A week or so ago, someone broke into a server at the University of East Anglia and made off with a range of emails and other data from the university’s Climate Research Unit. This excited lots of climate change deniers, as they’ve long claimed that CRU had secret evidence that global warming wasn’t happening, or something. Much web commentary followed, in which a supposedly “random sample” of these emails were widely distributed and dissected publicly.
My first thought on reading about this was not about climate change or the ensuing storm of BS about it. I thought of the scientists’ privacy, now torn to shreds. I know I live on email, as do most scientists. In addition to work-related emails, I’m sure the server contained private notes to the researchers’ loved ones and family, email receipts for personal purchases, and a host of other content never meant to be distributed publicly, or even in their professional circles. The breach of their privacy is atrocious, and I’ve lost all respect for anyone who commented on this incident without even noting the underlying crime and the associated violation of these people’s most private discussions.
But as noted at BoingBoing, “Theft is bad. But if you’re a researcher who can explain context to the general public, decrying theft shouldn’t be your primary objective right now.” The primary point, BoingBoing makes clear, is:
Evidence of vast conspiracy is sorely lacking. Ditto evidence disproving the scientific consensus on climate change. This isn’t the “nail in the coffin” of anything. However, the emails do prompt some legit questions about transparency and how professional researchers respond to criticism in the age of the armchair scientist.
This is both true and not true. I disagree with the last sentence, but based on what people are saying about the emails (I refuse to read them or to link to sites which list the emails in their entirety), there’s no smoking gun, nor are there powder burns or any other evidence that a gun ever existed. What we see is that scientists can be jerks, can be parochial, can respond badly to criticism, can circle their wagons against outsiders (especially cranks and dilettantes desperate to prove that the entire enterprise of climate science should be tossed out the window). In short, the emails prove that scientists are human. Anyone who didn’t know that should look at some of Newton’s correspondence, or should check out Chris Mooney’s excellent Storm World – which book I previously wrote “deserves special praise for capturing the dynamic of scientific debate, humanizing the scientific process and inviting the public in to see how things work in a field they care about desperately.”
Among those who need to spend less time idealizing science is CBS News’s Declan McCullagh, who writes: “The irony of this situation is that most of us expect science to be conducted in the open, without unpublished secret data, hidden agendas, and computer programs of dubious reliability.” First, that’s not really irony, and second, anyone who has worked in academia knows that the software often sucks (as does commercial software, but scientific software is often highly customized), there are copious personal agendas, and lots of unpublished data waiting to be analyzed. Publishing data isn’t easy, and casting databases open to the world runs the risk of letting your research get scooped. Lots of journalists, including science journalists, don’t seem to get this, which is worrisome. Few deniers get this either, which is not surprising at all, though it continues to disappoint.
In all honesty, there isn’t that much more to be said about the substance of the emails. On their face and in their proper context, they demonstrate that there’s no active conspiracy to promote global warming as a plot by Jews liberals to control the world economy. They demonstrate that these scientists are not a monolithic group, but have internal disagreements which they resolve using data. The evidence that the planet is getting hotter is unchanged, and the evidence that the change is mostly due to human activity is equally unchanged. So what’s the big deal?
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. Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant or dishonest.
Other observers, including BoingBoing above, suggest that these emails indicate a lack of transparency or openness, or a failure of the peer review process. Again, this argument fails. As CRU notes, the data in question was almost all publicly available, with the unpublished material covered by non-disclosure agreements that will eventually expire. The results of their research are published normally and accessible the same way as all scientific papers (and while it would be nice if scientists were better about freeing their databases, doing so is rarely in the interest of the researchers who gathered the data and hope to mine it for subsequent publications, not let other people get that benefit from their labor).
Are the scientists dismissive of climate change deniers? Yes. As well they should be. I don’t recall any public outrage when biologist Richard Lenski refused to supply conservative hack Andrew Schlafly with bacterial cultures. Schlafly believed that Lenski’s research did not really show the evolution of new traits, arguably a new species of bacteria, in the course of an experiment. Like the climate change deniers, Schlafly wanted to examine Lenski’s raw data and raw materials to recheck his work. Lenski’s reply noted that “it seems that reading might not be your strongest suit,” adding “your capacity to misinterpret and/or misrepresent facts is plain,” concluding “you are not acting in good faith,” and then dismembered the strategy employed by Schlafly in that case and by climate change deniers seeking internal records from CRU:
It is my impression that you seem to think we have only paper and electronic records of having seen some unusual E. coli. If we made serious errors or misrepresentations, you would surely like to find them in those records. If we did not, then – as some of your acolytes have suggested – you might assert that our records are themselves untrustworthy because, well, because you said so, I guess. But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren’t very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants.…
One of your acolytes, Dr. Richard Paley, actually grasped this point. He does not appear to understand the practice and limitations of science, but at least he realizes that we have the bacteria, and that they provide “the real data that we [that’s you and your gang] need”. …
So, will we share the bacteria? Of course we will, with competent scientists. …
Before I could send anyone any bacterial strains, in order to comply with good scientific practices I would require evidence of the requesting scientist’s credentials including: (i) affiliation with an appropriate unit in some university or research center with appropriate facilities for storing (-80ºC freezer), handling (incubators, etc.), and disposing of bacteria (autoclave); and (ii) some evidence, such as peer-reviewed publications, that indicate that the receiving scientist knows how to work with bacteria, so that I and my university can be sure we are sending biological materials to someone that knows how to handle them. By the way, our strains are not derived from one of the pathogenic varieties of E. coli that are a frequent cause of food-borne illnesses. However, even non-pathogenic strains may cause problems for those who are immune-compromised or otherwise more vulnerable to infection. Also, my university requires that a Material Transfer Agreement be executed before we can ship any strains. That agreement would not constrain a receiving scientist from publishing his or her results. However, if an incompetent or fraudulent hack (note that I make no reference to any person, as this is strictly a hypothetical scenario, one that I doubt would occur) were to make false or misleading claims about our strains, then I’m confident that some highly qualified scientists would join the fray, examine the strains, and sort out who was right and who was wrong. That’s the way science works.
