Open Thread

Again, I am getting sloppy on publishing these regularly…

Possible topics for discussion:



So What Happened with ClimateGate?

Remember back in December, when the news was buzzing each day about the stolen emails from top climate researchers? They were described as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming”, or worse. Apparently, the scientists had written things that severely compromised the underpinnings for the idea that human activity was causing the Earth to warm. We could now all stop worrying and forget about cap-and-trade.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. There were no less than four independent investigations into the contents of these emails – conducted by scientists, universities, and governments, not general reporters rushing off a story about an area of science with which they were unfamiliar, and trying to make it sound interesting and controversial in the process.

So what did these investigations find? Is the Earth still warming? Are humans still responsible? Can we trust the scientific process any more, or should we throw peer-review out the window and practice Blog Science instead?

Actually, all four of the investigations concluded that absolutely no science was compromised by the contents of the emails. The CRU scientists weren’t as good as they should have been about making data easily accessible to others, but that was the only real criticism. These scientists are not frauds, although they are accused of it on a daily basis.

Pennsylvania State University, over a series of two reports, investigated the actions of their employee, Dr. Michael Mann, who is arguably at the top of the field of paleoclimatology. They found that, contrary to most accounts in the mainstream media, he did not hide or manipulate any data to exaggerate global warming, delete any emails that might seem suspicious and be subject to Freedom of Information requests, or unjustly suppress skeptical papers from publication. After a second investigation, following up on the catch-all accusation of “seriously deviating from accepted practices within the academic community”, Penn State exonerated Mann. They criticized him for occasionally sharing unpublished manuscripts with his colleagues without first obtaining the express permission of the authors, but besides that minor (and somewhat unrelated) reprimand, they found absolutely nothing wrong.

The British House of Commons investigated the actions of CRU director Phil Jones, and came to a similar conclusion. They found that his “actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community”, that he was “not part of a systematic attempt to mislead” or “subvert the peer review process”, and that “the focus on CRU….has been largely misplaced”. They criticized CRU’s lack of openness with their data, but said that the responsibility should lie with the University of East Anglia, which CRU is a part of. So these scientists should really catch up to the climate research team at NASA, for example, which publishes all of their raw data, methodologies, and computer codes online, with impeccable archives.

The University of East Anglia conducted their own investigation into the actions of CRU as a whole. They found no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda”, and asserted thatallegations of deliberate misrepresentation and unjustified selection of data are not valid”. They also explored the lack of transparency in CRU, but were more sympathetic. “CRU accepts with hindsight”, they write, “that they should have devoted more attention in the past to archiving data and algorithms and recording exactly what they did. At the time the work was done, they had no idea that these data would assume the importance they have today and that the Unit would have to answer detailed inquiries on earlier work.” They also note that CRU should not have had to respond to Freedom of Information requests for data which they did not own (such as weather station records).

Just last week, the final investigation, headed by Sir Muir Russell on behalf of UEA, found that “their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.” Is this starting to seem a bit repetitive? To illustrate their point, over the course of two days, they independently reconstructed the global temperature record using publicly available data, and came to the same conclusion as CRU. Again, there was the criticism that CRU was not as open as it should have been. They also noted that an obscure cover figure for a 1999 World Meteorological Organization report, constructed by Phil Jones, did not include enough caveats about what was proxy data and what was instrumental data. However, the more formally published, and much more iconic, graphs in Mann 98 and the IPCC TAR, were fine.

There have been some great comments on the results of these investigations since they were released, especially by scientists. Here are some samples:

[The CRU researchers] are honest, hardworking scientists whose reputations have been unjustifiably smeared by allegations of unscrupulous behaviour…I hope that the media will devote as much attention to this comprehensive dismissal of the allegations as it did to promoting the hysteria surrounding the email theft in the first place. Will the Daily Telegraph now retract its claim that the emails revealed “the greatest scientific scandal of our age” and apologize unreservedly to Phil Jones? Will there now be a public inquiry about the erroneous, shallow and repetitive nonsense promulgated in the media over this affair? If there is a scandal to be reported at all, it is this: the media stoked a controversy without properly investigating the issues, choosing to inflate trivialities to the level of an international scandal, without regard for the facts or individuals affected. This was a shameful chapter in the history of news reporting. -Raymond Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts

The call for greater transparency and openness among scientists and their institutions is necessary and welcomed, but certainly they aren’t the only ones who deserve that reminder. What institution on the planet would pass muster under such intense scrutiny? Certainly not the U.S. government agencies, which often deny or impede FOIA requests, or global corporations like BP, Massey Energy and Koch Industries, which seem to revel in hiding information from the public all the time. More transparency is needed everywhere, not just among scientists in lab coats. -Brendan DeMelle, freelance journalist, DeSmogBlog

[The Muir-Russell report] makes a number of recommendations for improvements in processes and practices at the CRU, and so can be taken as mildly critical, especially of CRU governance. But in so doing, it never really acknowledges the problems a small research unit (varying between 3.5 to 5 FTE staff over the last decade) would have in finding the resources and funding to be an early adopter in open data and public communication, while somehow managing to do cutting edge research in its area of expertise too. -Steve Easterbrook, computer science professor at the University of Toronto

I agree with these statements. I think that we are holding scientists in general, but especially climate scientists, to a far higher standard than any other group of people in the world. We need to relax a bit and realize that scientists make mistakes, and that innocent mistakes are not evidence of fraud that will bring a long-standing theory tumbling down. We need to realize that scientists are employees like any others, who don’t always follow ideal actions in every professional situation, especially when they are under intense pressure that includes death threats and accusations of criminal activity.

However, at the same time, we need to start holding other groups of people, especially journalists, to a higher standard. Why has the media been able to get away with perpetuating serious allegations without first investigating the what really happened, and without publishing explicit retractions and apologies when the people whose reputations they smeared are found innocent? Why haven’t there been four official investigations into who stole these emails, and why?