Bad Week for Roy “Wrong-Way” Spencer

September 7, 2011

Last week, chronically wrong Roy Spencer, darling of denialists, had his butt handed to him (again) when the editor of the journal where his latest brick of a paper was published resigned.
It’s important to note, Roy Spencer is MOST famous for being wrong – wrong in the the very areas that should be his area of greatest strength and expertise. Some readers may remember that the blaring headlines about “Science Proves Global warming wrong” have been fixtures of the denialist media for decades  - and Roy Spencer has been one of the scientists perennially cited as finally “disproving alarmist global warming science”.

During the nineties, Spencer and his partner John Christy were the toast of denial-ville for their serial mis-reading and mis-calculating of satellite temperature readings – which they incorrectly claimed showed tropospheric cooling.  After 10 years of stubbornly repeating and doubling down on a series of errors, they both finally admitted they had been in error. (and see also here)

Climate Progress:

Amazingly (or not), the “serial errors in the data analysis” all pushed the (mis)analysis in the same, wrong direction. Coincidence? You decide. But I find it hilarious that the deniers and delayers still quote Christy/Spencer/UAH analysis lovingly, but to this day dismiss the “hockey stick” and anything Michael Mann writes, when his analysis was in fact vindicated by the august National Academy of Sciences in 2006.

Wall Street Journal: 1997


As RealClimate commented about an earlier Spencer effort:

We now know, of course, that the satellite data set confirms that the climate is warming , and indeed at very nearly the same rate as indicated by the surface temperature records. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when pursuing an innovative observational method, but Spencer and Christy sat by for most of a decade allowing — indeed encouraging — the use of their data set as an icon for global warming skeptics. They committed serial errors in the data analysis, but insisted they were right and models and thermometers were wrong. They did little or nothing to root out possible sources of errors, and left it to others to clean up the mess, as has now been done.

This week, Andrew Dessler, top flight atmospheric scientist of Texas A & M, (and advisor to this blog and video series) published a paper showing why Spencer is so off base.

The basic issue in the current kerfuffle is, Spencer wants us to believe that clouds are the driver, rather than a feedback, or result of, global climate change. As is often the case, there’s a fair amount of explanation needed here – luckily we have John Cook’s Skeptical Science team to help.

Skeptical Science explains: 

Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, has released a scientific paper (Dessler 2011) that looks at the the claims made by two of a small group of “skeptic” climate scientists who regular SkS readers will be familiar with: Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen.  Both were co-authors on peer-reviewed papers released this year (Spencer & Braswell [2011] & Lindzen & Choi [2011]) which, once again, sought to overturn the orthodox view of climate.  Dessler (2011)finds that the conclusions of these two papers are unsupported by observational data.

Spencer & Lindzen: Tipping reality on its head

The Spencer/Braswell and Lindzen/Choi papers have an unusual take on global warming: rather than warming causing a change in cloud cover (i.e. acting as a feedback to either increase or reduce warming), both papers claim that it’s the other way around – changes in cloud cover cause changes in the surface temperature (in the present case, warming).

Spencer/Braswell and Lindzen/Choi look at the relationship between changes in ocean heat, cloud cover (directly affecting the amount of heat lost to space), and global surface temperature over recent decades. The idea is, if the change in surface temperature over that period is affected by changes in cloud cover, but changes of the surface temperature associated with the ocean warming are small, then changes in cloud cover must be driving the present global warming.

Dessler: Putting reality back on its feet

Putting aside the problems with their energy budget equation, Dessler looks at the values Spencer/Braswell and Lindzen/Choi use for their calculations.  Rather than examine the data for two of the terms in their equation (heating of the climate by the ocean & change in cloud cover allowing heat to escape to space), Lindzen and Spencer approximate them from other observations, and their results rely heavily on assumptions about the size of these values.

