Michael Tobis Takes Part 3

I was going to write a Science and Communication, Part 3 post that examined what ClimateGate actually tells us vs what the popular press says about it, and why this chasm between the two exists.

Then Michael Tobis wrote a brilliant post discussing that very topic:

What Was Actually Revealed

  • a rehash of a well-known controversy about how to present tree-ring data
  • frustration about too much attention to substandard scientific papers slipped into the literature by marginally qualified people with nonscientific agendas, and discussions about how to handle that
  • frustration about opposition by filibuster via freedom of information requests
  • a single suggestion about “deleting emails”, without any context, which plausibly does not refer to deleting emails from a server (scientists are probably aware that end users cannot really do this) but rather to deleting them from a response to one of many FOIA requests
  • some sloppy code and a pretty sad but perfectly typical lack of understanding of the advantages of dynamic programming languages
  • a couple of fudge factors explicitly labeled as such probably used in testing, commented out
  • some older data for which CRU is not the originator or primary repository is not in any known dataset at CRU
  • about 985 emails and 1995 other files of no apparent interest to anyone

In other words, (withe the possible exception of the email deletion incident, which I imagine the lawyers are fretting about) the only things remotely unusual here are a direct consequence of the existence of a politically rather than scientifically motivated opposition.

Read the whole post here.


5 thoughts on “Michael Tobis Takes Part 3

  1. It’s a well-written post and true as far as it goes, but the list of “What was actually revealed” needs a qualifier: “…so far”.

    The emails and files he categorizes as “of no apparent interest to anyone” are of reasonably high interest to the few small groups of people who have enough context to figure out what the emails mean. As more jigsaw pieces are put together by these groups, the resulting stories will become of interest to more people. It’s far too soon to tell how much of it will ultimately prove interesting. Maybe once a few books come out it’ll be time to do the full summation.

    (For instance, I found the emails regarding upside-down sediments (eg, 1252154659.txt) pretty interesting, but only in the context of Mann’s published PNAS comment on the subject.)

  2. Glen, thanks for the compliment.

    I suppose I’ll buy your qualifier. Maybe something somewhat more serious will turn up. I guess this means that the uproar is at least premature if not totally unjustified.

    Two things should be understood, though.

    First, presuming we can exclude honest scientific errors here which could have been handled in a far less extraordinary fashion, anything that MIGHT be revealed would be as a result of (to put it kindly) a fishing expedition that was based on an illegal hacking. Since nothing OBVIOUS has emerged, it is likely that the most serious malfeasance at issue is the hacking itself, an issue which seems to be lost on a great many people who would not enjoy having their own emails published.

    Second, and this is the main point, the likelihood that anything in the emails or CRU’s conduct will rise to challenging our scientific understanding is very small. Our understanding predates the warm spell of the last thirty years and has since been much refined but not fundamentally changed. Nothing at CRU changes the theory, the modeling successes, the paleoclimate evidence, or the satellite record, all of which tell a coherent story of a climate sensitivity (to be specific I mean the Charney sensitivity) on the order of 2.5 C – 3.0 C per CO2 doubling.

    So the mountains being made of this particular molehill make little sense. Your idea that “well, there are mountains yet to be discovered among the molehills” simply presumes bad faith on the part of the researchers. You’ll forgive the rest of us for not sharing your pessimism, I hope.

  3. Michael: I don’t believe we know for certain that the data was revealed as the result of illegal hacking. It still could be the action of a “whistleblower” from within the group. (How did the release mange to be so carefully and narrowly focused?)

    I think the final analysis does stand a chance of affecting our interpretation of the paleoclimate evidence. Not so much the evidence itself – which is what it is – but the spin that gets put on it, some of the conclusions reached based on it, and the strength with which we can currently say those conclusions are reached.

    I do agree that this kerfluffle doesn’t have much chance of affecting the theory or the satellite record. Or the modeling record.

    Michael, could you comment on upside-down sediments? http://www.pnas.org/content/106/6/E10.full

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