Scientists behaving badly?

November 27, 2009 at 3:10 am Leave a comment

No doubt you’ve heard of the fracas going on over the global warming emails that were allegedly hacked from computers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Centre in the UK and leaked to the world on the Internet. Now known as Climate Gate, the leaked emails have been feasted on by global warming skeptics. Just in case you’ve been hitting the snooze button and missed the whole thing, you can search the emails on this handy website. If you want a potted version of the emails, Andrew Bolt  of the Herald Sun provides excerpts of the juicy bits.

Around 1079 emails and 72 documents supposedly show that scientists have been behaving badly by manipulating climate change data; colluding to suppress data that suggests there is no heating up of the planet happening; and darkly wishing to beat the crap out of scientists who are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). So the allegation is that a bunch of nerdy scientists are guilty of fraud and conspiring to cover up the warming theory. 

On the other side of the fence, there are those who are loudly suggesting that the emails have been taken out of context and that skeptics are “cherry picking” the emails, searching for words and phrases that spectactularly reveal some grand plan on the part of climate change scientists. I think this is an important point to ponder. We all know that email communication can often be blunt, direct, suggestive and misinterpreted by a recipient.  And I’d say that scientists are a pretty direct lot and heavily critique or criticize their peers’ work. Without contextual information, we can all jump to incorrect conclusions. And I’d suggest that’s what might be happening with Climate Gate. Here is a thoughtful analysis that provides some of the missing contextual information surrounding the emails.

Now, before you jump all over me, I’m not a climate scientist (nor are most of the climate change skeptics I’d say). But I am someone who likes to explore issues before jumping up and down, pointing the finger of blame. So I’ve now read many of the key emails skeptics have seized on and I’ve even taken the time to read a few of the original articles of the named scientists and I do think that things have been taken out of context.

For example, Phil Jones (Director of the Climate Research Centre) in a 1999 email said (about temperature reconstructions):

“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.”

Yep, on the face of it, not looking too good for old Phil. It does read as though he’s been up to some tricky stuff, manipulating data. But…I took the time to track the original article (referenced as “Mike’s Nature trick). It appears to be from a 1998 article in Nature, entitled “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries” by Mann, Bradley and Hughes (the dudes of Hockey Stick fame) Nature 392, 779-787 (23 April 1998). I actually waded my way through it. I’m no pointy-headed scientist (although I do have a Masters in Complexity) and I confess to not understanding some of it because it deals with Paleoclimatology – but seems to me that Jones is using language commonly employed by scientists (let’s remember that every profession has its own language) and he means bag of tricks or a technique to resolve a problem.

In this case, as I understand the article, Jones is referring to a divergence problem. Briefly, proxy data (such as tree rings and ice cores) – going back thousands of years but ending in 1980 – were examined and appeared to diverge from modern instrumental temperature records post-1960. The authors were trying to construct long-term (centuries to millennia) temperature records. Instrumental records from the late 20th Century were pointing to global warming but reconstructed temperatures from trees were showing cooling or no change. Hence, a divergence problem. I read somewhere (I’m hoping to find the reference) that climate change itself could very well be affecting trees, so they don’t grow as they once did and therefore don’t provide useful proxy data. The “trick” that Jones mentioned in his email is the technique of plotting recent instrumental data along with the reconstructed data  – not to “hide” a decline – but because the scientists understood that the tree-ring data was suspect due to global warming (which is shown by the instrumental records). In his words:

“.. they’re talking about two different things here. They’re talking about the instrumental data which is unaltered – but they’re talking about proxy data going further back in time, a thousand years, and it’s just about how you add on the last few years, because when you get proxy data you sample things like tree rings and ice cores, and they don’t always have the last few years. So one way is to add on the instrumental data for the last few years.”

The future of our planet depends on whether or not anthropogenic global warming is a reality. For non-scientists and conspiracy theorists to pounce like wolves on a series of emails and cry “fraud” is itself suspect. IMHO we all need to go back to the original sources, the articles, the science itself and have a whole lot of PhDs after our names before we can even remotely begin to comment.

If you want a conspiracy theory, how about this – no hacking of computers or emails took place (by Russians it’s suggested). It was an inside job. Someone or a group of shadowy dudes, who want to discredit climate change scientists and knew what they were looking for, leaked the material. Because let’s be honest, there are a range of vested interests that would like to smack AGW in the chops and see the whole issue fade away.

For a good laugh: read this….brilliant.


Entry filed under: Climate Change, Environment. Tags: , , , .

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