Monbiot on the Inquiry

Interesting reading over at What’s interesting is that Monbiot, whom I’ve long read with interest although a sometime-skeptical attitude, appears to mirror Mci’s response to the findings of the inquiry.

The MPs were kind to Professor Phil Jones. During its hearings, the Commons Science and Technology Committee didn’t even ask the man at the centre of the hacked climate emails crisis about the central charge he faces: that he urged other scientists to delete material subject to a freedom of information request(1). Last week the committee published its report, and blamed his university for the “culture of non-disclosure” over which Jones presided(2).

Of course, this is not hard to understand: Monbiot after all called for Jones’ firing in the early days after the release of the CRU emails.

From his November post: The Knights Carbonic:

But there are some messages that require no spin to make them look bad. There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released(2,3), and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom of information request(4).

Worse still, some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate sceptics(5,6), or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(7). I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed.

Calling for Jones to resign suggests Monbiot had already delivered his verdict — Jones was guilty as charged based on the emails.

I won’t rehash the whole matter in detail — enough has been written on this to repopulate an old forest of trees.  I would conclude that Monbiot was far too quick to condemn Jones for the following reasons:

  • Given the fact that the emails were not released officially but by a hacker/leaker and were selective to make a particular point, they must be taken with a large salt lick. There were likely many hundreds of emails that if included, might give a more thorough understanding of the attitudes and practices of these scientists that might conflict with the image the hacker/leaker wanted to put forward. Only a thorough study of the emails in question — all the emails — would tell us that. Basing any conclusions on the hacked/leaked emails alone would only be incomplete.
  • As well, they were — wrongly — seen by the contributors as private emails between colleagues and not official emails. Email occupies a strange place in our brave new world. It is the new means of communication between individuals — immediate, easy, candid. It bridges the gap between snail mail and phone conversations, and is used by private citizens and in business and government. It can be used as evidence in courts of law but at the same time, people should be able to express themselves without fear of reprisal.  The flaw here was that the parties involved wrongfully used their work email as if they were private correspondences. I imagine that has changed dramatically since October 09.
  • Finally, there is no proof that any of the actors followed through with the statements they made in emails they thought were private.  As the privacy commissioner said at the hearing, it is not illegal to delete information that is not subject to an FOI request. People have a poor understanding of FOI and if they do, it is really up to those responsible for administering the FOI laws and regulations to ensure people do understand them. In this case, it is the responsibility of the Privacy Commissioner or the FOI office at UEA to ensure that all faculty and staff understand what is FOI-able and what is not.

So, yes. Phil Jones did urge his fellows to delete emails. Only an inquiry will find whether they did or not. It will be easy enough to discover if FOI-able emails were deleted — the evidence will be on the servers and on the individual machines. Yes, Phil Jones and others were loathe to share raw and processed data with skeptics. Given the political climate surrounding them and the denialist attempts to discredit them and their work, this is understandable if regrettable. Access to information has proven to be invaluable to citizens interested in digging into the shenanigans of governments and their corporate paymasters, and rightfully so. Any government-funded research should be subject to FOI, but that does not mean that everything that a government produces will be freely available to anyone who requests it. There are legal reasons to deny access to information as outlined in any FOI legislation.

In the end, I want to see the results of inquiries not the speculations of bloggers with agendas.

The funny thing about Monbiot’s post is that he lays some of the blame for the whole crisis on the division between science and humanities. It came to him that this was part of the problem after reading an article by Steve Easterbrook at Climate Progress:  How Scientists Think and Fight.

“Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives; they don’t call it the ivory tower for nothing. When scientists are attacked for political reasons, we mistake it for an intellectual discussion over brandy in the senior common room. Scientists have no training for political battles, and so our responses often look rude or dismissive to outsiders. Which in turn gets interpreted as unprofessional behaviour by those who don’t understand how scientists talk.”

According to Easterbrook, scientists don’t play or fight the way that those outside science do and so they end up saying things that are misconstrued outside the ivory towers of academe. This, according to Monbiot, was enlightening. To those who studied humanities and did non-science political work, FOI was a godsend — a way to find out how governments and corporations mishandled and misled. To those in science, it is a nuisance.

To those of us who clamoured for freedom of information laws in the UK, FoI requests are almost sacred. The passing of these laws was a rare democratic victory; they’re among the few means we possess of ensuring that politicians and public servants are answerable to the public. What scientists might regard as trivial and annoying, journalists and democracy campaigners see as central and irreducible. We speak in different tongues and inhabit different worlds.

I know how it happens. Like most people with a science degree, I left university with a store of recondite knowledge that I could share with almost no one. Ill-equipped to understand any subject but my own, I felt cut off from the rest of the planet. The temptation to retreat into a safe place was almost irresistible. Only the extreme specialisation demanded by a PhD, which would have walled me in like an anchorite, dissuaded me.

