It’s quite likely, if you’re reading anything else on the internets besides this blog for the past few weeks, that you’ve already gotten your fill of ClimateGate. But maybe you’ve been stuck in your Cave of Grading and missed the news that a bunch of emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) webserver at the University of East Anglia were stolen by hackers (or leaked by an insider, depending on who’s telling the story) and widely distributed. Or maybe you’re still sorting out what you think about the email messages in question and what they mean for their authors, the soundness of scientific consensus on climate change, or the responsible conduct of science more broadly.
Honestly, I’m still sorting out what I think, but here’s where I am at the moment:
Email messages are frequently written for a private audience, rather than the general public.
Some of the reaction to the released CRU emails apparently focuses on the senders’ smack-talk about other scientists. As RealClimate describes it:
Since emails are normally intended to be private, people writing them are, shall we say, somewhat freer in expressing themselves than they would in a public statement. For instance, we are sure it comes as no shock to know that many scientists do not hold Steve McIntyre in high regard. Nor that a large group of them thought that the Soon and Baliunas (2003), Douglass et al (2008) or McClean et al (2009) papers were not very good (to say the least) and should not have been published. These sentiments have been made abundantly clear in the literature (though possibly less bluntly).
In my experience, scientists are at least as prone to bluntness (and profanity) in their private communications as anyone else. If this is a problem, perhaps it speaks to the poor judgment of our scientific forebears in not actively recruiting more proper Victorian ladies to the scientific ranks a hundred-odd years ago when they had the chance.
On the other hand, when one’s smack-talk about a fellow scientist that was not intended for public consumption ends up being available for public consumption, one might at least have the grace to be apologetic about the style, if not the substance, of the critique.
Indeed, if that critique has to do with shortcomings in the scientific results of the subjects of the smack-talk, there is arguably an obligation to bring the criticism to a public space (where the relevant public includes at least the scientific community to which the smack-talkers and the smack-talkees belong) and fully explore substantive reasons particular scientific data, methods, or conclusions are judged deficient.
If the smack-talk is focused on body odor and annoying mannerisms, the scientific community is probably OK leaving it in private email correspondence.
Expressing unfavorable opinions of others may be mean, but it doesn’t necessarily amount to a well-orchestrated conspiracy to disseminate lies.
From RealClimate again:
More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.
Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.
Some questions have been raised about whether the CRU emails indicate that particular pieces of scientific work from particular scientists were suppressed (or whether concerted efforts were made to suppress them, even if these efforts did not succeed); more on that in the context of responsible conduct of research in a moment. However, on the basis of even the most damning evidence from these emails, many have noted that there is ample reason to believe that the scientific agreement on the reality of anthropogenic global warming is still solid. For example, Chris Mooney writes:
Those of us who think this is all smoke and no fire are starting from the following position: There is a massive body of science, tested and retested and ratified by many leading scientific bodies, showing that global warming is real and human caused. So then we pose the following question: What would it take for “ClimateGate” to significantly weaken this body of evidence in a serious way?
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that all of the worst and most damning interpretations of these exposed emails are accurate. I don’t think this is remotely true, but let’s assume it.
Even if this is the case, it does not prove the following :
- The scientists whose emails have been revealed are representative of or somehow a proxy for every other climate scientist on the planet.
- The studies that have been called into questions based on the emails (e.g., that old chestnut the “hockey stick”) are somehow the foundations of our concern about global warming, and those concerns stand or fall based on those studies.
Neither one of these is true, which is why I can say confidently that “ClimateGate” is overblown-and which is why I’ve never been impressed by systematic attacks on the “hockey stick.” Even if that study falls, we still have global warming on our hands, and it’s still human caused.
My sense is that the climate skeptic commenters we’re seeing aren’t actually familiar with the vast body of climate science work out there, and don’t realize how most individual studies are little more than a drop in the evidentiary bucket. It is because of the consilience of evidence from multiple studies and fields that we accept that climate change is human caused, and it is because of the vast diversity and number of scientists, and scientific bodies, who find that evidence compelling that we talk of a consensus.
Of course, not being part of a worldwide conspiracy doesn’t mean you’re not a jerk. Nor, for that matter, does it mean that you’re a good scientist. In fact, it strikes me that there are plenty of ways that being a jerk can lead to the erosion of trust within the scientific community, making it harder for individual members of that community to coordinate their efforts, engage with each other’s work meaningfully (whether through peer review or post-publication discourses), and so forth. I do get the sense, though, that there may have been some pretty substantial gaps in trust between different camps of climate scientists before these emails ever came to light.
