Saturday, October 9, 2010

Climategate – 1 Year Later

For those of you not familiar with the Climategate scandal, on the 17th of November, 2009 the servers for the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were hacked, leading to the leak of thousands of private e-mails and other documents to the public and eventually the press. In the days afterward, news outlets like Fox News would describe the e-mails as, “brazenly discussing the destruction and hiding of data that did not support global warming claims.”

The first statement from the University of East Anglia, where the researchers were employed and of which the Climate Research Unit (CRU) was a part, came a week after the e-mails were initially released. The University expressed at this time that they saw no reason for the resignation of professor Jones and that, if offered, they would not even accept his resignation. The University said it planned to conduct an independent review in order to address data security. Two weeks after the initial release of the e-mails the University announced that professor Jones would step aside from his post during the review, and a couple days later it indicated that a thorough investigation into the content of the e-mails would be included as well to determine whether there was suppression or manipulation of data.

The United Kingdom’s meteorological service, known as the Met office, works with the CRU in order to provide temperature data. The Met office initially stated that the incident was of no concern, but three weeks after the incident they agreed to reevaluate 160 years worth of temperature data and to make a large portion of this data available to the public.

The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as the Copenhagen Summit, was scheduled to begin on Dec. 7, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, a mere three weeks after the initial hacking incident. The Copenhagen Summit was intended to serve as a follow up to the Kyoto protocol, and many had hoped that it would bring specific international agreements to cut emissions. 194 nations sent delegates to the Summit; however, in the midst of the public outcry created in the initial aftermath of the hacking incident, progress was difficult, and the incident may have played a large role in the lack of any binding climate change agreement at the Copenhagen Summit.

On January 22, 2010, the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Commons announced a review into whether requests made under the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act had been handled properly. The committee invited written responses from all relevant parties and published 55 submissions it had received on the 10th of February including submissions from The University of East Anglia, The Met Office, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Institute of Physics. An oral evidence session was also held before the House of Commons on March 1st. On the 31st of March the Science and Technology Select Committee published its official report on the review announcing that:

“On the accusations relating to Professor Jones's refusal to share raw data and computer codes, we consider that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. We have suggested that the community consider becoming more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies. On accusations relating to Freedom of Information, we consider that much of the responsibility should lie with UEA [University of East Anglia], not CRU.”

“In addition, insofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty—for example, Professor Jones's alleged attempt to "hide the decline"—we consider that there is no case to answer. Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact. We have found no reason in this unfortunate episode to challenge the scientific consensus as expressed by Professor Beddington, that ‘global warming is happening [and] that it is induced by human activity’.”

Perhaps in its greatest endorsement of the scientists’ reputations, the committee added that, “there is independent verification, through the use of other methodologies and other sources of data, of the results and conclusions of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.”
Despite the harmless nature of the e-mail’s contents upon review, the media outcry surrounding the incident may have had a significant effect on the public’s opinion of climate change. Gallup polls taken in March of 2010 on global warming showed a sharp decline in public confidence and support from the previous poll in March 2009.

Figure 1: Polls of the American public show a significant increase in the number who think global warming is being exaggerated in the news, and a decrease in the number who think global warming has already begun or will begin in the next few years in the aftermath of the Climategate incident.

Science is not without its share of scandals. In science, as with all fields, there will always exist some temptation for individuals to try to get ahead, and sometimes through using methods other than the merit of their accomplishments. Scientific scandals, when discovered, often make large news in the media as can be witnessed in the case of cold fusion or the nanotechnology experiments of Jan Hendrik Schön. Carl Sagan commented on this in his book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. “If you examine science in its everyday aspect, of course you find that scientists run the gamut of human emotion, personality, and character. But there’s one facet that is really striking to the outsider, and that is the gauntlet of criticism considered acceptable or even desirable.” Science could not function without this criticism given at every step of the way. “At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track.”

Scientists who are found guilty of falsifying data should absolutely face severe career consequences. Science, however, is not controlled by a single individual. Our knowledge of climate change is supported by a number of independent sources and is constantly being tested and retested worldwide. In science alternative hypotheses can always be presented and tested for their merits, experiments can be repeated, and experiments can yield data that is not congruent with the present theory. Sagan argues that our knowledge is benefited when our current hypotheses are put to the most rigorous tests. “General Relativity is certainly an inadequate description of Nature at the quantum level, but even if that were not the case, even if General Relativity were everywhere and forever valid, what better way of convincing ourselves of its validity than a concerted effort to discover its failings and limitations?”

The attacks on the researchers at the CRU were not attempts to retest their results, test alternate hypotheses, or find areas where their conclusions broke down and could be improved upon. The attacks on the CRU scientists were nothing more than ad hominem attacks attempting to challenge their science without doing the science that would call into question their results.

There is one area in which the researchers could be accused of not living up to the ideal of the scientific method, and that is in refusing to share all of their information with potential skeptics. As stated earlier, science thrives on and should encourage legitimate skepticism, and this means making available the tools and resources to make critiques of the methods being used and the conclusions being drawn. This need for transparency in research was also mentioned by the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report. “We recognise [sic] that some of the e-mails suggest a blunt refusal to share data, even unrestricted data, with others. We acknowledge that Professor Jones must have found it frustrating to handle requests for data that he knew—or perceived—were motivated by a desire simply to seek to undermine his work. But Professor Jones's failure to handle helpfully requests for data in a field as important and controversial as climate science was bound to be viewed with suspicion. He was obviously frustrated by other workers in the field trying to "undermine" his work, but his actions were inevitably counterproductive.”

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