Crichton Tells Senate: Scientific Standards Must Not Be Relaxed for Warming Predictions

Published December 1, 2005

As climate science has become an increasingly political issue, a debate is raging among researchers regarding what level of independent review is appropriate before scientists present their theories as fact and before media publications report new theories to the general public.
In September 28 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, medical doctor and best-selling author Michael Crichton argued that longstanding scientific standards demanding rigorous verification of theories and research should not be relaxed regarding study of the Earth’s climate.
According to Crichton, the fact that a particular field of science has become more politically prominent or more important to society should lead to more, rather than less, independent verification and rigorous analysis of scientific theories.
Crichton graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University, where he received a doctorate in medicine. He created the television series ER and has written several science-based novels, including The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and State of Fear.
Reproduced here is Crichton’s September 28 testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the important subject of politicization of research. In that regard, what I would like to emphasize to the committee today is the importance of independent verification to science.

Method of Inquiry

In essence, science is nothing more than a method of inquiry. The method says an assertion is valid and merits universal acceptance only if it can be independently verified. The impersonal rigor of the method means it is utterly apolitical. A truth in science is verifiable whether you are black or white, male or female, old or young. It’s verifiable whether you like the results of a study, or you don’t.

Thus, when adhered to, the scientific method can transcend politics. And the converse may also be true: When politics takes precedence over content, it is often because the primacy of independent verification has been overwhelmed by competing interests.

Verification may take several forms. I come from medicine, where the gold standard is the randomized double-blind study, which has been the paradigm of medical research since the 1940s.

In that vein, let me tell you a story. It’s 1991, I am flying home from Germany, sitting next to a man who is almost in tears, he is so upset. He’s a physician involved in an FDA study of a new drug. It’s a double-blind study involving four separate teams–one plans the study, another administers the drug to patients, a third assesses the effect on patients, and a fourth analyzes results. The teams do not know each other and are prohibited from personal contact of any sort, on peril of contaminating the results.

This man had been sitting in the Frankfurt airport, innocently chatting with another man, when they discovered to their mutual horror they were on two different teams studying the same drug. They were required to report their encounter to the FDA. And my companion was now waiting to see if the FDA would declare their multi-year, multi-million dollar study invalid because of this chance contact.

Relaxed Standards

For a person with a medical background, accustomed to this degree of rigor in research, the protocols of climate science appear considerably more relaxed. In climate science, it’s permissible for raw data to be “touched,” or modified, by many hands. Gaps in temperature and proxy records are filled in. Suspect values are deleted because a scientist deems them erroneous. A researcher may elect to use parts of existing records, ignoring other parts.

But the fact that the data has been modified in so many ways inevitably raises the question of whether the results of a given study are wholly or partially caused by the modifications themselves.

In saying this, I am not casting aspersions on the motives or fair-mindedness of climate scientists. Rather, what is at issue is whether the methodology of climate science is sufficiently rigorous to yield a reliable result. At the very least we should want the reassurance of independent verification by another lab, in which they make their own decisions about how to handle the data and yet arrive at a similar result.

Any study where a single team plans the research, carries it out, supervises the analysis, and writes their own final report carries a very high risk of undetected bias. That risk, for example, would automatically preclude the validity of the results of a similarly structured study that tested the efficacy of a drug.

Flaws of Hockey Stick

By the same token, any verification of the study by investigators with whom the researcher had a professional relationship–people with whom, for example, he had published papers in the past– would not be accepted. That’s peer review by pals, and it’s unavoidably biased. Yet these issues are central to the now-familiar story of the “Hockey Stick Graph” and the debate surrounding it.

To summarize it briefly: In 1998-99 the American climate researcher Michael Mann and his co-workers published an estimate of global temperatures from the year 1000 to 1980. Mann’s results appeared to show a spike in recent temperatures that was unprecedented in the last thousand years. His alarming report formed the centerpiece of the U.N.’s Third Assessment Report, in 2001.

Mann’s work was immediately criticized because it didn’t show the well-known Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were warmer than they are today, or the Little Ice Age that began around 1500, when the climate was colder than today.

But real fireworks began when two Canadian researchers, McIntyre and McKitrick, attempted to replicate Mann’s study. They found grave errors in the work, which they detailed in 2003: calculation errors, data used twice, data filled in, and a computer program that generated a hockey stick out of any data fed to it–even random data.

Mann’s work has since been dismissed by scientists around the world who subscribe to global warming.

Why did the U.N. accept Mann’s report so uncritically? Why didn’t they catch the errors? Because the IPCC doesn’t do independent verification. And perhaps because Mann himself was in charge of the section of the report that included his work.

Controversy Continues

The hockey stick controversy drags on. But I would direct the Committee’s attention to three aspects of this story.

  • First, six years passed between Mann’s publication and the first detailed accounts of errors in his work. This is simply too long for policymakers to wait for validated results.
  • Second, the flaws in Mann’s work were not caught by climate scientists, but rather by outsiders–in this case, an economist and a mathematician. They had to go to great lengths to obtain data from Mann’s team, which obstructed them at every turn. When the Canadians sought help from the [National Science Foundation], they were told Mann was under no obligation to provide his data to other researchers for independent verification.
  • Third, this kind of stonewalling is not unique. The Canadians are now attempting to replicate other climate studies and are getting the same runaround from other researchers. One prominent scientist told them: “Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”

Even further, some scientists complain the task of archiving is so time-consuming as to prevent them from getting any work done. But this is nonsense.

Ease of Verification

The first research paper I worked on was back in the 1960s, when all data were on stacks of paper. When we received a request for data from another lab, I had to stand at a Xerox machine, copying one page a minute, for several hours. Back then, it was appropriate to ask another lab who they were and why they wanted the data. Because their request meant a lot of work.

But today we can burn data to a CD, or post it at an ftp site for downloading. Archiving data is so easy it should have become standard practice a decade ago. Government grants should require a “replication package” as part of funding. Posting the package online should be a prerequisite to journal publication. And there’s really no reason to exclude anyone from reviewing the data.

Of course, replication [of experimental results] takes time. Policymakers need sound answers to the questions they ask. A faster way to get them might be to give research grants for important projects to three independent teams simultaneously. A provision of the grant would be that at the end of the study period, all three papers would be published together, with each group commenting on the findings of the other[s].

I believe this would be the fastest way to get verified answers to important questions.

Integrity of Information

But if independent verification is the heart of science, what should policymakers do with research that is unverifiable? For example, the U.N. Third Assessment Report defines general circulation climate models as unverifiable. If that is true, are their predictions of any use to policymakers?

I would argue they are not. Senator [Barbara] Boxer has said we need more science fact. I agree–but a prediction is never a fact. In any case, if policymakers decide to weight their decisions in favor of verified research, that will provoke an effort by climate scientists to demonstrate their concerns using objectively verifiable research. I think we will all be better for it.

In closing, I want to state emphatically that nothing in my remarks should be taken to imply that we can ignore our environment, or that we should not take climate change seriously. On the contrary, we must dramatically improve our record on environmental management. That is why a focused effort on climate science, aimed at securing sound, independently verified answers to policy questions, is so important now.

I would remind the committee that in the end, it is the proper function of government to set standards for the integrity of information it uses to make policy. Those who argue government should refrain from mandating quality standards for scientific research–including some professional organizations–are merely self-serving. In an information society, public safety depends on the integrity of public information. And only government can perform that task.

Thank you very much.