As someone who dallied in both the sciences and humanities, with degrees in both and having worked in government and academia for some time now, Monbiot is right in some sense. I left science for the humanities and social sciences because I did feel cut off from the world at large after spending 4 years in the lab.

I became interested in social problems and wanted to understand them and become more a part of the world outside science — as a citizen. Hence I studied politics and history and the intersection of science and society. This has given me a different perspective on the CRU event than someone who has been only in one or the other.

I tend to see this whole matter as a war between science and politics/economics — between citizens and corporations over government legislation.

Science uncovers a phenomenon that has larger social, economic and political implications.  Corporations, politicians and citizens have an interest in the findings of science.  The two come together in a clash of cultures and interests. The two (or three) realms — science, politics, economics — operate using different compasses and having different interests. To understand what has happened in the matter of climate change, one must understand all three and how they differ.

If we are to hold climate science to task for not being open enough, for not living up to its ideals, we have to be realistic about why it hasn’t.  We have to recognize the political climate in which it operates.  We have to ask who wants it to be open and why and to what purposes. We must recognize the machinations of those who want to discredit climate science by any means possible and in this I indict corporations, with vested interests in the science question at hand — those amoral entities who, like the sociopathic human, have no morality to guide them, whose only motive — indeed a legal requirement — is enriching the value of their shares and the bank accounts of their shareholders.

If we are to hold climate science to a higher standard and call on climate scientists to live up to the ideals of science, surely we must do the same for the corporations who are out to discredit climate science in order to fulfill their own raison d’etre – increase shareholder value. That would require a rethink of the corporation itself and I doubt there is much political will to undertake that venture.

This whole affair is not just about the culture of climate scientists; it is also about the culture of corporations. I don’t see enough of that in this debate.


About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

20 Responses to “Monbiot on the Inquiry”

  1. I’m not very sure what the problem with Monbiot is. He’s a big boy and knows how politics works, and in general I would agree that Jones needs a telling off for suggesting the deletion of e-mails, but seeing as there is no evidence anyone did and no evidence for any effect on anything, really, it isn’t like he needs to resign or anything, whereas although Monbiots holier than though stance makes him very powerful on certain topics, it ends up looking like taking a howitzer to a flea, and MOnbiot turns into a vindictive prat because he can’t understand that we aren’t all perfect like him.

    • I think he’s trying to appear “unbiased” by knocking Jones. It’s an easy thing to do — a knee-jerk thing to do — to criticize Jones for the appearance of wrong-doing. It takes a lot of patience to wait for official inquiries and more professional investigations before coming to a conclusion and I think everyone on all sides were waiting for Monbiot to post on the matter. There’s pressure on the biggies in the climate wars to post or comment on every new “gate” or “controversy” and perhaps Monbiot was responding to that pressure.

      Let’s face it — McI and others already had concluded that there was deception and fraud taking place in climate science. Mci’s blog is all about proving or at least insinuating as such. The emails gave the contrarians and denialists, at least on the face of it, evidence of what they already claimed existed. So it’s an easy hop step and jump to conclude the emails were proof.

  2. Over at in it for gold, we are reminded that Monbiot is very keen on freedom of information stuff, which would explain why he went a bit overvboard with Jones because of the suspicion.

    • Yes, and I understand the interest in FOI on the part of environmentalists and ordinary citizens looking into government misdeeds. I support the clear need for FOI legislation and compliance with it. However, only politically naive or disingenuous types fail to see (or refuse to admit) that no matter what scientists do, they are cast as villains by the contrarians and denialists. Normal scientific uncertainty is held up as a reason not to act. Even when denialists have data, they misrepresent it or produce dreck with it that they pass off as scientific, arguing it refutes climate science and thus, there is no need to act. If the denialists don’t have access to the data, even for valid reasons, they say the science based on the data can’t be trusted and/or the scientists must be hiding something and there is no valid reason to act.

      Once things quiet down and as temperatures increases continue, and as data is more available, the denialists and contrarians will have to find another reason to argue that there is no need to act.

  3. I can tell you exactly what the reason will be – acting will be more expensive than not acting and merely adapting to it.
    (Never mind the unknowns, the oceanic acidification, the way the burden will fall on poorer countries first, the lack of accounting methods for societal disruption and so on)

  4. It might be interesting to create a flowchart showing the contrarians’ modus operandi. Every decision node could even be backed up by real quotes. The final result of the overall process should be, as a matter of natural fact, “more skuptusususm”.