Rather than rely on assumptions, Dessler uses other observational data (such as surface temperature measurements and ARGO ocean temperature) to estimate and corroborate these values.  Dessler finds that, in contrast to Spencer/Braswell and Lindzen/Choi, the change in cloud cover is far too small to explain the short-term changes in surface temperature, explaining only a few percent of surface temperature change.  In fact, the heating of the climate system through ocean heat transport is approximately 20 times larger than the change in top of the atmosphere (TOA) energy flux due to cloud cover changes.  Lindzen and Choi assumed the ratio was close to 2, while Spencer and Braswell assumed it was close to 0.5.

Dessler finds that the short-term changes in surface temperature are related to exchanges of heat to and from the ocean – which tallies well with what we know about El Niño and La Niña, and their atmospheric warming/cooling cycles.

Spencer & Braswell: A classic example of cherrypicking

In order to claim that the climate models differ from observations when comparing the surface temperature and energy leaving the Earth at TOA with the lead-lag between them, Spencer/Braswell cherrypick  observational data and model results that show the greatest mismatch (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Dessler (2011) reconstruction of Spencer & Braswell's figure 3, showing relationship between top-of-atmosphere (TOA) net flux and surface temperature, as a function of lag between them. The blue line is the observational data chosen by Spencer and Braswell. The red lines show other available observational data. The shading represents the two-sigma uncertainty of two of the data sets. The black lines show climate model results. The black lines with crosses show the climate model runs chosen by Spencer and Braswell in their paper.

The blue line in Figure 1 is the TOA and Hadley Centre surface temperature data chosen by Spencer/Braswell, and the red includes other datasets of the surface temperature. The black lines are the 13 climate model runs, with the ‘crosses’ indicating 5 of the 6 models analysed by Spencer/Braswell.  Although Spencer/Braswell analyzed 14 models, they only plotted the 3 with highest and 3 with lowest equilibrium climate sensitivities.

In the process, Spencer and Braswell excluded the three climate model runs which best matched the observational data.  Dessler found that these three model runs were also the ones which are among the best at simulating El Niño and La Niña, which is not surprising, given that much of the temperature change over 2000-2010 was due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  Thus Dessler concludes that

“since most of the climate variations over this period were due to ENSO, this suggests that the ability to reproduce ENSO is what’s being tested here, not anything directly related to equilibrium climate sensitivity.”

Violating the Laws of Thermodynamics

Dessler also examines the mathematical formula that both studies use to calculate the Earth’s energy budget, and finds that it may violate the laws of thermodynamics – allowing for the impossible situation where ocean warming is able to cause ocean warming.

Much ado about nothing

The short-term change in surface temperature over the 2000-2010 period is a result of ocean heat being exchanged with the atmosphere (via ENSO). This in turn alters atmospheric circulation, which alters cloud cover, but the impact of cloud cover on surface temperature only explains a small percentage of the surface temperature change.  Thus the lead-lag relationship between heat leaving the Earth at TOA and surface temperature reveals nothing about what is driving the short-term surface temperature change.

In short, the “skeptic” hypothesis that changes in cloud cover due to internal variability are driving global warming does not hold up when compared to the observational data.  Once again we have two heavily-hyped “skeptic” papers that have failed to live up to their billing.

Additional Explanation from Scholars and Rogues:

While Wagner’s resignation as editor-in-chief casts a shadow of impropriety over SB2011, Dessler’s new paper titled “Cloud variations and the Earth’s energy budget” goes to the core of the paper’s scientific arguments and finds them deficient. First, Dessler finds that SB2011′s first equation appears to violate conservation of energy (“energy can never be created or destroyed”), one of the most fundamental laws of physics. The problem is that the way Spencer and Braswell wrote their equation permits the ocean to change temperature without additional energy, a situation that is analogous to a cup of coffee sitting on a desk top suddenly warming up for no reason.

