165 – ClimateGate part 3: Reactions and implications

Part 1, Background · Part 2, What is revealed?

In Part 2 I provided extracts from some of the emails that have been hacked or leaked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. This week I look at some of the reactions, and discuss where it might lead.

Up to this point, the Hockey Team (the group of scientists at the centre of the controversy) has stubbornly (indeed, virulently) resisted all attempts to improve the quality of their statistical methods, transparency of their methods and accessibility of their data. It will be fascinating to see whether this continues, or whether the rest of climate science requires them to get their house in order.

Pressure may come from public opinion, which has clearly been affected by this episode.

“The staggering arrogance of these people nauseates me. I am a physicist and am appalled that these people are even called scientists; as far as I’m concerned they’re not.” (commenter at a blog).

Some commentators with strong sympathies for the global warming side are saying that the incident is not all that serious. What does this say about them? I can understand them saying that it doesn’t disprove the case for climate change, which is fair enough – it doesn’t. But I cannot understand or accept them saying that it is just part of the normal rough and tumble of science – that it’s just what Thomas Kuhn would expect of science. I’ve seen a lot of science up close, and I’ve never seen anything remotely like this. Any science that does look like this needs some pretty serious reform.

Others on the warmist side are very worried. A few mainstream climate scientists have come out acknowledging that the emails reveal serious problems in their discipline (here, here). George Manbiot of the Guardian newspaper, who is very strongly pro-warming and anti-skeptic, immediately called for the resignation of Phil Jones, the scientist who either sent or received all the leaked emails.

“It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow. The emails extracted by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia could scarcely be more damaging. I am now convinced that they are genuine, and I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them.” here

“I apologise. I was too trusting of some of those who provided the evidence I championed. I would have been a better journalist if I had investigated their claims more closely.” here

At the start of the part 1 of this series of PDs, I said that the story is about a small group of scientists, rather than the whole of climate science. On the other hand, many commentators on the skeptical side have gone to extremes, claiming that the episode shows that the whole of climate science is corrupt. That’s obviously extrapolating things too far, but it is fair to ask how the episode would affect reasonable judgments about the state of climate science and its interaction with climate politics? Different peoples reasonable judgments will vary, of course, but here are a few thoughts and observations on this.

  • The research in question is only a small proportion of the world’s climate science. We cannot conclude from this episode that climate science is generally corrupt.
  • The individuals involved have political and scientific influence way in excess of their share of the world’s climate science. Their actions have had an effect on the contents of IPCC reports.
  • I think we are entitled to look at all the research outputs of members of the Hockey Team with a jaundiced and suspicious eye. I would not trust any of their results unless they have been independently checked and reproduced. This means that much of the so-called “independent” evidence in support of the general hockey-stick shape of historical temperatures is brought into doubt.
  • All members of the Hockey Team should be barred from participating as lead authors for the IPCC, and there should be processes put in place to ensure that they do not have undue influence on the IPCC process. Their research should not be included in future reports until it has been independently reproduced.
  • In science related to important and controversial areas of policy, the institutional arrangements need to be designed to ensure that there is genuine balance, transparency and accountability. The IPCC clearly has not sufficiently delivered this. Some emails are quite disturbing in what they say about the IPCC process.

Acknowledgement of pressure to cook the books to conform with the IPCC’s requirements:

“I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards ‘apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple.” (This and all direct quotes from the ClimateGate emails can be found here.)

Admission that what goes into an IPCC report is not solely a question of the science:

“I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same.”

Concerns about the IPCC process:

“the rules of IPCC have been softened to the point that in this way the IPCC is not any more an assessment of published science (which is its proclaimed goal) but production of results. … Essentially, I feel that at this point there are very little rules and almost anything goes. I think this will set a dangerous precedent which might [under]mine the IPCC credibility, and I am a bit uncomfortable that now nearly everybody seems to think that it is just ok to do this.”

I’m particularly interested in the comments about the IPCC by Mike Hulme (from University of East Anglia!), made since the release of the emails. He suggests that the IPCC may have run its course. His views carry some weight within Climate Science – he is apparently the 10th most cited author in the world in the field of climate change.