  5. I was watching a television show last night about the oceans and how the loss of arctic sea ice will open up the sea floor to mining and drilling — there’s hundreds of millions of barrels of oil and gas down there. Climate change will be good for the fossil fuel industry in the short run and you can bet that is one reason why they are fighting legislated control over GHGs and why they are holding out an olive branch with one hand whilst hiding a dagger in the other hand behind their back.

  6. Monbiot promises that his latest Guardian article on Phil Jones is the last for now (hopefully).

    Why the hell these people can’t get their heads around license agreements, I don’t know. Whether Jones wanted to hand the stuff over or not is irrelevant; He couldn’t anyway.

  7. Monbiot shows himself to be a starry-eyed nerd with a platonic idea of science as unsullied truth-seekers. He never quite got over one of his unicorns showing feet of clay.

    Feyerabend and others have shown that the business side of science is anything goes – any method is fine – deductive, inductive, abductive and dreaming of benzene sakes. The result is what counts – how it stands up to falsification, testing by independent methods and so on. However, there are two qualifiers to anything goes for specific disciplines. They both relate to the social paradigm within which science is conducted. One is the group of people themselves and how they socially construct their discipline. The other is the community of practise, which is informed by what works and what doesn’t. Both relate to Kuhn’s point that data and observations are theory laden. If these aren’t practised and improved (through puzzle solving etc), what is produced will not be found valid (unless it is backed by new theory that turns out to be more valid than the old).

    This is what audit by itself cannot do. Unless it’s accompanied by an effort to conduct science that validates the audit itself, it is scientifically useless.

    Why is how the science is done important? It’s about process and perception. This is what McI’s audit process is about. It’s about finding holes in the method, independently of techniques figured out by trial and error by communities of practice – not hard when there are people involved who will be found to be fallible at some stage.

    From the social sciences, we know that attributes such as salience, credibility and legitimacy are vital in the communication and acceptance of science. I think things have come a long way since CP Snow, but there are many natural scientists who work in ignorance of that, thinking that the objectivity of what they produce provides salience, credibility and legitimacy. That’s because it does within their communities of practice. This is made quite clear in many of the comments within the stolen emails about what is, and what is not, science. McI’s attack on the perceptions of science and not its content show that his motivation is political.

    CRU have always declared that they release data – when they are entitled to, to bona fide researchers. This is a resource thing (time, effort), and the knowledge that it would be a waste engaging with someone who has no interest in applying research practices. Because this wasn’t McI’s intention ever – he wanted to audit CRU’s methods, not find out what global temperature was – he was given cursory attention (go figure it out yourself), then treated as an irritant, then an enemy as time progressed. For instance, go figure it out yourself, I haven’t got time for this, was the way Mann (not CRU, I know) treated McI and it drove McI nuts (I reckon they are both similar personalities, btw). CRU’s view was that if McI wanted the data, he could get it independently.

    Even Phil J’s ‘delete the emails’ comment may have been frustration. I find it hard to believe a scientist working with computers would not know that deleting emails from an individual account is useless. The research organisation I worked for in my last job, always advised us not to say in an email what we would not say in public because of the risk of release (because we were working on policy-sensitive science). A great pity UEA never offered that advice or any substantial support as these guys became besieged.

    So while public release of data and code has not been practice until now, and is not strictly necessary for technical purposes, but is for social purposes, nor should older work be judged on that basis. The paradigm is changing, and I guess McI can take some credit for that but it was happening anyway (esp. in medical research), and his methods are inexcusable.

    Monbiot, like many in the media, is engaging in a socially constructed narrative. His inability to assess the bigger picture suggests he is somewhat captured by his narrative.

  8. Benzene snakes – sorry, dialogue box drops letters while typing and I missed that one. (Kekule’s story – perhaps urban myth?)

  9. Easy to call “platonic” any principled standpoint. Even feyeurbachian anarchism can be platonized.

    An argument should be able to stand without having to recite canons of epistemology.

  10. willard – rubbish. Arguments are based on belief, even the ones where evidence is presented.

    Only local truths that stand on their own logic survive without it, and even then they don’t survive various “beliefs”.

  11. Whatever beliefs you deem to entertain, Roger Jones, you don’t need Feyerabend to tell what they are. For what it might be worth, there is a whole spectrum of beliefs between Feyerabendian anarchism and platonism.

    If you believe that Jones should stay and that Monbiot is wrong, just say so. You can leave Kekulé, Feyrabend, Plato, paradigms, local truths and socially constructed narratives out of it.

  12. EIR regs: Reg 12(5). My bolding where I see a probable cause for refusal to supply the data.

    Exceptions to the duty to disclose environmental information
    12. – (1) Subject to paragraphs (2), (3) and (9), a public authority may refuse to disclose environmental information requested if –

    (a) an exception to disclosure applies under paragraphs (4) or (5); and

    (b) in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exception outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.

