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“”...they [other scientists] do not take him seriously anymore (he's been wrong too many times)."
Dr. Roy Spencer, Ph.D. is a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a crank with a major persecution complex. His favored form of pseudoscience is global warming denial, though he has also become known as a proponent of Intelligent Design.
Spencer was originally known for his work on satellite measurements: in collaboration with John Christy, also of UAH, he developed the first temperature record based on satellites, which was, in fairness, an important step forward in climate research. In the early 1990s, Spencer and Christy published a few papers looking at the discrepancy of satellite measurements of temperature in the troposphere versus surface warming. This was an important problem in climatology and, since then, there has been voluminous literature published on the topic. The consistent finding has been that the discrepancy was due to instrumental error in the satellite measurements, orbital decay (i.e. the satellites slowly drifting downward), and some methodological problems in Spencer and Christy's work. Further adjustment (including by Christy) has reduced the disparity to be in line with models. The "satellite measurements show no warming" PRATT was latched onto by denialists who continued to use Spencer's dated research and ignore all further research (unless it has to do with the "tropical/tropospheric hot spot" of course). Since planting himself firmly in the denialist camp, Spencer has parroted this claim repeatedly as well, refusing to accept the corrections to his temperature record.
His more recent argument is based in part on Richard Lindzen's research on cloud feedback. Spencer claims that climate sensitivity is being vastly overestimated because clouds will have a much higher negative net feedback than current estimates. Cloud feedbacks are a favorite topic of deniers due to the fact that there is less literature on the subject than other areas global warming, allowing them to thump the uncertainty tactic continuously. Spencer's arguments for the feedbacks themselves, however, are full of statistical tomfoolery, fiddling with math, and heaps of equivocation. He then heaps more bullshit on top of this, shoehorning in the old canards about the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and the El Niňo Southern Oscillation (ENSO). And voila, global warming isn't a problem! Of course, PDO is an oscillation, not a trend, and so cannot account for the current trend of warming.
His book The Great Global Warming Blunder, published as a mainstream work after Spencer took his ball and went home after all the other scientists said mean things about him, includes some truly bizarre stuff. At one point, he outlines the current scientific theory for the ice ages, tiny fluctuations in the Earth's orbit called Milankovitch cycles. The theory holds that temperature changes brought about by the orbital perturbations, though not strong enough to trigger glaciation or deglaciation in themselves, trigger feedback mechanisms that lead to wildly fluctuating temperatures - including the release or sequestration of large amounts of CO2 from the ocean and the biosphere. This puts CO2 at the forefront of non-solar climate charge throughout history, and also explains the well-known 500-year "lag" between temperature and CO2 during one climate change recorded in the Vostok ice cores. Spencer clearly and concisely summarises all this - and then declares it all to be nonsense. His reason? Because there's that CO2 lag in the Vostok ice core and he wants it explained! Yes, despite having explained it himself, he seems incapable of understanding what he has just written. So what does Spencer think caused the ice ages? He cheerfully admits that he doesn't have a clue. This may be willingly swallowed by idiots, but to a reasonable eye this makes Spencer seem either hideously mendacious or an ignorant fool.
Most remarkable is his attempt to disprove anthropogenic global warming through a computer model. The model he chooses is a "simple-box" or "zero-dimensional" model, which assumes that the Earth is a well-mixed ocean of uniform depth, with four variables controlling the climate: roughly speaking, the "feedback value", the value of the PDO expressed in W/m2, the depth of the thermocline and the temperature deviation from the "equilibrium" at the start of the experiment. This is, in itself, fine, so long as Spencer recognises that the simpler the model, the less its results can be applied to the real world. However, he sidesteps this issue completely by supplanting it with another. When it comes to these four variables, he shamelessly states:
“”Since we don’t know how to set the four [parameters] on the model to cause it to produce temperature variations like those in [the 20th century temperature record], we will use the brute force of the computer’s great speed to do 100,000 runs, each of which has a unique combination of these four settings.
Sounds OK, to a layman. But on closer attention this is ridiculous. A model must, obviously, attempt to predict the nature of the real world; the more real-world information it includes, the more accurate a prediction it will make. Yet Spencer leaves all four variables to float aimlessly, at different values, for 100,000 runs. From those 100,000 runs, he culls the four that most approximate the twentieth century and then... finds the average of the differing values. Surprise, surprise, he "discovers" that his model perfectly recreates the twentieth century warming. Um, so what? He has learned nothing from this exercise, and the model he's created has no relation to the real world. Good scientists (and even good students who studied science in high school) know that the number of independent variables should be kept to a minimum - instead of one, we have four. Real scientists interested in creating a model attempt to fill those parameters with real data - we can, for instance, go out and measure the depth of the thermocline - not allow a computer to stuff a random number in there and then cherry-pick the result they want. Not merely are Spencer's values not physically reasonable (his "average" figure for the depth of the thermocline is 700m, when, in a simple model like his, it should be more like 100-200m - closer to 100), he arbitrarily decides to attribute .6 of the .8 degrees C of observed warming to the climate returning to its "equilibrium", effectively eliminating "global warming" altogether. This makes it difficult to believe that Spencer is being deliberately dishonest, as doing this, and announcing it openly, only makes Spencer look like a moron.
