Emails and Climate Science

by Bill Chameides | November 25th, 2009
posted by Wendy Graber (Researcher)

Permalink | 22 comments

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.

Others have countered – see for example these posts (here and here) from RealClimate.

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.

The Context

Before totally condemning the CRU emailers, we should ask:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  1. Keith Smith
    Dec 4, 2009

    You are very fond of saying, “I have looked at the data.” The raw data appears to be very hard to come by. Even NASA has failed to release its raw data in the face of Freedom of Information Act requests. Are you looking at raw data or the massaged data that supports your bias in this? As a Ph.D., I am appalled at the bastardization of science and your defense of it.

    • Bill Chameides
      Dec 8, 2009

      Keith, Not sure what you mean by “bastardization of science” nor where I have defended it, but if I did defend making science a bastard, it was no doubt a mistake — I think. What I am against is falsifying data and results — I think we can both agree on that. In the case of the e-mails, let’s wait and see what really happened after all the facts are in before you or I condemn or defend anyone.

  2. MattN
    Dec 4, 2009

    I’m telling you, the code is far more damaging than the emails:

    • Chris Winter
      Dec 4, 2009

      Yes, we “heard” you the first time. So that’s your argument? The fact that one comment says a procedure must be altered so coordinates “match the start of the decline”? Also, you people keep talking about “the code”. Prove to me that this version of the code is the one currently being used by CRU, and your case will be a little stronger.

  3. Ken Towe
    Dec 3, 2009

    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. Very true, very certain. But, what is it that directly connects the current increase in temperature to the current increase in CO2 and then on to more temperature increases in the near term? As has been cited elsewhere, adding 100 ppmv CO2 to an already warm Earth (at 280 ppmv) is similar to adding a fifth blanket to four already on the bed. There is no direct connection. The connection (and dire predictions for the future) reside inside a few supercomputers where a scientifically critical ‘climate sensitivity parameter’ is one of the lynch-pins. This parameter acts like the Hubble constant… it changes regularly and is open to debate and tweaking each time new evidence appears. Credible scientists (“skeptics”) have argued that the value used by equally credible scientists (“consensus”) is too large. Given its importance to the outcome, and bearing in mind some of these disturbing e-mails, this number is not an insignificant uncertainty or one unworthy of open debate…and this seems especially so before “we” leap into an unknown of climate management.

  4. MattN
    Nov 25, 2009
  5. MattN
    Dec 1, 2009

    Phil Jones is stepping down at CRU: I told you this is serious. Very, very serious…

    • Chris Winter
      Dec 1, 2009

      He’s not stepping down; he’s stepping aside for the course of the independent review. There is a difference. And anyone who thinks these illegally obtained e-mails are evidence of a conspiracy to fabricate data showing climate change needs to explain why the alleged conspirators weren’t smart enough to delete the incriminating e-mails years ago.

      • MattN
        Dec 2, 2009

        Stepped down, stepped aside. Word parsing, nothing more. As indicated in the acquired emails, they DID delete other emails. And data. Jones explicitly tells Briffa to delete any email he has exchanged regarding AR4. The raw station data for CRUTemp3 is gone. Deleted forever, by Jones, so no one can recreate/reproduce/check results. You are blind or in denial…

        • Chris Winter
          Dec 2, 2009

          CRUTemp3 data gone forever? Ten minutes of Googling brought me this: which immediately led me here: Who’s blind or in denial now? As for the hacked e-mails, I agree that the East Anglia scientists handled the disclosure badly in the beginning. But, as Tim F. points out on Balloon Juice (URL below), they likely had no PR hat to put on. If some e-mails have been deleted, especially ones requested by FOI, that deserves some punishment. But you haven’t proved to me that happened. As for the rest, I continue to believe this is a tempest in a teapot. We’ll see what the independent review finds. Useful opinions on the matter are on RealClimate and here:

          • MattN
            Dec 2, 2009

            You are, because you did not READ what I wrote. The *RAW* data is gone. CRU/Jones deleted it. We can speculate whether or not it was on purpose to avoid an FOI request or accidentally lost in a server move, but the end result is the same: The only data left is the adjusted/homogenized data and without the RAW unadjusted data, no one can replicate the work. Go here: “We do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.” Realclimate: hardly objective about this matter. It’s a mouthpiece of Michael Mann, wholly implicated in the scandle. I trust their evaluation about as ar as I can spit it…

            • Chris Winter
              Dec 3, 2009

              > You are, because you did not READ what I wrote. The *RAW* data is gone. > CRU/Jones deleted it. We can speculate whether or not it was on purpose to > avoid an FOI request or accidentally lost in a server move, but the end > result is the same: The only data left is the adjusted/homogenized data and > without the RAW unadjusted data, no one can replicate the work. [snip URL] > “We do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (quality > controlled and homogenised) data.” OK, maybe the repository I linked to doesn’t hold the “raw” data, but only some filtered version. (I don’t have time to check.) I still wouldn’t claim at this point that no copy of the raw data exists anywhere. Also, since the CRU codes are available, it should be possible to backtrack using those and recreate the raw data. More to the point, even if the stolen e-mails show that the staff of CRU colluded to fake results showing a warming trend (and I don’t believe they do), you cannot use them to prove a worldwide conspiracy — which is what the Denialists are claiming. But then, I think you’re not interested in proof, only in assertions of widespread fraud. > Realclimate: hardly objective about this matter. It’s a mouthpiece of Michael Mann, wholly > implicated in the scandle. I trust their evaluation about as [f]ar as I can spit it… And I suspect you’d say the same about any source I provided. Which tends to prove my point. You just don’t trust the scientific establishment, therefore nothing anyone says will change your position.

