Monday, November 23, 2009

Climategate - Hacked Emails and Documents

One of the most respected centres for measuring the earths temperature and modelling global warming is the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in England. Some time last week files belonging to the Centre were hacked by a person unknown and distributed widely on the internet.

Those sceptical about man made global warming theory and the scientific basis for this theory immediately claimed that the emails and documents made available suggest that the Centre has been “fixing” the temperature record so as to support warming theory - adjusting data to fit a model and using statistical devices to minimize inconvenient truths, such as the fact that the earth has been cooling for some time, according to the Hadley Centre.

The hacker, acting illegally, “broke” into the CRU computer and downloaded 1079 emails and over three thousand documents, all of which are now made available on line. They show the systematic attempts by Professor Phil Jones, Keith Briffa, his assistant, Michael E. Mann of the University of Virginia, Malcolm Hughes at the University of Arizona and others to manipulate observational data and to support the “hockey stick” model developed by Michael Mann. They also show that the network of scientists involved in the IPCC fourth assessment report went to extraordinary lengths to stop the publication of any information or data which did not support the man-made global warming theory. At one point, Kevin Trenberth observes that they “can't account for the lack of recent warming and that it is a travesty that they can't”.

Also revealed is the fact that, when asked to release their data so as to permit analysis by independent scientists under a freedom of information request, Phil Jones, Michael Mann and others conspired to delete emails and related files so as to prevent disclosure – an act illegal under the freedom of information legislation in Britain. It is a normal practice in science for the original data used to base a theory or claim is available to others for analysis. All of those involved in these exchanges see this as a threat to “their” science. These scientists, it is alleged, appear willing to break the law to hide their data.

As embarrassing as the e-mails are, some of the documents are thought to be more embarrassing. They include a five-page PDF document titled The Rules of the Game, that appears to be a primer for propagating the man made global warming message to the average subject/resident of the United Kingdom. A summary of the email exchanges and their implications can be found at Bishop Hill.

The Centre has confirmed that the documents and emails circulating on the world wide web appear genuine, but has yet to verify that all of the documents and emails are legitimate and that they have not been "tampered with" in any way. The police have been informed and an internal inquiry is underway.

Sceptics are claiming that these emails and documents show a pattern of behaviour that amounts to a conspiracy to manipulate evidence and control the process of peer review such that the appearance of scientific consensus could be maintained. They point to specific emails and documents which support this conspiracy theory. Calling this “Climategate”, sceptics are suggesting that this is another nail in the coffin of the man made global warming theorists. The blogosphere is full of accusations and claims and suggestions of impropriety.

On the other side of the conversation, some commentators note that some of the emails are over a decade old (though others are as recent as November 12th 2009) and refer to methods of working not uncommon in climate science at the time – adding estimated data for missing observations and adjusting unusual observations with more normative ones. In fact, such practices continue today.

As Gavin Schmidt, who writes for Real Climate observe, having reviewed the selection of emails most widely posted on the web:

“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”.

He also observes that, in the free exchange of ideas and comments over email, Professor Phil Jones 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 paper in Nature 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. While “trick” has been interpreted as “cheat”, it is in fact a smart data manipulation to make the presentation of the data easier to follow.

This all seeks to make the emails more innocent than they in fact are. While it is true that we all are generally more “robust” and “direct” and politically incorrect in emails and conversations amongst friends and close colleagues, some of the emails cannot easily be dismissed. For example Phil Jones writes about two papers, “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Xxx and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is”. While poor scientific papers should not be included, if this were the issue, the IPCC peer review process is what it is.

This story will rumble on, especially in the blogosphere. Mainstream media are treating it quietly as an incidence of hacking which is delighting the sceptics but is not to be taken too seriously. Professor Phil Jones must, however, be concerned that his reputation could well be damaged by the way some of these emails are being read. Most specifically, his refusal to let original data be subject to critical and independent review may come back to haunt him. It is worth noting, however, that no data has been destroyed.

Conspiracy, no. Close working relationships between authors who share a common understanding of a phenomenon, yes. Dislike for those who disagree and challenge them, yes. The end of the man made global warming theory? Definitely not. A blip on the road to Copenhagen.

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