

      • Many of them served apprenticeships in a world where pactical experience was important as that was how you learned your trade; and in my view the sooner we go back to that the better. Academic qualifications are for academics, not practical people.

  9. The good old “qualification” misdirection.

    Piers Corbyn said it well when he said being correct has peer reviewed his work on BBC when asked by some stuffy clown what peer reviewed papers he had.

    I guess the stuffy fool forgot that some scientists provide falsifiable hypothesis.

    • Let’s not forget that this garbage paper somehow made it past peer review despite being clearly suspect from the abstract and demonstratably laughable with relatively simple questions that you look at in high school statistics, and this isn’t alone. I’ve read numerous peer reviewed papers that I would give failing grades if I saw them in an elementary school science fair.

      In fact, I find the entire peer review system grossly dysfunctional at the moment.

      • My non-science-oriented friends think “peer reviewed” means “other scientists tried to replicate the results on their own, and achieved at least some success”. They mostly know that that process is important; some of them even understand why.

        I try to tell them, “peer reviewed” means, instead, that no editor of a journal can possibly look at and evaluate all submissions even if he were qualified, so acquires volunteers among relevant scientists to look at a new paper and say whether it aligns or does not align with currently accepted scientific thought. If it’s too far out in left field, it is not accepted for publication.

        Since Copernicus’s work completely violated pretty much all of then-known physics (his proposal was not merely out in left field, it was scoring a soccer goal; it eliminated the accepted reason for “why things fall down” and offered no alternative), he would never have been published, had there been journals in his day.

  10. I wonder if they took into account the fact that the British used to like sinking Spanish ships, with or without hurricanes in attendance. The Brits used to hover in the Caribbean because once the Spanish got out into the Atlantic they were hard to find. Perhaps these sinkings are included in other causes.
    Anglo-Spanish Wars may refer to:
    The Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)
    The Anglo-Spanish War (1625–30) was part of the Thirty Years’ War
    The Anglo-Spanish War (1654–60)
    The Anglo-Spanish War (1727–29)
    The War of Jenkins’ Ear, which later merged into the War of the Austrian Succession
    The Anglo-Spanish War (1762–63) was part of the Seven Years’ War
    The Anglo-Spanish War (1796–1808) was part of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars
    Other wars that pitted England against Spain, though not commonly known as “Anglo-Spanish” wars, include:
    The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13)
    The War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–20)
    The American Revolutionary War (1775–83)

    Just saying.

  11. Willis, read what William M Briggs (PhD statistician) has to say about “p” values before claiming that they show anything.

    • Thanks, John. Matt Briggs is a friend of mine and a very good statistician. He’s certainly changed my views about p-values … but I still don’t think that they are meaningless. Like any tool, they can be and often are misused …

      Regards,

      w.

  12. Willis, I have qualifications, for what they are worth, and I want to say that I respect you very much, as a scientist. This is typical of the careful reading, data checking, and insightful analysis that makes your articles educational to read. Honestly, this was a beautiful piece of work by you. Any journal that could get you as a reviewer would be fortunate. I’m reminded of a recent conversation I had where I was a bit out of my depth so asked some very simple basic questions, and was thanked for making a valuable contribution because the person I was talking to hadn’t thought of some of them. The thing I admire here is the way you went for the basics, so that it is easy to understand the problems you found and hard to evade them.

    • Richard O’Keefe wrote:

      This is typical of the careful reading, data checking, and insightful analysis that makes your articles educational to read… Any journal that could get you as a reviewer would be fortunate.

      I agree, Willis would be a great reviewer. Once in a while I’ll send him a link to something I’ve come across that looks unusual. More often than not, he replies with a thorough deconstruction. I get deflated — but then I know better than to send the fake info on to anyone else.

  13. Another great article. Is the TCship database somehow adjusted for the number of Spanish ships in the region in any given year? In the 1490s there were presumably only a handful and even if there were many hurricanes the chance of a meaningful number of hurricane induced shipwrecks would probably be pretty low. A century later there were probably a lot of ships.