  6. Rick Neufeld
    Dec 1, 2009

    I have great respect for Duke University and it’s academics. My son received his P.H.D. in physics from Duke. I find it hard to understand how you cannot see that the intent of the scientists in these e-mails is to fabricate results that they already espouse and not to find truth and reveal it. It is very hard for a person who bases his life’s work on a certain theory or protocol to come to grips it might be wrong. That is why we need to see the evidence and have peer review. I hope you can be objective, seeing you espouse global warming, and give these e-mails the scrutiny they are calling for.

    • MattN
      Dec 1, 2009

      Totally agree Rick. For at least 10 years, the CRU has basically performed sham science. There may be something to CO2-induced warming, but you wouldn’t know it by the snake oil coming out of East Anglia. There MUST be transparancy. There MUST be unbiased indepedent review. None of this has been going on at CRU. They are forcing data to fit hypothesis, and scratching each others backs on the peer review. It is a complete mockery, and quite honestly Dr. Chameides, you need to take a good hard look of what they’ve done there. Its NOT science, not how I learned.

    • Bill Chameides
      Dec 3, 2009

      Rick, Absolutely correct: “we need to see the evidence and have peer review.” It is of course correct that there is a possibility that the current theory of global warming is “wrong.” I think you will find that I have a number of times in these posts pointed out that possibility, but argued that such a possibility should not preclude our starting to take action given the consequences if the theory is not wrong.

  7. Gerard Bono
    Nov 30, 2009

    Transparency = trust = believability ….. by blocking FOIA requests, cooking the peer review process and generating an attitude of “trust us we know better than you all” these perps have done us all a disservice. When trillions of $ are at stake and the reshaping of economies is involved, every aspect of climate claims should be super transparent, an open book to criticism from all sides. If it can withstand the scrutiny of many eyes then it becomes believable. At the present time it is not. It has become a political gravy train.

  8. Ken Towe
    Nov 30, 2009

    One need not hack private e-mails to see what some of the “consensus” climate scientists think about those “skeptics” daring to challenge their conclusions or their approach. Some of the blogs are laden with this. As an example, a reading of some of the open dialog on between the controlling moderator and his cadre of regulars will show clearly that there is open disdain for these scientists. Pejoratives are everywhere…those who disagree are trolls, pseudoscientists, in denial 101 etc. This is “peer-review” science by pejorative consensus of a few. Some of the hacked e-mails simply confirm that this type of “peer review” is common. Thankfully, no such bias is evident here where open discussions are encouraged and met with honest debate rather than a selective “consensus” censorship.

    • Bill Chameides
      Dec 3, 2009

      Ken, There have been a lot of ad hominem attacks and the like on both sides; such comments are not constructive and not appropriate in public discourse. However, people have every right to their opinions and the right to express them in private. E-mails constitute such private conversation in my opinion so I think we should leave that aspect of their discourse off the table. And just because some scientists have disdain for other scientists and their work, it does not necessarily mean that the disdainful scientists’ review of the other scientists’ work is based on a “pejorative consensus”; it might be based on a well-reasoned assessment of the science. Maybe an incorrect assessment, but a well-reasoned assessment nevertheless.

  9. Victor Ciad
    Nov 25, 2009

    While I agree with you conceptually about how to treat the science of global warming outside the work done by the people involved in the emails, I think it would be prudent to refrain from jumping to their defense. I have read a considerable amount of the emails and I think it’s pretty clear that there was a concerted effort by multiple individuals to obscure data that was contradictory to their conclusions. I’m not prepared to speculate as to the reasons for doing this, but that doesn’t remove the fact that this is incredibly damaging for the climate science community. I think it’s safe to say, we’d all be a lot better off if these and other scientists learned to “play nice” and learn from each other, rather than treating each other as competitors. And this goes for people on both sides of the issue. Thanks for a thoughtful response to the issues effecting these important developments.

  10. MattN
    Nov 25, 2009

    Yes, these emails (and, BTW, the CODE they’ve written) spell out in detail how they have finagled the “data” to fit what they want it to say. Splicing 2 data sets together (as in Mike’s Nature Trick) and presenting is as one is a bad, bad thing. It’s called academic fraud. And it will get you fired. You should know this. Without the “hockey stick” there is NO FOUNDATION by which to say they 20th century was the warmest of the mellinia. The science to base that statement on is, basically, a hoax. And without that data, there is no “unprecedented” or “unequivocal” warming. Add in the deletion of emails prior to the FOI request, and the collusion to keep anti-AGW papers from being published, and you have the makings of the greatest scientific fraud ever. But the emails are just the tip. Look at the code. It’ll make you go blind. I suspect you are underestimating this. This is career ending for some at CRU.

    • Bill Chameides
      Dec 3, 2009

      MattN: No, “splicing 2 data sets” is not academic fraud when it is part of a standard technique. As per my post, the hockey stick is not fundamental to the global warming theory; for example, I never was convinced that it was correct but found other pieces of evidence like the appearance of a 5,000 year old pine cone in a glacier in the Andes a lot more compelling.

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