Welcome to BomWatch.com.au a site dedicated to examining Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, climate science and the climate of Australia. The site presents a straight-down-the-line understanding of climate (and sea level) data and objective and dispassionate analysis of claims and counter-claims about trend and change.
Dr. Bill Johnston is a former senior research scientist with the NSW Department of Natural Resources (abolished in April 2007); which in previous guises included the Soil Conservation Service of NSW; the NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission; NSW Department of Planning and Department of Lands. Like other NSW natural resource agencies that conducted research as a core activity including NSW Agriculture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, research services were mostly disbanded or dispersed to the university sector from about 2005.
Daily weather observations undertaken by staff at the Soil Conservation Service’s six research centres at Wagga Wagga, Cowra, Wellington, Scone, Gunnedah and Inverell were reported to the Bureau of Meteorology. Bill’s main fields of interest have been agronomy, soil science, hydrology (catchment processes) and descriptive climatology and he has maintained a keen interest in the history of weather stations and climate data. Bill gained a Batchelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of New England in 1971, Master of Science from Macquarie University in 1985 and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Western Sydney in 2002 and he is a member of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS).
Bill receives no grants or financial support or incentives from any source.
How BomWatch operates
BomWatch is not intended to be a blog per se, but rather a repository for analyses and downloadable reports relating to specific datasets or issues, which will be posted irregularly so they are available in the public domain and can be referenced to the site. Issues of clarification, suggestions or additional insights will be welcome.
The areas of greatest concern are:
- Questions about data quality and data homogenisation (is data fit for purpose?)
- Issues related to metadata (is metadata accurate?)
- Whether stories about datasets consistent and justified (are previous claims and analyses replicable?)
Some basic principles
Much is said about the so-called scientific method of acquiring knowledge by experimentation, deduction and testing hypothesis using empirical data. According to Wikipedia the scientific method involves careful observation, rigorous scepticism about what is observed … formulating hypothesis … testing and refinement etc. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method).
The problem for climate scientists is that data were not collected at the outset for measuring trends and changes, but rather to satisfy other needs and interests of the time. For instance, temperature, rainfall and relative humidity were initially observed to describe and classify local weather. The state of the tide was important for avoiding in-port hazards and risks and for navigation – ships would leave port on a falling tide for example. Surface air-pressure forecasted wind strength and direction and warned of atmospheric disturbances; while at airports, temperature and relative humidity critically affected aircraft performance on takeoff and landing.
Commencing in the early 1990s the ‘experiment’, which aimed to detect trends and changes in the climate, has been bolted-on to datasets that may not be fit for purpose. Further, many scientists have no first-hand experience of how data were observed and other nuances that might affect their interpretation. Also since about 2015, various data arrive every 10 or 30 minutes on spreadsheets, to newsrooms and television feeds largely without human intervention – there is no backup paper record and no way to certify those numbers accurately portray what is going-on.
For historic datasets, present-day climate scientists had no input into the design of the experiment from which their data are drawn and in most cases information about the state of the instruments and conditions that affected observations are obscure.
Finally, climate time-series represent a special class of data for which usual statistical routines may not be valid. For instance, if data are not free of effects such as site and instrument changes, naïvely determined trend might be spuriously attributed to the climate when in fact it results from inadequate control of the data-generating process: the site may have deteriorated for example or ‘trend’ may be due to construction of a road or building nearby. It is a significant problem that site-change impacts are confounded with the variable of interest (i.e. there are potentially two signals, one overlaid on the other).
What is an investigation and what constitutes proof?
The objective approach to investigating a problem is to challenge the straw-horse argument that there is NO change, NO link between variables, NO trend; everything is the same. In other words, test the hypothesis that data consist of random numbers or as is the case in a court of law, the person in the dock is unrelated to the crime. The task of an investigator is to open-handedly test that case. Statistically called a NULL hypothesis, the question is evaluated using probability theory, essentially: what is the probability that the NULL hypothesis is true?
In law a person is innocent until proven guilty and a jury holding a majority view of the available evidence decides ‘proof’. However, as evidence may be incomplete, contaminated or contested the person is not necessarily totally innocent –he or she is simply not guilty.
In a similar vein, statistical proof is based on the probability that data don’t fit a mathematical construct that would be the case if the NULL hypothesis were true. As a rule-of-thumb if there is less than (<) a 5% probability (stated as P < 0.05) that that a NULL hypothesis is supported, it is rejected in favour of the alternative. Where the NULL is rejected the alternative is referred to as significant. Thus in most cases ‘significant’ refers to a low P level. For example, if the test for zero-slope finds P is less than 0.05, the NULL is rejected at that probability level, and trend is ‘significant’. In contrast if P >0.05, trend is not different to zero-trend; inferring there is less than 1 in 20 chance that trend (which measures the association between variables) is not due to chance.
Combined with an independent investigative approach BomWatch relies on statistical inference to draw conclusions about data. Thus the concepts briefly outlined above are an important part of the overall theme.