The bulk of Dessler’s paper is devoted to the second error in SB2011, namely that the authors dramatically underestimated a critical ratio in their equation because they didn’t constrain their equation using measured data from the real world. SB2011 assumes that the ratio in question was about 0.5, but real data requires that the ratio be closer to 26, an error of about 50x. When the constrained ratio is used in the equations in SB2011, the paper’s results are suddenly right in line with the very models and papers that SB2011 was supposedly disproving.

39 Responses to “Bad Week for Roy “Wrong-Way” Spencer”

  1. daveburton Says:

    Wagner resigned w/o even talking to Spencer — which tells you all you need to know about why he resigned. It was politics, not science.

    For the straight scoop, see Dr. Spencer’s web site:

    • livinginabox Says:

      Why should we believe anything that Spencer says?

      • tomgraywind Says:

        And amazingly, Wagner didn’t blame politics for his resignation, he blamed Spencer and the news outlets who echoed Spencer’s claims.

    • otter17 Says:


      You do not have any evidence to support that Wagner resigned due to politics. It is nearly libelous to insinuate that he resigned due to dishonest motives without evidence. Has Wagner indicated that he was pressured politically? His resignation editorial indicated that scientific evidence was brought to his attention, and he looked at both sides of the issue before making his decision. Do you truly believe that Wagner is lying? Do you know Wolfgang Wagner? Does he have a reputation as a dishonest man?

      You bring up that it was all politics. What are your political views? Why did you first get interested in climate science? What is your position on climate change and why? Say that hypothetically it was guaranteed that CO2 reductions (to zero) were necessary within the next several decades or else civilization would fail; what mitigation strategy would you propose?

      • daveburton Says:

        How could he have possibly “looked at both sides” without even talking to Spencer? Do you truly believe that claim was fully truthful?

        Wagner accused Spencer and Braswell of scientific malpractice. The principle of justice that the accused should have the right to confront his accuser(s) and mount a defense is so fundamental that, for matters of law, it is enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights. But Wagner didn’t even bother to contact Spencer. He obviously did not bother to “look at both sides.”

        Changing subjects…

        In answer to your question, I first got interested in climatology (well, specifically, sea level), through a coincidental series of events.

        First, I noticed, repeatedly, the claim that sea level rose at an average rate of about 1.7 or 1.8 mm/year over the 20th century, but that it was rising at 3.1 or 3.2 mm/year, now, and likely to accelerate much more than that in the near future.

        I assumed that at least the claimed 1.8 and 3+ mm/yr rates of rise so far were true. After all, I naively assumed, those are measured values.

        Then Climategate hit the news.

        Then I happened to stumble across a table of sea level trend data at, showing local sea mean level trends, calculated by regression analysis of tide gauge data, at various coastal locations around the world. I didn’t pay much attention, but I noticed and was surprised to see that at many locations sea level is actually falling.

        Then, a couple of days later, I happened to see James Hansen on the David Letterman Show, repeating the claim that sea level had been rising at a rate of 1.8 mm/year over the last century, but that the rate had increased to 3.something (3.2?) mm/year. He gave the impression that these were globally true figures. He made no mention of the fact that at many locations sea level is actually falling.

        That was not long after the Climategate revelations of widespread scientific malpractice by climate alarmists to exaggerate the rise in temperatures, and my nasty, suspicious mind had a nasty, suspicious thought: “I wonder if he’s telling the truth, or not? If they lie about temperatures, do you suppose they are lying about sea level, too?”

        And I remembered that page at So I went to my computer, and found the page again. I scrolled to the end of the table, looking for the usual summary line, with the average of all the tide stations’ sea level trends… and it wasn’t there.

        I wondered why it wasn’t there. Surly whoever had done all the work to do the regression analysis and find the sea level trends for 159 GLOSS-LTT tide stations had also calculated the average? So why wasn’t it in the table?

        My nasty, suspicious mind suspected that the reason was that the researcher got the “wrong” result.

        So I downloaded NOAA’s web page, intended to write a program to extract the data, but when I looked at the source I saw that the web page was actually just an exported Excel spreadsheet. So I loaded it into Excel and, click-click-click, I calculated the average.

