“Climategate” One Year Later: Much Ado About Next To Nothing Much

It’s been a year since I was pulled back into the climate wars. I’d been a frequent visitor and sometime poster before the CRU email hack – aka “Climategate” – but had been busy with other matters, work and personal and so I had been absent for probably a year or more from the climate blogosphere. Sure, I still read the occasional blog and received email updates for Real Climate, so I read all the posts there. But surfing the climate blogs was not a major preoccupation.

I’ve always loved a good debate, enjoyed the fray involved in the clash of ideas, but the climate wars just tired me out. The unrelenting sameness of the battle, the immovable front, the same ol same ol dead horse flogged into a pulp… It became too much and I took a break.

I figured that no matter what I did or didn’t do to participate, the thing would live on like a bad case of zombie fever — and I was right!  Feeling very much like Michael Corleone, when I did get drawn right back in through a hat-tip about the CRU hack from an old libertarian adversary-friend, I found the armies and tactics pretty much the same. Mostly the same players, mostly the same refrain, although the tenor of the debates became a bit more hysterical with deniers gleefully cherry-picking emails for quotes to mis-represent and a number of AGW supporters wondering what it all meant.

At first, it seemed too good to be true — “tricks” to “hide the decline”, comments about subverting the peer review process, requests that others delete emails that may have been subject to FOIA. I was forced to ask whether the scientists involved were trying to mislead, overstate, and break laws and codes in the service of a scientific theory or personal gain as the critics claimed.

First, the hackers — persons unauthorized to release the emails to the public — did not release the entire email record for the time period covered. Thus, we have an incomplete record.

Second, the hackers released only select emails, which I suspect included a combination of “incriminating”emails and mundane emails. There was a purpose in releasing the selection of emails. As in any sample, I can’t know how representative it is unless I know the way the sample was selected. A sample can be completely biased and thus deceptive of the whole. You can’t accept findings or evidence at face value: you must know the methods and how accurately they were followed to know if the findings are sound. In science, this occurs through the peer review process, papers are published, evidence is presented and conclusions made, where lines of evidence are followed by other researchers, methods are tested, and findings / conclusions are found either valid or not.

The emails we do have may seem incriminating on the face of it, but we have no idea whether there were other emails that completed thoughts or clarified matters, taking away the taint of the emails when taken out of context. We don’t know whether Jones didn’t later, in email or by phone or in person say, “I was just kidding.” or “I was so mad, I wrote something really stupid.”  There may not be any such email, of course, but without access to the entire record, we can’t know for certain. Hence, speculation about cherry-picked emails is premature.

Certainly many emails were taken out of context — twice — first through the incomplete and mysterious sample, then by critics who took quotes from them and spun them to suit the denialist or contrarian message. It was only later that some interested observers looked deeper and provided much needed context, and when they did, the context clarified the intent of the writers.

Here, for example, is an explanation that I completely accept, from Real Climate about the “trick” quote:

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.

The issue of  the “trick” of “hiding the decline” has been discussed again and again and again, and while the wording may be regrettable, the intent was not to deceive but to keep out the data that would mislead. In fact, it was the opposite of what critics claimed it was intended to do. The post-1960 data no longer reflected temperature — it diverged — and thus if the graphic was to include the decline in tree ring width/density, it might mislead the average viewer into believing that the temperature declined, where it of course, did not.

Sarah Palin is a case in point — although I suspect her error was not quite innocent.

From her Washington Post op-ed:

The e-mails reveal that leading climate “experts” deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to “hide the decline” in global temperatures…

Of course, this is misleading in two respects — first, the emails do not reveal that records were deliberately destroyed. To prove that, we would have to check the email record and backup. The emails show a climate scientist making a statement that others should delete emails. We have no proof that they in fact followed through with the statement or that they even retracted the statement later in a fit of common sense.

Second, the temperatures did not decline nor did the CRU graphic in the World Climate Report hide any decline in temperatures since there was none. Did the WP follow-up on the accuracy of Palin’s screed and correct errors?

Marc Ambinder, politics editor of The Atlantic, provides a detailed criticism

The next big issue was subverting the peer review process. Greenfyre has a good comment up on this:

Here’s Mann’s email excerpt, from Greenfyre:

“…The other paper by MM is just garbage – as you knew. De Freitas again. Pielke is also losing all credibility as well by replying to the mad Finn as well – frequently as I see it. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” 1089318616.txt

As Greenfyre points out, climate scientists are obligated to report research that they feel is flawed and discussing this with journal editors is completely acceptable.

