Watts Up With That?

Negative and Positive Results in Climate Research


Guest opinion: Dr. Tim Ball

“Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.”

Marston Bates

A friend was doing research on a climate topic peripheral to his normal research. He had difficulty finding information, especially data, so asked for some links. He thought it was his inexperience or unfamiliarity with the subject that created his difficulties. He confronted the nemesis of too much modern research, namely the need for positive results. It is parallel to the question frequently asked after I make a public presentation. How come we haven’t heard any of this before? The answer is, “Ask yourself that question.” The information exists, so either you did not know where to look, or someone did not want you to know? Or, the data doesn’t exist or is inadequate for the claims made, and there is no basis for the proposed policies.

Western society and science are imbued, to its detriment, with the need for positive results. It likely began with the policy of students not failing in school. I became fully aware of this problem in research when talking with a colleague doing a doctorate in mathematics at Oxford. He obtained his early degrees, started his doctorate but took a university job before its completion. He continued work on it because, as I understand, it involved creating a new theorem. He worked for two years on two possible solutions and then, during the summer, returned to Oxford for discussion with his supervisor. Remember, this in pre-internet and email days.

His supervisor told him the names of others who he knew attempted the same solutions, but with no success. Possibly closer communication could have resolved this problem, but what if the supervisor was not personally familiar with the people involved. My colleague asked why this wasn’t recorded somewhere; surely some good can emerge from negative results? How much unnecessary research is done because negative results are not recorded?

The issue of negative results is integral to the scientific method. You seek one result, but skeptical research yields a different answer – the null hypothesis. But how often is that ignored in today’s research? Proper skeptical testing of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis has produced the null hypothesis. Not only is it ignored, but those who dare to pursue it are branded skeptics and deniers. Witness the latest such attack in the Madhouse Effect. The image at right shows the back cover with its interesting and edifying list of promoters and their comments. Jane Lubchenko is the only person on the list at least peripherally qualified in climate science, but that is compromised by the political appointment by the Obama White House as Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.


A classic and traditional requirement of research and publications was a review of the literature. Today, most papers, for a multitude of invalid reasons, do not require this essential context. This means most research is done without the onus of explaining how it is a continuum of understanding and builds on previous knowledge. Sir Isaac Newton understood this when he said he saw so far because he was standing on the shoulders of others.

Another example of the obsession with positive results was the constant questions I had from students about essay (research papers) topics. At the start of a course, the students don’t know enough to identify the concerns or issues on the subject. I provided a list of possible topics, although a student could pursue their own. As part of my pedagogic trickery I deliberately included topics of concern knowing there was very little information. Two common feedbacks occurred. They asked to modify the topic, or they said they could not find anything in the library or, latterly, on the internet. Ironically, a major problem was the same in both cases. They were not asking the right questions. We are now familiar with the restrictions keyword research puts on the answers you get; just ask Naomi Oreskes.

The discussion with individual students and later broached with the entire class involved the following.

Answers to all these questions are the potential topic for papers. They also speak to the failure to instruct students in the mechanics and methods of research. Two people working to improve this at the university level at least are Kesten Green and J.S Armstrong. Armstrong has the benefit for climate research of science degrees and application in business, models, and forecasting.

“When we inspected the 17 [forecasting] articles, we found that none of them referred to the scientific literature on forecasting methods. It is difficult to understand how scientific forecasting could be conducted without reference to the research literature on how to make forecasts. One would expect to see empirical justification for the forecasting methods that were used. We concluded that climate forecasts are informed by the modelers’ experience and by their models—but that they are unaided by the application of forecasting principles.”

To some extent the failure to publish negative results was understandable before the advent of the computer or the internet, now there is no excuse. Of course, excuses will develop because publishing negative results does not fit the culture, but more important funding agencies only pay for positive results. It is directed funding.

The influence of funding in climate science is well documented. It is equally unbalanced to the negative because government and environmentalists funding is considered positive and other funding is negative. There is great pressure to produce positive results for funding. Imagine getting funding for a project you propose. The funder provides the money assuming you are going to provide what you promise. Upton Sinclair said

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

That is likely twice as true for research funding. It is also twice as true for a bureaucratic job when your political boss bases public policy and political persona on what you told them.

Possibly the biggest obsession with positive results regarding the damage created is the failure of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to consider the null hypothesis when the evidence showed the hypothesis was wrong. The word null is misleading, often interpreted to mean negative. It means that your hypothesis was not proved and therefore an alternative hypothesis must be considered. Because of the political use of the AGW hypothesis, the testing had to produce a positive result. This meant a null hypothesis became negative and could never be entertained. The IPCC still pursues that objective. It is the basis of such claims as the consensus and “the science is settled.”

A classic example of proper research occurred in the production of Elaine Dewar’s book Cloak of Green. It is one of the most revealing books about the machinations of Canadian environmentalists and politicians. Dewar started with the hypothesis that all these people are noble with good causes and a desire to save the planet. The thorough research included extensive interviews with all of them. This included Maurice Strong, the architect of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Agenda 21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the IPCC. After the research was complete Dewar realized the hypothesis was not proved. In fact, the opposite or null hypothesis was true. These people had political, personal, and profit agendas greater than those they attacked. That is how all research, scientific or otherwise, must be done. Rarely is it the case in officially funded climate science.

All of the trends and events discussed are part of the demise of science, especially climate science. Those of us who tried to protest were marginalized by attacks such as those in the Madhouse Effect supported by people who are blinded by a misrepresented noble cause. Only when a person, such as my friend from outside of climate science, begins to investigate are the full corruption and damage of the obsession with positive results exposed.