Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
Paper that claimed the sun caused global warming is being retracted

A paper published last June was catnip for those desperate to explain climate change with anything but human-made greenhouse gas emissions. It was also apparently wrong enough to be withdrawn this week by the magazine that published it, even though the authors objected.

The paper’s main conclusion was that it described a newly discovered cycle in the sun’s motion, a cycle that took us 300 years into what would be a thousand-year warming period for the Earth. It doesn’t matter that we’ve measured the sun’s incoming radiation directly and there’s been no increase to explain the observed global warming — or there’s no evidence of a 2,000-year temperature cycle in the paleoclimate record.

Those obvious issues didn’t stop some people from taking this study as proof that past warming was natural, and that only mild and unavoidable warming lies in our future.

What goes up must come down… in a cycle?

The paper’s lead author was Valentina Zharkova, a mathematician and astrophysicist at Northumbria University with a distinguished track record. If you’ve ever read one of the dozens (hundreds?) of British tabloid stories declaring that we’re about to kick off an impending “mini-ice age” powered by a waning solar cycle, it was probably backed up by a quote from professor Zharkova. Of course, a mini-ice age can be difficult to fit into a 1,000-year warming trend, but that didn’t stop Zharkova from publishing her new claim.

Immediately after her paper was published in Scientific Reports – an open access journal under the vast family published under the same roof as Nature – criticism of the work began to pour in. In fact, much of it has been documented in a lengthy thread of discussion on PubPeer, a site designed to host a sort of public peer review post-publishing. (That truly incredible thread is recommended to read, dear reader.)

The objections started with Ken Rice, an astrophysicist and climate blogger from the University of Edinburgh. He disputed the paper’s central claim – that the distance between the Earth and the Sun would change as a result of the cycle they described. And that’s where it got really wild.

Zharkova ran a brisk back and forth with rice producing more heat than light. Both agreed that the sun is known to wobble around the solar system’s precise gravitational balance point, which is pulled slightly out of place by the gravitational pull of the larger planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. But the study seemed to ignore the fact that Earth’s orbit also shifts in response to those giant planets, keeping it a constant distance from the sun. The paper instead assumed that Earth’s orbit was unaffected, so any movement of the sun would change its distance from Earth. If not, there has been no change in the strength of sunlight reaching Earth, and no mechanism for their centuries-long warming trend.

While several people tried in vain to point out that this constant earth-sun relationship is known, Zharkova wrote, “Oh dear, you suggest that the earth follows this inertial movement of the sun in its orbit? And its orbit is not stable? You have to have a very vivid imagination, assuming the earth moves like a drunken man…[sic]†

At one point, after Rice provided a simple orbital simulation that calculates the gravitational interactions in the solar system, Zharkova replied, “Your simulations are extremely biased by the idea you believe in.”

(Zharkova also shows affinity with a range of arguments against the clear evidence for human-induced climate change, sharing (unsolicited) claims that humans are not responsible for increasing atmospheric CO2question the accuracy of global temperature data and fail to understand the important difference between local temperature data and global records.)

On Wednesday, Scientific Reports – for which Zharkova is listed as editor – formally retracted the article. The retraction note states that “concerns have been raised about the interpretation of how the Earth-Sun distance changes over time and that some of the assumptions on which the analyzes in the article are based are incorrect.” One of the article’s four authors apparently agreed to retract the article, while the other three (including Zharkova) objected.

When approached by Retraction Watch for their report on the matter, Zharkova told them, “We consider this retraction by the editor of Scientific Reports an outrageous step in obscuring the truthful facts about the orbital motion of the sun and the Earth presented by the withdrawn article will be reported, in our replies to the reviewer’s comments and in subsequent articles.”

Correlation is no cause for celebration

In a blog post noting the pullback, NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt reflected on the growing catalog of studies claiming to find solar cycles in Earth’s climate. †[T]here has been a long history of people assuming they ‘know’ that solar cycles have an effect and then just go deeper into the mechanism,” he writes.

The problem is that if you try enough data sets, say of local rather than global temperatures, you can eventually find the desired cycle correlation. Extrapolating that correlation into the future often makes headlines for stores that don’t know how to beat science, have a penchant for hype, or both.

Schmidt points out that the predictions never come true. Mathematics, it turns out, won’t tell you much about the behavior of the climate system without some physics behind it.

That friction is fully reflected in this article’s PubPeer review. Responding to the challenge that the study’s solar system model contradicts physics, Valentina Zharkova seems to repeatedly argue that their correlation is too good to be wrong. Of course it doesn’t work that way. Correlations generate testable hypotheses, and some of those hypotheses will undoubtedly be wrong. The correlation may be explained by something else, including the possibility that the correlation is a meaningless quirk of your data set or statistical method.

And in this case, a poorly tested correlation hypothesis certainly failed to overthrow the positively mountainous pile of physics-based evidence that clearly shows that humans caused modern global warming. It doesn’t matter how bad some people thought its sound was.

By akfire1

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