Climategate: the missing context

The Muir Russell report into the “climategate” email affair has its good parts (the seven points on page 154 make certain prominent CRU critics and their “free the data” campaign look — how shall I put it — less than competent, more than disingenuous), but it also exemplifies a key failing of all the investigations that have exonerated Phil Jones and his team. It makes no attempt to examine the real context for the theft of the emails and their use as a pre-Copenhagen propaganda tool. All three UK investigations have looked at the accusations being levelled at Phil Jones et al (where al is climate science in general), but have done so within the framing of the issue established in the days following the publication of the stolen mails.

Here’s an egregious example of how that framing operates.


Andy Revkin, writing on his Dot Earth blog:

The press, including me, was excoriated for devoting too much ink (and electrons) to the disclosed files in the first place. Some coverage was indeed far too focused on the sense of conflict, which is not surprising given that — as my screenwriter friends always say — conflict is story.

But what such critics forget is that many of the e-mail messages enabled the allegations that were then propounded by folks like Anthony Watts and amplified by professional anti-climate-policy campaigners like Marc Morano.

In other words, because a few scientists used strong language in emails they fully expected to remain private, they somehow enabled the attacks! Astonishing. What enabled the attacks was the theft of the emails, not what they contained — as the subsequent investigations have shown. Revkin does go on to provide some context, but relegates it to a few links and platitudes. The reality confronting climate scientists was much more brutal, as one submission (pdf) to the Muir Russell investigation (by Ray Bradley, Malcolm Hughes, Michael Mann, Michael Oppenheimer, Ben Santer, Gavin Schmidt, Stephen Schneider, Kevin Trenberth and Tom Wigley) demonstrates:

…if one’s research findings tend to support human-caused climate change – means to live and work in an environment of constant accusations of fraud, calls for investigations (or for criminal prosecutions), demands for access to every draft, every intermediate calculation, and every email exchanged with colleagues, daily hate mail and threats, and attempts to pressure the institutions that employ us and fund our research. Through experience, we have learned that there is no review of climate scientists’ work that isn’t deemed a “whitewash” by climate change contrarians; there is no casual remark that can’t be seized upon, blown out of proportion and distorted; and there is no person whose character can’t be assassinated, no matter how careful and honest their research.

Last week the Guardian looked at some of that hate mail. Leo Hickman quotes Stephen Schneider, one of the signatories to that submission:

Schneider said the FBI had taken an interest earlier this year when his name appeared on a “death list” on a neo-Nazi website alongside other climate scientists with apparent Jewish ancestry. But, to date, no action has been taken.

“The effect on me has been tremendous,” said Schneider. “Some of these people are mentally imbalanced. They are invariably gun-toting rightwingers. What do I do? Learn to shoot a Magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket? I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we’re now in a new Weimar republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists.”

Did Schneider enable those attacks, simply by being a working climate scientist? Try applying that logic in a different context. Do women enable rapists just by being women? That idea is offensive in the extreme, as is the failure of the media in general to report this context to “climategate”. Even worse is the complacency of the people who promote the framing. Here’s McIntyre fanboy Andrew “Bishop Hill” Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion, drawing attention to the Schneider (et al) submission:

They need Sir Muir to protect them from harassment, they need Sir Muir to defend the “consensus” and they want Sir Muir to write off some of the evidence completely as not being in good faith. Oh yes, and does Sir Muir know they were harassed?

Give me strength.

If Montford were receiving emails that suggested he gargle with razor blades, he might need that strength. Instead he implies the scientists are crying wolf. Forgive me for being unimpressed. And I’m putting that mildly…

The Muir Russell report explores none of this context, beyond a few anodyne statements about debate becoming “highly polarised”:

As a result, the work conducted by CRU became the focus of intense scrutiny and challenge with multiple demands from both fellow scientists and laymen for background information and data. (Introduction, 2.1.5, p19)

That’s more than bending over backwards to avoid judgement, it amounts to a travesty of reality. The people who ran the climategate campaign — the US think tanks, right-wing talking heads and the sceptic echo chamber on the internet — were not trying to further any scientific debate, they were intent on flinging as much mud as possible, to make the loudest possible noise before Copenhagen. They revelled in their success. Morgan Goodwin at DeSmogBlog provides what even one of the key climategate propagators, Steven Mosher, considers an accurate timeline of events, well worth reading in full. But there’s one key coincidence to consider.