Trying to interfere with peer review is always a bad call.
What makes scientific findings into scientific knowledge is that these findings can — and do — stand up to the careful scrutiny of other scientists looking for ways they could be wrong. Being able to prove it (to a reasonable degree of confidence) to an audience of skeptical peers is how you know it.
You have talk of getting journal editors fired:
This is truly awful. GRL has gone downhill rapidly in recent years.
I think the decline began before Saiers. I have had some unhelpful dealings with him recently with regard to a paper Sarah and I have on glaciers — it was well received by the referees, and so is in the publication pipeline. However, I got the impression that Saiers was trying to keep it from being published.
Proving bad behavior here is very difficult. If you think that Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp, then, if we can find documentary evidence of this, we could go through official AGU channels to get him ousted. Even this would be difficult.
And of trying to get papers blocked from being referenced:
I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is !
Two questions arise: is this defensible, and does such behavior take place in other scientific disciplines? Personally, I find this sort of thing repugnant. Readers of this site will know that I tend to err on the side of “Publish and be damned”, preferring to let the scientific literature sort itself out as ideas are evaluated and experiments are reproduced. I support the idea of peer review, and I don’t think that every single crazy idea should be thrown out to waste everyone’s time. But I set the “crazy idea” barrier pretty low, myself, remembering that a lot of really big ideas have seemed crazy at first. If a proposal has some connection with reality, and can be tested, I say put it out there, and the more important the consequences, the lower the barrier should be. (The flip side, of course, is that when some oddball idea has been tried and found wanting, its proponents should go away, to return only when they have something sturdier. That part definitely doesn’t work as well as it should.)
So this “I won’t send my work to a journal that publishes papers that disagree with me” business is, in my view, wrong. The East Anglia people went even farther, though, working to get journal editors and editorial boards changed so that they would be more to their liking, and I think that that’s even more wrong. But does this sort of thing go on elsewhere?
It wouldn’t surprise me. I hate to say that, and I have to add up front that I’ve never witnessed anything like this personally, but it still wouldn’t surprise me. Scientists often have very easily inflamed egos, and divide into warring camps all too easily. But while it may have happened somewhere else, that does not make it normal (and especially not desirable) scientific behavior. This is not a standard technique by which our sausage is made over here. …
And that brings up an additional problem with all this journal curating: the CRU people have replied to their critics in the past by saying that more of their own studies have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. This is disingenuous when you’re working at the same time to shape the peer-reviewed literature into what you think it should look like.
I tend to agree with this take. Pointing to peer review as an objective measure of scientific quality cannot work if you’ve got a thumb on the scale.
But, I think there is a related question here which may come up more generally, even if it does not apply here: What are your options if a journal editor seems to be interfering with the peer review process?
Surely just as there are faulty spectrometers, there may also be unfairly biased editors, and they may skew what journals publish. Do you have to submit to them anyway? Can you mount arguments (publicly? privately?) that make the case that a particular editor is biased or isn’t playing fair in the exercise of her editorial duties? Can you elect to submit your work instead to journals whose editorial processes seem more fair (or at least more transparent)? Is there something not-quite-ethical about avoiding particular problematic journals either as venues to submit your own work or as sources of work in your field that ought to be taken seriously?
Because I have a feeling that there might be a backstory on some of these journal discussions in the CRU emails.
Still, as Chad puts it:
Back-channel maneuvering to scuttle papers from people you consider kooks is not a good thing, no matter how noble your cause.
The best move, of course, is to let the kooks make their case and give the scientific community the time and evidence to conclude that they are kooks.
If you don’t thoroughly document your code, no one but you will have a clear understanding of what it’s supposed to do.
Actually, if you don’t thoroughly document your code, you yourself, at a later moment in time, might not have a clear understanding of what it’s supposed to do. (Then there’s the question of whether, when executed, it actually does what it’s supposed to do, but as far as I can tell, that’s not a central issue in the discussions of ClimateGate.)
