Hacked Climate Scientists Emails Reveal Truth
The University of East Anglia mail server was hacked earlier in the week and a string of private correspondences between esteemed climate scientists were published. In addition to some juicy internecine gossip becoming embarrassingly public, a few of the messages seem to reveal doubts about the evidence for global warming and at least one refers to a statistical “trick” being used to hide lower-than-predicted surface temperatures in recent years. James Delingpole dubs this “Climategate” and pronounces it “the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming.'” Andrew Bolt calls it evidence of a scandal involving most of the most prominent scientists pushing the man-made warming theory – a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science. Michelle Malkin terms it “The global warming scandal of the century.”
Andrew Revkin of the NYT — himself a subject of some of the emails in question — summarizes the controversy:
The e-mail messages, attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers, include discussions of scientific data and whether it should be released, exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptics, and casual comments — in some cases derisive — about specific people known for their skeptical views. Drafts of scientific papers and a photo collage that portrays climate skeptics on an ice floe were also among the hacked data, some of which dates back 13 years.
In one e-mail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical “trick” in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend. In another, a scientist refers to climate skeptics as “idiots.”
Some skeptics asserted Friday that the correspondence revealed an effort to withhold scientific information. “This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist who has long faulted evidence pointing to human-driven warming and is criticized in the documents.
Some of the correspondence portrays the scientists as feeling under siege by the skeptics’ camp and worried that any stray comment or data glitch could be turned against them.
The evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument. However, the documents will undoubtedly raise questions about the quality of research on some specific questions and the actions of some scientists.
In several e-mail exchanges, Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and other scientists discuss gaps in understanding of recent variations in temperature. Skeptic Web sites pointed out one line in particular: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t,” Dr. Trenberth wrote.
Ronald Bailey, though, warns, “Before jumping to conclusions, remember that many of us write private emails that we might not want to see publicly distributed.”
Indeed, an unsigned post at the RealClimate blog (which I presume was written by NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, given parallels with the Revkin story) argues,
Since emails are normally intended to be private, people writing them are, shall we say, somewhat freer in expressing themselves than they would in a public statement. For instance, we are sure it comes as no shock to know that many scientists do not hold Steve McIntyre in high regard. Nor that a large group of them thought that the Soon and Baliunas (2003), Douglass et al (2008) or McClean et al (2009) papers were not very good (to say the least) and should not have been published. These sentiments have been made abundantly clear in the literature (though possibly less bluntly).
More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. 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. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.
Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.
It’s obvious that the noise-generating components of the blogosphere will generate a lot of noise about this. but it’s important to remember that science doesn’t work because people are polite at all times. Gravity isn’t a useful theory because Newton was a nice person. QED isn’t powerful because Feynman was respectful of other people around him. Science works because different groups go about trying to find the best approximations of the truth, and are generally very competitive about that. That the same scientists can still all agree on the wording of an IPCC chapter for instance is thus even more remarkable.
No doubt, instances of cherry-picked and poorly-worded “gotcha” phrases will be pulled out of context. One example is worth mentioning quickly. Phil Jones in discussing the presentation of temperature reconstructions 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 (1998) Nature paper 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. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the ‘decline’, it is well known that Keith Briffa’s maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the “divergence problem”—see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while ‘hiding’ is probably a poor choice of words (since it is ‘hidden’ in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.
Given what I know about academia, research, and science, this strikes me as eminently plausible.
Ed Morrissey sees evidence in the emails that the scientists in question are rejecting data that goes against the prevailing consensus and concludes, “That’s not science; it’s religious belief.” But producing research findings that conclusively shatters the prevailing wisdom is the gold standard of science. It’s the stuff of Nobel Prizes and eternal fame. That’s how the handful of scientists known to every schoolboy (Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc.) got there.
But one doesn’t want to publish findings claiming to shatter the consensus only to have one’s work revealed as shoddy. So, scientists having a Eureka! finding are likely to test and test again before going public. And, sadly for them, they’ll likely find that their novel finding was a not so novel error.
Climate change, while an important topic, is one that I follow only at the periphery. Frankly, it’s an incredibly specialized field and I lack the time to keep up with the literature, the training to understand it, and the motivation to change either of those facts. My biases and general impressions on the matter, however, are as follows:
- There’s overwhelming consensus among the experts on this subject
- Conspiracies involving hundreds of people over several decades are next to impossible to pull off
- There’s next to zero incentive to perpetrate this conspiracy on the part of scientists
- There are enormous incentives for people wanting to influence government to leap from the scientific data to grandiose public policy solutions
Because of the above and biases that spring from my academic training and political ideology,
- I tend to believe the vast preponderance of scientists who say the climate is changing and that human technology is a significant variable in said change
- I tend to be skeptical of radical government-mandated fixes