The hackers obtained access to a server that hosted a backup copy of the CRU’s entire email database. When Muir Russell’s computer forensic specialist attempted to check the files (under strict police rules), he found that there was 7.95 GB of data and that it would take too long to do the sort of analysis originally envisaged — specifically, to examine the totality of the unit’s email correspondence to see if there were any other examples of “bad behaviour” to be uncovered. Here’s what Professor Peter Sommer had to say (pdf):

I strongly suspect that any high level analysis I can conduct within a reasonable time would produce an unmanageable quantity of material. Any further analysis would have to be conducted by those familiar with the material and they would have to learn how to use the analysis programme. There is the further practical problem, familiar to me from various legal instructions, that email traffic is often highly informal and allusive, with the consequence that any investigator has to relate large numbers of emails to other types of evidence of particular events.

The hackers however were familiar enough with the material to be able to trawl through the whole database (apparently on a computer with its clock set to east coast US time) and extract a sequence of mails (0.3% of the total) that fitted well with the narrative long established at Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog. Declines being hidden, tree rings counted upside down, tricks being deployed. And when the mails were released, the hackers made sure that they were seen first by the people best able to appreciate them — all of them, especially Mosher, intimately familiar with the species of nits being picked at McIntyre’s blog. As Goodwin’s article establishes, the main attack lines were established within days of that first release, and then played for all they were worth by the loudest voices in the inactivist choir — Morano, Beck, Watts and the rest.

In all this — and in the Muir Russell report’s generous interpretation of those harassing the CRU for information — McIntyre is often portrayed as a “citizen scientist” auditing the contentious work of climate scientists. But McIntyre is far from being an objective and disinterested seeker after truth. Canadian blogger Deep Climate has shown just how far back McIntyre’s links to the PR campaign to derail action on climate change go, and just how deeply involved he has been with the key players in Canada and the US. It’s fair to say that McIntyre’s obsession with hockey sticks enabled the attack on Phil Jones and the CRU, and that people intimately familiar with the arguments he’s been making were clearly involved at every step.

The rest of the development of the campaign to derail action in Copenhagen and the USA is familiar enough territory — the finding of a few errors in IPCC reports, most blown up out of all proportion by the world’s media following the maxim Andy Revkin outlined: the story is the conflict, not the facts. With the jury now very much in on climategate, Amazongate and all the others, will there be a wave of retractions and apologies in newspapers and on TV, or — preferably — some in-depth reporting of the background to the affair? Last week, Media Matters for America and 12 “clean energy and progressive organizations” wrote to the editorial boards of top US newspapers:

Every newspaper, magazine, and television show that reported on these bogus scandals owes it to its audience to set the record straight with the same forcefulness and frequency that it reported the original, disproven charges. Failure to publicly correct the record undermines the very heart of journalism — to report the truth.

That’s all very true, and perhaps some newspapers and journalists will respond in an appropriate manner, but what’s really needed is some genuine investigative journalism, a commitment by a major media organisation with the resources required to dig up the real climategate story and tell it to the world.

Someone hacked the CRU server. Someone selected the emails for release. Somebody probably paid for that expertise, and the public needs to know who they were. Who has decided that their personal or business interests override the rest of the world’s? We know who delivered the noise-making that followed — the usual Scaife and Koch-funded suspects — and they too deserve their day in the harsh light of public opprobrium. After all, if they want to sling mud, they should be prepared for some of it to bounce back. Who will enable that, I wonder?

A new journalistic fiction

Of all the comments on Muir Russell’s climategate report the one that resonated most with me was that of Oxford physicist Myles Allen (pictured). “What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective.” When the Guardian is part of that failure the word ‘spectacular’ is warranted.

Unfortunately Fred Pearce, presumably with the support of environment editor James Randerson, continues to treat the East Anglia scientists as if they have been guilty of serious offences. Here’s how he opens his ‘analysis’ of the Russell report:

Generally honest but frequently secretive; rigorous in their dealings with fellow scientists but often “unhelpful and defensive”, and sometimes downright “misleading”, when explaining themselves to the wider world.

On the report:

Many will find the report indulgent of reprehensible behaviour, particularly in peer review, where CRU researchers have been accused of misusing their seniority in climate science to block criticism.

Have been accused by whom? Why, by none other than Pearce himself. He presumably remains disgruntled that his suggestions of serious misconduct haven’t been upheld.

