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Posts Tagged ‘cru-e-mails’

Climategate: Like Watergate or Stargate?

Thu ,28/10/2010

Critics of climate research dubbed the stolen CRU E-mails incident “Climategate” to discredit climate scientists. But, was it more like Watergate or Stargate?

The Incident: Last year, hackers broke into the computers of England’s Hadley Climatic Research Unit (CRU), and stole 10 years of e-mails exchanged between the scientists. The stolen e-mails were released to media sources and posted online with claims the CRU scientists engaged in illegal and unethical acts.(1) Words taken from the e-mails made it appear that the CRU scientist scientists ‘tricked” the data, “hid a decline in data”, “withheld data”, “changed data” and “tried to keep dissident scientists from publishing” . The CRU scientists have been roundly accused of wrongdoing by AGW skeptics, opposition politicians, uninformed bloggers, and dissident scientists who roundly criticized the CRU scientists for ethical violations and illegal acts. Phil Jones, the CRU director, stepped down and called for a full and independent review of the incident. Critics of the CRU scientist’s research have dubbed it “Climategate”, saying it is a huge scandal that undermines all the climate research on global warming.

Watergate: It is certainly not like Watergate. The Wategate thieves were caught and punished and those who masterminded the plot were publicly disgraced. In Climategate, the thieves have been hailed by some as heroes and the victims of the theft have been vilified. Just before the U. S. Senate was to vote to ratify the Kyoto treaty, an article was published in the Wall Street Journal that proclaimed” Science Has Spoken, Global Warming Is a Myth” that was meant to derail approval. The article turned out to be a hoax.(2) The timing and nature of the release of the CRU e-mails would suggest that the real purpose of “Climategate” may have been to derail a meaningful treaty on climate change at the upcoming Copenhagen meeting.

Why does it matter? The CRU scientist’s research has long been the center of a heated controversy about whether the observed rise in Earth’s mean temperature since 1900 was caused by man or whether it is just part of the normal pattern caused by natural forces. Measured values of the Earth’s mean temperature began in about 1850 and CRU scientists’ research was an effort to extended the Earth’s mean temperature data back to before measurements were taken. They did so by examining proxy data such as tree rings, coral growth, and ice core samples. Their research showed that the temperature of the Earth was reasonably stable from about 1000 A.D. until 1900 when it began to rise rapidly to the present. Their graph was dubbed the “hockey stick graph” from its shape. Opponents of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) have derided the graph and tried to vilifiy the CRU scientists as their research showed the Earth’s recent warming trend was caused by CO2 from burning fossil fuels rather than cycles in nature.

The Hackers: Those critical of the scientific work by the CRU scientists have been gleeful about the hacked e-mails and some even claimed that the hackers are heroes. One story claimed the hacking was justified since a request for the e-mails under the freedom of information (FOI) act was refused due to insufficient reason. The reluctance to release data was possibly because Phil Jones, the CRU director, had once released his raw data for a 1990 research paper to a former London financial trader, Douglas J. Keenan. Keenan combed through the data and then tried to have the FBI arrest Jones’ co-author for fraud. An investigation later cleared them of any wrongdoing. Under the FOI act, the next step would have been to seek redress in the courts – not by hacking the CRU computers.

A rather ridiculous claim was that since the science research was funded by public money, the public had a right to the documents. Military research is done with public money and those who think its OK should try hacking into the Pentagon. Another story claimed that the e-mail release was a public service done by a whistleblower. However, the timing speaks against that interpretation as many of the documents are 10 years old. A whistleblower should possibly have blown the whistle back when an alleged ethical offense occurred rather than just weeks before the Copenhagen Convention. The latest theory, since the e-mails were first released from a server in Siberia, is that professional Russian hackers were responsible. It would be interesting to know who might have paid them.

An impartial look: Many of the claims against the CRU scientists have been shown to be words taken out of context. Many people know mathematical “tricks” that are an aid in calculation and are certainly not meant to fool anyone. The “decline” was not a decline in temperature but referred to a “decline” in the number of samples available. Every measuring instrument must be standardized, and data is often corrected after being taken to bring it in line with the standardization. The paper the CRU scientists were trying to suppress had errors but was published anyway. Climatologists are aware of the errors but the discredited paper still has a claim to authenticity to the public as it was published in a refereed journal. To clear up the matter, Phil Jones has stepped down and called for an independent investigation but that will not be completed before the Copenhagen Convention and the charges are “out there”.

The Associated Press examined the e-mails to see what the truth might be in the matter. (3) Five reporters and seven scientists with credentials in research ethics, climate science, and science policy examined the 1,073 E-mails stolen from climate scientists. The Associated Press concluded that although the E-mails show the CRU scientists stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data, the messages don’t support claims that the science of global warming was faked. Mark Frankel, director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science upon reviewing the E-mails summed up the scientists position saying he saw “no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data, although concerns could be raised about some instances of very ‘generous interpretations.'” Also, Daniel Sarewitz, a science policy professor at Arizona State University added “This is normal science politics, but on the extreme end, though still within bounds.” Several formal investigations into the allegations have cleared the scientists involved of any wrongdoing.

Note added 8/23/2011: As of today, eight independent formal investigations have been completed and none has found  any incidences of scientific misconduct by the the scientists involved. The hackers, who are clearly crimnals, have not been caught. Those who engaged in libel against the scientists have not been charged, and I know of none who apologized.   