    Also, Wikipedia tells me that starting in the 1560s, many(/most/all?) Spanish merchant ships traveled in occasional convoys to and from Seville. Presumably, once the convoy system was in place, the number of shipwrecks depended a lot on what sort of weather each convoy encountered.

    All in all. The article Isn’t awful. But it seems pretty lightweight. Suggestive, but not remotely definitive?

    • Don K March 9, 2016 at 2:48 am

      Another great article. Is the TCship database somehow adjusted for the number of Spanish ships in the region in any given year? In the 1490s there were presumably only a handful and even if there were many hurricanes the chance of a meaningful number of hurricane induced shipwrecks would probably be pretty low. A century later there were probably a lot of ships.

      Thanks, Don. They say they took it into account as follows:

      By calculating decadal-scale percentages
      of shipwrecks per number of active North Atlantic
      Spanish ships (TCship%), we verified that decadal-scale fluctuations
      in TCship were not a function of fluctuations in Spanish
      transatlantic shipping activity (Figs. 3B and S5).

      Whether that was sufficient is another question, but they certainly did not ignore the issue.

      w.

  14. Yes looking at ship wrecks maybe not the best way to go about this.
    Myself l would have looked to see if there was a link between the south east USA been cool and wet during the hurricane season and low hurricane activity.

  15. Willis

    If that citation you got from the Sydney Morning Herald was negative it might rate as more of a positive

  16. I am confused by the supposition that when the climate was cooler in the Caribbean, that there would be more, stronger hurricanes than now. I understand that the tree ring findings are of little use establishing anything of use to resolve this.
    I understand[?rightly] that the IPCC models expect that hurricanes will become stronger and more
    frequent as the climate warms due to Anthropogenic CO2.
    However I have read here that as the difference in the temperature between the tropical zone and the rest of the hemispheres falls,as the planet warms, there will be less heat transport in the atmosphere between the hemispheres, so the energy in hurricanes will be less as will be their frequency.
    We are reminded that the most violent storms occur on Jupiter, due to atmospheric temperature difference,not absolute temperature.
    The fact that hurricanes are less frequent globally during the pause, or at least do not change much, does not help in my confusion.

  17. “…don’t judge yourself based on where you are, judge yourself based on the direction you are going.”

    I like that, Willis.

    Best

  18. BTW, the Florida Keys are NOT in the Caribbean. If they claim is “Caribbean hurricanes” then perhaps the study should have used trees from an actual Caribbean island.

      • But hurricane force winds are usually close to the center of circulation. So using a hurricane whose center tracked 20 or more miles away from the red dot reference point would most likely not cause hurricane force winds on that point. A pretty generously large circle of tracks most likely to try to demonstrate their point.

  19. This part stuck out to me:

    We compiled all Spanish shipwreck events that were recorded to have occurred (i) due to storm activity (66%) or for unspecified causes (34%), (ii) during the hurricane season (July–November) or with unknown seasonality, and (c) in Florida (21%), on the Atlantic Coast of Mexico (25%), in Hispaniola (22%), Cuba (13%), the Lesser Antilles (5%), and Puerto Rico, Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and the Bahamas (less than 5% each.

    South Carolina does not get many hurricanes. North Carolina and Florida get far more because both stick out, North Carolina to the east and Florida to the south. There are 488 recorded hurricanes in Florida since 1851 and 413 in North Carolina. It seems strange to include an area with few hurricane strikes but not including a neighboring area with far more hurricane strikes.

  20. Sextants weren’t available until the 18th century, but mariners had increasingly effective instruments for finding latitude in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries as well. As you know, the problem was with precisely determining longitude, not solved until later in the 18th century with the marine chronometer.

    The Royal Navy also attacked the treasure fleets as they neared Spain as well, as at the Battle of Vigo Bay, 23 October, 1702, early in the WotSS.

  21. After reading the analysis of the data a used, it leaves me going “HUH?????” Was there no one in their working group that was brave enough to tell the others that perhaps what they were doing was slightly less than useless???

