The only real issue that the hacked CRU emails brought up, the only allegation that didn’t fall apart if you were familiar with the literature (*cough cough hide the decline*), was the failure of Phil Jones to respond to some of the FOI (Freedom of Information) requests.
This looks bad on the surface, and it certainly has been spun that way – climate scientists hiding their data because they know it’s wrong and they don’t want anybody to find out. And ignoring FOI requests is a really stupid thing to do, no matter what the situation is. However, as with all the other allegations, some more context as to the nature and volume of these requests makes ignoring them understandable, if not excusable.
The Freedom of Information Act is important to a democratic society, but its major flaw is that it fails to distinguish its abuse. An article from the Sunday Times describes, in an interview with Phil Jones, what the FOI situation at CRU was.
In July 2009 alone, they received 60 FOI requests – most asking for data that was already freely available online. However, turning down a request takes 18 hours of work, and they only had 13 staff at CRU – all of which had better things to do than respond to needless FOI requests.
In another instance, over a matter of days, they received 40 FOI requests, which obviously all came from the same form letter – but each asked for data from a different 5 countries. So in total, temperature data for 200 different countries (again, most of which was already freely available) was requested, and all the forms came to CRU rather than the offices in the countries the data came from, or even the countries the authors of the FOI forms lived in. Phil Jones is sure that this coordinated attack originated at Climate Audit, which “just wanted to waste our time….they wanted to slow us down.”
Out of irritation, Phil Jones made some comments over email to his colleagues about how he wished that they could just get rid of the data rather than do all this work distributing it needlessly. This was purely a hypothetical proposition, though, as CRU doesn’t own any of the data. “We have no data to delete,” he says. “It comes to us from institutions around the world….it’s all available from other sources.”
When you are abused with FOI requests, ignoring them is not the right thing to do, and Phil Jones knows it – “I regret that I did not deal with them in the right way,” he says. His actions and words cannot be excused, but with more context, it’s obvious that his motives were not to cover up flaws in the data or hide it from critics. He just wanted to do his work.
It’s a great example of how the CRU hack compromises the professional reputations of some of the scientists involved, but it does not compromise one iota of the science. “I am obviously going to be much more careful about my emails in future, ” remarks Phil Jones. “I will write every email as if it is for publication. But I stand 100% behind the science. I did not manipulate or fabricate any data.”
CRU was not the only institution to be abused with FOI requests. The field of climate research has been grappling with this issue for the past few years. Take Benjamin Santer, for example. In a story he relays here, he describes how, following the publication of his 2008 paper, an FOI request by Stephen McIntyre asked for all the raw data used in his study so it could be replicated. Santer pointed him to the data, which was already freely available online. But then he was given two subsequent FOI requests, which asked for all of his intermediate calculations and two years of email correspondence related to the data. Obtaining this information is completely unnecessary to replicate a study, and it is certainly not normal scientific practice – the only reason you would want them would be to find material that could be framed as embarrassing and used to discredit the study and the researcher – as if Ben Santer hasn’t been through enough already. So he turned the FOI requests down, and was immediately flooded with hate mail from Climate Audit readers until he released the intermediate calculations, purely because he “wanted to continue with my scientific research…….I did not want to spend all of my available time and energy responding to harassment incited by Mr. McIntyre’s blog.”
Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA, adds to the list of instances of FOI abuse in climate science. He remarked that “In my previous six years I dealt with one FoIA request. In the last three months, we have had to deal with I think eight…..These FoIAs are fishing expeditions for potentially embarrassing content but they are not FoIA requests for scientific information.”
James Hansen, the director of GISS at NASA, has similar opinions. Following the CRU hack, he writes, “I am now inundated with broad FOIA requests for my correspondence, with substantial impact on my time and on others in my office. I believe these to be fishing expeditions, aimed at finding some statement(s), likely to be taken out of context, which they would attempt to use to discredit climate science.”
The broad abuse of the Freedom of Information Act in the field of climate science is worrying, and it calls for some kind of caveat that will distinguish it from legitimate use of FOI. Research into climate change is vital at this point in human history, but if top researchers are forced to spend their time filling out needless paperwork instead, the field will suffer. The past few months have shown us that institutions of climate science are in need of representatives specialized in media relations. Perhaps they also need to employ dozens of students to fill out FOI forms, or lawyers to defend them from the constant attack they are under.