Schrödinger's Kitten

Irreverent Science for Everyone

Friday 20 November 2009

It Might Be Climate, But It's Not Science

  • policy
  • argh
  • climatechange
  • globalwarming

Leaked correspondence and data from one of the world's leading climate research institutes casts doubts about the validity of their data. Some of their big names in man-made climate change, and on the IPCC, are involved. Climate skeptics are having a field day. Environmentalists are attacked by sneaking worries. No valid explanation given.

Freedom of Information

A hacker signing him/herself FOIA obtained access to the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. S/he published 61MB of data, code and emails from the CRU with the header:

We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps. We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code, and documents. Hopefully it will give some insight into the science and the people behind it.

This infiltration was probably sparked by CRU's refusal to release raw data — as referred to in a charming excerpt from an email by Phil Jones, the CRU director.

I'm getting hassled by a couple of people to release the CRU station temperature data. Don't any of you three tell anybody that the UK has a Freedom of Information Act !

The data appear to be genuine and have been publicly acknowledged as such by Phil Jones in an interview in Investigate Magazine.

The emails are damning.

Scientific Integrity Change

The behaviour, practices and attitudes suggested in these emails are unworthy of scientists. I am prepared to be informed (indeed, would be very happy to be; it sickens me that my fellows can behave this way) that these quotes were taken out of context, were in-jokes, or had some other meaning which would make them less egregious. However, none has been provided in the numerous interview opportunities that have been afforded.

From our favourite Prof. Phil:

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) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.

When asked by Investigate magazine if this quote relates to an attempt to mislead, Phil responded:

That's completely wrong. In the sense that they're talking about two different things here. They're talking about the instrumental data with is unaltered — but they're talking about proxy data going further back in time, a thousand years, and it's just about how you add on the last few years, because when you get proxy data you sample things like tree rings and ice cores, and they don't always have the last few years. So one way to add on the instrumental data for the last few years.

OK, so when he says 'add in the real temps for the last 20 years', he means 'use another set of data to fill gaps'. That's not a problem, as long as it's made explicit in the paper. But what about that last bit?

He has no idea what he meant by the words 'hide the decline', he says, because it was an email from ten years ago and he couldn't remember the exact context. Well Phil, I suggest you think of a plausible context quickly, because climate changer deniers/skeptics are going to leap on those few words and have a field day.

It's not as though the CRU don't know they're under scrutiny. Michael E. Mann's correspondence shows the frustration that the guys were experiencing:

I've attached a cleaned-up and commented version of the matlab code that I wrote for doing the Mann and Jones (2003) composites. I did this knowing that Phil and I are likely to have to respond to more crap criticisms from the idiots in the near future, so best to clean up the code and provide to some of my close colleagues in case they want to test it, etc. Please feel free to use this code for your own internal purposes, but don't pass it along where it may get into the hands of the wrong people.

I can understand this: I, too, in my lowly status have to deal with idiots and those who refuse to believe. But why should that make you hide your evidence? As a scientist your stance should be based on facts and so where is your motivation to hide facts that make your case? You should be open to criticism since only through that will you progress.

Last word on the matter to Kevin Trenberth:

The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.

Okay, you have a problem. Thanks for your open and inclusive attitude in admitting it publicly. Have to question the assumption that since the data and the models clash, the data are wrong. Check both. Check everything. If there is a problem with your theory then it is your responsibility as a scientist to find the truth, not select data that makes it work! It's OK to not be sure. Uncertainty is acceptable and even laudable. Just. do. not. lie. to. us.

And the world said...

There are two camps on this story: the climate skeptics who see this as cast iron evidence that 'the scientists' are out to lie to the world, and the fluffy environmentalists who feel sorry for the enormous stress these poor climatologists are under and are sure they didn't mean to act improperly.

For my part, I admit it does look damning and the people in question have not given a plausible or acceptable explanation. This worries me, and as a response to this incident and numerous other accusations of bias which I have heard levelled against the IPCC, I will be starting to go through the publicly available data myself, on my own time (not that I have much).

Can't really win though, since either we're doing a pretty good job of destroying our home planet and ignoring the fact that we're doing it, or a large proportion of educated researchers and politicians are engaged on a campaign of deceit. This last point is what gives me hope that these emails are not indicative of the state of climate science. What possible motive would 4,000+ climatologists have to fabricate such a thing?

But whichever turns out to be the case — or a shade of grey in the middle — I call scientific integrity fail. As a scientist you should:

  • Base your theories firmly on facts rather than personal bias
  • Be open to questioning and criticism, since from this comes progress
  • Make available your methods and data so others can reproduce or reexamine your work.

The evidence I have seen shows severe failures in these points. This is sub-standard professional behaviour and if no apology or explanation is offered, de-goggling may be in order.

All of the fluffy pieces in the news about this (including, I'm sorry to say, the Beeb and the Guardian), have ended with a stern admonition from one of the climate scientists who was caught about about how hacking is illegal and the hacker should be punished to the full extent of the law. Well, they would, wouldn't they.

I think FOIA's actions have turned out to be in the public interest. I think the truth about research that is influencing public policy and has the potential to determine the future survival of the human race (in the style to which we have become accustomed) is more important than a partially publicly funded organisation's objections to FOI requests.

Thank you FOIA.

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