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Climategate: Like Watergate or Stargate?

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

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