It's not enough to bash in heads, you have to bash in minds

Nature on climategate

Nature has published a great article on the whole climategate tempest.

Here are the highlights:

The e-mail archives stolen last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, have been greeted by the climate-change-denialist fringe as a propaganda windfall (see page 551). To these denialists, the scientists’ scathing remarks about certain controversial palaeoclimate reconstructions qualify as the proverbial ‘smoking gun’: proof that mainstream climate researchers have systematically conspired to suppress evidence contradicting their doctrine that humans are warming the globe.

This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country’s much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.

And in regards to the FOI requests (the most damaging revelation from the emails in my opinion):

If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden… But for much crucial information the reality is very different. Researchers are barred from publicly releasing meteorological data from many countries owing to contractual restrictions. Moreover, in countries such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, the national meteorological services will provide data sets only when researchers specifically request them, and only after a significant delay. The lack of standard formats can also make it hard to compare and integrate data from different sources. Every aspect of this situation needs to change: if the current episode does not spur meteorological services to improve researchers’ ease of access, governments should force them to do so.

The biggest problem with being open is that much of the systems in place to ensure openness assume that those seeking the data are looking at the issue honestly. Because of this, there is little in the way of safe guards for abuse by those who are not interested in an honest look at the data, but instead in wasting time and finding anything (no matter how insignificant) that can be spun in a damaging light.

Steve Easterbrook sums up the problems with openness very well. Saying: “A significant factor in the reluctance of climate scientists to release code and data is to protect themselves from denial-of-service attacks. There is a very well-funded and PR-savvy campaign to discredit climate science. Most scientists just don’t understand how to respond to this. Firing off hundreds of requests to CRU to release data under the freedom of information act, despite each such request being denied for good legal reasons, is the equivalent of frivolous lawsuits. But even worse, once datasets and codes are released, it is very easy for an anti-science campaign to tie the scientists up in knots trying to respond to their attempts to poke holes in the data. If the denialists were engaged in an honest attempt to push the science ahead, this would be fine (although many scientists would still get frustrated – they are human too).

But in reality, the denialists don’t care about the science at all; their aim is a PR campaign to sow doubt in the minds of the general public. In the process, they effect a denial-of-service attack on the scientists – the scientists can’t get on with doing their science because their time is taken up responding to frivolous queries (and criticisms) about specific features of the data. And their failure to respond to each and every such query will be trumpeted as an admission that an alleged error is indeed an error. In such an environment, is it perfectly rational not to release data and code – it’s better to pull up the drawbridge and get on with the drudgery of real science in private. That way the only attacks are complaints about lack of openness. Such complaints are bothersome, but much better than the alternative.

In this case, because the science is vitally important for all of us, it’s actually in the public interest that climate scientists be allowed to withhold their data. Which is really a tragic state of affairs. The forces of anti-science have a lot to answer for.

And Robert Grumbine has an excellent post on the difficulties of data set reproducibility that is will worth a read. Suffice to say that none of this is trivial, and there are many non-nefarious reasons why CRU wasn’t 100% open.

In the end Nature sees no reason to investigate any of the papers it has published, because it sees nothing that compromises the science.

The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers’ own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a ‘trick’ — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature‘s policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.

Oh and also it turns out that scientist are human, not emotionless Vulcans.

In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

But we already knew that. Now where did I leave that teapot?

12 Responses to Nature on climategate

  1. But…but… Nature is *part* of the “conspiracy” don’t you know?

    I just noticed that McKitrick cites Mann’s original “hockey stick” paper 10 times where Mann also discusses the implications of Briffa’s paper from which “hide the decline” comes from. The thought has come to my mind, given that McKitrick worked “hard” on his hockey stick criticism, would he not have had to deal with the hide the decline issue years ago? And, if so, why no hue an cry back then? If anyone would, mcKitrick would.

    Interesting angle, that.

  2. My biggest disagreement here is with respect to the FOI requests. It may be true that there are people who are simply out to ‘get’ the scientists and tie them up in knots. But at the same time, there are people who are legitimately asking for the data and could be convinced if they felt that the scientists were being entirely open.

    Whatever the truth may be, the emails definitely do not make the scientists appear to be desperate to give the information if only they could get past those pesty copyright issues. They sometimes appear more like they’re desperate to keep the data out of anyone else’s hands at all costs. (Delete the data rather than release it?)

    If they were scientists involved in some obscure theoretical astrophysics research or studying semiconductor properties whose application might improve battery life I might agree that responding to ‘hundreds’ of FOI requests a year is a bit much.

    But they’re not. They are climate scientists who are involved in research whose results are leading politicians to make policy decisions that cost tens of billions of dollars (trillions?) and will dramatically reshape our economy and the lives of every individual.

    Its not unreasonable then to require them to accede to these FOI requests since they have moved beyond the pure ‘science’ and into the realm of ‘policy’.

  3. @ Eric

    We’ve been over this a few times, but I don’t think our positions are that far off.

    The challenge that needs to be solved is allowing honest looks at the data while preventing abuse. It isn’t an easy problem to solve, but it is something that needs to be worked on. The Nature solution seems decent, but requires extra money to pay for people whose job it is to deal with FOI requests, leaving scientists free to do science.

    the emails definitely do not make the scientists appear to be desperate to give the information if only they could get past those pesty copyright issues.

    No they don’t. But the reason for that is that McIntyre and the climateaudit gang were deluging CRU with FOI requests. They are the abuse Nature, Steve Easterbrook, and I are talking about.