    (2) A public authority shall apply a presumption in favour of disclosure.

    (3) To the extent that the information requested includes personal data of which the applicant is not the data subject, the personal data shall not be disclosed otherwise than in accordance with regulation 13.

    (4) For the purposes of paragraph (1)(a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that –

    (a) it does not hold that information when an applicant’s request is received;

    (b) the request for information is manifestly unreasonable;

    (c) the request for information is formulated in too general a manner and the public authority has complied with regulation 9;

    (d) the request relates to material which is still in the course of completion, to unfinished documents or to incomplete data; or

    (e) the request involves the disclosure of internal communications.

    (5) For the purposes of paragraph (1)(a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect –

    (a) international relations, defence, national security or public safety;

    (b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of a public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature;

    (c) intellectual property rights;

    (d) the confidentiality of the proceedings of that or any other public authority where such confidentiality is provided by law;

    (e) the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest;

    (f) the interests of the person who provided the information where that person –

    (i) was not under, and could not have been put under, any legal obligation to supply it to that or any other public authority;

    (ii) did not supply it in circumstances such that that or any other public authority is entitled apart from these Regulations to disclose it; and

    (iii) has not consented to its disclosure; or

    (g) the protection of the environment to which the information relates.

    (6) For the purposes of paragraph (1), a public authority may respond to a request by neither confirming nor denying whether such information exists and is held by the public authority, whether or not it holds such information, if that confirmation or denial would involve the disclosure of information which would adversely affect any of the interests referred to in paragraph (5)(a) and would not be in the public interest under paragraph (1)(b).

    (7) For the purposes of a response under paragraph (6), whether information exists and is held by the public authority is itself the disclosure of information.

    (8) For the purposes of paragraph (4)(e), internal communications includes communications between government departments.

    (9) To the extent that the environmental information to be disclosed relates to information on emissions, a public authority shall not be entitled to refuse to disclose that information under an exception referred to in paragraphs (5)(d) to (g).

    (10) For the purposes of paragraphs (5)(b), (d) and (f), references to a public authority shall include references to a Scottish public authority.

    (11) Nothing in these Regulations shall authorise a refusal to make available any environmental information contained in or otherwise held with other information which is withheld by virtue of these Regulations unless it is not reasonably capable of being separated from the other information for the purpose of making available that information.

    CRU weren’t holding data on emissions, the data was meteorological. The regs clearly cover IPR and third party commercial rights.

  13. OT in a way, but it was brought to my atention on Monbiot’s latest article comments.

    Ron Cram slipped a nice little edit into the Wiki definition of the scientific back in 2007.

    Revision as of 13:51, 21 March 2007
    To protect against bad science and fraudulent data, government research granting agencies like NSF and science journals like Nature and Science have a policy that researchers must archive their data and methods so other researchers can access it, test the data and methods and build on the research that has gone before. [[Scientific data archiving]] can be done at a number of national archives in the U.S. or in the [[World Data Center]].

    Is that strictly accurate? It seems a bit suspect, given that the best way to replicate (not repeat) is to independently do so, as Spencer did with Jones’ Northern Hemisphere results.

    I’ll have to admit I was a little astounded at the agreement between Jones’ and my analyses, especially since I chose a rather ad-hoc method of data screening that was not optimized in any way. Note that the linear temperature trends are essentially identical; the correlation between the monthly anomalies is 0.91.

    Not counting the satellite data and other lines of physical evidence, we have:
    # Tamino’s replication
    # A replication from clear climate code
    # NOAA
    # A reimplementation from the Met Office
    # GISS
    # A replication from Zeke Hausfather

  14. Some of you may be interested in this: Sceptics Alert.

    Are you fed up with sceptics and pseudo-scientists dominating blogs and news articles with their denialist propaganda? Well, fight back! We are trying to create an online army of online volunteers to try and tip the balance back in the favour of scientific fact, not scientific fiction.

    To sign up, enter your e-mail address in the box below:…

    Not exactly OT, as I believe George Monbiot is involved. Nice to see more pro-active stuff happening, though.

  15. I just read this post. Nice contributions, J Bowers. On your last post, I had been thinking about that for awhile. I’m not saying every denier type is part of an organized political campaign, but they seem to be quick to respond to almost any article on climate science. Nice that some are fighting back.

    Regarding another post, our friend Mr. Cram (the same one I assume) has some interesting theories on certain political figures.

  16. And these people try to convince people like me that their contrarianism is based on science.

    Pull the other one, I say.

  17. “To see such a respected academic accused in this way (with the accusations so obviously baseless) is absolutely reprehensible.”

    and yes, “I am aware of all internet traditions ….”

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