Guest post by Jon Small
The myth of Climategate can be destroyed with a rudimentary understanding of scientific method
Anti global warming conspiracy theorists all over the internet have been having a field day this week with the “climategate” email scandal, the release of thousands of private emails covering a thirteen year period, downloaded by a hacker from the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Internet conspiracy guru Alex Jones has claimed with characteristic wild-eyed hyperbole that this information is the single most important piece of evidence of the global conspiracy over manmade climate change. Climate change sceptic Patrick J. Michaels has claimed that “this is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud.” But beyond reams of frenzied blogging, vlogging, tweeting and general bandwagon jumping among those keen to deny that human activity is affecting climate change, what has the released information actually told us?
The emails contain many shorthand, sometimes hastily-worded (and in hindsight, unfortunately worded) discussions between colleagues very familiar with their specialism. These discussions strip away the niceties of detailed explanation for the layman, frequently getting to the heart of practical, hands-on statistical analysis and presentational issues related to academic research papers later published in scientific journals. But do these discussions contain the smoking gun, clear cut evidence of fabrication of statistical data, proof that the whole idea of anthropogenic climate change is fiction? Absolutely not, and the frenzied “deniers” who claim otherwise tend simply to misunderstand or overlook the basic technical issues under discussion, in favour of an attempt to pick up on any poorly, candidly worded phrase which can be presented as apparent evidence of the global warming ‘conspiracy’. If this genuinely is Alex Jones’ most important evidence that global warming is a hoax, then he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
One of the headline quotes is from Professor Phil Jones, the CRU’s director, who says in an email: “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.” On the face of it, admitting that he is using a statistical “trick” to “hide” a decline in temperature, when, as everyone surely knows, these conspirators are trying to convince us that global temperature is rising, not falling. Prima facie evidence, case closed? Well yes, if you listen to the conspiracy bloggers. But with a little understanding of the conflicting methodologies being used for the academic paper Prof. Jones was discussing, this damning confession of evil-doing actually dissolves into nothing.
Climate scientists use various measures to create a global picture of long term temperature trends throughout history; these consist of proxies, such as readings taken from ice cores, tree rings, boreholes and sediments, and instrumental temperature readings since such records began. The “decline” in question refers to a known problem with the proxy temperature reconstruction from tree-ring data, which diverge from instrumental records and other proxy data after 1960, for reasons which are not yet clear. If tree ring data were the only way we had of measuring temperature, this would be a problem, but this is one proxy measure among many, all of which can be calibrated, using the period of overlap, with the “real”, or direct instrumental measurements. For this reason the post-1960 tree ring data need to be put in the context of other reconstructed and direct temperature readings. The data are still there for everyone to see; the anomaly is openly discussed in the scientific literature, and it may be possible in future to work out which factors are responsible for this particular anomaly in the tree ring measurements. The “trick” Prof. Jones mentions (the word used in the sense of a “clever technique” rather than a “cheat”), is plotting the “real” instrumental data measurements alongside the anomalous tree-ring proxy data from the same period in order to provide a context for the divergence of the tree-ring data set from other sources of temperature measurement. Thus, “hiding” the mistake – without actually hiding it, since the data is still in plain view and the statistical methodology is open and transparent.
An unfortunate choice of wording in the circumstances, undoubtedly, but the spin that has been placed on this phrase by the global warming deniers tells us much about both their willingness to jump to a predetermined conclusion, and about their general lack of understanding of and engagement with the technical debate itself. To read the phrase “hide the decline” as evidence that climate scientists are telling us global temperature is going up when in fact it’s going down, is quite plainly a simplistic misunderstanding of this (admittedly complex) technical debate. Should we, as many climate scientists have done, conclude that there is a problem with this anomalous data, that some extraneous factor is affecting this particular data set, causing it in the latter half of the 20th century to diverge from other proxy data sets and the direct instrumental measurement of temperature? Or should we decide that the tree ring data in question is in fact giving us the real picture of global temperature, while all the other proxies and indeed the instrumental record are not? The latter absurdity is what the conspiracy theorists would appear to suggest in interpreting the phrase in the way they have.
The conspiracy theorist’s interpretation of this particular email leads to this absurdity, but in truth the likes of Alex Jones are not really engaging with the technical debate at all, they are simply taking easy headline quotes and putting their own spin on them, based on what they already assume to be the case: that the scientists are all in on selling us a big con. And this indicates a fairly serious problem in the general level of public (mis)understanding of science. For those who fail to engage with the technicalities of the topic, or who simply do not understand the principles of the scientific method, such as Alex Jones and his cheerleaders, the decrees of scientists appear as just another source of unfounded assertion, just another empty statement of politically motivated rhetoric. But science doesn’t work like that. The scientific method contains its own safeguards. Research findings such as these, including problematic and conflicting ones, are published in peer-reviewed academic journals precisely in order for people to pull them apart if they don’t hold up, or to verify them if they do.
