Climategate: Stolen climate emails

The denialosphere is busy making another mountain out of a molehill. It seems that a bunch of emails from CRU have been stolen and published online.

The authenticity of these emails hasn’t been verified and the possibility of some of them having been edited cannot be ruled out. But this hasn’t stopped the deniers from cherry-picking quotes looking for ‘proof’ that global warming is not real.

This is all rubbish of course. The proper response to flawed science (which climatology is not) is good science, not old emails.

Mann sums up the situation perfectly:

The deniers will probably do anything they can to distract the public from the reality of the problem [of climate change], and the threat that it poses,” he says. “Cherry-picked, out-of-context quotes, stolen from private e-mails, is the best they’ve got.”

And RealClimate has the details:

Since emails are normally intended to be private, people writing them are, shall we say, somewhat freer in expressing themselves than they would in a public statement. For instance, we are sure it comes as no shock to know that many scientists do not hold Steve McIntyre in high regard. Nor that a large group of them thought that the Soon and Baliunas (2003), Douglass et al (2008) or McClean et al (2009) papers were not very good (to say the least) and should not have been published. These sentiments have been made abundantly clear in the literature (though possibly less bluntly).

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.

It’s obvious that the noise-generating components of the blogosphere will generate a lot of noise about this. but it’s important to remember that science doesn’t work because people are polite at all times. Gravity isn’t a useful theory because Newton was a nice person. QED isn’t powerful because Feynman was respectful of other people around him. Science works because different groups go about trying to find the best approximations of the truth, and are generally very competitive about that. That the same scientists can still all agree on the wording of an IPCC chapter for instance is thus even more remarkable.

No doubt, instances of cherry-picked and poorly-worded “gotcha” phrases will be pulled out of context. One example is worth mentioning quickly. Phil Jones in discussing the presentation of temperature reconstructions stated that “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the ‘trick’ is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the ‘decline’, it is well known that Keith Briffa’s maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the “divergence problem”–see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while ‘hiding’ is probably a poor choice of words (since it is ‘hidden’ in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.

The timing of this particular episode is probably not coincidental. But if cherry-picked out-of-context phrases from stolen personal emails is the only response to the weight of the scientific evidence for the human influence on climate change, then there probably isn’t much to it.

No mountains here, just another mole hill.

UPDATE: Greenfyre also sums it up very well:

From what I have actually seen it just “shop talk” taken out of context and nothing more, very much as if a store clerk said they were going to go “hunt down some customers” and then someone else tried to claim that they were planning a murder.

Context is everything, and we have none.

It is also worth mentioning that if any misdeeds were committed, they should be criticized. Also if any science was indeed done improperly (seems unlikely given the scrutiny it has withstood) then it must be corrected. It is worth repeating that bad science needs to be corrected by good science, not the ranting of deniers, column writers or politicians.


UPDATE 2: The Take-home message

It is worth repeating again (because I know someone out there will claim otherwise) that nothing in this post should be taken as a defence for shoddy science. If anything inappropriate has taken place then it should be condemned, and countered with good science. But so far nothing incriminating has come to light. As Geenfyre points out:

Is there really nothing to this?

I think so. The edited bits we are getting can sound bad, but the actually say absolutely nothing. Stripped of context they could suggest all kinds of unethical behaiour … or nothing at all.

Nothing we have seen so far actually says anything at all, but the Deniers swear this topples climate science (as mentioned, it couldn’t no matter what they found).

The fact that deniers have jumped all over this shows again their disregard for the truth. They automatically assume the worst (so obviously they are not skeptics), without any evidence to back up their extreme claims. Anyone who jumped on this has revealed their true colours. They aren’t interested in finding truth… but we already knew that.

In the end this little escapade has revealed more about the deniers than about climatologists

UPDATE 3: More context:

  • Trenberth: You need to read his recent paper on quantifying the current changes in the Earth’s energy budget to realise why he is concerned about our inability currently to track small year-to-year variations in the radiative fluxes.
  • Wigley: The concern with sea surface temperatures in the 1940s stems from the paper by Thompson et al (2007) which identified a spurious discontinuity in ocean temperatures. The impact of this has not yet been fully corrected for in the HadSST data set, but people still want to assess what impact it might have on any work that used the original data.
  • Climate Research and peer-review: You should read about the issues from the editors (Claire Goodess, Hans von Storch) who resigned because of a breakdown of the peer review process at that journal, that came to light with the particularly egregious (and well-publicised) paper by Soon and Baliunas (2003). The publisher’s assessment is here.
  • HARRY_read_me.txt. This is a 4 year-long work log of Ian (Harry) Harris who was working to upgrade the documentation, metadata and databases associated with the legacy CRU TS 2.1 product, which is not the same as the HadCRUT data (see Mitchell and Jones, 2003 for details). The CSU TS 3.0 is available now (via ClimateExplorer for instance), and so presumably the database problems got fixed. Anyone who has ever worked on constructing a database from dozens of individual, sometimes contradictory and inconsistently formatted datasets will share his evident frustration with how tedious that can be.
  • “Redefine the peer-reviewed literature!” . Nobody actually gets to do that, and both papers discussed in that comment – McKitrick and Michaels (2004) and Kalnay and Cai (2003) were both cited and discussed in Chapter 2 of 3 the IPCC AR4 report. As an aside, neither has stood the test of time.
  • “Declines” in the MXD record. This decline was hidden written up in Nature in 1998 where the authors suggested not using the post 1960 data. Their actual programs (in IDL script), unsurprisingly warn against using post 1960 data. Added: Note that the ‘hide the decline’ comment was made in 1999 – 10 years ago, and has no connection whatsoever to more recent instrumental records.
  • CRU data accessibility. From the date of the first FOI request to CRU (in 2007), it has been made abundantly clear that the main impediment to releasing the whole CRU archive is the small % of it that was given to CRU on the understanding it wouldn’t be passed on to third parties. Those restrictions are in place because of the originating organisations (the various National Met. Services) around the world and are not CRU’s to break. As of Nov 13, the response to the umpteenth FOI request for the same data met with exactly the same response. This is an unfortunate situation, and pressure should be brought to bear on the National Met Services to release CRU from that obligation. It is not however the fault of CRU. The vast majority of the data in the HadCRU records is publicly available from GHCN (v2.mean.Z).
  • Suggestions that FOI-related material be deleted … are ill-advised even if not carried out. What is and is not responsive and deliverable to an FOI request is however a subject that it is very appropriate to discuss.

6 thoughts on “Climategate: Stolen climate emails

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  1. The emails reveal:

    That the alarmists stonewalled freedom of information requests seeking the data on which their graphs showing imminent doom are supposedly based.

    That they destroyed information subject to a freedom of information request.

    That peer review was fake – that it was review for theological, rather than scientific correctness, that peer review of alarmist papsers failed to check if the data supported the conclusions, or even existed.

    That improper pressures were applied to prevent dissident publications.

    That widely published graphs were fake (“hide the decline”) or unsupported by the data that they were allegedly based on.

    The readme file and accompanying data files reveal that alleged world average temperature supposedly based on surface weather stations does not correspond to their actual data from surface weather stations.

  2. I’ll give you that the emails show an unwillingness to share information with those who in all likelihood will misrepresent it. This is not defensible but it also is not the massive scandal some claim. It also doesn’t discredit any of the science.

    As for the rest of your claims you are going to need to provide, more evidence (and context!) to support them. Right now you have nothing.

    And as for the ‘hide the decline’, clearly you didn’t even bother to read my post, because that statement doesn’t mean what you think it means. Again one needs to look agt the context.

    Assuming the worst interpretation is the correct one doesn’t say much about whoever is making the assumption.

  3. As for the rest of your claims you are going to need to provide, more evidence (and context!) to support them. Right now you have nothing.

    Nothing you are willing to listen to.

    If you want the context for “hide the decline”, Climate Audit has the graphs in which the decline was indeed hidden. These guys knew what the true temperatures must be by the power of their faith, and if the data failed to show what it should, so much the worse for the data.

  4. @ James

    I have better things to do with my time than delve into the depths of climate audit (hardly an honest broker here) in order to go looking for context of ‘hide the decline’. Especially when it is rather obvious (for someone with a clue) that it refers to the divergence problem found in some proxy data sets (specifically some bristle cone pine trees).

    See here for a paper on this issue.

  5. Im a chemist and I hide data all the time. Guess what,its neither decietfull,or dishonest. My instruments give me data that has lots of peaks for small impurities and such that I dont really care about as they are not the chemical that I am analyzing for. The very small ones just clutter the graph and make it difficult to see the important information. This is actually very common across most disciplines. I set the software to screen all that out. In some cases,the analyte is so dilute that it does not show up. In thse cases we can use a technique to get a bigger signal where we use a chemical reaction to change what he substance is into a form that the instrument can more easily detect. Lets rephrase this.

    “I analyzed the samples and the amount of the toxic substance was below the detection limit of the machine. I used Daves trick of derivatizing the compound with something with lots of chlorine to get 10x the peak hight. Its now the biggest peak out of all the analytes we tested for.”
    OMG I just admitted to using an evil trick to make it look like there was more of a toxic chemical in the sample than there was… or did I?

    lets rephrasae it yet again.
    “I analyzed the samples and the amount of the toxic substance was below the detection limit of the machine. I used Daves TECHNIQUE of derivatizing the compound with something with lots of chlorine to get 10x the peak hight. The instrument can now properly detect the analyte,in fact its more sensitive to it now than any of the other analytes tested for.

    If I were to write something for public consumption,or expected the public to see it,I would of course write the latter. If I was writing to a collegue explaining what I did,I might write the former,using less formal language and not really writing with an eye to having it taken out of context.

  6. There are legitimate reasons to hide data. That much is obvious.

    But I don’t think anything was really hidden here at all. There have been several papers written on the divergence problem, and as Mark Francis points out in another comment even McIntyre write about the issue way back in 2005, based solely on what had already been published.

    So how exactly was it hidden? Omitting something from a graph is not the same things as hiding it.

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