Those hacked climate e-mails: Good scientists, poor conspirators

Tom Marcinko @ 23-11-2009

showSo many things can be said about the hacking of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit’s e-mails. If nothing else, it shows that the ground rules for scientific and scholarly communication are changing rapidly. The dubious ethics of hacking aside, should we expect science, especially on politically charged issues, to get done with the world looking over researchers’ shoulders? Could you do your job with hecklers in the room?

Island of Doubt has this to say:

What’s interesting is how rapidly the climate denial blogosphere has latched onto this as proof that the entire climatology community are in on a scheme to defraud the world. And why whoever the hackers are would think that this material was actually all that interesting in the first place. The hacking of the data is a worthwhile story, insofar as IT security goes, but the content is just plain banal. All we learn is that scientists are humans after all.

Science historian Spencer Weart comments:

The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It’s a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers.

RealClimate makes the winning comment, IMO:

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.

Smart enough to hack, not sophisticated enough to appreciate the daily give-and-take of how science works–is that how we nonscientists are going to approach critical issues? Maybe we can do better than that.

[Story tip: PDSmith, Most beautiful show at sea: Madeira]

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25 Responses to “Those hacked climate e-mails: Good scientists, poor conspirators”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    As you may recall, I’m a global-warming skeptic, and also a practicing scientist in the “real” world. I agree that from my (albeit quite limited) view of the email-extracts/summaries, I did not see much to call suspicious. But ONE issue was apparent and does concern me: what’s with all the discussions about hiding and getting around official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, including even deleting files and then (apparently) pretending they are lost? Keeping information confidential is appropriate when there are legitimate intellectual property concerns (e.g., inventions, trade secrets) or national security concerns. But it seems that at least some of these scientists were talking about manipulating the system to avoid legitimate FOIA requests. If so, that doesn’t automatically make them evil conspirators controlled by George Soros or Al Gore. However, it is indicative of inappropriate professional behavior and may even be illegal, depending on the laws in their jurisdiction(s). These emails won’t end the global warming debate. They open a window into some of the practices of some of the scientists involved. And one can see at least a little bit of dirty laundry in there. How dirty it is, and how much (if any) that matters, remains to be seen.

  2. Evil Rocks says:

    What on earth are you talking about? There are indeed mentions of replacing some data series with improper averages to hide the medieaval warming period (absolutely contrary to your “winning comment”), explicit examples of email participants conspiring to discredit those who disagree with them (up to and including entire journals).

  3. Evil Rocks says:

    And what do you mean by “good scientists”? Good science means publishing every doubt you have, being your own harshest critic. This is what drives science forward, not the everyday arguments between people. It is the contract between a group of professionals that they both hold themselves to high standards and hold each other to high standards. The climate research groups that control the United States science-funding machines have violated that contract by obscuring their own data, by actively trying to discredit other scientists raising legitimate concerns and tax evasion in the pursuit of their agenda!

    Their behavior is utterly disgraceful to the entire community the government pays to invent policy. They have broken the scientific contract and are exercising their own power of purse and popularity to avoid accountability.

    Science moves forward towards accurate descriptions of the world around us if and only if scientists adhere to the contract in good faith. As soon as a person begins to alter their data in support of a thesis instead of changing the thesis to reflect the data (warmest year on record: 1998) they lose credibility and threaten the credibility of everyone else who works towards a greater understanding of the world and reproducible results.

    Poor scientists, good conspirators. Bad security designers.

  4. Tom Marcinko says:

    So that’s two votes for conspiracy theory. Chapter & verse, please, on MWP.

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Advanced warning / Editor’s Note: as far as this matter is concerned, I’m fielding no more comments claiming any analysis of the stolen emails without extensive links and quotes. There’s enough hot air on both sides of this sad little incident that I can’t be bothered playing host to extravagant but unsubstantiated claims. In other words, to paraphrase 4chan: LINX OR GTFO.

