Posted by: Barry Bickmore | May 27, 2010

SERIES: Climate Conspiracy Theories in Utah, Part 1

As I’ve said before, it galls me that the Utah legislators leading the charge against climate science are all Republicans, and none of the Republicans in the Utah Legislature voted against HJR 12, the resolution urging the EPA to put off regulating CO2 emissions until we can go back and redo the last 30 years of climate science.  I’m a Utah Republican, after all, and it sort of blows my mind that ALL of them would vote for something so filled with obvious errors.  As much as that grates, however, what really irks me about it is that the main players in the legislative push to rewrite science (e.g., Mike Noel and Kerry Gibson) are all Mormons promoting climate conspiracy theories.  As a Mormon, I have to say that they should know better.

Lots of people disagree with the Mormons about a variety of theological, social, and historical issues.  And when they disagree, they sometimes have to make arguments about why they think we’re wrong.  That’s fine with me–if you want to support your own views, sometimes that means arguing against someone else’s.  And let’s face it, it isn’t really that hard to find points about which one can easily make reasonable arguments against Mormonism.  I’m not saying these arguments are compelling, or I wouldn’t be a Mormon anymore.  Rather, I’m just acknowledging that Mormonism has a few skeletons in the closet, just like every other group, and you don’t even have to break a sweat to make some of our beliefs and history sound weird to outsiders… or sometimes even insiders!  Certainly our beliefs don’t all stem from obvious interpretations of the Bible.  So yeah, a reasonable person coming from a different point of view could easily make responsible arguments against Mormonism that would be persuasive to a lot of people.

Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for many of our critics, especially fundamentalist Christians.  Go into any “Christian Bookstore” run by fundamentalists, and you will find an entire section on “the Cults.”  These always include Mormons, Masons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and some others.  Sometimes Roman Catholicism is even included, but there is a healthy debate among fundamentalists about whether the Roman Catholic Church is “really Christian.”  I’ve been in Baptist churches that have an entire wall covered with pamphlets (some of them with cartoons!) about “the Cults.”  When it comes to the Mormons (and some of the other groups) the fundamentalists can’t stop at making some reasonable arguments from their point of view, making us look weird, or even cherry-picking unofficial statements and taking quotations out of context.  No, they have to go on and accuse us of being a giant conspiracy to take over the world.

Yep, according to one popular anti-Mormon movie called Temple of the God Makers, the Mormons have an exact replica of the Oval Office in the Washington, D.C. temple, for when we take over the USA and rule the conquered serfs who ignored the growing peril (and maybe even voted for Mitt Romney!)  What other chilling evidence can the fundamentalists provide?  Charles Wood, author of The Mormon Conspiracy, tells us, “Because young Mormon men have served in and studied the languages of foreign countries throughout the world, large numbers of them have been hired by the federal Central Intelligence Agency and therefore are in control of a significant amount of CIA activities.”  (!!!!!!!!!!!!!)  He goes on, “A Mormon Church radio network is in operation that is both national and worldwide. The Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University airs church promoting broadcasts throughout the world. The basketball games of BYU are especially attractive to South American listeners.”  (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)  And there’s more.  “In states with a high concentration of Mormon Churches, non-Mormon boys who want to participate in Boy Scout activities often must join the Mormon Church sponsored group.”  (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)  What’s more, another popular movie, The God Makers II, points out that, uh, the LDS Church has a lot of assets.  Yes, and 25% of that is in “agribusiness”!!!!!!!!!  (In other words, the Mormons own a network of farms that grows food for their in-house welfare program.)  Oh, there’s more, of course.  The fundamentalists often claim that Mormon temple rites are “Satanic,” and that we take “blood oaths” there that, if violated, result in us being hunted down and executed by some kind of Mormon Gestapo.  There’s usually some element of truth to these types of charges–we DO have a temple in Washington, D.C., even if there is no replica of the Oval Office in it–but the conspiracy theorists can make even the most innocuous things seem sinister with a little twist.

