Climate Change Scandal: Raw Data Tossed
The U-turn by the university follows a week of controversy after the emergence of hundreds of leaked emails, “stolen” by hackers and published online, triggered claims that the academics had massaged statistics.
In a statement welcomed by climate change sceptics, the university said it would make all the data accessible as soon as possible, once its Climatic Research Unit (CRU) had negotiated its release from a range of non-publication agreements.
Alas, the extent to which damning evidence remains available is in question.
SCIENTISTS at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based.
It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.
The UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was forced to reveal the loss following requests for the data under Freedom of Information legislation.
The data were gathered from weather stations around the world and then adjusted to take account of variables in the way they were collected. The revised figures were kept, but the originals — stored on paper and magnetic tape — were dumped to save space when the CRU moved to a new building.
In a statement on its website, the CRU said: “We do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.”
The CRU is the world’s leading centre for reconstructing past climate and temperatures. Climate change sceptics have long been keen to examine exactly how its data were compiled. That is now impossible.
Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at Colorado University, discovered data had been lost when he asked for original records. “The CRU is basically saying, ‘Trust us’. So much for settling questions and resolving debates with science,” he said.
Jones was not in charge of the CRU when the data were thrown away in the 1980s, a time when climate change was seen as a less pressing issue. The lost material was used to build the databases that have been his life’s work, showing how the world has warmed by 0.8C over the past 157 years.
He and his colleagues say this temperature rise is “unequivocally” linked to greenhouse gas emissions generated by humans. Their findings are one of the main pieces of evidence used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says global warming is a threat to humanity.
The “space” explanation is plausible enough — the amount of data in question is massive — but it is nonetheless, as the Church Lady would say, “convenient” under the circumstances.
Christopher Booker, a leading climate skeptic, calls this “the worst scientific scandal of our generation.”
A week after my colleague James Delingpole, on his Telegraph blog, coined the term “Climategate” to describe the scandal revealed by the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, Google was showing that the word now appears across the internet more than nine million times. But in all these acres of electronic coverage, one hugely relevant point about these thousands of documents has largely been missed.
The reason why even the Guardian‘s George Monbiot has expressed total shock and dismay at the picture revealed by the documents is that their authors are not just any old bunch of academics. Their importance cannot be overestimated, What we are looking at here is the small group of scientists who have for years been more influential in driving the worldwide alarm over global warming than any others, not least through the role they play at the heart of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Samizdata’s Michael Jennings offers a few thoughts as well.
I have written one or two computer models of physical systems. And as it happens, they are hard. It is possible to use all the computational power you have in simply modelling something tiny: the vortices around the tip of an aircraft wing, say. As the systems you have become larger and larger you make more and more approximations and more and more assumptions that particular terms in equations are small and will be small in the future because they have been small in the past. There comes a point where models more from theoretical to empirical. You end up basically extrapolating from the recent past to the near future. In systems containing a lot of nonlinearity, factors that have not had macroscopic impacts in the past can suddenly flare up and become dominant in the future. Sometimes it is possible to figure out just when this will happen and add these effects to your models at the right time. Sometimes it isn’t. The earth and its climate is a huge system. In places it is highly nonlinear. It is horribly hard to model.
Recall that chaos theory was developed in response to the vagaries of weather forecasting, wherein even seemingly minor rounding decisions can have massive long tail effects.
A second thing one learns from working as a research scientist is that people in research labs resemble people in other workplaces. Petty fiefdoms exist. People stab one another in the back. Some people do better work than others. People will have different levels of respect for the work of other researchers. Some people rise to the top through doing good work. Others rise to the top through playing good politics (good researchers generally hate such people, but they none the less manage it). People at opposite ends of the corridor hate one another. If one is going to work in a particular team, one must work within the culture and beliefs of that team. In one’s work, you often have to start with whatever the person before you left behind.
In scientific research involving computer modelling and data analysis, this often leads to computer models consisting of layer on layer of code crufted on top of lower layers that are not well (or at all) understood. Data does get lost, or assumed to be correct because the previous person used it and there is no real way to verify it. Supposedly impartial journals do become captive of a particular point of view. People’s whole careers do become dependent on a particular interpretation of the results, and it then becomes very hard for them to back down. People become more and more certain of their results when the personal cost of abandoning them gets greater and greater.
However, once again as in any other workplace, good work still happens amongst all this. If there are six different cliques in different places, they will compete with one another until the truth comes out. If there are six different journals, then they won’t all become captive to the same clique, and eventually the one with the best and most meaningful results will become the most prestigious. There will be enough ability to move between teams that younger scientists will not necessarily be caught in a particular viewpoint because of who they work with. Politics will be horrible. Much bad work will be done. It will be a messy process, but it will generally be understood who does the best work, and the truth will come out. Really good researchers will be able to figure out what in the crufty codebase is good and what is not, and get meaningful results anyway.
This, fundamentally, has been my problem with the science of global warming – the denial of the messiness of it all. We have been told that “The Science is Settled” by men in white coats in ivory towers, and that we are “denialists” and unworthy of being listened to, if we dare to question the process or to state the obvious – that science is a messy and uncertain process and that as a consequence of being a very hard problem, modelling the climate is going to give answers with huge margins of error and huge unpredictability. (Nicholas Naseem Taleb would say it’s a system highly susceptible to Black Swans, and he would be right).
A blogger whose spouse works in the field emails to second Jennings’ analysis.
My initial take on this mess — that conspiracies are near impossible to pull off and that science ultimately rewards truth rather than consensus — remains strong. But the evolution of this story shows it to be more than it initially seemed — the misunderstanding of terms of art by laymen and some “boys being boys” on a geek listserv. Whether all of this rises to the level of “scandal” or merely unfortunate sloppiness remains an open question.