Freedom of Information

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.

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14 thoughts on “Freedom of Information

  1. The nature of the FOI requests just proves that their interest is not in the science.

    Maybe they would like to hand over their own emails, so that we can see their motives.

  2. 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.”

    He was right, for the record. Eli Rabett brought the actual CRU FOI requests to our attention; take a look at #47 (for instance). There’s no way this wasn’t a coordinated attack, especially since the data is available publicly and not owned by the CRU in the first place.

    (This is distinct from the few other FOIA requests that do not follow that trend and mention climate audit; those could charitably have been from a fan but unaffiliated with McIntyre. The others, however, clearly were. Note in the CA thread that other familiar names, i.e. McKitrick, also participated in this denialist denial-of-service attack (there really isn’t a better name for it).)

  3. Kate,

    Another nice post. I will add this to my CRU Hack blog post.

    BTW, the April issue of Discover magazine has an interview with Dr. Judith Curry and Dr. Michael E. Mann. Curry comes across as being quite naive, especially about McIntyre’s intentions, while Dr. Mann came across well. One line I especially liked from Dr. Mann goes something like this:

    I have some emails from Dr. Curry that I am sure she wouldn’t want to be made public.

    (The exact quote eludes me now and the magazine is in my office.)

  4. “His actions and words cannot be excused(.)”

    Kate, I don’t think the available facts allow for such a statement. Arguably intemperate statements made in private emails don’t need an excuse, and no evidence has been produced of illegal or even improper actions on his part (or UEA’s part) relative to the FOI law.

  5. What is interesting in the Brian D link to the list of FOI requests.
    Is that as you go through them. Each one requests information about a different set of countries with NO OVERLAP at all!

    FOI 09-73 = Chile, Finland, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland
    09-74 = Russia, China, India
    09-75 = France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Ukraine
    09-76 = ARUBA, ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA, AFGHANISTAN, ALGERIA, ASCENSION ISLAND
    09-77 = South Africa, the USA, Mongolia, Latvia, and Nigeria
    09-78 = Zimbabwe, Zaire, Angola, South Africa and Botswana
    79 = ACORES, ALBANIA, ANDAMAN AND LA, ANTARCTICA, ANTILLES.

    and so on.

    Quite incredible.
    And lets be honest, DUMB, if the perpetrators were trying to make it look normal!

    [I like how some of them are alphabetical. -Kate]

  6. I should have read the other link first at the McIntyre site, which details in public the requests made by McIntyre’s followers. Including the alphabetical nature of the requests.

  7. Re:“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.””

    It’s more solid than Phil Jones’ assertion that it originated at Climate Audit – it was a stone fact. Here is a link to one of the perpetrators crowing about how her request may foul up somebody’s vacation. Sarah Ferguson happens to be a senior politician in the island in which live and I know her quite well (having crossed swords when we both campaigned for election to the same seats on the same platform).

    link to comment”

    If you look above the comment, you can see the whole denial-of-time harassment attack developing.

  8. Yea, it was organized by ClimateAudit, so that each individual request wasn’t too burdensome. What would have been said if it was a single request asking for all the agreements from all countries? As it was the answer was given for all the requests pretty easily. Now al of this happened in the last year, while the emails were before that. How is it slowing someone down to hand over the same data that he had already given to someone else(Peter Webster)?

    Gavin’s 8 requests in 3 months doesn’t seem like much. Then again his numbers are lower because lately NASA has been more open with their data and code.

  9. …so that each individual request wasn’t too burdensome…

    Right, and each individual ping on a denial-of-service attack doesn’t take up much bandwidth or processing power either. Doesn’t make it any less of an attack.

    What would have been said if it was a single request asking for all the agreements from all countries? As it was the answer was given for all the requests pretty easily.

    It would only have taken one instance of 18 hours to reject, on the same grounds the individual ones were rejected. You confuse “the results are the same” with “the results take the same amount of time to reach”.

    How is it slowing someone down to hand over the same data that he had already given to someone else(Peter Webster)?

    See here. Not quite perfect, but it explains it well. And if you think the analogy breaks down when the “sister” is added, you aren’t paying attention to McIntyre’s track record here.

    All of this is compounded, of course, by the fact that most of the data ClimateAudit were asking for wasn’t even legally owned by the CRU, meaning they couldn’t comply at all with the requests (be it a single request or hundreds), but still needed to spend the 18 hours processing each FOIA prior to rejection. This is clearly a denial-of-service attack, and you’re trying to claim it isn’t.

    If McIntyre didn’t know about the data ownership, it suggests he didn’t do his homework. If McIntyre did know about the data ownership, he didn’t say so on his blog when he rallied ClimateAudit’s readers to send in the FOIAs (to say nothing about not actually contacting the individual data owners), suggesting malicious intent. Neither bodes well for a supposed “auditor”, but either one is in perfect agreement with an inactivist agenda (although normally it’s Watts who doesn’t do his homework (compared to McIntyre)).

  10. I read the Sunday Times article, and either the reporter is misleading, or Phil Jones is. The e-mails that he says make him look bad that Phil claims to have written out of irritation or frustration happened well before the flood of requests he refers to. These 40 or 60 requests in one weekend happened in July 2009. His e-mails were well before that. Prior to that weekend, Steve McIntyre lists 3 requests made by himself to CRU.

    Phil Jones’ response doesn’t look like 18 hours per request either. He wrote the following e-mail
    I have a question for you. I’m going to write a small document for our web site to satisfy (probably the wrong word) the 50 or so FOI/EIR requests we’ve had over the weekend. I will put up the various agreements we have with Met Services.

    This was a pretty quick turnaround for 900 hours of work.They must have had the full staff working around the clock to get that response up.

  11. Where did the 18 hour figure come from?

    Not sure why the requests couldn’t have been summarily dismissed as vexatious and repeated: http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/freedom_of_information/practical_application/vexatious_requests_a_short_guide.pdf

    A better way to handle these form letters would have been with a form response, with possibly a few minutes of tailoring to any specifics, politely but firmly pointing out how they violated the linked guidelines.

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