Stargate: So, rather than being like Watergate, the e-mail scandal was actually more like Stargate, fictional fantasy. It should, however, be a reminder to every scientist to be professional in what is put in e-mails. The critics should be chastised as those accused are usually presumed innocent until guilt is proven. The CRU scientists were clearly tried in the press and many “news reports” amounted to little more than sensationalized speculation. The accusations by dissident scientists are particularly egregious as scientist’s ethical codes say that:” Public comments on scientific matters should be made with care and precision, without unsubstantiated, exaggerated, or premature statements.” However, the critics were in a hurry as Copenhagen was approaching.

(1) For a description, see: http://www.pewclimate.org/blog/gulledgej/thanksgiving-i%E2%80%99m-thankful-we-base-policy-decisions-peer-reviewed-science-instead-emai

(2) The hoax is described at http://jcmooreonline.com/2009/09/05/the-%E2%80%9Cglobal-warming-is-a-myth%E2%80%9D-hoax/


(c) 2010 J.C. Moore

Peer Review, Science Data, and the Public's Right to Know

Tue ,13/07/2010

Does the public’s “right to know” extend to the peer review process and to the scientist’s data?

Peer review: Reputable scientific journals have a peer review process to ensure that published papers are free of errors in reasoning and methodology and that they report only the best research. Upon submission of a paper, the editor of the journal removes the name of the authors and sends it to expert researchers to be reviewed. The names of the authors are kept confidential by the editor to ensure that the author’s reputation, past personal differences, or factors other than the quality of the work cannot affect the review. The editor of the journal considers the reports of the reviewers and decides whether the paper should be published or returned to the author for corrections. Few papers receive outright rejection and the papers returned for correction are usually returned with reviewers comments.

The names of the reviewers are kept confidential by the editor to ensure that the author does not directly contact the reviewer to argue or does not retaliate against a reviewer. In a recent case, John Christy was able to discover through the stolen CRU e-mails who reviewed one of his papers and why the editor published it as he did. The paper was controversial in nature and contained opinions not held by most other climate scientists. The editor, in an attempt to present both sides of the issue, published Christy’s paper alongside a paper that presented the opposite view. Using information to which he should not have been entitled, Christy publicly attacked the reviewers, the editor, the peer review process, and climate science in general. His actions violated the integrity of the process and also the professional ethics required of scientists as he released his opinions to the public before the matter could be impartially investigated.

The Public’s Rights: The claims that the names of the reviewers and the editor’s reasons should be made public are invalid. Scientific journals are funded by subscriptions and dues of members and not publicly funded. The review process is set up as it is to ensure the integrity of published science papers and “peer reviewed” is the gold standard of quality in science information. The editor of the journal has the right to choose the reviewers and decide what is published just as the editor of a newspaper has the right to publish or reject articles without divulging the reasons.

Scientific Data: The public’s right to the data of researchers is another matter. Researchers are required to keep records of their research so that any other scientist with comparable training and skills could reproduce the research. The “reproducibility” of the research is an important factor in the reviewer’s evaluation of the research. The public has a right to information produced by publicly funded research and that may be requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Usually a “Gatekeeper”, such as the project’s director, is designated to handle FOIA requests. That Gatekeeper has a responsibility to see not only that the public’s rights are upheld, but that the FOIA process is not abused and that the scientists are protected.

Scientists are understandably reluctant to release their data – as some who did release it later came to feel as if gremlins had seized their work and their lives. Some researchers have been harassed by numerous and frivolous  requests for information  meant only to impede their work. That is particularly true in climate science where there are apparently well-funded gremlins, some of them ex-scientists*, at work. Worse, scientists have been criticized publicly for reasonable practices that can be misconstrued. For example, good research requires the calibration of equipment, yet that has been led to accusations  of “adjusting the data”. And, a math ‘trick” used to simplify a computation, was mischaracterized as “tricking the public”.

Even worse, when Phil Jones, the CRU director, released his raw data for a 1990 research paper to a former London financial trader, Douglas J. Keenan, Keenan combed through the data and then tried to have the FBI arrest Jones’ co-author for fraud. An investigation cleared the researchers of any wrongdoing but it took a toll on their time and work. Incidents like that have  a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to release their data. Some scientists who released their raw data, have seen it “recalculated” in such a way as to reach conclusions contrary to their findings, yet attributable to them. Reputable journals will not publish the erroneous conclusions of “recalculated” data , but some newspaper articles, blog sites, and even Congressional hearings will use them to promote a controversy manufactured by someone who actually did no research. And, once the fallacy is “out there”, it is hard to correct.

Certainly, the public has a right to openness in public funded research. Much of the scientific debate take place at scientific meetings and those wishing to hear the research debated may attend . The FOIA Gatekeeper has an important role to see that the FOIA requests are valid, that scientists are not harassed, and that those who wish to use the data for unscientific, or even malevolent purposes, do not have easy access to the data. The next step for those who do not like the Gatekeeper’s decision is to seek redress in the courts – not by illegally hacking the researcher’s computers.

* The author considers those scientist who abandon the methodology, ethics, and objectivity of science; especially for money, notoriety, or political purposes, to be “ex-scientists”.