And there’s more in this vein.

Pearce appears determined to vindicate his own rush to judgment on the matter, and he seems to have editorial support. The Guardian editorial, although acknowledging that the main thrust of the Russell report is that the science of climate change is solid, goes out of its way to emphasise blameworthy behaviour from the scientists:

There was an attempt to restrict debate, denying access to raw data and peer-reviewed journals to outsiders and the unqualified. In a sense, climate change scientists began to ape the obsessive culture of their sceptical critics… One can understand why the scientists behaved as they did. But this does not make it right…

[The emails] show a closed and arrogant attitude on the part of some of those involved, protective of their data sets and dismissive of outsiders.

My dismay that the Guardian should give what seems to me disproportionate weight to the Russell report’s findings related to freedom of information was exacerbated when I opened our copy of the current Guardian Weekly yesterday to find that an article of Pearce’s written prior to the release of the report was given prominence. In it he consulted Mike Hulme, Judith Curry, Hans von Storch and Roger Peilke Jr amongst others to demonstrate that climategate has changed science “forever”. The thrust of the article is that scientists have heretofore been secretive with their data and have hidden the uncertainties of their science from public view, but they won’t be able to do that any more. Not being a scientist I have no knowledge of what secretiveness with data means, but in all the books and articles and reports I have now read by climate scientists or about climate science I have seen no sign at all of uncertainties being hidden. Quite the opposite. Pearce reports Curry as saying that as a result of climategate the outside world now sees that “the science of climate change is more complex and uncertain than they have been led to believe”. That’s a baseless and foolish comment. “Led to believe” implies that some kind of deliberate deception has been going on. Roger Pielke Jr of course doesn’t hesitate to speak of “the pathological politicisation of the climate science community.” Von Storch draws the conclusion that “People now find it conceivable that scientists cheat and manipulate, and…need societal supervision…” Mike Hulme is more circumspect, claiming only that a new tone has appeared in which researchers “are more upfront, open and explicit about their uncertainties.”

A new journalistic fiction is in the making..

Perhaps it’s inevitable that journalists like Pearce will remain determined to justify the significance they initially saw in the hacked emails (Gareth adds: especially if, like Pearce, they have a book to sell on the subject). If so, one can only hope that they will get it over with quickly. May Gareth’s “final fizzle” prove an apt description. At least Pearce and the Guardian do not deny the reality and seriousness of climate change.  But the whole issue has been a sidetrack from the main thoroughfare along which we might have made some progress in the months of virtual standstill. Myles Allen has got it right when he speaks of an absence of perspective. It has helped draw attention away from the looming threat ahead. It has also provided the forces of denial and delay with ammunition which they have used to maximum effect.

Climategate’s final fizzle

Phil Jones and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit have been exonerated (again). The final instalment in the trilogy of reports into the stolen emails affair, the Independent Climate Change Email Review chaired by Sir Muir Russell (pdf), finds that “their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt” and could find no “evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments“. The report does suggest that “there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA“, which is pretty much in line with earlier findings.

As usual, the Guardian is providing exemplary coverage, and their live blog of the day includes reactions from some of the key players. Here’s Phil Jones, who has just been given his job back:

I am, of course, extremely relieved that this review has now been completed. We have maintained all along that our science is honest and sound and this has been vindicated now by three different independent external bodies.

Mike Mann:

It is my hope that we can now put this bogus, manufactured scandal behind us, and move on to a more constructive conversation about climate change. It seems particularly ironic that climate change deniers continue to harp over their now discredited claims regarding decade-old emails while we’re experiencing almost daily reminders of the reality of global warming and climate change.

Slim chance of that, it would seem. Mark Morano’s Climate Depot has dubbed it the “Shameful Sham Climategate report”, Steve McIntyre is flooding his blog with attempts to paint the report as fatally flawed, and Benny Peiser, director of Lord Lawson’s secretly-funded Global Warming Policy Foundation is promising to set up an enquiry into the enquiries. No prizes for guessing the conclusion of that Climategate blackwash…

Oxford physicist Myles Allen’s comment is worth highlighting:

What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective. Again and again, stories are sexed up with arch hints that these “revelations” might somehow impact on the evidence for human impact on climate. Yet the only error in the actual data used for climate change detection to have emerged from this whole affair amounted to a few hundredths of a degree in the estimated global temperature of a couple of years in the late 1870s.

