The Just-So Story Narrative

A few recent items are connected:

  1. The push to make science “story-driven”
  2. A head-fake to evade discussing science and instead push a story
  3. The story they want to push

First, note how the professor of climate science communications John Cook suggests the story as a way to promote the issue of climate change.

I have issues with this, especially in terms of getting across non-intuitive science ideas that aren’t conducive to a trite analogy. For example, it’s difficult to jazz up something like an electron diffraction study or the operation of a semiconductor. All that matters for that is acceptance by other scientists, and it’s always just basic curiosity or competitiveness that drives that.

One retort is to concentrate on the history of the discovery. That may work for some discoveries — like the Mpemba effect which was named after a 13-year old Tanzanian student in the 1960’s.

I guess this is a science “story” that can get jazzed up; as young Mr. Mpemba makes an observation to a visiting professor, and the prof does the experiment, giving credit to the student.

But then try doing the same thing with the discovery of the transistor, and the story delves into what a racist and terrible boss that William Shockley was. That clearly doesn’t work as well.

Second, consider a comment I wrote up in July in response to open discussion on a submitted article titled “Stratospheric ozone and QBO interaction with the tropical troposphere on intraseasonal and interanual time-scales: a wave interaction perspective”. My comment was not lengthy and simply pointed to how QBO may be driven by lunar forcing. Unfortunately, the authors apparently waited until the day before comments were due to respond — and thus cut off the possibility of an online rebuttal (they did this with all FOUR of the online comments, including those of the officially designated reviewers ***)

Compounding that evasive maneuver is that they decided to respond with a recommendation to visit a recent paper “An Array of Ringing Global Free Modes Discovered in Tropical Surface Pressure Data” that has been storified to make it seem that the Earth’s atmosphere is ringing like a bell (subtitled: Let the atmospheric music play on!)”

Evidently, this particular paper caught their attention enough to also persuade me to investigate.

Third, what exactly is in this “ringing bell” paper? — the “story” part is interesting for further analysis:

Some peaks represent astronomically forced tides, but we show that most peaks are manifestations of the ringing of randomly excited global-scale resonant modes, reminiscent of the tones in a spectrum of a vibrating musical instrument.”

One forced tide is the daily tide, which they show as being extremely strong in Figure 4, shown below


All the red vertical lines align precisely with harmonics of the daily tide. The yellow highlights show clear symmetric double-side-bands, which are obviously some modulation of the daily tide — I can guess that based on the relative spacing, it appears that it’s due to a beat frequency with the main fortnightly lunar tide. Interesting that the double-side-bands only appear around the even harmonics of the daily tide. Overall, the odd harmonics are lower in amplitude, indicating that the daily waves have more of an asymmetric sawtooth impulse character.

So what is left are the peaks indicated by the blue circles. It appears that these are the main focus of the paper. But why these are the main focus is puzzling to me. They say “Some peaks represent astronomically forced tides” whereas it should be “MOST peaks represent astronomically forced tides (or their harmonics)“.

As is typical of research work, they may be burying the fundamental findings with trying to uncover some other odd stuff. The reason they do this is because I am sure some reviewers said that the atmospheric tide aspect is nothing novel — even though IMO I think that it is. As they said in the opening statement of the abstract this is all due to having “newly available ERA5 hourly global data“, which wasn’t possible before.

This is what I came up with for the inverted model waveform based on a fitted spectrum of the “ringing atmosphere” :


It appears that the even/odd pattern in intensity might be due to a 1/2 day (semi-diurnal) modulation in the daily tide, and the double satellite side-bands are highly likely due to the 13.66 day fortnightly lunar tide modulating the diurnal forcing. The fact that the side-bands don’t show up on the odd-harmonic spectra might be due to the fact that the odd peaks are closer to the background noise.

The other peaks are not modeled but are circled in green. The fact that the peaks are broader likely means that they are stimulated by a stochastic resonance — the first one corresponds to ~33 hours (the article calls it the “33-h Kelvin wave”) and the second ~9.4 hour. The weaker third one is at ~7.2 hours. The 33 hour and 9.4 hour waves were identified in this paper from 1999 . The combination of these three waves fulfills the condition for a triad.

The following chart is with a 1% spread in the extra frequencies


This is much more in-depth and quantitative than any “just-so story” narrative that the authors were aiming for. It’s not only diurnal forcing that are involved, as the longer-period tides also have a significant impact, which is the point I was trying to make with my comment. As I was not allowed to make the rebuttal online, I elaborated it here.


All these narrative stories have no impact on the underlying science, and may even have the unfortunate effect of obscuring the more important implications that need to be considered. People trained in science don’t do head-fakes because they know that they will eventually get caught, as future scientific findings will be the eventual arbiter.

As for a story approach, there may be other means rather than a public-relations firm creating a press-release to getting the word out. A scientific publication such as the new journal ESD Ideas may be a path forward — that may be a way to appeal to curiosity of scientists as opposed to a marketing gimmick.

*** Another example of a late response is for this paper by Rohde and Hausfather. Note that the authors responded yesterday while the interactive discussion page shows that the rebuttal deadline has passed (Status: final response (author comments only)). Additionally, in their response R & H did not acknowledge my comment, which is not a professional attitude. …. Also this paper was not allowed a rebuttal, which I sent directly to the lead author:

I think your paper was smeared by the anonymous reviewers, and I was not able to comment .  Yours is a very good paper and I suggest you keep going with your approach. For example, the transfer function between SOI and MJO is obviously a time shift (see chart below and the blog post here )

One thought on “The Just-So Story Narrative

  1. “In peer review we (don’t) trust: How peer review’s filtering poses a systemic risk to science” by Harry Crane

    “However, it is a fallacy to believe that in order for peer review to be effective that it needs to also be tied to the accept/reject decision of a journal. Also, while the idea of peer review is to improve quality, it should not be to filter out “bad science”. As we have written in this paper, it is exactly the perception that peer review filters out bad science that puts the current system on shaky ground. “

    Idea is to eliminate the filter of peer-review acceptance — let them publish more easily and allow for a peer-review post-publication.


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