He has noticeably upped his crankiness levels in recent years, claiming that he has turned mostly to publishing books and articles in the popular press because his work has been kept out of the peer reviewed literature by the evil warmists. A rather egregious instance was his smear on Andrew Dessler (a climatologist who published work on clouds contrary to Spencer's claims) in which Spencer claimed that the shadowy cabal at the IPCC had pushed through Dessler's paper to hype global warming at the Cancun conference in 2010.
In 2011, he managed to get a paper pushing the PDO/ENSO line into the geography-oriented journal Remote Sensing. The reaction from other scientists? Same ol', same ol' Spencer. Predictably, he immediately cried persecution. Somewhat less predictably, the editor of the journal resigned about a month after the paper's publication.
While Spencer has become an ID PRATT machine, he hasn't contributed any new cards to the creationists' deck. He mostly just parrots the greatest hits like "no transitional fossils" and "microevolution not macroevolution." He also flogs the "secular religion" trope even harder when it comes to evolution than he does for global warming.
Pallin' around with cranks and shills
Spencer is affiliated with a number of astroturf and Christian fundamentalist organizations. He is a member of the George C. Marshall Institute, which was founded by expert for hire Frederick Seitz and is a think tank and front group for various corporate interests including oil companies. He also makes the rounds at the Heartland Institute's denialist conferences.
The fundamentalist organizations he has worked with include the Cornwall Alliance and the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA), which reorganized into the Cornwall Alliance in 2006. The organization promotes "Bible-based environmental stewardship," which translates to "a bunch of cranks denying science." He helped the ISA author their "Call to Truth," a denialist manifesto for evangelicals.
As is common amongst cranks, Spencer flaunts his credentials at every turn. His website is called www.drroyspencer.com and is entitled "Roy Spencer, Ph.D." Contrast this with the scientists at realclimate.org, who go by names like "Gavin" and "Mike".
- The Great Global Warming Swindle, his big debut
- His site
- Barry Bickmore: Politicizing Science, Roy Spencer's Latest Silver Bullet, more on Spencer
- Bombshell: Journal Editor Resigns Over Flawed Spencer Paper, Climate Denial Crock of the Week
- Deltoid's posts on Spencer
- Joe Romm: Should You Believe Anything John Christy or Roy Spencer Say?
- Cloud Gate Link Cloud, Greg Laden
- Spencer Slip-ups, Skeptical Science
- Debunkings of Spencer's book The Great Global Warming Blunder:
- State climatologist John Christy, a critic of global warming, mentioned in leaked 'Climategate' e-mails, al.com
- Climate Scientists Debunk Latest Bunk By Roy Spence
- Who really insists on the "Dr." and "PhD" parts.
- Do satellite observations of atmospheric temperatures agree with surface-based observations and model predictions? NASA
- A History of Satellite Measurements of Global Warming, Skeptical Science
- There's no tropospheric hot spot, Skeptical Science
- Tamino: Spencer's Folly, Pt. II, Pt. III
- How to Cook a Graph in Three Easy Lessons, Real Climate
- It's Pacific Decadal Oscillation, Skeptical Science
- Barry Bickmore's three-part dissection of Spencer's book, including a startlingly moment in which 1000 model runs with different values create exactly the same trend.
- Roy Spencer Steps Outside Protocol to Attack Scientist, Scott Mandia. See also Dessler's comments on Real Climate and summary of drama by Wotts Up With That.
- Barry Bickmore: Just Put the Model Down, Roy, Joe Romm: Climate Scientists Debunk Latest Bunk by Denier Roy Spencer, Real Climate: Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedback
- Fallout from Our Paper: The Empire Strikes Back, Roy Spencer
- Wolfgang Wagner. Taking Responsibility on Publishing the Controversial Paper by Spencer and Braswell. Remote Sens. 2011, 3(9)
- Shades of Soon and Baliunas?
- Uncommon Descent: Roy Spencer on intelligent design.
- Roy Spencer profile, DeSmog Blog
- Watch Out for Global Warming Muths!, Irregular Times
- Global Warming: Why Evangelicals Should not be Alarmed, E. Calvin Beisner