Amen to that. Plenty more to read at the Guardian page and much more reaction to come, no doubt, but it’s worth noting George Monbiot apologising for calling for Jones’ resignation, and RealClimate welcoming the report’s findings.

Below the fold: the report’s key findings and recommendations:


From the executive summary:

1.3 Findings

13. Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.

14. In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.

15. But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.

1.3.1 Land Station Temperatures

16. On the allegation of withholding temperature data, we find that CRU was not in a position to withhold access to such data or tamper with it. We demonstrated that any independent researcher can download station data directly from primary sources and undertake their own temperature trend analysis.

17. On the allegation of biased station selection and analysis, we find no evidence of bias. Our work indicates that analysis of global land temperature trends is robust to a range of station selections and to the use of adjusted or unadjusted data. The level of agreement between independent analyses is such that it is highly unlikely that CRU could have acted improperly to reach a predetermined outcome. Such action would have required collusion with multiple scientists in various independent organisations which we consider highly improbable.

18. On the allegation of withholding station identifiers we find that CRU should have made available an unambiguous list of the stations used in each of the versions of the Climatic Research Unit Land Temperature Record (CRUTEM) at the time of publication. We find that CRU‟s responses to reasonable requests for information were unhelpful and defensive.

19. The overall implication of the allegations was to cast doubt on the extent to which CRU‟s work in this area could be trusted and should be relied upon and we find no evidence to support that implication.

1.3.2 Temperature Reconstructions from Tree Ring Analysis

20. The central implication of the allegations here is that in carrying out their work, both in the choices they made of data and the way in which it was handled, CRU scientists intended to bias the scientific conclusions towards a specific result and to set aside inconvenient evidence. More specifically, it was implied in the allegations that this should reduce the confidence ascribed to the conclusions in Chapter 6 of the IPCC 4th Report, Working Group 1 (WG1).

21. We do not find that the way that data derived from tree rings is described and presented in IPCC AR4 and shown in its Figure 6.10 is misleading. In particular, on the question of the composition of temperature reconstructions, we found no evidence of exclusion of other published temperature reconstructions that would show a very different picture. The general discussion of sources of uncertainty in the text is extensive, including reference to divergence. In this respect it represented a significant advance on the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR).

22. On the allegation that the phenomenon of “divergence” may not have been properly taken into account when expressing the uncertainty associated with reconstructions, we are satisfied that it is not hidden and that the subject is openly and extensively discussed in the literature, including CRU papers.

23. On the allegation that the references in a specific e-mail to a „trick‟ and to „hide the decline‟ in respect of a 1999 WMO report figure show evidence of intent to paint a misleading picture, we find that, given its subsequent iconic significance (not least the use of a similar figure in the IPCC Third Assessment Report), the figure supplied for the WMO Report was misleading. We do not find that it is misleading to curtail reconstructions at some point per se, or to splice data, but we believe that both of these procedures should have been made plain – ideally in the figure but certainly clearly described in either the caption or the text.

24. On the allegations in relation to withholding data, in particular concerning the small sample size of the tree ring data from the Yamal peninsula, CRU did not withhold the underlying raw data (having correctly directed the single request to the owners). But it is evidently true that access to the raw data was not simple until it was archived in 2009 and that this delay can rightly be criticized on general principles. In the interests of transparency, we believe that CRU should have ensured that the data they did not own, but on which their publications relied, was archived in a more timely way.

1.3.3 Peer Review and Editorial Policy

25. On the allegations that there was subversion of the peer review or editorial process we find no evidence to substantiate this in the three instances examined in detail. On the basis of the independent work we commissioned (see Appendix 5) on the nature of peer review, we conclude that it is not uncommon for strongly opposed and robustly expressed positions to be taken up in heavily contested areas of science. We take the view that such behaviour does not in general threaten the integrity of peer review or publication.

1.3.4 Misuse of IPCC Process

26. On the allegations that in two specific cases there had been a misuse by CRU scientists of the IPCC process, in presenting AR4 to the public and policy makers, we find that the allegations cannot be upheld. In addition to taking evidence from them and checking the relevant records of the IPCC process, we have consulted the relevant IPCC review Editors. Both the CRU scientists were part of large groups of scientists taking joint responsibility for the relevant IPCC Working Group texts, and were not in a position to determine individually the final wording and content.