I would also generally ask what the requesting scientist intends to do with our strains. Why? It helps me to gauge the requester’s expertise. I might be able to point out useful references, for example. Moreover, as I’ve said, we are continuing our work with these strains, on multiple fronts, as explained in considerable detail in the Discussion section of our paper. I would not be happy to see our work “scooped” by another team – especially for the sake of the outstanding students and postdocs in my group who are hard at work on these fronts. However, that request to allow us to proceed, without risk of being scooped on work in which we have made a substantial investment of time and effort, would be just that: a request. In other words, we would respect PNAS policy to share those strains with any competent scientist who complied with my university’s requirements for the MTA and any other relevant legal restrictions. If any such request requires substantial time or resources (we have thousands of samples from this and many other experiments), then of course I would expect the recipient to bear those costs.
I quote this at length to show that these are fairly standard concerns, published and discussed fairly widely, and not anything novel in the case of climate science. Hopefully it’s clear why a scientist wouldn’t just send raw data or private research materials willy-nilly to anyone willing to write in with widely-debunked criticisms and paranoid claims about massive conspiracies aiming to suppress new scientific ideas. Those are the hallmarks of a crank, and you just don’t encourage cranks.
None of which, of course, has kept creationists from going bananas over this. I’ll have more on the nexus of creationism and climate change denial anon. For now, I’ll simply note that the Discovery Institute’s creationism-specific blog has devoted itself entirely to commentary on these stolen emails (without any acknowledgement that they are stolen, natch), and the blog of Disco. director Bruce Chapman has been equally singleminded (note that Disco. has a project dedicated to promoting mass transit in the Northwest, a project funded in part by groups interested in averting climate change). Chapman now calls climate change “religion,” a “science conspiracy,” asserts evidence of “authoritarianism,” while the creationism blog describes the incident as “the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” describes climate change as “fraud,” accuses experienced journalist trying to explain the scientific context of “turn[ing] a climate ‘trick,” accuses scientists of “criminal fraud on a massive scale,” compares science to “money-laundering,” and so forth.
Comparably absurd and overblown claims abound on ID creationist Bill Dembski’s private website, in the writings of Disco. ally Martin Cothran (familiar to readers here as an occasional contributor to the DI blog, and for his attempts to defend Pat Buchanan’s Holocaust denial), and at Telic Thoughts, an ID blog known to veer into 9/11 denial on occasion. Many of those posts draw their own comparisons between creationists and climate change deniers, asserting that both evolution and climate change are propped up unfairly by the scientific community. I’m sure that next week they’ll be back to chiding their critics for referring to them as denialists on a par with climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, Holocaust deniers, etc. But for at least a few days, they’re peeling back the mask all by themselves.
Careful observers will recall that Disco. was beating the drum for greater civility mere days before the release of these stolen emails, seeking to “tone down the rhetoric” to get at real issues. Now the group is dedicating itself to inflammatory and maliciously false statements about scientists for no other reason than to tar a field of science that they find politically unpalatable.
Nor is there any sense of self-awareness from Disco. in cheering on internet crime. Barely a month ago, they were claiming that “Darwinists” had launched a “cyber attack” against the website of a creationist conference. No evidence was offered that a denial of service attack was under way, nor that “Darwinists” were responsible. Now, maybe there’s some actual evidence to back up the Disco. spin, but maybe it’s like that time Joe Lieberman insisted hackers had taken down his website, only to have the FBI later determine the site failed because Lieberman can’t do anything right. Or the time the RNC website was taken down by the same “hacker”: incompetence. And yet, they were happy to moralize about the evils of such cyber attacks, convicting an entire class of people of this alleged crime.
Now, when it’s clear that an actual hacker actually gained illegal access to files and emails and illegally made them publicly available, we hear no condemnation of the crime, just joy at the fruits of this criminal act. “By their fruits you shall know them,” indeed.