ClimateGate as Rorschach Test

In the 10 days since we first blogged about “ClimateGate” — the unauthorized release of e-mails and other material from the Climate Research Unit (C.R.U.) at East Anglia University in Norwich, England — it’s become strikingly clear that one’s view of the issue is deeply colored by his or her incoming biases. No surprise there, but still, the demarcation is stark. One of the best indicators: when you stumble onto a blog post about the topic, you can tell which way the wind is blowing simply by looking at the banner ad at the top of the site: if it’s for an M.B.A. in Sustainable Business, you’re going to hear one thing about ClimateGate; if the ad shows Al Gore with a Pinocchio nose, meanwhile — well, you get the idea.

Those who feel that global warming is the most pressing issue of our era, a potential catastrophe that needs to be addressed by governments around the world as soon as possible, generally argue that ClimateGate is a tempest in a teapot — little more than the sort of academic infighting and nasty language you’d find by raiding any academic’s hard drive; that if the aggrieved climate scientists seemed to be stonewalling, it was out of aggravation with the disruptive tactics used by some global-warming skeptics who are probably funded by the oil industry; that the scientists who wrote potentially incriminating e-mails represent just a few of the thousands of scientists who have contributed to the global-warming literature; and that, if anything, climatologists need more support in the future to fight off skeptics’ attacks.

This camp wonders why there hasn’t been more outrage about the fact that the C.R.U. material was illegally obtained.

The other side, meanwhile, cries “Remember the Pentagon Papers!” while also positing that the C.R.U. “hack” may have in fact been the work of an internal whistleblower who was distraught that scientific fraud was being perpetrated.

This second camp feels that the C.R.U. material proves what they’ve been arguing all along: that the threat of global warming lies somewhere between exaggeration and hoax; that it is a conventional wisdom produced by an alarmist cabal of climate scientists whose research has set the agenda of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.); that the e-mails prove the scientists have been manipulating climate data, bullying anyone with dissenting views, and encouraging one another to delete incriminating evidence that might be gained under a Freedom of Information Act request; and, most ominously, that a long document called HARRY_READ_Me, which at this point appears to be the four-year work log of one Ian (Harry) Harris, a C.R.U. research staffer, seems to suggest that the C.R.U.’s underlying global-temperature data were an absolute mess.

This camp also feels that the mainstream media has underplayed ClimateGate — although this view is probably now fading. In just the past few days, there has been a ton of coverage. Still, they complain that the major American TV networks are ignoring the story, leaving it to Jon Stewart to break the news. I won’t steal Stewart’s thunder except to say that he now apparently believes that rising sea levels are caused by “God’s tears”:

But if you want a really good example of how deeply polarized the issue is, take a look at these TV exchanges. In the first, George Will says the C.R.U. material shows the scientists “suppressing criticism, gaming the peer-review process, and all the rest,” while Paul Krugman states “There’s nothing in there”:

And in this conversation between Stuart Varney and Ed Begley Jr. — well, hold on to your hat:

Many blogs covering the topic are just as bombastic. The most prominent blogs in the arena, however, tend to be less so. That said, emotions still run high — particularly in the comments sections. If you feel like wading into the conversation, you might wish to sample Dot Earth, Watts Up With That, and RealClimate, which presents “climate science from climate scientists.” The discussions at RealClimate are intense, for at least two reasons: they are more about the science itself than the conversations at other blogs; and several of its contributors are the very scientists whose e-mails were among the C.R.U. leak, including Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State and one of the scientists responsible for the now-famous “hockey stick” graph, which has been widely used as evidence of a dangerous global-warming trend.

Mann has not blogged at RealClimate since the C.R.U. data were released. His most recent post, strangely enough, was headlined “Climate Cover-Up: A (Brief) Review,” but he was referring to global-warming skeptics’ “disinformation campaigns” against legitimate climate science. He has, however, given a few interviews (see here, for instance).

Meanwhile, Penn State’s college paper, the Daily Collegian, reports that Mann is the subject of a university inquiry into whether he “fabricated or manipulated data on global warming.” And Mann seems to be distancing himself from Phil Jones, the director of the C.R.U. and the scientist who is at the very center of the scandal. Jones, it should be noted, has temporarily stepped down from that position while his actions are being investigated.