1.3.5 Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR)

27. On the allegation that CRU does not appear to have acted in a way consistent with the spirit and intent of the FoIA or EIR, we find that there was unhelpfulness in responding to requests and evidence that e-mails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them. University senior management should have accepted more responsibility for implementing the required processes for FoIA and EIR compliance.

1.3.6 Other Findings on Governance

28. Given the significance of the work of CRU, UEA management failed to recognise in their risk management the potential for damage to the University‟s reputation fuelled by the controversy over data access.

1.4 Recommendations

29. Our main recommendations for UEA are as follows:
Risk management processes should be directed to ensuring top management engagement in areas which have the potential to impact the reputation of the university. Compliance with FoIA/EIR is the responsibility of UEA faculty leadership and ultimately the Vice-Chancellor. Where there is an organisation and documented system in place to handle information requests, this needs to be owned, supported and reinforced by University leadership.

CRU should make available sufficient information, concurrent with any publications, to enable others to replicate their results.

1.5 Broader Issues

30. Our work in conducting the Review has led us to identify a number of issues relevant not only to the climate science debate but also possibly more widely, on which we wish to comment briefly.

31. The nature of scientific challenge. We note that much of the challenge to CRU‘s work has not always followed the conventional scientific method of checking and seeking to falsify conclusions or offering alternative hypotheses for peer review and publication. We believe this is necessary if science is to move on, and we hope that all those involved on all sides of the climate science debate will adopt this approach.

32. Handling Uncertainty – where policy meets science. Climate science is an area that exemplifies the importance of ensuring that policy makers –
particularly Governments and their advisers, Non-Governmental Organisations and other lobbyists – understand the limits on what scientists can say and with what degree of confidence. Statistical and other techniques for explaining uncertainty have developed greatly in recent years, and it is essential that they are properly deployed. But equally important is the need for alternative viewpoints to be recognized in policy presentations, with a robust assessment of their validity, and for the challenges to be rooted in science rather than rhetoric.

33. Peer review – what it can/cannot deliver. We believe that peer review is an essential part of the process of judging scientific work, but it should not be over- rated as a guarantee of the validity of individual pieces of research, and the significance of challenge to individual publication decisions should be not exaggerated.

34. Openness and FoIA. We support the spirit of openness enshrined in the FoIA and the EIR. It is unfortunate that this was not embraced by UEA, and we make recommendations about that. A well thought through publication scheme would remove much potential for disruption by the submission of multiple requests for information. But at the level of public policy there is need for further thinking about the competing arguments for the timing of full disclosure of research data and associated computer codes etc, as against considerations of confidentiality during the conduct of research. There is much scope for unintended consequences that could hamper research: US experience is instructive. We recommend that the ICO should initiate a debate on these wider issues.

35. Handling the blogosphere and non traditional scientific dialogue. One of the most obvious features of the climate change debate is the influence of the blogosphere. This provides an opportunity for unmoderated comment to stand alongside peer reviewed publications; for presentations or lectures at learned conferences to be challenged without inhibition; and for highly personalized critiques of individuals and their work to be promulgated without hindrance. This is a fact of life, and it would be foolish to challenge its existence. The Review team would simply urge all scientists to learn to communicate their work in ways that the public can access and understand. That said, a key issue is how scientists should be supported to explain their position, and how a public space can be created where these debates can be conducted on appropriate terms, where what is and is not uncertain can be recognised.

36. Openness and Reputation. An important feature of the blogosphere is the extent to which it demands openness and access to data. A failure to recognise this and to act appropriately, can lead to immense reputational damage by feeding allegations of cover up. Being part of a like minded group may provide no defence. Like it or not, this indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.

37. Role of Research Sponsors. One of the issues facing the Review was the release of data. At various points in the report we have commented on the formal requirements for this. We consider that it would make for clarity for researchers if funders were to be completely clear upfront in their requirements for the release of data (as well as its archiving, curation etc).

38. The IPCC. We welcome the IPCC‘s decision to review its processes, and can only stress the importance of capturing the range of viewpoints and reflecting appropriately the statistical uncertainties surrounding the data it assesses. Our conclusions do not make a judgement on the work of IPCC, though we acknowledge the importance of its advice to policy makers.

There’s much to work through in the detail of the report, but I think the points of real interest, well worthy of further consideration, are the “broader issues” the report raises. As far as Climategate itself is concerned, the only real point of interest left is discovering who was behind the theft of the emails, and that investigation seems to be grinding along very slowly indeed.