    Feel free to debate the theft itself, the implications thereof, the parallels with other incidents, whatever else. But broad claims about the stolen material that the person reading the comment can’t see to judge for themselves will get deleted without prejudice. Check the comments policy if you don’t like that; I’m just sick of the same tedious triumphalism that always crops up from the massively ill-informed on both sides of this debate, and I’m not playing host to it here any more.

  6. Robert Koslover says:

    Paul,
    I’m not sure what fraction of comment was in response to my comment vs to the others. In regard to the FOIA issue (the only specific criticism of the revealed emails that I raised), here is a link, per your request, to substantiate that specific claim: http://www.anelegantchaos.org/cru/emails.php?eid=490&filename=1107454306.txt
    In particular, scroll down to the message (the third one from the top in the link given) for the message to “Mike” (Michael E. Mann) from “Phil” (Phil Jones) at 09:41 AM 2/2/2005, starting with “I presume congratulations are in order…” and including this odd statement: “The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.” Again, I assure you that scientists are human and they make mistakes, sometimes including even making casual comments about threats in emails that they might not actually carry out — such as deleting files subject to FOIA requests. Like I said, I don’t see any obvious proof of crime or conspiracy in the emails (at least, not in those few I’ve seen). But this is, undeniably, what we here in the US refer to as “dirty laundry.” In closing, I hope this note satisfies any concern you have about my particular post including an unsubstantiated claim. And I salute you for insisting on a link with a quote, which I have now provided. Peace!

  7. Paul Raven says:

    The note was general, Robert, not specific – it’s more a pre-emptive response to avoid the sort of comment thread I’m seeing all over the web at the moment on this subject, which consist chiefly of people talking loud and saying nothing about documents they haven’t actually seen.

    That there may be some dirty laundry seems eminently plausible (and thanks for actually citing your source), but by way of response – would the defence-orientated company which employs you cheerfully hand over any document whatsoever to an FOIA request? Would any company? And how are the alleged fudges, cherry-pickings and obfuscations of data qualitatively different from those deployed ad infinitem by the other side of the debate? Until I see contextualised citations to the contrary, all this data theft has proven is that scientists have the same foibles and fallibilities as pretty much everyone else, meaning there’s a whole lot of people gleefully throwing stones around in their own glass houses.

    Thanks again for keeping the tone polite, Robert.

  8. Robert Koslover says:

    Thanks Paul. My work is somewhat different than academia. I’m sure it is my company policy to provide any/all documents promptly in regard to supporting any FOIA requests that might be forward to us, if those documents are (most importantly) requested and officially approved for such release by our customers and are otherwise not proprietary, trade secrets, export-controlled technology, etc, in accordance with the law (see, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_Information_Act_(United_States) for more info). In my work, it is not uncommon that our scientists want to publish and promote their work, but may be kept from doing so due to proprietary information or other rules and restrictions imposed by our customers, which we are required by contract to follow. And I assume that even my ordinary email, at least if work-related, could be subjected to both public-release approval by our customers, as well as FOIA requests, in so far as the FOIA might apply to it. In our business, following the rules is much less risky than breaking them. So yes, we would/do follow the rules.

  9. Kevin says:

    Tougher to explain away might be the comments included with the code my the modelers. Anyone care to take a crack at this? http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/11/22/cru-emails-may-be-open-to-interpretation-but-commented-code-by-the-programmer-tells-the-real-story/#more-13065

  10. Paul Maven says:

    These are simple questions. No need for witch-burning tactics in comments, please.

    1. Why did they put pressure on journals not to include scientific studies contradicting their own views?
    2. Why did they conspire to avoid the legitimate FOI requests for data and methods?
    3. Why did they skew the IPCC reports so strongly toward their own extreme alarmist viewpoints?