        Can you guess what I found, otter17?

        • greenman3610 Says:

          since your interpretation of the climategate non-story is hook line and sinker Lord Monckton conspiratorial crap, as demonstrated by what, 7? now investigations, not to mention several videos in this series, I think that speaks volumes about your nasty suspicious mind.

          • daveburton Says:

            That reply is proof of something I’ve often observed: that most people, even smart people, will believe what they want to believe in preference to what all evidence indicates.

          • daveburton Says:

            And, anyhow, I wasn’t talking to you, Peter.

            I was talking to otter17. He asked me a question. I answered it, and asked one of him, in return.

          • greenman3610 Says:

            you’re talking on my blog, you’re talking to me.

          • BlueRock Says:


            > …people, even smart people, will believe what they want to believe in preference to what all evidence indicates.

            You got that much right. You’ve just failed to see how it applies to you… not that I’m accusing you of being smart.

            IPCC AR4. Where is it wrong? Peer-reviewed cites – not an Excel spreadsheet that you went “click-click-click” on – for any claims made.

            Be the first denier to produce something other than bloviated rhetoric, long-debunked claims and evidence-free conspiracy theories.

            Show us why ~98% of published climate scientists and every national science academy on the planet are a bunch of idiots or liars, and why you – with your Excel spreadsheet – are not.

            P.S. The challenge is rhetorical. You’ve got nothing. Nothing other than denial, delusion and Dunning Kruger.

          • daveburton Says:

            Alright, then. Since otter17 isn’t answering, perhaps someone else here would like to.

            Can anyone here guess what I found, when I downloaded NOAA’s table of local mean sea level trends at the GLOSS-LTT tide stations, and calculated the average?

            (BTW, this is an “open book” quiz — feel free to peek at the answer, if you can find it.)


        • livinginabox Says:


          It’s interesting you make a lot of bogus claims, like about ‘Climategate’, which if you knew what you were talking about, was a pack of lies, but not lies by the scientists involved, but by those making the accusations.

          You are so wrong that you might as well change your name to Roy Spencer.

          The only truth in your post would seem to be that you have a ‘My nasty, suspicious mind’ and that you see liars where there aren’t and see ‘scepticism’ where there are liars.

          If you have genuinely found wrong doing, why not approach a relevant ISI scientific climate journal rather than wasting your efforts here. Except of course, you are just a troll and your claims would never survive peer-review in a relevant journal.

        • dlk101 Says:

          So daveburton, in your average global sea-level change calculation, how did you account for the different sea volume changes each individual measurement represents (even a surface are weighting would be a good start)…?

          And how did you account for underlying sea-bed movements?

          This not being my field of research, I’m sure there are many more compounding factors one must be aware of, these are two pretty obvious ones for starters!

    • greenman3610 Says:

      for deniers, it’s a simple reflex. when faced with unwelcome facts, just expand the “plot”.

    • otter17 Says:

      Maybe it is a reflex of sorts, Peter. It still seems crazy to accuse someone of wrongdoing when they don’t even know the person or their scientific record.

      I mean, do some of these people even know who the scientists were that supposedly pressured Wagner? Did anyone even know who Wolfgang Wagner was before this story broke? Now he is all of a sudden accused of letting politics cloud his judgment?

  2. livinginabox Says:

    It’s perfectly clear, or should be that Spencer has been egregiously wrong many times. That alone should put him in the same category as Monckton, Plimer, Carter, Baliunas, Soon, Lindzen, Michaels, Ball and Singer. But look, he has put himself in the same category. He is a Heartland Expert, a member of a group of individuals who AFAICT promote bull-shit as science and undermine genuine science. Each one should be deeply ashamed for being associated with the others, some have never even been scientists, but others while originally scientists, but have spent so much time dealing with bullshit, that calling them scientists is an insult to genuine scientists.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      being wrong is the “added value” Spencer brings to his science. If he was working away quietly on adding to real knowledge, he’d never be the media celebrity he has become – since he would have no utility for Exxon, the Koch brothers, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox news.

