Interesting reading over at Monbiot.com. 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.