  22. The peak of the hurricane season is well after trees in the Caribbean/South East have had their annual growth for the year. Additionally, the band of destruction for a hurricane (where trees get leaves stripped off) is very narrow. Perhaps a mile wide. For a given tree, this essentially never happens.

  23. P-values are a problem in research papers.

    They are over-used and over-valued not deserving of the importance attached. P-value are commonly used as a handy-dandy method of validity of the research. In practice it does no such thing as Willis demonstrates in this article. A clever person could construct a good p-value for a flat-earth argument.

    Willis thanks the authors for including the data with their paper, but makes me wonder how did we come to the point where research that provides the evidence to backup their claims is unique enough to require special thanks.

    • It is a good thing to be able to explain ten percent of the variance in some phenomenon.
      Largely, that is as good as it gets.

      But this parameter is often ignored – we provide the regression weight, and the p value, and act as if those parameters are the most value-filled. They are not – the biggest value in a regression like this is the conclusion that most of the variance cannot be explained by the variables we have at hand.

      How well would things go in your life if you could only account for where 10% of your income was spent?

      If you ask someone, “what are the predictors of a heart attack,” or “cancer?” No one says, “Well, for the most part we do not know; but for the ten percent we can account for, here is what we know…”

  24. So in modern terminology, yearly computer records of car wrecks along the Gulf Coast could, some centuries in the future, be the next wave of catastrophic climate change research blazened across the journals and removing coinage from our pockets.

  25. Willis, your posts are ALWAYS entertaining, and more often than not very thought provoking. Don’t pay attention to these eggheads with Ph D’s and no common sense.

  26. …The cat mopes around the house looking for the door into summer….

    Too many Heinlein readers – not enough Blish readers…

      • gary turner March 9, 2016 at 1:34 pm

        Uh, Willis, that’s just too obvious. How could the reference not be caught?

        I figure that not everyone spent the 1950s reading ASTOUNDING magazine …

        w.

      • But, Willis, what was the reference to? Does your cat really not want to play in the snow? (which you should not now have in California), or was it to the fact that the novel “The Door into Summer” was written in less than a fortnight without review on a whim after the wife made an off-hand comment about the house cat? … which seams to be about the same amount of thought expended by the authors of this study.

  27. Just to add a little color from someone currently sailing in the basin. The big problem was navigation, storms didn’t sink the boats as much as get them lost.

    A lost boat was in a world of hurt. There are only 2 or 3 relatively narrow channels north out of the basin for the return trip home using the Gulf Stream. A boat not safely in the middle of one of the lanes was likely to run aground at night because of the eddies on the sides. Sayonara boat and crew.

    And last but not least, except for some of the bigger islands, all of the shoreline looks the same, there are no landmarks anywhere. Unless the boat gets very close there is simply no way to navigate visually.

    But a couple of boats sighting from different angles could determine the shape of the land and determine their position. Accurate Maps though were highly protected State secrets.

    They were brave boys back then.

    • Indeed, the stories I read of the exploits of earlier mariners make my teeth ache. How did they do those things? As the sailors have it,

      “We used to have wooden ships and men of iron … now we have iron ships and men of wood”

      w.

    • No, you’re right. The R^2 being that low shows there’s no correlation in the variance (the r statistic is the actual statistic for correlation of the variables), and thus obvious no causation.

  28. Willis,
    Thanks for bringing to light yet another example of why tenuous proxies are basically not proxies at all.

  29. The p-value is based on a hypothesis test – with a null hypothesis of no correlation between (1) tree rings and hurricanes and (2) tree rings and shipwrecks from all sources vs an alternative hypothesis that there is some correlation. One did not need to do the study to answer that question: there is no realistic possibility for the null hypothesis to be true. Hence the “p” in p-value means “pointless”. A “good” p-value only means the sample size is not ridiculously small. The degree of correlation and the confidence intervals on parameter estimates are the results of interest. As is Willis points out, the low correlations obtained along with deficiencies in the data completely undercuts the study’s conclusion. My professional guess is that the confidence intervals are as wide as the Caribbean.