    There are other important questions that need to be answered, but if you cannot even bring yourself to ASK these questions, you should probably go back to square one, my friend.
    3. Why did they

  11. Paul Raven says:

    Simple questions, indeed. I thought my request for links, quotes and citations supporting analysis was pretty simple too. Original material, no punditry.

  12. Julian says:

    Not everyone would agree with you. Prominent environmentalist, George Monbiot (hardly a global warming sceptic), has called on the head of the CRU to resign. This has been published in the Guardian (hardly a sceptical or right wing paper) and Monbiot says “I apologise. I was too trusting of some of those who provided the evidence I championed. I would have been a better journalist if I had investigated their claims more closely.”

    See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/nov/23/global-warming-leaked-email-climate-scientists

  13. RockyJim says:

    A fundamental tenet of science is disproof. Any honest scientist is open to disproof of their theory. Manipulating data effectively guarantees an experiment cannot be duplicated. In all other matters of science such manipulation has always been scandalous, as it should be. Fascinating that this doesn’t apply to “climate change”.

    And, in my 35 year career in science, no remotely reputable colleague of mine has ever felt the need to “beat up” a person with a conflicting view.

    This smells of epic fraud.

  14. Paul Raven says:

    Julian: very true. But for the sake of balance, I’d point out that Monbiot’s article as linked by you also says the following:

    “But do these revelations justify the sceptics’ claims that this is “the final nail in the coffin” of global warming theory? Not at all. They damage the credibility of three or four scientists. They raise questions about the integrity of one or perhaps two out of several hundred lines of evidence. To bury man-made climate change, a far wider conspiracy would have to be revealed.”

    This is the point I feel is being quite deliberately glossed over in the glorious rush to crow victory.

    And RockyJim, same point; yes, it appears that a few scientists may not have been entirely honest. But another fundamental tenet of science is consensus based on large swathes of evidence, and as Monbiot’s letter points out, these stolen emails have not undermined climate science in general… at least not for anyone who wasn’t already hoping dearly for it to fall.

  15. Paul Schofield says:

    I’d note that in the Monbiot article he seems to think that Jones tried to prevent publication by sceptics and block those papers entry into the IPCC report. This is all very misleading.

    The affair being discussed in the emails was the Soon and Baliunas 2003 paper [.pdf link] published in Climate Research. This paper was massively criticized and lead to the resignation of five out of ten of the journals editors, as well as a public statement that the papers conclusions were invalid by the journals publisher.

    A summary of the affair.

    Statements by two of the editors who resigned;
    Clare Goodess
    Hans von Storch (with a new note added since the email theft).

    The statement by the publisher, Otto Kinne: [.pdf]

    The comments in the emails amount to a relatively tame discussion of the problem as it was developing. Essentially, CR had discredited itself as a journal, as it’s own editors agreed, by using a sceptic editor to publish a bad sceptical article. If you can’t trust the peer review process of a journal… well, the emails put it relatively lightly.

    As for blocking it’s inclusion in the IPCC, I haven’t seen that email and would be shocked if anyone tried.

  16. Paul Schofield says:

    Sorry, I seemed to mess up the von Storch link. Feel free to edit the comment.

    http://coast.gkss.de/staff/storch/CR-problem/cr.2003.htm

  17. Robert Koslover says:

    Paul, just a quick comment here. You say that “another fundamental tenet of science is consensus based on large swathes of evidence.” That’s quite a stretch. Yes, “evidence” is key, but “consensus” is not part of the scientific method. After all, if it was, then the beliefs of all major religions would be considered scientific theories! For more discussion, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method . Cheers.

  18. Derek says:

    “And, in my 35 year career in science, no remotely reputable colleague of mine has ever felt the need to “beat up” a person with a conflicting view.”

    Take Buzz Aldrin for example; he couldn’t take the crap any more and cracked. The people at EACRU were just venting frustration because they’re up against the same kind of stupid as Buzz.

  19. Paul Raven says:

    Paul: many thanks for the links, there; much appreciated.

