Dec 07 2009

The Climategate Fiasco

In March of 2006 a female student and exotic dancer accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her. In the following weeks media commentators wrote and spoke about the moral implications of this heinous crime. What does this mean about the moral fabric of our society, about the role of privilege, class, and justice? It seemed that everyone had their opinion about the meaning of this crime.

That is, right until it was revealed that the accusations were a hoax – there never was any crime. After the revelation there was barely a “nevermind” (ala Gilda Radner from SNL ) from those so free to moralize based upon the initial accusations. One exception was David Brooks who wrote:

Witch hunts go in stages. First frenzy, when everybody damns the souls of people they don’t know. Then confusion, as the first wave of contradictory facts comes in. Then deafening silence, as everybody studiously ignores the vicious slanders they uttered during the moment of maximum hysteria.

It feels to me, with the Climategate scandal, that we are in the frenzy stage of this witch hunt. But already the “first wave of contradictory facts” are coming in also.

Someone hacked into the computer network at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and published thousands of stolen e-mails and computer code on the internet. Global Warming dissidents (I won’t get into the whole “skeptic” vs “denier” thing here) then poured through the e-mails and came up with several statements they felt were smoking gun evidence of scientific fraud. To them, these e-mails confirmed what they had always suspected – anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a fraud perpetrated by a small cadre of liberal scientists.

Writing for the Telegraph, James Delingpole declared (or at least his headline writer did) that climategate was the “final nail in the coffin of AGW.” Fox news wrote: “This coordinated campaign to hide scientific information appears unprecedented.” And some declared this the greatest scientific fraud of modern times.

But is it really? Like the Duke “rape” case, it is prudent to first ask what actually has been going on at the CRU. Perhaps we should wait for an investigation before we hammer that nail into the coffin.

Here are some of the e-mails:

I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.

Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4?

Keith will do likewise. He’s not in at the moment – minor family crisis.

Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address.

We will be getting Caspar to do likewise.

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that–take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…What do others think?”

Certainly statements like these, coming from scientists, are very concerning, not to mention embarrassing. But they are not smoking-gun evidence of fraud. Those of us who have done research and published papers, or just worked with scientists, probably recognize some of the chatter as the normal kinds of discussions that happen in the messy process of science. Using a “trick” can simply be a euphemism (although poorly chosen) to refer to a statistical method. And “hide the decline” can simply refer to making a complex graph of data look better.

But there can be a fine line between analyzing data and “massaging” the data. So as I said – such statements are concerning, but potentially innocent, and should be independently investigated – but not prematurely condemned.

What about e-mails about refusing freedom of information (FOI) request for the raw data, and the accusations that the CRU “destroyed” their raw data? Again, very concerning – as a rule raw data should always be preserved, and should be made available for independent analysis. No one can reasonable deny this. But the emerging story is more complex.

For example, Jeff Masters explains that resistance to FOI requests was not an attempt to conceal fraud, but was resistance to harassing trivial requests by amateurs who were putting an undue burden on the data managers. In fact they suspected that some of the requests were meant to distract them from their work and eat up their resources.

I don’t know if this is true, but it is a plausible alternate explanation. It does reveal the “bunker mentality” that the CRU scientists had developed, and no matter how this shakes out that is a problem that needs to be addressed.

What about destroying data? This refers to the fact that the CRU threw out raw data backups in the 1980s (before the scientists responsible for the e-mails) that were on paper and magnetic tape when they moved their facilities. Further, they claim that much of this data is still available from the original sources and not lost at all.

Again – I have not seen confirmation of this latter claim, and I await the investigation and the revelations that will come in the next few months. But if true it potentially eliminates the accusation that data was destroyed as part of a cover up.

Dr. Phil Jones, the head of the CRU, has stepped down while the investigation is ongoing, and I think that is prudent. I also think that, given the controversy, we need absolute transparency with this data and independent analysis. This is actually a good opportunity to refocus on the science and evidence of AGW.

But I doubt that the maximally hysterical pronouncements of the extreme AGW dissidents, for whom this scandal was an instant confirmation of all their darkest accusations, will pan out. It seems highly unlikely that climategate will change the consensus of scientific opinion on AGW. It also seems unlikely that the degree of fraud that is being accused has in fact occurred.

One reason for this opinion is that, after pouring through thousands of e-mails, these are the worst that the AGW dissidents can come up with. The lack of more compelling evidence for fraud is itself very telling.

Some AGW dissidents argue that the e-mails are not the real evidence, but the computer code used to “analyze” data will be the smoking gun. I have not seen any definitive information about this, so far this is just preliminary accusations. Phil Plait points out that such computer code often goes through many iterations – it’s not as straightforward as you might think. Just because you can find older code that had serious flaws does not mean there is a conspiracy of fraud.

If early indications are representative, then it seems that the scientists are guilty of some poor judgment, poorly chosen words, and not dealing well with the pressures of being at the center of a scientific controversy. But even this moderate conclusion is tentative, and must wait for the results of a thorough investigation.

For global warming dissidents I recommend that you put your rhetoric in check. The witch-hunt frenzy so far in evidence cannot possibly serve you well. If it turns out there was real fraud at the CRU, you will still be criticized for being prematurely shrill and you will lose credibility. Also, the more extravagant your condemnations, the more likely it is that the reality will not be as bad as you are stating – and therefore even if some indiscretions come to light, you will have actually softened the blow because they will not be as bad as the worst hysterical claims. And of course, if it comes to light that no real fraud occurred, the credibility of AGW dissidents will have been dealt a severe blow.

If, on the other hand, you take a cautious and, dare I say, skeptical approach – say that the e-mails are evidence of a troubling attitude at the CRU and deserve full independent investigation, but show restraint in making premature accusations, then you can only win. If the CRU is cleared, you will be praised for your restraint and objectivity. And if any degree of malfeasance comes to light, you can portion your condemnation to the evidence, and will have gained a serious upper hand in the AGW debate. You will be taken seriously the next time you call AGW predictions into question.

I have received many e-mails and have read many blogs and articles on climategate, and find that those who were most adamant that AGW dissidents had been treated unfairly, were also the ones who were being the most hysterical and premature in their conclusions. While demanding to be taken seriously, they were behaving is such a way that almost guaranteed that they would not be.

I have also seen some reasonable responses from those unsure about the claims of climate change and just wanting to get to the truth, and upset that they are being painted with the same brush as the extreme fringe. I understand their concern, but they should not assume that responding to the extreme is equal to painting with a broad brush. We can do both – debunk the hysteria, while acknowledging there is the full range of opinions from dedicated AGW deniers to AGW true-believers. I do not mean to suggest that the truth is a matter of splitting the difference. In my opinion, the science so far favors the conclusion the AGW is real and a potential problem that should concern us. But there is room for ideology and irrationality on both sides of this controversy.

I don’t know what the lessons of climategate are yet – we need to see what actually happened first. But how people deal with climategate says a lot about their process. Those who are making bold claims based upon ambiguous, circumstantial, and out-of-context evidence, are not doing themselves or their side any favors.

Now – let the comment storm begin.

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