Some of this documentation might explain what kind of “trick” or “VERY ARTIFICIAL correction” you are applying in your computations, and more importantly, why applying it is appropriate. Josh Rosenau discusses the reasoning behind the “trick” revealed in the CRU emails:
Part of the fuss arises from a single line in one email which refers to using a “trick” to “hide the decline.” Deniers try to claim that the “decline” in question is a decline in global average temperature since 1998, despite the fact that statisticians can find no such decline. In fact, the “decline” discussed in the email is an artifact of certain temperature proxies, which have shown a decline in their estimate of regional temperature compared to instrumental measurements (which is to say, thermometers). Since those data are known to be erroneous, the scientists have determined standard ways to represent the real data and to set aside the bogus data. This is what the scientist is referring to as his “trick.
Below you see the different datasets used to construct the temperature record for the last thousand years, with the green line showing northern hemisphere treering data, the black line showing thermometer measurements, and the other lines representing various other proxy measures. As you can see, some treering data are just wrong in the time since 1960, so the scientists substitute the thermometer record for the bogus treering record in graphing the results. As CRU explains, “CRU has published a number of articles that both illustrate, and discuss the implications of, this recent tree-ring decline.” The goal is not to hide the data, but to accurately represent the real state of global temperatures.
Meanwhile, Tim Lambert has a look at the code that is supposed to be so incriminating and argues that it shows no evidence of deception or even a plausible attempt to deceive. And Phil Plait explains more about what scientists mean when they talk about “tricks”:
I am a scientist myself, and I’m familiar with the lingo. When we say we used a “trick” to plot data (as one of the hacked emails says), that doesn’t mean we’re doing something to fool people. It means we used a method that may not be obvious, or a step that does something specific. Plotting data logarithmically instead of linearly is a “trick”, and it’s a valid and useful method of displaying data (your senses of sight and hearing are logarithmic, for example, so it’s even a natural way to do things).
Of course, an ethical scientist will identify and explain these “tricks” when reporting the measurements or calculations made with them.
Maybe there’s reason to worry that scientists are drawing conclusions from motley data sets from which they’ve had to excise bogus data and replace them with their best estimates of the real data. Clearly, it would be a happier situation if there were no bogus data in need of correction. But again, if scientists are completely transparent about which data were chucked out and why, and about what sorts of corrected data they used and why these are plausible, then other scientists can exercise their critical faculties in evaluating both the methods and the conclusions drawn from them.
It’s a good thing to keep your original data.
If other scientists question your result (or are still trying to figure out how your scantily documented code actually works), being able to give them access to the original data is a much better option than having to say, “Just trust me.”
Intentionally destroying original data (something that is alleged to have happened in the CRU case) makes it look like you’re hiding something, or at least trying to obstruct your competitors’ progress.
Proprietary data makes it much harder for other scientists to do quality control on your work.
If you can’t release sought-after data because it’s not yours to release, it may leave you in the position of having to tell a fellow scientist who has questions about your results, “You’ll just have to trust me” — at least until the date when it permitted to release the data publicly.
There may be some larger lesson we want to draw here about the wisdom of proprietary data versus fully open data.
Folks may judge you by your behavior, not just your data.
If those folks include the broader public, and if the science you’re doing has recognizable implications for their lives, they might even judge the reliability of your data by your behavior.
This might seem totally unfair, but that’s how it goes. (If your apparent behavior is deceptive, it’s not even that unfair for folks to question your data.) As Chad notes:
Anybody in the field has had more than ample warning that they need to pick up some people skills, because mass media and public perceptions are going to be hugely important. You can’t hide behind “I’m just a nerdy scientist” any more. If you really don’t have anybody in your lab with communications skills– which I highly doubt, by the way– then hire somebody who does. …
This could’ve been avoided if the people involved had half a clue about what they were doing. The belief that science is somehow above (or at least apart from) petty issues of perception and communication leads directly to this sort of catastrophe.
To the extent that getting the science about climate change right — not just to climate scientists but to all earthlings — scientists need to be on their very best scientific behavior here. There just isn’t room for the sloppiness that might otherwise be tempting, nor for the faith that the self-correcting nature of science will catch all the serious problems in the fullness of time. Scientists need to be active instruments of scientific self-correction here, scrutinizing the results of their fellow scientists and their own results. They need to be very transparent about their methods, to share their data as widely as possible within the scientific community and manage that data so it can be usable in future research, and to conduct their scientific disagreements in public spaces in order that they be decided on the firmest scientific grounds available.
Basically, to earn the public’s trust here, climate scientists need to be as squeaky clean in their conduct as Tiger Woods was presumed to be until he ran into that fire hydrant. And since scientific knowledge is premised on honesty and transparency, the climate scientists have a steeper climb to reestablish trust than Tiger does.