    Robert: a semantic mistake on my part, there… though I’m not sure your point about the religions holds, because there’s no evidence in support of the consensus in question – though I may have misunderstood your analogy. Surely agreeing that the evidence gathered by other researchers in your field is both valid and replicable is a form of consensus?

    But we’re drifting from the point again, which is that – even if taken at their worst – the stolen emails do not undermine climate science as a body of work. As I’ve said before, I’m of the school of thought that says if ninety-five out of a hundred firemen tell you your house is burning down, you’d be wise to go outside and grab a hose. That analogy collapses, of course, because where climate change is concerned, we all live in the same house; I increasingly see the climate change debate as one not rooted in science, but in theories around how and when we should respond to the results of science.

    And my position remains the same: I think we should act on the best evidence we have, because I believe the maximum possible cost of taking action to be far smaller than that of leaving it too late. If I remember correctly, we have agreed to disagree on that point before. :)

  20. TomMarcinko says:

    I feel like I left Paul twisting in the wind on this — sorry, Paul. By now I should know better than to be surprised by the speed of the internets.

    I agree with his comment that, however bad the behavior on the part of the humans involved, it doesn’t in and of itself discredit the science. But as the above discussion suggests, it doesn’t seem like many minds have been changed anyway.

    Still amazed that anybody believes this is proof of some kind of massive cover-up going on here. That just doesn’t seem possible.

    A blog post (or reply) is probably not the best medium to try to make an airtight case one way or another, & that isn’t what I was trying to do with this post.

    What was I trying to do, then? I find scientific communication as a topic pretty fascinating. I was raised to believe (nonscientist disclaimer here — my degree is, gasp, journalism) that there is a certain way scientists are supposed to behave, that it’s a stately system of progress, etc.

    So it’s always interesting to me to see scientists behaving like people. (“Well, it seems scientists are afraid of the same emotions as everybody.””I wouldn’t bet on it…”–Firesign Theater)

    Believing that your e-mails on a contentious topic will never see the light of day seems like a really human, fallible thing to do.

    I can imagine this whole episode being repeated with (say) stem cells, or evolution, or whatever you like. God help the stem-cell researcher who makes a tasteless joke. That’s the end of funding in the USA.

    If people who misbehaved lose their jobs over this, that’s fine with me. By rough analogy, I’m a registered Democrat, but if we can get rid of the corrupt and contented pols in my own party, I’m all for it. They haven’t done much for us lately anyway.

    At least, that’s everything Al Gore told me to say.:)

  21. tim Rowledge says:

    I wonder what will happen when an anti-AGW website(etc) gets hacked? T’would be fascinating to see.

  22. Tyler says:

    I make no comment regarding the debate going on here, HOWEVER regarding comments about how there should be links to original content, I present this:

    http://www.eastangliaemails.com/index.php

    Allegedly, these are all of the emails in question. There are thousands of them, and reading through it will assuredly take quite some time.

    Good luck to all of you, no matter what you believe, want to believe, or want to find out.

  23. Phil says:

    The e-mails that deal with the FOIA definitely raise a red flag. Having said that, to believe a global community of climate scientists which number in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, are in cahoots with some vast anthropogenic global climate conspiracy is beyond comprehension. This would mean every single scientist is in lock-step and tight-lipped. No leaks, no rogues, no whistle-blowers within the organization, etc. to expose from the inside. Companies and governments can’t even keep their employees this loyal let alone some underground climate science mafia.

  24. Jay Jochnowitz says:

    Does anyone have a link to this information, or has Air Vent, which apparently initially received the file, kept it off-line? All I have found is a lot of chatter and a few quotes, but it seems that everyone is reading the same highly selective excerpts.

    Oh, and Raven: as someone who has moderated several newspaper blogs, kudos for that great warning you put up there. I may use it as a model for future threads.

  25. Jay Jochnowitz says:

    Never mind; found a link, finally.

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