  3. neilrieck Says:

    I do not understand why UAH (University of Alabama – Huntsville) puts up with Spencer’s crappy track record. Are they receiving some sort of grant from the fossil fuel industry? Does Spencer have any teaching duties at UAH (or is it just a mail drop)? Does being on the board of directors of the conservative think-tank “George C. Marshall Institute” interfere with his research activities at UAH?

  4. [...] Bad Week for Roy “Wrong-Way” Spencer – Peter Sinclair Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Another thought on our Food Supply Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponEmailRedditLike this:Like3 bloggers like this post. [...]

  5. BlueRock Says:

    May I suggest that *every* time Spencer is discussed that his admission of his true motives is noted:

    “I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

    Spencer is not a scientist. He’s a dishonest ideologue hiding behind a PhD.

    daveburton produces the tired, old, evidence-free denier rhetoric about “politics”, but it is actually the deniers who are motivated and driven by wingnut political ideology.

    • otter17 Says:

      I assume you don’t mean that all of them are motivated by political ideology. There are some varying reasons it seems, at least in my experience.

      More and more, I have been interested in educating myself concerning the psychology of denial. In particular, I have been looking for peer reviewed literature on the subject.

      So far, I have found this presentation within the blog “Climate Change Denial”. It is quite enlightening.

      Anybody know about peer reviewed literature on psychology concerning climate change? I’m interested to know what the best science has to say about what makes some of these folks tick. Heck, I’m interested to see if climate change policy advocates such as myself have any quirks, too.

      • BlueRock Says:

        In my experience, it might be all of them. Debate a denier long enough and eventually they will introduce their fear of being taxed to prevent “so-called MMGW!” I don’t recall ‘meeting’ a denier who wasn’t concerned about the contents of his wallet and interference from “Big Government”.

        Oh, there’s also a big dollop of religion for some. “We’re too puny to harm my god’s creation!”

        I spend very little time debating deniers now. All those who are going to accept the science do. All those who deny it most likely will until the box is nailed shut. All the apathetic in the middle will remain apathetic.

        I think we need to focus on selling the carrot: clean, safe energy that brings jobs and net economic benefit.

      • otter17 Says:

        Right, religion is one. Now, my father was a mix between political aversion and religion. His argument was that “God wouldn’t have put the fossil fuels there if they were harmful when burned”. This similar sentiment was held by the rest of my family members; they don’t follow politics like my father, though. Thus, I would classify them as deniers based on just religion.

        In any case, I agree to some extent that they will deny the science until the “the box is nailed shut”, given their current worldview. So, I think we have to be flexible enough to engage with science only AFTER addressing their core values that trump science. For example, my family reacted favorably when I showed them that Pope Benedict was concerned about climate change and that a Vatican working group was calling for concrete steps to mitigate climate change. Now my dad actually listens to me when I explain the science behind why CO2 has a greenhouse gas property. Now I can point to the conclusions from the peer review literature or IPCC and explain that this is the best knowledge we have on climate change. I think there is some promise here.

        I don’t know if the clean energy carrot on its own can be enough. People will deny the need for or the benefits of that carrot. I think the apathetic and the deniers that show promise are necessary partners in this. Obviously, leave the very entrenched deniers until last. Maybe we have to engage certain deniers on their own terms, not necessarily scientific terms.

        • BlueRock Says:

          Ah, I’d suggest that debating family and friends is very different to the public forum. Unless you want to alienate family and friends then you can only push so hard.

          I have one friend who is in denial, and that is largely driven by scientific illiteracy – despite being a fairly sharp person otherwise. He hides behind the “scientists don’t know everything, they’ve got things wrong in the past, climate has changed before”. He just does not want to believe because it would make him ‘uncomfortable’ about his consumption patterns. I’ve tried starting a serious conversation several times but he’s not interested, starts getting grumpy as I explain the basics. So I let it slide.

