A Few Things Ill Considered

Lots of smoke, no fire

One thing the blogosphere is good for is spirited discussion and fast dissemination of news stories. One thing it is not good for is the old addage “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

The recent “swifthacking” of CRU email (aka “climategate”) is a great example of tremendous amounts of smoke being created out of something statistically indistinguishable from bupkus.

The UK’s House of Commons has released a report after weeks of careful investigation into the details and implications of the illegally obtained and distributed emails to and from a handful of East Anglia University climate scientists. This is what is required to see through the smoke that has billowed over the intertubes in the several months since this event and lo and behold, there is in fact no fire as far as the two important issues are concerned: the alledged scientific frauds and the alledged unethical behaviour of the scientists involved towards peer review and the pursuit of the truth.

So the reports of the death of anthropogenic global warming have been, um, shall we say “exaggerated“.

The matter of the FOI requests is the only one of concern and this enquiry recommends another to look specifically at that issue. There is a statute of limitations on criminal consequences which has run out so all involved are safe from legal consequences, but given the high profile and public importance of climate science an investigation is surely a good idea. The law is the law, regardless of how it is being abused.

The 60 page report can be found here.

Here is the Summary:

The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in November 2009 had the potential to damage the reputation of the climate science and the scientists involved.

We believe that the focus on CRU and Professor Phil Jones, Director of CRU, in particular, has largely been misplaced. Whilst we are concerned that the disclosed e-mails suggest a blunt refusal to share scientific data and methodologies with others, we can sympathise with Professor Jones, who must have found it frustrating to handle requests for data that he knew–or perceived–were motivated by a desire simply to undermine his work.

In the context of the sharing of data and methodologies, we consider that Professor Jones’s actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. It is not standard practice in climate science to publish the raw data and the computer code in academic papers. However, climate science is a matter of great importance and the quality of the science should be irreproachable. We therefore consider that climate scientists should take steps to make available all the data that support their work (including raw data) and full methodological workings (including the computer codes). Had both been available, many of the problems at UEA could have been avoided.

We are content that the phrases such as “trick” or “hiding the decline” were colloquial terms used in private e-mails and the balance of evidence is that they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead. Likewise the evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers.

In the context of Freedom of Information (FOIA), much of the responsibility should lie with UEA. The disclosed e-mails appear to show a culture of non-disclosure at CRU and instances where information may have been deleted, to avoid disclosure. We found prima facie evidence to suggest that the UEA found ways to support the culture at CRU of resisting disclosure of information to climate change sceptics. The failure of UEA to grasp fully the potential damage to CRU and UEA by the non-disclosure of FOIA requests was regrettable. UEA needs to review its policy towards FOIA and re-assess how it can support academics whose expertise in this area is limited.

The Deputy Information Commissioner has given a clear indication that a breach of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 may have occurred but that a prosecution was time-barred; however no investigation has been carried out. In our view it is unsatisfactory to leave the matter unresolved. We conclude that the matter needs to be resolved conclusively–either by the Independent Climate Change Email Review or by the Information Commissioner.
We accept the independence of the Climate Change E-mail Review and recommend that the Review be open and transparent, taking oral evidence and conducting interviews in public wherever possible.

On 22 March UEA announced the Scientific Appraisal Panel to be chaired by Lord Oxburgh. This Panelshould determine whether the work of CRU has been soundly built and it would be premature for us to pre-judge its work.

This supports my personal view that the focus has largely been an unfounded ad hominem attack on Phil Jones as a proxy for the entire climate science community.

I also heartily agree with this passage:

“climate science is a matter of great importance and the quality of the science should be irreproachable. We therefore consider that climate scientists should take steps to make available all the data that support their work (including raw data) and full methodological workings (including the computer codes). Had both been available, many of the problems at UEA could have been avoided.”

It is however unreasonable and impractical to apply this retroactively, unfortunate as that fact may be. It is also not without costs in time and money.

Here are the report’s three conclusions (with bits of added emphasis):

Conclusion 1 The focus on Professor Jones and CRU has been largely misplaced. On the accusations relating to Professor Jones’s refusal to share raw data and computer codes, we consider that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. We have suggested that the community consider becoming more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies. On accusations relating to Freedom of Information, we consider that much of the responsibility should lie with UEA, not CRU.

Conclusion 2 In addition, insofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty–for example, Professor Jones’s alleged attempt to “hide the decline”–we consider that there is no case to answer. Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact. We have found no reason in this unfortunate episode to challenge the scientific consensus as expressed by Professor Beddington, that “global warming is happening [and] that it is induced by human activity”. It was not our purpose to examine, nor did we seek evidence on, the science produced by CRU. It will be for the Scientific Appraisal Panel to look in detail into all the evidence to determine whether or not the consensus view remains valid.

Conclusion 3 A great responsibility rests on the shoulders of climate science: to provide the planet’s decision makers with the knowledge they need to secure our future. The challenge that this poses is extensive and some of these decisions risk our standard of living. When the prices to pay are so large, the knowledge on which these kinds of decisions are taken had better be right. The science must be irreproachable.

Regarding that last emphasis, let’s not kid ourselves that any amount of transparency will ever stop the denial industry, but let’s not give them any grains of truth to embed in their FUD productions.

Read it all for yourself, here.

[Update: there is a part 2 as well, being the oral and written evidence from the investigation]

Comments

  1. #1 Nils Ross
    April 3, 2010

    All of which will simply be considered more evidence of conspiracy by denialists, and which will be swept up in a storm of misinformation from the media, who seem either hell bent on ruining the public perception of science or so incompetent at science journalism that they are achieving this end in spite of good intentions.

  2. #2 Eli Rabett
    April 3, 2010

    What is clear is that the denialists are the ones in conspiracy. Well funded at that

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