So how will ClimateGate affect future climate research and, importantly, climate legislation?

I think the best answer is that it’s far too early to say. Despite the rather dramatic early response to ClimateGate, one senses that there are many other shoes to still be dropped. Many parties will be poring over those documents in the weeks and months to come. Already, however, the scandal has entered the political arena. Just yesterday, at a Congressional hearing on “The State of Climate Science,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) “called for an investigation of the e-mails,” according to NPR, saying that “at worst, it’s junk science and it’s part of a massive international scientific fraud.”

In Australia, meanwhile, the government’s anticipated plan to set up a cap-and-trade system — seen as a strong down payment toward further such legislation at the U.N.’s upcoming climate-change conference in Copenhagen — was unexpectedly shot down. If you concur with the Telegraph‘s James Delingpole — whose first article on Climategate began “If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW” — this was but the first political defeat the scandal will produce.

As for the central scientific issue here — that the most prominent climate scientists’ computerized models may be neither as robust nor as predictive as many people think — that is something we write about in some detail in SuperFreakonomics. Passages like the following have won us a few detractors in certain quadrants of the climate-research community:

The current generation of climate-prediction models are, as Lowell Wood puts it, “enormously crude.” … “The climate models are crude in space and they’re crude in time,” he continues. “So there’s an enormous amount of natural phenomena they can’t model. They can’t do even giant storms like hurricanes.”

There are several reasons for this, [Nathan] Myhrvold explains. Today’s models use a grid of cells to map the earth, and those grids are too large to allow for the modeling of actual weather. Smaller and more accurate grids would require better modeling software, which would require more computing power. “We’re trying to predict climate change 20 to 30 years from now,” he says, “but it will take us almost the same amount of time for the computer industry to give us fast enough computers to do the job.”

That said, most current climate models tend to produce similar predictions. This might lead one to reasonably conclude that climate scientists have a pretty good handle on the future.

Not so, says Wood.

“Everybody turns their knobs” — that is, adjusts the control parameters and coefficients of their models — “so they aren’t the outlier, because the outlying model is going to have difficulty getting funded.” In other words, the economic reality of research funding, rather than a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus, leads the models to approximately match one another. It isn’t that current climate models should be ignored, Wood says — but, when considering the fate of the planet, one should properly appreciate their limited nature.

So if what we’re all really after here is “a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus,” what is the current route to that goal? It is hard to think that the I.P.C.C. won’t think twice about every research paper it considers in the future. If the entire enterprise has been tainted — a big “if” — who will, or should, be leading the charge toward producing scientific research wherein every cloud formation doesn’t look like just another Rorschach blot?


ehmoran

Specific Scientists have placed themselves in the position of Gods. Having used their influence granted through tax payers' dollars, they have abused the trust afforded to them placing a dark cloud over the scientific community as a whole. Surely, science will recover from this event as time heals all wounds.

'Truth is the daughter of time' was forgotten by this specific Scientific Fiefdom, but acknowledgment of other traditional philosophies which built science to the current respect also have been ignored, such as "Science has no place in politics, religion, entertainment, fame and wealth". Often, however, such important socially advancing fields as science need set backs and thus force both current and potential abusers to fall back to traditional thinking. This is the nature in the evolution of human thought and growth.

Recent events show denial by these abusers of social trust, along with their followers, that this event is quite monumental and while trying to maintain their stature in civilization are dragging the entire scientific community into the pit. Unfortunately, a self awakened reality of their misdeeds likely will not appear until admission followed by humility becomes obvious to society. Forgiveness is the divinity of our civilization but forgetting never can be allowed.

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Dean B

Quick, jump!

frankenduf

how about a battle royal?- gore, will, krugman, dubner, levitt, and begley in a steel cage match- whoever walks out at the end wins- as tsun-zu knew many moons ago: you truly see a man's character when you fight him

Robin

Let's leave science to the politicians. Those guys seem to know what they are talking about.