Here’s Greenfyre:

Whether they are right or wrong about the science, a researcher has a moral obligation to use ethical and legal means to try and prevent the publication or use of work that they sincerely believe to be false and endangers human well being.

That is not a crime, it is actually a moral duty. Further, there is no evidence that the CRU Crew did anything unethical or illegal in seeking to do this. [original emphasis]

The email was held up as proof that climate scientists were preventing dissenting views from being published in the journals. What they were doing instead was preventing poor or false work masquerading as research to be published, which is quite a different matter. The whole Climate Research journal debacle is a case in point.

Many bloggers addressed the efforts to mislead about the CRU hack and what it means, including Real Climate, Climate Progress, and so many others. It’s worth going back and re-reading what they wrote at the time.

Of course, the other main denialist/contrarian blogs chimed in to use the cherry-picked emails to discredit and smear climate science and climate scientists, but we’ve already gone there.

What’s of note is that a year later, things are pretty much where they were before the emails were hacked and released. Well, Phil Jones had a very rough year, the people spent money conducting inquiries into the hack, including police investigations, parliamentary investigations, university investigations. Michael Mann was vindicated again and again

In the end? Nada, nothing, nichts, nils. No crime or fraud has been found to have been committed on the part of the climate scientists involved, and the real potential crime — the hacking of the CRU email server — is still unsolved. The globe is still warming and CO2 is still the main culprit. The science of anthropogenic global warming is intact.

The important take-away from this whole debacle is this: in an effort to influence climate policy, denialists and others working on their behalf (knowingly or otherwise) have tried to change public opinion on the verity of climate science and the ethics of climate scientists. They have used the hacked emails to impugn the reputation of many climate scientists and have made all kinds of accusations with little or no evidence outside the hacked emails.

Have they succeeded?

Public opinion on global warming among Americans has slipped, so it looks as if the CRU hack achieved its objective in part, but that is not the case for other developed countries. Most people polled in Canada, Britain, and Australia still believe that the climate is warming and that humanity is primarily responsible. A recent Angus-Reid poll showed that Canadians and Britons think that global warming is a fact, while Americans are more likely to see it as an unproven theory.

Canadians went through a period of global warming disbelief at the end of 2009, when the proportion of respondents who saw climate change as a fact mostly caused by emissions fell by 11 points. Now, Canadians are closer to their pre-Copenhagen summit numbers.

In stark contrast, the views of Americans have not recovered since last year’s plunge. Twice in 2010, a quarter of respondents have branded climate change as an unproven theory—six points higher than in November 2009.

In Britain, the conclusion of the so-called “climate-gate” has left opinions about global warming at roughly the same levels as before the controversy first began. The big drop experienced in April has dissipated, and Britons are now closer to Canadians on this issue.

The majority of Australians polled found that climate change was a threat to their nation.

In summary, the CRU hack and “climategate” was much ado about nothing, given where we sit today. Yes, it didn’t help those working towards climate legislation, and yes, it did hurt some climate scientists like Phil Jones, but it did nothing to undermine the science itself.

And of course, the globe continues to warm

(Edited for spelling/grammar and bad hyperlinks)

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

12 Responses to ““Climategate” One Year Later: Much Ado About Next To Nothing Much”

  1. Hello,

    Your links all begin with one two many http://.

  2. I suspect that our understanding of climate change is to some extent influenced by whether the local climate is changing or not. Australia has certainly had its share of observable climate change (a climate shift in the south, particularly) and more frequent extreme weather events – record floods, temperatures, rainfall, bushfires etc. Britain and Australia tend to get better world news coverage than the USA (at least they used to and I expect it is still the case). Therefore we (in Australia) are exposed to events like the drought in Russia, floods in Pakistan, floods in the USA etc. Also, more of the politicians in Australia and Britain are aware of the adverse impacts of the changing climate (although one major party has the line that climate change is not happening, or if it is it’s not that bad, or if it is that bad then a carbon tax won’t make a difference).

    I don’t think there is any fundamental difference between humans in different parts of the world. Some are gullible, some are open to learning, some are paranoid, some are criminal, some are selfish, some are altruistic. We probably all have these traits to a greater or lesser extent. Many in the USA have been deprived of a decent education from primary school onwards, which is sad in such a great country. (Here in Australia, science education has been let go, just when we need it more than ever.) This plus the fact that US media is screwed up doesn’t help the situation. In Australia and Britain, only a few disreputable journalists make a living from telling lies – and most normal people take what they say with a grain of salt.