    Its not unreasonable then to require them to accede to these FOI requests since they have moved beyond the pure ’science’ and into the realm of ‘policy’.

    But they are contractually prohibited from doing so.

    As I see it, there are two issues at play here. First, scientists at CRU were driven to the limits of tolerance by the deluge of FOI requests. This made them say (and perhaps do, but that is not yet clear) things that they should not have. This is not something that I am going to defend, but I see it as a symptom of the larger problem described by Easterbrook.

    Secondly there is the contractual obligations that prevent CRU from releasing all the data (95% of it has been released). Again this is not a good thing for science, even though it may have been convenient for the scientists at CRU, but it is the way it is, and CRU is not to blame for thsi state of affairs. Such problems with IP are not uncommon in science (biotech especially suffers from this), and touch on larger issues of IP and data ownership.

  4. @ Mark

    would he not have had to deal with the hide the decline issue years ago?

    He would have. Though it is true that Mann98 didn’t explain everything as well as it should have. But this is normal for papers dealing with a novel technique to not explain things as well as they should. Thankfully Mann98 was only a first paper. Further papers filled in the gaps that were missing from the original paper.

    This is not a signal that Mann98 was fatally flawed, though it likely wasn’t perfect (I can’t say anything definitive here the math is way beyond me), but that science doesn’t always get things right the first time around. Not really a revelation. It is also worth noting that newer proxy reconstructions have come to the same basic conclusion as Mann98.

  5. @ Mark

    Ok that really didn’t address your point. Sorry.

    McKitrick, and McIntyre should have seen the ‘Nature Trick’ in the paper they wrote. Any outrage they might now express is manufactured or it means that they were incompetent in their original analysis (for missing the ‘trick’).

  6. @Dan

    I agree, our positions do not differ significantly on this issue.

    I do understand (from personal experience) what you mean about the deluges of FOI requests (although my experience deals with other kinds of comments/requests) and about pushing them to their limit. But nevertheless, they need to a) focus on providing what data they can where they can and explaining why they can’t provide more and b) knowing how and who to firmly tell off once you’ve performed the legal limit.

  7. @ Eric

    they need to a) focus on providing what data they can where they can and explaining why they can’t provide more and b) knowing how and who to firmly tell off once you’ve performed the legal limit.

    As I understand it that is what happened.

  8. McIntyre wrote about the ‘trick’ on CA in 2005.

    People can claim all they want that the ‘trick’ was hidden, but their favourite hockey stick challenger was writing about it four years ago based upon what was published.

    Well, this ClimateGate crap was never about truth. It’s all about further establishing negative narrative. (“It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be plausible.” — Tom Flanagan) We are truly seeing the intersection of science and the worst sort of politics.

    My big deal with McIntyre is that he’s all about criticism, (nearsighted and using a shotgun rather than a sniper rifle), when he should be working harder on producing his own reconstructions and getting them published in peer-review. What he did produce was a disappointment.

    I understand why Briffa et all want to ignore McIntyre. He’s not contributing anything. He’s the inaccurate nitpick, long since dealing with irrelevancies due to the sheer weight of the work of thousands of others.

    If I didn’t think McIntyre to be part of the organized denialist machinery, I’d suspect him more to be a jaded wannabe on an obsessive mission.

  9. Good find! If only the ‘skeptics’ would apply some scepticism to their claims.

    It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be plausible.

    Which puts people like me who want to promote the truth at a disadvantage. I am limited to what is both true and known. Deniers are only limited to what is plausible.

    And given their audience, most everything is plausible.

  10. “Deniers are only limited to what is plausible.”

    You are tooooo kind. LOL.

    Denialists work backwards from their conclusion. They nevertheless deny that they work from dogma.

    Anyway, you know all this. I’m just sounding out to myself a list and examples for a post on the topic. I think it’s to be a bit satirical.

    Back to McIntyre… he’s not hiding from the fact that he knew of “hide the decline” four years back. He’s arguing (if I’m following him right):

    1. There should have been a flashing neon sign over that section in the Mann 1998 paper

    2. You either use the entire tree ring series data, or none at all.

    3. The IPCC shows the tree ring data ending in 1960 in a chart. They knew!

    3. Vague sounds about it still meaning something dastardly.

    I’m still trying to flesh him out on this point, and to locate all the relevant papers on the difficulties with the tree rings after 1960.

    I did a Google Scholar search on McKitrick and he cites the Mann paper in question in 10 separate papers/letters, but he never cites the Briffa 1998 study directly.

  11. Speaking of McIntyre, he is definitely being dishonest, as Deep-Climate points out:

    Steve McIntyre has published allegations – twice now – that an internal IPCC authors’ debate about the inclusion of Briffa’s tree-ring reconstruction in a key figure from the 2001 WG1 Third Assesement Report was driven by concern about the post-1960 “decline” in tree-ring widths, a decline that showed a marked divergence with the instrumental tempertaure record…

    McIntyre even claims that lead author Michael Mann worried that showing the series with this decline would give “fodder” to “skeptics”.

    But even a cursory examination of the emails in question shows that the discussion was really about other aspects of the reconstruction, specifically obvious discrepancies between Briffa’s reconstruction and the other two under consideration over the major part of the reconstruction’s length. Thus, once again, McIntyre’s speculations are shown to be utterly without foundation.

    Even worse, McIntyre left out intervening sentences within the actual proffered quotes in what appears to be an unsophisticated attempt to mislead.

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