This kind of thing goes way back in our history, and can have real consequences.  The Utah War, for example, was started because some unscrupulous federal officials in Utah went back to Washington D.C. with a trumped-up story about how the Mormons were “in rebellion” against the USA.  The President sent an army to quell the Mormon “uprising”, but luckily, the Mormons were able to employ delaying tactics while their envoys went to calm things down in the Capitol.  They were able to get the government to call off the army before there was an all-out war, but not before some Mormons in Southern Utah, who were freaked out about the impending attack, perpetrated the Mountain Meadows massacre.

Now, I’m not saying that there are no conspiracies, or that they never involve governments, or even scientists!  I’m saying that Mormons, of all people, ought to require a pretty high standard of evidence before we start accusing people of plots to take over the world.  Therefore, in this series ACCEIU will be examining the “evidence” that the climate conspiracy theorists in Utah have been providing, to see just how high (or low) they have set the bar.

In this first installment, I’ll examine the charge of a “climate data conspiracy” leveled by Rep. Kerry Gibson in HJR 12.  The bill doesn’t include a lot of specifics, so it’s often hard to say what “evidence” is being pointed to.  However, the original bill did include this reference to the “Climategate” e-mails.

WHEREAS, emails and other communications between climate researchers around the globe, referred to as “Climategate,” indicate a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate and incorporate “tricks” related to global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome;

This is a reference to the famous “Climategate” affair, where hackers broke into a server at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and made public thousands of e-mails and a few other files found there.  But does the e-mail referred to in HJR 12 really indicate an effort to fudge global temperature data to make it look like global warming is going on, when it really isn’t?

The particular e-mail referred to was sent by Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit (CRU), and is reproduced here.

From: Phil Jones <>
To: ray bradley <>,,
Subject: Diagram for WMO Statement
Date: Tue, 16 Nov 1999 13:31:15 +0000

Dear Ray, Mike and Malcolm,

Once Tim’s got a diagram here we’ll send that either later today or first thing tomorrow.

I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. Mike’s series got the annual land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999 for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.

Thanks for the comments, Ray.



The first thing to note about this e-mail is that, no matter what “trick” Phil Jones performed to “hide the decline,” this couldn’t have been referring to fudging modern temperature data to make it look like global warming has been happening.  For one thing, the HadCRUT global temperature data set (produced in part by the CRU) is really quite similar to those put out by other agencies, such as NASA and NOAA in the United States.  I’ve plotted the global annual mean temperature anomaly from these three data sets, and it is clear that they show essentially the same trends.

Global annual mean temperature anomaly estimates (1961-1990 base period) by the CRU (HadCRUT3), NASA (GISTEMP), and NOAA. A temperature “anomaly” just refers to the change in temperature with respect to the average during some reference period, i.e., the “base period”.

Of course, climate skeptics will go on and on about how “urban heat island effects” have contaminated the data, or how NASA or NOAA got rid of a bunch of temperature stations in cold areas like Canada or Russia, or whatever.  However, the statistical methods these agencies use to estimate a global mean take all those kinds of things into account, and make appropriate corrections.  Are those corrections sufficient?  An acid test is to compare the data to satellite temperature measurements, which have global coverage and would not be biased by urban heat island effects.  The following plot of direct surface temperature measurements and satellite measurements of surface temperatures, taken from here, shows that the satellite measurements are giving about the same trends as the direct surface measurements.  So obviously, the surface-based reconstructions can’t be doing too terrible a job with their data corrections.

But couldn’t the global conspiracy have gotten to the satellite data, too?  Maybe, but keep in mind that the “UAH” satellite data set comes from the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where the man in charge of producing this data set is one Dr. John R. Christy, a noted climate skeptic.  But wait!  Maybe Christy is a mole for the conspiracy!

In reality, Phil Jones’s e-mail was talking about something far more mundane.  To understand what Jones was saying, however, we have to delve into the context.  “Are you saying, Barry, that we should try to figure out the context of a statement before citing it as evidence of a global conspiracy?”  Yes, I am.