  30. Willis, great Heinlein reference at the end. I know I read that book 10 times when I was a teenager.

  31. Hugs, “But I really want everybody to understand that one fool asks more questions and does more assertions than ten wise and knowledgeable can debunk. That is the reason why bad science flies so long, and that is why many scientists hate crackpots, i.e. active laymen with no clue.”

    There is truth in what you wrote except in the comment that a fool asking questions is why bad science flies so long. The reason bad science flies for a long time is due to a large number of reasons. But I think two important reasons are that either the bad science is not very consequential so no one checks or cares very much (such as the BS journal articles that were accepted even though they were random statements generated by a computer) or else the bad science conforms to what many in the field wish to believe for whatever reason. Thus, the bad science has defenders who don’t wish to believe the detractors.

    The kind of argument Willis provided for example, is such a well reasoned argument that questions the fundamentals of the paper. The authors of the paper if they are acting as scientists and want to get to the truth have to address and refute the type of arguments Willis made if they want their paper to have any credibility.

  32. “So please … can we skip the ad hominem attacks on my education, my ancestry, and my manifold sins of omission, commission, and emission, and stay focused on the science?”

    I have to laugh Willis. remember all the times they told us to do our own damn science?
    And now that we have, folks on one side attack your education.
    And folks on another side attack mine.

    carry on..

    • Thanks, Mosh. Whenever I see the nonsense about how “we can ignore Mosh, he was an English major” or the like, I have to laugh … in science, you don’t get to ignore anyone.

      w.

      • Some folks know when to move to the sidelines when two heavyweights are tearing up the room.

      • That said, Science as a political persuasion mixed with the poisonous yet heady elixir of belief, has resulted in lost livelihoods. Many are unable to ignore what they do not ascribe towards to such an extent that they seek, rather successfully, to rid themselves of any voices to the contrary. This observation leads me to think that a pinch of detached “ignoring” is an essential part of engaging in both the practice of and conversation in Science.

  33. Pirates took a huge toll on the Spanish galleon fleet. For example, a major point of departure during the 17th century was Trujillo, Honduras. Pirates would roost 30 miles offshore on a particular hillside of Roatan and wait for gold-bearing ships to depart Trujillo for Spain. The pirates had the perfect spot to launch from a protected bay and catch the large cargo vessels before sunset.

    In The Lost Fleet, Barry Clifford points to a convocation of pirates on Roatan in the year 1683 as “one of those extraordinary events in pirate history.” Almost all of the most feared pirates of the age were there—including the Chevalier de Grammont, Laurens de Graff, Nikkolaas Van Hoorn, Yankey Willems, Michiel Andrieszoon, Pierre Bot, and Jean Foccard. [from http://www.trujillohonduras.com/index_english.htm ]

    Largely as a result of pirate activity, Spain abandoned Trujillo in the early 18th century.

    To lump these kinds of losses with those storm-related reduces the odds of meaningful results.

  34. I’ve said this many times many ways; some of these times probably at this site.

    No matter how sophisticated your tools or how clever you are, you cannot get any more information out of a data set than is actually in it.

    This then leads to the more important corollary.

    The indiscriminate use of cleverness or sophisticated tools could provide erroneous information. That is, it may provide apparent information that when viewed from another way is itself only random noise.

  35. A rather odd thing: 25% of the recorded shipwrecks were on the Atlantic Coast of Mexico, but the HURDAT data shows that remarkably few hurricanes affect both this area and the Florida Keys, and most of those few hit the coast of Quintana Roo (east side of Yucatán) which was essentially an unsettled wilderness avoided by shipping even in 1825 (it was still used as a sort of Mexican “Devil’s Island” for political opponents by Porfirio Diaz as late as around 1900).
    So why would anyone expect Mexican shipwrecks to correlate with hurricanes in the Keys?