“The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production – just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.” here

What the community wants is one thing, but there is also the integrity of science to consider. Decisions about the content of IPCC reports rely on scientists who have strong vested interests to promote their own work and to suppress critics, and we can see that this group of scientists, at least, has done exactly that. As a result, in my view, some of the information provided to policy makers is not balanced. Addressing this problem is tricky, since the people making the decisions about the reports need to have sufficient expertise to judge the science, but I think there at least needs to be a reconsideration of the checks and balances in the process, and a much stronger commitment to public transparency and accountability. Reliance on peer review as the sole form of due diligence and failure to enforce openness with data and methods for any science included in the IPCC reports means that some of the information provided to policy makers is simply wrong. So far, the IPCC is in denial (here).

It will be fascinating to see how it plays out. Will the discipline reform itself, or will it just retreat further into bunker mentality and persecution complex? Will higher powers enforce reform from outside? Will there be a push to reform the IPCC?

Some flow-on effects have already started.

  • Phil Jones has stood aside from his position as Director of the CRU pending results of an independent inquiry commissioned by his university. At Penn State University, an internal panel is reviewing all of the leaked email correspondence between Michael Mann and the CRU.
  • The UK Met Office has announced plans to re-analyse 160 years of temperature data after admitting that public confidence in the science has been badly affected by the leaked e-mails. The Met Office is one of the main suppliers of information to the IPCC. They have also announced plans to release as much of the data as possible, starting immediately. These seem like they might be positive developments. Interestingly, The Times Online claimed that “The Government is attempting to stop the Met Office from carrying out the re-examination, arguing that it would be seized upon by climate change sceptics.” Clearly, some people don’t understand the lessons from this episode.
  • The conservative side of US politics has jumped on the episode, using it to energise their political campaign against global warming policies. here
  • A new US poll shows that 59% of people think it “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming. here
  • I strongly suspect that the leak led to the defeat of emissions trading scheme legislation in the Australian parliament. The emails almost certainly resulted in a change in the leadership of the opposition party in Australia, from a moderate leader who supported the legislation to a right wing leader who opposed it. This difference in their positions on global warming was the primary reason for the change in leadership. The emails came in the midst of debate about party leadership, they were publicly discussed by some prominent members of the party, and then the new leader won by a single vote. The emails only had to change a single vote to cause the leadership change, which then led on to the defeat of the legislation.

One important question is whether the custodians of the Global Circulation Models used to make long-term climate predictions will learn from this episode and adopt higher standards of scientific and public accountability and transparency than their paleoclimatology colleagues. Time will tell.

One final example to highlight just how much things need to change to get this train back on the rails. Of the many problems that Steve McIntyre has found with published Team research, one of the more amusing ones is in another study by Mike Mann and colleagues in 2008 in which one of the proxy data series is included in the statistical model upside down. The proxy data actually trends in the opposite direction than would be expected if it reflected rising temperatures, so the statistical estimation process has done what seems sensible to it – flipping the data series over by giving it a negative sign. It’s not physically meaningful, but the statistics don’t care about that. It’s up to the modelers to spot these sorts of things and weed them out. They missed this one, but in fairness it’s the sort of mistake anyone could make. It’s easy to understand and not something that anyone would need to fight about, you would think.

McIntyre and McKitrick submitted a comment to the journal to point out some serious problems with the paper. They also mentioned this upside-down issue, which is probably not really all that serious in the scheme of things, but why put up with something that is obviously wrong. Mann’s published response was that “The claim that ‘upside down’ data were used is bizarre” (no further explanation or defense) and that “their criticisms have no merit”. He must have an unusual personality, to be so totally immune to criticism, even unambiguously correct criticism.

Subsequently, in September this year, another Team paper (by Kaufman et al. not including Mann as a co-author) included the same data series upside down. This time when McIntyre pointed it out on his blog, Kaufman acknowledged the problem and published a correction. It was done grudgingly – no acknowledgement of McIntyre – but at least it was done. Now, you’d think, Mann had nowhere to hide. A group of colleagues who are very much from his camp had publicly acknowledged that McIntyre was right about the upside-down data.

Now just in the last couple of weeks, Science (the top American journal) published yet another Mann et al. study involving statistical analysis of proxy data. It even includes two of the same co-authors as the Kaufman et al. paper, who had conceded on the upside-down issue. And yet, believe it or not, in this new paper the same data series is still upside-down. That’s determination for you.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

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