Tom

This "released" file FOIA.zip (i find it odd that in over a week we still have no clue how the alleged "hacker" got into CRU this si something we normally find out in hours or days like with Plain's e-mails) is over 90% data, code and analysis. The e-mails are quite literally the tip of the iceberg.

With sections of code titled 'A very artificial correction' when the tech heads get through all this code and data and that other shoe drops it wont be pretty for those in the media that have defended these scientists.

John

I agree that the emails don't discredit all the recent work paid for by the IPPC and NASA(with Billions of our tax dollars) to support the AGW hypothesis, BUT when you combine the emails with the data fabrications IT DOES!

Since ALL reports produced by 2500 IPPC 'scientists' depend on four data sets, two ground based and two satellite based (calibrated to the ground data set), corrupting one of those ground based datasets clearly puts a large portion if not all their work into question.

Leslie

Begley' sees his meal ticket going away...

Jeff

My biggest complaint? The fact that data forming the framework of their model was intentially destroyed along with efforts to rebuff freedom of information requests. This means scientists cannot analyze the basis for their models because they have been thrown away.
And second? If they truly did manipulate data, which Congress should investigate, it becomes a misuse of public funds and is a criminal act. This is not an issue around stolen e-mails, it is the facts layed out which has me very disturbed and questions regarding other funded studies going on

Sean

Excellent points throughout.

Don't forget, though, that the "mess" poor Harry deals with in his epic "Read Me" is not a sophisticated super-computer-based climate prediction model. The CRU model was merely a calculation of the historical global temperature, based on thermometer readings.

Why was it so difficult to average a bunch of thermometers? The reason is that they are not evenly spead out around the globe and they may be located in cities which locally warmed up as they grew. A proper model will adjust for both of those facts, and as you can imagine, how you do the adjustments matters, especially when the whole result is to show that the earth warmed by less than a degree in 150 years.

Imagine a poll conducted every year that showed that support for a particular policy rose a few percent over 150 years. You'd really need to look at the raw data, the methods and the adjustments to know whether the final result is inside the margin of error of the poll.

That's the information that Phil Jones refused to release, and that's the data the world needs to see to determine if the warming they calculated is statistically significant or not.

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DoTheRightThing

Scientists Need to Do the Right Thing - Right Now!

Those scientists involved in (or having knowledge of) ClimateGate have a monumental choice to make.

They can "come clean" and tell what they know and what went wrong. This would go a long way toward correcting and restoring faith in the scientific community. They will be regarded as heroes for having stepped forward and doing their part for the betterment of all.

Or they can go down with the ship in total disgrace.

BCC

The latest meme is that Google is ever so-subtly tweaking its autosuggest results to make it more difficult to find information about climategate, because the autosuggest results are not what some people think they should be. See e.g. WattsUpWithThat.com

These are the same people complaining that anthropogenic climate science is insufficiently rigorous and audited.

Does anyone see the slight inconsistency there?

Michael Wright

The only answer is an open debate showing the science for all to see. The warmers insist it's too complicated so they do not want to debate. Either that or they have no data which is the 1st obvious conclusion from Climategate.

In the emails Jones says he will destroy the data rather than let it go public and then..."oops date never existed"!

The time of "consensus" has past. No more "trust me".

You should be demanding a public discussion using the model of Presidential debates.

Jimmy

Steve, you're obviously trying to be balanced here and you should be lauded for that. Waaay too many stories start out with "AGW is established, settled science".

Fact is, what's going on is NOT science. It's a beauty contest for funding and that's all it is. The minute you start hiding data or programs is exactly when public trust goes out the window. The emails make it clear they've been doing this for YEARS.

As a computer programmer, I am appalled at the horrible quality of code there. This is what all these models codes look like? You'd get fired for writing code like that in most of corporate america.

murra

It will require several years to see what, if anything, remains of the work. This will happen after scientists who were not insiders get access to the data. At this stage there is simply no way to know.

The comment that "Everybody turns their knob, so they aren't the outlier..." is perhaps the most worrying comment I have yet seen for what will remain. It sounds a lot like early 1970s vintage econometric models of entire economies. They had far too many parameters and far too much "knob turning". Out of sample they collapsed.