    Incidentally here is a map showing the spanish sailing routes in the Caribbean:

    http://cultureandhistory.revistas.csic.es/index.php/cultureandhistory/article/viewFile/46/176/691

    • Interesting point, tty, and assuredly part of the reason that the R^2 of the wrecks and the suppressed tree rings is so low.

      Also, fascinating map. I wouldn’t have guessed the routes.

      w.

      • tty interesting map, thank you. Are there any records indicating the route favoured by west-bound ships as opposed to homeward bound?

      • Going by memories of Dudley Pope fiction, westbound ships take the more equatorial (coming in between 10°N and 20°N) routes while the homebound ships take the more northern (departing around 30°) routes.

  36. Wilis, I want to compliment you on your vivid word picture of the cat moping about the house “looking for the door into summer.” Superbly crafted, sir.

    • I stole the line from my mom, who used to say it when I was a kid, and she in turn stole it from Robert Heinlein.

      w.

      • Well then, good taste runs in your family along with, apparently, a slight streak of literary larceny, an innocuous misdemeanor that places you in good company, Shakespeare among others. And your full, free confession does you honor. Me, I inadvertently confessed to an unfamiliarity with Heinlein. A failing I suppose I should remedy.

  37. Hi willis,

    First, like you, I applaud the authors including the data. I also like the idea of researchers collecting and exploring data for information, even if, in the end, they find nothing of use. Good researchers “bark up many wrong trees” and that effort is an important part of science. Kudos to them. But, good researchers also don’t overstate their results.

    Second, like you, when I read the paper I see far too many conflating variables in tree ring suppression, shipwrecks and hurricanes. I find it plausible that wind and salt from a hurricane would suppress tree ring growth but so would rainfall amount and timing, possibly temperature, seasonal cloud cover, nearby human activity, the occasional non-hurricane severe thunderstorm and other activity. On hurricanes, there is great variability in individual storms and their impacts. On shipwrecks, there are many variables, including the ability of ship captains to learn and alter behavior. Historians study many arcane topics and I bet there are experts on the Spanish treasure fleet. I wish the paper authors had included a statement by a qualified historian about their hypothesis.

    Third, for fun, I did the mental exercise of wondering if they are right about storms and the Maunder minimum. If true, then that 0.2 W/m2 reduction in solar radiation (per the paper’s plot) somehow had immediate and profound effects on global climate. Why don’t we see clear evidence of those effects in the normal solar cycles? If anything, there is evidence that reduced solar activity increases hurricane activity, which is contrary to the hypothesized Maunder/hurricane link.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080928/full/news.2008.1136.html

    • Willie Soon has showed that colder is stormier. The MM had more tropical cyclones globally than warmer intervals.

      • Actually it was Hubert Lamb who demonstrated the linkage between colder climate and more storminess back in early eighties.

      • True, but more recently, Soon showed in detail the facts for TCs in the MM specifically.

  38. These authors set too much sail with too little rudder.

    Willis, wouldn’t hurricanes periodically “erase” the most hurricane exposed trees from the record?

  39. “If someone’s scientific claims are valid, their qualifications are immaterial … and if their claims are not valid, all the qualifications in the world won’t help their claims in the slightest.”

    The above observation is something that should be included on diplomas. Having a formal degree does get respect, however, waiving degrees around can be a form of appeal to authority. We know where that leads.

    Trolls should respect Willis for his portfolio of published papers. He has put his thoughts out where they can be examined and possibly proven wrong. This scrutiny is necessary for all scientific claims. Unfortunately we seem to be in such an unscientific state that personal attacks about qualifications substitutes for thoughtful analysis.

    Willis, you have my respect.

    Richmond, D.Min.

  40. The longitude problem was not solved until 1762, when John Harrison made the H4 sea chronometer, which was accurate to a few seconds after an Atlantic crossing.

  41. And the superbly written book describing Harrison’s amazing efforts, with wooden clocks at first, and how much he was ignored, is by Dava Sobel. It is titled ‘Longitude’.

    Good article Willis.