    The public is fickle. It might not take much for opinion to swing the other way in the USA.

  3. I don’t accept the clipping of that data, Shewonk. If they wanted to show that curve, they should show the whole thing. They sexed the graph.

    Would feel the same way if someone did this in business, or in semiconductor physics. They don’t know why the curve diverged and the divergence happening COULD mean the earlier years are less reliable.

    • Is that PolyisTCO? Not that it matters, but it adds context. 🙂

      There is literature on the divergence. From my read of it, the scientists think that the divergence problem may be the result of anthropogenic aerosols, ozone depletion in northern latitudes, or some other anthropogenic factor. Not all trees exhibit this divergence. Some do. Those trees that exhibit divergence post 1960 do follow the other non-divergent trees in the past, suggesting that there is something unique about these trees in these locations in this time period that reduced their sensitivity to temperature. I agree that more research needs to be done to explore and explain the divergence phenomenon, but I accept that the scientists felt that the post-1960 data, if used in the graphic, would be misleading as it would suggest to the uneducated reader that temperatures declined post-1960, when we know they didn’t based on the instrumental temperature record. Perhaps it would have been best not to include the data from tree rings in the graphic but I don’t see this as an example of scientific misconduct or fraud.

      What the “trick” to “hide the decline” illustrates to me is the problem climate scientists have communicating complex concepts, evidence and research to a lay public or even politicians, in such a way as to provide necessary general information without overwhelming them with details. I saw a Feynman interview on Michael Tobis’ blog that illustrates this quite well.

      Feynman points out that the answer depends on the level of expertise of the audience. The answer is at base the same, but the level of detail changes dependent on how able the audience is to comprehend. Some people do not have the necessary background in the science to understand the underlying issues and problems. They don’t have the right framework, as Feynman calls it. This is what the scientists creating the graphic did — they tried to provide information to their audience based on the audience’s ability to understand the nuances. Any dendro or paleo who was familiar with the field and its issues would understand why the data was truncated in 1960, but the average person, the average politician, would not have that background.

      Providing too much detail makes it more likely that there will be a lack of communication.

      To summarize data means that some details will have to be removed. The trick is to provide the right details so that the audience learns.

      It’s not easy, as Michael Tobis points out.

    • It is also worth remembering that this was for the front of a WMO pamphlet not a rigorous scientific treatise. As such it is little more than a picture. Furthermore does anyone deny that the temperatures have risen by 0.7C since 1970?

      As shewonk states there are plenty of documents discussing this decline. So it certainly is not hidden.

      As an example of a sketch that has been much misused:
      Someone took Scotese’s paleo temperatue plot showing warm and cold periods (I would never have expected ANYONE to think these temperatures were meant to be accurate – just a sketch) then grafted on the CO2 from a MODEL. #
      How many times have you seen this plot wheeled out as proof that co2 does not control temperature?

      Also any period of more than 9M years ago is pretty much irrelevant because of continental drift!!!


    • It was friggin’ cover art, fer christ’s sake, TCO.

      This has been beyond making a mountain out of a molehill, it’s more like making a mountain out of one grain of dirt in a molehill.

      Would feel the same way if someone did this in business, or in semiconductor physics. They don’t know why the curve diverged and the divergence happening COULD mean the earlier years are less reliable.

      So how many times have you publicly complained about simplified artwork gracing the annual report of a company’s annual report, a textbook, etc?

      My guess … never.

      • TCO is welcome to post his opinions here — although there is often much noise mixed in with the signal, and people have been quite frustrated with his persistence, TCO was one of a very very small minority on his side questioning Steve M in any serious way about the MM papers and methods and pushing him to respond to questions and quit with the elusiveness. Sure, he’s probably still against any kind of climate legislation regardless of the science, but at least he’s interested in his side getting the science right.

  4. Antidisestablishuniformitarianism.

  5. Antidisestablishuniformitarianism.

    You know, Kim, it’s folks like you who are trying to disestablish uniformitarianism, by in essence claiming that a molecule of CO2 added to the atmosphere through human activity doesn’t warm the planet, unlike molecules of CO2 added by natural processes.

    So, yes, we’re antidisestablishuniformitarianistic and proud of it …

  6. PolytrollisPolyisTCOandbanned Reply November 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Lass: “Yes.” Thanks for your response and for sticking up for me as a poster.

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