Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CRU Hacking: the end of the world as we know it?

Or, on not being able to see the wood for the trees
Although it may still be too early for a final call, the illegally hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit in the University of East Anglia are yet to turn up anything that comes close to justifying the "conspiracy", "smoking gun" and "final nail" headlines doing the rounds. There are plenty of cherry-picked quotes that initially sound bad, but isn't it important to presume innocence until proven guilty? So where is the proof?

Well, having had a week to find incriminating evidence, there is very little substantially proven beyond some rudeness from a few scientists when discussing those who have dismissed, misrepresented and distorted their work. Most of the "smoking gun" emails currently generating traffic are "shop-talk" taken out of context. Thus far, it would appear that the claims being made of a grand collusion are themselves merely one more conspiracy theory.

I could well be wrong. There may be more information to come to light in the coming days and weeks. There may be some elements of genuine concern. The discussion of freedom of information requests may indicate that certain individuals didn't want to spend yet more of their time answering the same old questions from dishonest opponents and (maybe) considered unethical actions to avoid doing so. There may be a couple of embarrassing revelations of too much spin (though I am yet to see one published paper decisively compromised by the scandal, and all the relevant journals are looking into the situation). Calling denialists "idiots" and so forth may not increase these scientists' chances of receiving a Christmas card from them this year. But the bottom line at this point is that there is no smoking gun, because there is, as yet, no bullet-ridden body. That is, there is no evidence that I have seen or heard about so far to indicate that any published papers were compromised, that any illegal activity took place, that any conspiracy exists. Amidst all the fuss, it is important to not lose the wood for the trees here.

What the emails do illustrate is something of the internal workings of all sciences, filled as they are with political feuds, concern for reputation, ongoing criticism of methods and interpretations of data, petty squabbles and everything you'd expect to find amongst any group of sinful humans trying hard to sort out various questions about how our world works with limited time, budgets and patience.

There is an interesting and often insightful discussion of some aspects of the ethics of the situation here, including the emails that discuss spurning partisan journals. And there is further detailed discussion of many of the more quoted emails that allegedly show "data manipulation" here. Perhaps the most quoted phrase about "hiding the decline" has been repeatedly shown to be a storm in a tea-cup (e.g. here and here).

Now those who were already convinced that one of the most researched and heavily scrutinised fields in contemporary science is all an elaborate conspiracy may see otherwise, but the onus remains on those who think this is much more than a publicity stunt leading up to Copenhagen to give answers to the following questions: What specific studies have these emails discredited? How does even a least charitable reading of these emails, mainly involving around six scientists at one centre, discredit the work of hundreds of contemporary climatologists and other earth scientists related to climate change in dozens of countries? Where are the faults in the more than thirty thousand published papers that comprise the body of work in this science? Answers must be specific and preferably in peer-reviewed journals.*

So what about all those headlines about the end of the world as we know it (for climate research)? Looks like we're back to the end of the world as we know it (for us and our children).
*NB Those who claim that there are four hundred and fifty peer reviewed papers against the generally accepted understanding are once again on very thin ice indeed. The vast majority of these papers are not actually peer reviewed, and/or known to be false, and/or irrelevant, and/or out of date, and/or not supportive of climate change denial. There are of course many legitimate continuing debates about a number of key factors involved in climate change (e.g. cloud formation, glacial movement, feedback mechanisms and more), but these are almost all happening within a widely accepted general framework that accepts alarming anthropogenic climate change.

PS Apologies for the multiple posts on climate change debates recently. It is just that these issues are quite timely with Copenhagen less than two weeks away.

PPS More interesting commentary.

PPPS And a new joint statement from the MET office, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society on the state of climate science.


Jonathan said...

Whatever real questions have been raised about the research do seem to be issues that have been public and raised by some before such a dramatic story brought so much attention.

That fact ties in with the other complaints about the behaviour at CRU. The big problem is that whatever your position on the issue, it has become a matter of how to get across a message in a world uninterested until there is drama and sensationalism. This gets in the way of sensible attempts to get a better picture.

stef said...

One of the meta-issues certainly seems to be how to express concern about an issue without the benefit of a crisis to draw peoples' attention. Greg and I have been thinking about this in terms of global population growth. It's not sexy/politically correct in the public health world to talk about overpopulation - even in developed countries (why on earth should Australia want to aim for a population of 34 million? When Sydney transport is already diabolical!) - but the intergenerational impact of ever-increasing populations is huge. But how to talk about this long term issue such that people will pay attention? How do we relearn, as a society, to deal with the "important-not-urgent" category" when most sources of public information from the media or politicians can only deal with the next day/week/election cycle?

byron smith said...

Jones exonerated by UK House of Commons:
The report.

See comments here, here, here.

byron smith said...

Oops that first link is to the Penn State Uni exoneration of Michael Mann. Related, but distinct. My bad. The Jones report is available here.

byron smith said...

Mann has now had his exoneration completed. Plenty of links to commentary here, and here is the actual report findings.

byron smith said...

Interview with Phil Jones a few months later.

byron smith said...

Grist: What we have and haven't learned from Climategate.

byron smith said...

NYT: Scotland Yard to investigate possible links between News of the World and CRU emails.

No comment until something solid is discovered.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: The real climategate(s). And the Guardian has a piece discussing the second release of 5,000 more emails here.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Confirmation that the emails were hacked by "sophisticated outsiders" (not an internal leak) but the case has been closed unsolved.

byron smith said...

Guardian: More details about what the investigation was able to ascertain before being wound up due to statute of limitations expiry. Fascinating. Depressing.

""the data breach was the result of a sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack [...] no evidence to suggest that anyone working at or associated with UEA was involved in the crime".

byron smith said...

This is a very helpful position statement from the American Meteorological Society in relation to the hacked emails.