  42. On the positive side of the ledger, most of the data collected on Florida Keys shipwrecks was done over the years by people who had no axe whatsoever to grind over “global warming” or “climate change”. In the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries careful records were made by the Catholic Church in Spain regarding ships carrying gold (some of which was intended to be snaffled by the Church). In later years wrecks were identified by treasure hunters, survey crews and recreational divers, and in many cases it has been possible to determine the date of the wreck fairly precisely. There is also high-quality data to be gained from the logs of ships (both warships and merchant ships) not wrecked; a veritable mine of such information is available in trade and custom records in London and elsewhere.

    While it is true that ships were wrecked for many reasons other than hurricanes, the skills of the mariners were somewhat better than some commenters seem to imagine, so the data is not useless and is probably more reliable and less suspect than much of the paleo stuff which has been used to deduce past climate conditions. Moreover, some of the data is interesting in itself, which one cannot really say about tree rings. For example, a couple of miles from where this is being written (Little Torch Key) lie a few bits of the remains of the HMS Looe, a British warship which was wrecked (in a calm, not a hurricane) in 1744. I suspect most people would find the story attached to this wreck more entertaining than Siberian fossil tree measurements, or even the slash pines on Big Pine Key (also just a couple of miles from here).

  43. “The first is that suppressed tree rings are a good proxy for local hurricanes. The second is that shipwrecks are a good proxy for tree ring data. The third claim rests on the other two. It is that IF shipwrecks are a good proxy for tree ring suppression data, and IF tree ring suppression data in turn is a good proxy for hurricanes, then it follows that shipwrecks are a good proxy for hurricanes. ”

    It’s hard not to think of Monty Python here.
    “If she weighs the same as a duck… she’s made of wood!”

  44. John in Oz March 9, 2016 at 2:30 pm Edit

    Willis, your entries on WUWT should be top of your list of credible and worthy publications.

    Thanks, John. People often recommend that I write for the scientific journals, and I’ve done a bit of that. But my aim is not to either publish or to perish. Instead, I want to affect the direction and content of the scientific conversations going on regarding climate. For that, the journal turnaround time is far too long. The conversation is happening now, six months from now the issues will be far in the past.

    I write for the web for a couple other reasons. One is that I always feel like I have to perform a do-it-yourself frontal lobotomy to be able write in the dense blackletter style favored by the journals.

    Another is that I got bit once by Michael Mann, who I believe was shown a copy of a paper I submitted (but which was rejected) and later published the idea as his own … full story here.

    So you are right, I do put my posts for WUWT up against anything else I’ve written. I certainly put the same effort into them, and unlike my journal publications, they’re actually interesting reading.

    At this point, I think I’m over 600 posts here on WUWT … I have an index to them about 3/4 done, but I keep adding new posts and finding interesting research, and life goes on …

    w.

    • here’s to the next 600 posts willis. you are a joy to read. quite possibly down to the lack of academic background . it appears to stifle creative thinking and plain speaking in many that have gone through the academic mill.

  45. Willis: Thanks again and well done.
    I repeat an earlier argument in saying that records from European and Colonial Governments would be the best source for ship losses and their causes.
    Tree rings best reflect rainfall in most places. Both floods and drought suppress tree growth. Cold and clouds would reduce growth as well. Without rather thorough and accurate records tree rings mean everything and nothing. After decades even fires may seem to indicate something else. Clouds bring rain and block the sun. Tornados and T-storms strip leaves.
    Proxies only gain value when the cause of effects is nearly certain. Remember that assume makes asses of you and me. I see no reason to “assume” tree growth is dependent on Hurricane occurrence.
    Wish I had taken math and statistics seriously. Good old Willis now does my work for me. Thanks again.

  46. In early 1992 replicas of Columbus’s ships sailed to America. When they got to Charleston SC, I went to see them. (OMG they were small) during he tour I asked one of the crew why they did not plan the trip to arrive in October like Columbus. The response was: Columbus did not know about hurricanes, but we do.

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