We’ll start with the last part of this sentence.  “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”  Here “Keith” is Keith Briffa, a scientist at the CRU who specializes in reconstructing past climate by studying tree rings.  This “dendroclimatology” involves measuring the width and density of tree rings, as well as counting back the years in the tree rings, to determine what the climate was like in a given year.  Tree ring density turns out to be a particularly good temperature indicator–i.e., it is a good temperature “proxy” that can be used to infer temperatures back before thermometers were invented.  It isn’t a perfect proxy, though, because other things besides temperature affect tree growth.  In 1998, Briffa and his colleagues published a paper in the journal Nature (vol. 391, pp. 678-682), in which they showed that tree ring density was a good temperature proxy until about 1961, when the density started going down, even though the temperature was going up.  Here’s a graph from the paper that shows this relationship.  (NOTE:  If you can’t see the picture, click on the frame.)

Graph of global average temperature (bold line) and tree ring density (thin line) from Briffa et. al. (1998). Note that after about 1961 the tree ring density goes down, while the temperature goes up.

Briffa et al. (1998) said this about their results.

Over the hemisphere, the divergence between tree growth and mean summer temperatures began perhaps as early as the 1930s; became clearly recognisable, particularly in the north, after 1960; and has continued to increase up until the end of the common record at around 1990. The reason for this increasingly apparent and widespread phenomenon is not known but any one, or a combination, of several factors might be involved.

There are a lot of possible reasons why tree ring density hasn’t been such a good temperature indicator for the past few decades.  For example, even though it’s getting warmer, acid rain or other things related to industrial emissions might negatively impact tree growth.  If industrialization is somehow to blame, that would explain why the effect is most evident in the Northern Hemisphere, which is more heavily populated.

At this point, some of the climate skeptics will undoubtedly throw up their hands and complain that if we can’t trust the “treemometers” for the past 50 years, who is to say they weren’t screwed up farther back in the past, as well?  That would be a good point, except that there are other proxy temperature indicators (e.g., isotope ratios in ice cores and corals, borehole temperatures,) and they seem to agree pretty well with the tree rings.

The next piece of the puzzle is that in Jones’s e-mail above, “Mike” refers to Michael Mann, the paleoclimatologist who produced the famous “hockey stick” temperature plot.  The first version of the “hockey stick” was published in Nature (vol. 392, pp. 779-787), in which Michael Mann had plotted a tree-ring temperature reconstruction for the past several hundred years, but ended that reconstruction about 25 years before 1995 (the end of his graph.)  Why did he do that?  Well, he had applied a “50-year lowpass filter” to the data, which means he took each data point and averaged it with the 50 surrounding years (i.e., the 25 previous and 25 subsequent years.  Scientists and engineers do this all the time if we want to look at overall trends, and not be distracted by all the random wiggles in the data.)  Obviously, you can’t do a 50-year lowpass filter on the last 25 years of the data, so Mann left those data points out.  But Mann also plotted the actual temperature, as measured by thermometers, for the entire period, so readers could see where the temperature had gone for the last 25 years of the graph.  Here is Mann’s graph.  (NOTE:  If you can’t see the picture, click on the frame.)

The original "hockey stick" temperature graph from Mann et al. (1998). Notice how the temperatures "reconstructed" from proxy data have been subjected to a 50-year lowpass filter, so the last 25 years are not shown. However, the direct (thermometer-based) temperature measurements were not filtered, so they go all the way to 1995.

Therefore, when Phil Jones said he had used “Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e.,  from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline,” here’s what he obviously meant.   Jones was plotting some proxy temperature series, and he was using the “real” (i.e., thermometer-based) temperatures to extend them up to the present.  There would have been various reasons for the proxy series not to be extended to the present, e.g., if they were lowpass filtered, but in the case of “Keith’s” data, the reason for dropping the data “from 1961″ onward was that “Keith” had indicated that the tree ring proxy was suspect after 1960.  The “decline” that Jones was “hiding” was the decline in tree ring density relative to temperature that Briffa had demonstrated.  (Some of the more lowbrow climate skeptics have actually connected the “decline” to the fact that some global temperature reconstructions have 1998 as the highest mean annual temperature on record, so they say it has been cooling since then.  Of course, this ignores the fact that Phil Jones wrote his e-mail in 1999, before any “cooling trend” would have been evident.)

