When it’s OK to ignore the data

Published December 1, 2000

In at least one other instance, data selection highly influenced the conclusion that computer models were correctly simulating global warming. That was in the July 1996 paper by Santer et al. in which they compared lower atmospheric temperatures from 1963 through 1988 and found a statistically strong match.

We examined their result in light of the complete record that was available (1957-1995 at the time of publication) and showed that the main region of strong warming in fact showed no warming when all the data were used.

Thomas Kuhn, the late, great historian of science, wrote in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that such actions are in fact the norm in science when a “paradigm,” or overarching logical framework, is assaulted by inconvenient data.

Maintaining the paradigm, he wrote, is the work of “normal science.” In 1962, Kuhn wrote:

Closely examined, whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory, that enterprise [normal science] seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies.


In science . . . only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where the anomaly is later to be observed. Further acquaintance, however, does result in an awareness of something wrong or does relate the effect to something that has gone wrong before.

What this means for climatology: The reigning paradigm is that computer models can simulate the behavior of the atmosphere. When data appear that show they can’t, the scientists’ natural response is to ignore reality or to convolute the facts in a way that props up the paradigm. Thus the current tendency to either selectively cite data or to ignore inconveniences is, sadly, the real way that science works–until the entire house of cards implodes, which is what the recent Geophysical Research Letters paper might have accomplished.


Michaels, P.J., and P.C. Knappenberger, 1996. Human effect on global climate? Nature, 384, 533-23.

Santer, B.D., et al., 1996. A search for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere, Nature, 382, 36–45.