          I’m now trying to de-program the bullsh!t fed to him by the rightwing press in the UK about renewables!

          > I don’t know if the clean energy carrot on its own can be enough.

          If not, they’re totally unreachable. If they cannot see the benefit of energy independence, net economic benefit, good jobs, no more blowing the tops off mountains, clean air, then I can’t imagine what will engage them. But that’s OK – there are bumps in every path that we need to walk around.

          • daveburton Says:

            Then there are the folks who actually looked at the data, and discovered that key claims of the CAGW alarmists were purest nonsense.

            That’s how I became a climate realist.

            That’s also why most of the smartest people I know are climate realists.

            Take, for example, Burt Rutan. (Click the link, and learn.)

          • greenman3610 Says:

            and Glenn Beck

          • BlueRock Says:

            > …there are the folks who actually looked at the data…

            Folks? You get your science from “folks”?! That explains a lot. You betcha.

            > That’s how I became a climate realist.


            > Take, for example, Burt Rutan.

            You stick with Burt, the aero engineer – and radio weather presenters, and retired mining executives and bobble heads on wingnut AM.

            Those not in denial or delusional will stick with 98% of climate scientists and every national science academy on the planet.

            > (Click the link, and learn.)

            Oh, the irony. It burns.

  6. It’s absurd to think that just because Spencer believes that Jesus is coming back to the rescue that it would influence either his broader scientific world view or something like AGW.

  7. kokuaguy Says:

    Peter, please email me at so I will know why my comment was not deemed appropriate for posting. I know of no other way to communicate with you other than this. I apologize if I violated some guideline of the site that I am not familiar with.

  8. daveburton Says:

    Irrational CAGW alarmism is collapsing like a punctured hot air balloon. Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever has just quit the American Physical Society because of its anti-scientific promotion of global warming alarmism. In his resignation note, Giaever wrote, “In the APS, it is ok to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is ‘incontrovertible’?”

    • greenman3610 Says:

      These 90 year old physicists that suddenly become climate experts.
      Reminds me of Linus Pauling – who I admired, and who had won 2 nobel prizes.
      In his late, late years, he “discovered” that vitamin C cures the common cold.
      It doesn’t.
      Frederick Seitz, of course, once a good scientist, later climate denier and shill for the tobacco industry.

      Then there’s William Shockley, nobelist whose later views on race and intelligence were propagated in many of the same channels that push climate denial today.

  9. Byron Allen Says:

    Climatecrocks is a political propaganda machine out to disparage anybody that disagrees with its radical climate change agenda. This article has ZERO credibility as scientific information. It is just rantings of radical left wing AGW advocates who just can’t accept the fact that their models have collapsed unable to forecast global warming at all. The earth has warmed less than 1 degree over the past 30 years and most of this is probably not caused by humans. In just 3 more years, it will become more than evident that the AGW purveyors have been fabricating science.

    • patricklinsley Says:

      Cool story bro.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Yeah, can’t wait to see how it turns out in 3 years.

        • daveburton Says:

          1-1/4 down, 1-3/4 to go.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Really, Dave? Only 1-3/4 to go? What event are you and Byron forecasting that will make it all become “more than evident”?

            From the rantings of Byron, your new soulmate in spouting conservative idiocy on Crock, I imagine you are referring to the ascendancy of some right wing super idiot that will make things “right”? A Cruz, or Paul, or Rubio?

            If Byron’s political prognostication skills are no better than the science knowledge he displays with “The earth has warmed less than 1 degree over the past 30 years and MOST of this is PROBABLY not caused by humans”, I wouldn’t bet any money on him.

            And keep coming around, Byron—-Dave is “easy”, but you will redefine the word.

  10. […] – also went off spectacularly on his blog last week, calling those that disagreed with his extreme minority and repeatedly discredited views on climate […]

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