In other words, Jones was saying that he was leaving out some data that had been proven to be bad.  Boy, that’s really sinister.

Some of my conspiracy theorist readers are undoubtedly screaming, “But he said ‘trick’!!!”  Maybe that term seems sinister to some people (who have overactive imaginations,) but the fact is that scientists say that sort of thing all the time when we are talking about a clever method to get something done.  When we are talking informally with each other, we often talk about “tricks” and “stories,” whereas in a formal scientific paper we might call them “methods” and “hypotheses.”  Am I just covering for my fellow scientists?  Consider that the word “trick” has 11 non-slang definitions listed in the Free Online Dictionary, and one of them says this:  “5a. A special skill; a knack: Is there a trick to getting this window to stay up?”  So it isn’t just scientists–lots of people use the word “trick” this way.

I can hear the disgruntled conspiracy theorists calling, “But the hockey stick has been discredited!!!”  “But what about the Himalayan glaciers in the IPCC report?”  And so on.  Keep your shirts on–we’ll get to all those later.  For now, can you admit the following points?

  1. The “trick… to hide the decline” amounts to jack squat.
  2. Those who quote Phil Jones’s comment about the “trick… to hide the decline” as evidence for a conspiracy to fudge the global temperature data haven’t checked into the context of the statement.
  3. Those Utah legislators who drafted, or even voted for, HJR 12 (mostly Mormon Republicans) are guilty of accusing people of conspiracy and fraud based on badly trumped-up evidence.
  4. Mormons who accuse others of conspiracy and fraud based on trumped-up evidence are morally equivalent to Jews accusing others of international banking conspiracies based on documents of questionable authenticity (like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)


  1. As much as that grates, however, what really irks me about it is that the main players in the legislative push to rewrite science (e.g., Mike Noel and Kerry Gibson) are all Mormons promoting climate conspiracy theories. As a Mormon, I have to say that they should know better.

    Why am I not surprised? Global warming inactivist have shown time and time again that they don’t care about logic, evidence, coherence, consistency, or standards of proof.


  2. And by the way, it cannot be overemphasized that the CRU data ‘leak’ was, by all indications, a cyber-attack perpetrated by criminals, and that we should be seeking to find out who these criminals are, and to bring them to justice. Unfortunately, the media and blogs are too caught up with the BP oil spill at the moment…


  3. [...]  But I thought that fraudulent ‘hockey stick’ graph was based on tree rings.”  I don’t know if this was intentionally meant as one of [...]

  4. [...] Mann must have done something wrong, sometime, or at least said something in an e-mail that can be taken out of context to make it sound like he’s done something wrong.  After all, when you’re dealing with [...]

  5. [...] I remember when the first batch of stolen e-mails from the University of East Anglia came out, and I was talking about it with my father-in-law.  He was upset about some of the quotations that were coming out, and so was I, but I had a somewhat different point of view.  It didn’t bother me at all that the scientists involved said some nasty things about their critics.  As an academic scientist, I knew that this kind of think was perfectly normal, and that the saving grace of modern science is that when all of us are beating up on each other, the end product usually comes out better than it would otherwise have been.  So who cares if they said they thought certain papers and contrarian scientists were idiotic?  Likewise, I wasn’t too concerned about the out-of-context quotation about “Mike’s Nature Trick” and “hiding the decline,” because that just seemed like regular water-cooler talk for working scientists, rather than anything sinister.  (Turns out I was right.) [...]

  6. [...] is such a minor problem that we don’t have to worry about cutting our emissions.  When I looked into charges that climate scientists were guilty of conspiracy, I found the scientists’ critics had taken [...]

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