Emails and Climate Scienceby Bill Chameides | November 25th, 2009
posted by Wendy Graber (Researcher)
Over a decade’s worth of climate science emails have been hacked and opened for public scrutiny. What does it mean?
You no doubt have heard that over 60 MB of emails between climate scientists dating back to 1996 have been hacked from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia and posted on the internet.
Many in the climate skeptic community have hailed the booty of stolen missives as evidence of a conspiracy among climate scientists to suppress contrary science and that this proves the science behind anthropogenic warming is wrong?? In the words of the skeptic Patrick J. Michaels, “This is not a smoking gun, this is a mushroom cloud.” More sensationalized skeptic reactions from around the globe can be found here and here.
I may as well weigh in too, so here are some of my own observations. All of this of course assumes that the emails that have been posted are accurate and have not been tampered with – something that I do not believe has been verified yet.
It’s a ?&% Load of Stuff
If you take the time and visit any of the sites where the hacked material is posted, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material. 60MB is a lot of text and I find it hard to believe that anyone has actually read through all of it, and wonder why anyone would want to.
Suffice it to say, I have not read every email in the collection. I have not even read most. Instead, I have browsed and jumped around. And so, caveat emptor, I am by no means a “CRU email scholar.”
There is without question some embarrassing stuff there: comments that are not in keeping with tenants of scientific collegiality and collaboration; and many instances where emails contain less than kind statements about other scientists –skeptical and otherwise. And there are even more questionable discussions about not sharing data or code with skeptical scientists and keeping papers by skeptics out of the literature.
Much of this is regrettable; mostly for the authors who have had the unfortunate experience of having their private conversations made public. I have already commented on the strange and curious fact that climate change and evolution have devolved into political issues, and such a circumstance makes both advancing science and devising effective policies based on science problematic. And the combative and sometimes conspiratorial tone of many of these emails reflects this sorry state of affairs.
Before totally condemning the CRU emailers, we should ask:
- Where did this start? Don’t forget that we are talking about a scientific community that has been under-siege by a concerted, well-funded effort on the part of corporate interests to discredit the science. (See here, here, and here.)
- Who’s throwing the epithets? You may be surprised to learn that many of the ad hominem attacks in the email collection come from climate skeptics writing to the CRU scientists to attack and criticize their work as well as question their integrity.
- Did someone say cherry picking? Folks, there are many, many, many emails in this collection. From my own perusing, it is clear that the vast majority of the missives are innocent discussions among scientists about their work and what it means and how to proceed to advance that work. As pointed out at RealClimate and despite claims to the contrary what is missing from the emails is any evidence of a so-called conspiracy to advance any specific political or economic agenda. The emails are about science and scientists.
Do the Emails Show An Effort to Suppress Science?
Much has been made by some about statements in some of the emails about the need to keep the papers of climate skeptics out of the peer-reviewed literature or out of IPCC reports. But, this is not evidence of a conspiracy to suppress science per se, but in my opinion, a perfectly appropriate effort on the part of scientists to keep poor science out of the literature.
The scientific peer-reviewed literature is not intended as a repository for any viewpoint, it is a repository of scientific findings that can pass the muster of peer-review; findings that are based on valid methods and objective inferences and conclusions. Keeping bad science out of the peer-reviewed literature is not only the duty of every scientist; it is a matter of self-preservation. The presence of papers with invalid results in the peer-reviewed literature undermines every paper. It is therefore perfectly appropriate for scientists to lament the presence of such poor work in the literature and to discuss how to stop such publications.
Of course, we all recognize that the peer-review process is not perfect or perfectly objective. Reviewers cannot avoid having their own preconceived notions and can find it difficult to view papers in a positive light that attack their own work. (That is why the peer-review process almost always seeks at least two reviewers and in some cases more.) Nevertheless, this does not in any way suggest that the CRU emailers intentions were untoward.
Do the Emails Undermine the Basic Tenants of Climate Science?
The notion that these emails somehow invalidate the conclusion that humans are at the core of the recent global warming trend is a stretch at best.
First of all, many of these emails date back to the 1990s. The science has progressed way beyond the state of the science back then, in large part as a result of the vastly improved and expanded data sets we now have available.
Secondly, the major topic of discussion in these emails are the reconstructions of global temperatures over the past ~1000 years; the importance of the Medieval Warm Period; and the validity of the Mann et al., “hockey stick.”
But the evidence of human influence on climate change goes well beyond the Mann et al., hockey stick. In fact the hockey stick is just one very small piece of a large jigsaw puzzle that climate scientists have put together that points to the anthropogenic influence in global warming.
Here is an excerpt from a Letter to the Editor published in the Wall Street Journal in February 2005 that I co-authored with Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University on the subject:
“The hockey stick graphic is a reconstruction of northern hemispheric temperatures over the past 1000 years. It suggests that the current global warming is unprecedented over the past millennium. However, reconstruction of millennial-scale temperature trends is a difficult process
, fraught with technical and statistical challenges. The scientific community continues to debate and test various reconstruction methodologies…
But the hockey stick graphic is not an essential element of the case for global warming. In fact, the U.N sponsored report of the International Panel on Climate Change … specifically assigned a lower level of scientific certainty to the hockey stick graphic and the implications drawn from it then other more essential and scientifically certain facets of global warming. These include: 1. The greenhouse effect is real and warms the Earth’s surface; 2. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas whose concentration has increased by about 30% in the Industrial era; 3. Independent measurements (e.g., carbon isotope data) directly link the increase in CO2 to human activities (esp. fossil-fuel burning); and 4. Global surface temperatures are increasing and the rate of increase has accelerated in the past 20 years.
Rather than focusing on the ebb and flow of the on-going scientific study of climate, responsible leaders and information outlets would better serve the public by initiating a sober discussion of the potential risks of future global warming, the range of possible costs to us and our children of doing nothing versus the possible costs of taking action to avert these risks.”
Are Emails the Place for Scientific Debate?
The reason email is such a convenient medium for communication is because it can function much like conversation. That is also the reason why it makes a poor medium for publication. I am sure we can all think of conversations we have had that we would be mortified to have made public, in part because they simply do not reflect our true thoughts and beliefs and intentions. That is why surreptitiously recording private conversations without a warrant is illegal in most, if not all, states. Lest you are willing to let the world pore over all your email, let’s leave the personal communications of people for the historians of a later era to ponder and focus on the science.filed under: faculty
and: Climate Research Unit, climate science, climate skeptics, email hack, hockey stick, University of East Anglia