Steven Douglas

Well written article. The fact that this issue is so heavily, politically, polarized, is a hint and a half that something very non-scientific is going on.

In reality, there are only a handful of actual climate scientists driving all of this. We only have four (count them, FOUR) temperature datasets for our planet - upon which ALL climate change literature depends. Two are ground temperature datasets, two are from satellites.

One of the ground temperature datasets is from NASA, and is controlled by James Hansen - fiercely politically outspoken proponent of catastrophic human CO2 driven warming. This is the same Hansen who was arrested for his part in a demonstration to block access to a coal-fired power plant.

The other ground temperature dataset - and the largest in the world - is the one from East Anglia, controlled by none other than Phil Jones, another fiercely political and outspoken...well, let his emails speak for themselves..

The other two datasets, satellite datasets, are the work of Roy Spencer and John Cristy, both well known as being extremely skeptical of catastrophic warmists' claims.

And yet somehow, the two skeptic scientists' conclusions are marginalized as meaningless - part of an insignificant portion of flat-earthers, while the two activist warmist scientists' conclusions comprise a "consensus" (after all is piled on, using their same governing assumptions).

And what do you know -- despite all the supposed "consensus", it all still splits down partisan or ideological lines.

Show me the science. Not the political science. Not the propaganda. The science. Not the redefined science, not the emotional feelings about the science, and not the one-sided, filtered interpretations and conclusions put out from highly controlled and secretive process. JUST the science. ALL of it.

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Duncan

The most basic change the IPCC will need to make is to not have people reviewing their own work - and their competitors' work. There's no other way to separate the solid science from the junk, and to prevent bespoke studies whose outcome is determined before research starts.

The history of this email train wreck is instructive. Whether you believe the zip file was stolen by someone from outside or leaked by a whistleblowing insider, the file itself was created in response to McIntyre's FOI request. McIntyre resorted to the FOI request in the face of stonewalling when he attacked the weakest link in the IPCC monolith - the dendrochonology junk science used to back up the claim that the climate had never changed for thousands of years before we started spewing CO2 and therefore every bit of the temperature change seen in the 20th century was due to AGW.

It's interesting to note that even with the dendro "proof", the IPCC didn't go for the alarmist position and only claimed with 90% confidence that at least half the change seen in the 20th century was due to AGW. But the IPCC couched it in language that allowed the activists to claim everything is black-and-white and all climate change is human-induced anyway, because that's formulation was politically expedient.

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John

The files were uploaded to a public server.. I dont see how the work of a mole (for whatever reason) gets spun into a criminal hack job.. Point me to the hack and I will be glad to change my views..

This information may be criminal in a political sense to your cause but its not a criminal hack.. You have to break in for it to be a hack.. This information was gathered and packaged then uploaded by a mole.. to a public server.

Do we keep making things up as we go along?

John Q Public

According to Lord Christopher Monckton - former science advisor to Margaret Thatcher, there are only 4 earth temperature data sets used in most climate models: 2 earth based and 2 satellite based.

The two earthbased sets are controlled by CRU and NASA - both key participants in the Climategate scandal.

The satellite data sets are callibrated against the earth data sets.

Suddenly, all of that Climate Science is coming down to a very small "controllable" sample of data.

Much of the Global Warming scare seems to be coming from the average person who doesn't understand the limits of science.

jblog

I don't think you have to be a climate change denier -- and I'm not one -- to be alarmed by what was going on at East Anglia University.

Discarding essential research data, shutting legitimate research out simply because it conflicts with your point of view, and cooking your numbers to ensure a desirable outcome are all appalling behaviors -- particularly when committed by people who are supposed to be dedicated to integrity and objectivity.

And if that's business as usual across academia, as some defenders may claim, that just makes it all the more alarming.

William

"Specific Scientists have placed themselves in the position of Gods. " What a way to start off comments; with an absurd hyperbole. Woo.

"Let's leave science to the politicians. Those guys seem to know what they are talking about." Hehe.

No mention of Tyler Cowen's entirely reasonable take on the situation, huh?