The academic science community is fiercely combative and competitive, and it would gain a working scientist considerable kudos, and possibly even make an academic career, if she were to find – and correct – a mistake that has been presented as fact. This is the way science works. It doesn’t and can’t give us an absolute version of the truth, but it can give us as close an approximation of the truth as is possible, given our current knowledge. This is what these climate scientists are doing – trying to hammer out the best estimates of what is going on with the world’s climate and why, through the comparison of various sources of data. This adheres to the scientific principle of repeatability: there is not one single source of evidence backing up current theories of anthropogenic climate change, but hundreds of matching ones. The fact that there are many hundreds of lines of evidence which have gone through this process of robust analysis and peer scrutiny, all of which point in the same direction, gives us the overwhelming consensus that, with our current state of knowledge, the world appears to be experiencing climate change which is being forced beyond natural variability by manmade factors.
The process we see going on in these exchanges is the sometimes difficult, and not always perfect, attempt to compare, match, refine, and exclude sometimes conflicting and anomalous data in order to come up with ever more accurate versions of what’s really going on. And these attempts, designed to be published in academic journals alongside other research findings, build up, over time, into an increasingly detailed and coherent picture of climate change and its causes. Not every research finding is perfect, and some are plain wrong, but it is through the process of making mistakes and comparing results that we gradually get closer to the truth. It would be unusual – in fact it would be irresponsible – if these scientists did not believe their own methodologies to be robust and to stand up for themselves in strong terms. It would also be unexpected if these individuals did not point out what they regard as mistakes, and bad science, in the work of others. We see emails suggesting that certain articles are so flawed that they should not be published in academic journals. It would be strange not to encounter such robust debates among experts in the field. But in science, if an idea is true, and you can prove robustly that it is to your peers in the field, then that idea wins out. It is not possible, ultimately, to hide empirical facts because of these in-built safeguards and the institutional openness of the scientific community as a whole. Individual scientists or teams of researchers can be and often are wrong, but their mistakes will be pointed out, and a better version of the truth always wins, if it is strongly supported by evidence.
The range of discussions we encounter in these emails is exactly what we should expect and hope to see within a lively research community. It proves that there is no conspiracy; the individuals who appear in this correspondence trail represent part of a wider global community, all of whom are having similar debates within their areas of specialisation.
The aggregate sum of all of these discussions, the published research findings which result, and the further discussions and refinements which follow, is what amounts to the overwhelming consensus we have among the world’s leading climate experts about anthropogenic climate change.
The release of the emails is certainly embarrassing and potentially damaging, particularly for the UEA, and more broadly for the public perception of these issues. It’s embarrassing primarily for the reason that working scientists are humans, working in an environment of other people, with all of the allegiances, rivalries, petty grievances and disagreements that entails. And all of their hastily and candidly written, sometimes unprofessional criticism of rivals, and attempts to discredit what they see as “junk” science, have now been exposed to hostile scrutiny, making the researchers in question look, to the unskilled or conspiracy-minded reader, like scheming Machiavellian villains. That’s certainly how the issue has been presented, with the selective use of a few emails among thousands. I struggle to think of a workplace environment which would not include most of the personality factors on show here, and whose aggregate private email correspondence, if openly published, would not reveal unguarded moments which might appear similarly damning. Anyone who has ever worked with colleagues to produce any kind of report, statement or research paper, or faced stringent criticism from rivals, will be familiar with precisely the kind of discussions we see in this trail of confidential emails, written by colleagues working closely together and believing they could speak openly and in private.
George Monbiot is wrong to call for the resignation of Prof. Jones. Yes he looks unprofessional, and certainly the apparent attempts to circumvent the mountainous volume of orchestrated Freedom of Information Act requests from climate sceptics may well have been a mistake, made by a beleaguered individual feeling the pressure of an orchestrated and hostile campaign against his department. But the contents of years of private correspondence has now been released, and the fact is, it does not contain evidence of fabrication of data, concealment of information, or any kind of conspiracy to distort the truth. It does contain unguarded and unprofessional moments, among a mountain of correspondence demonstrating an active community of scientists doing their job with dedication and commitment. A resignation would be taken as an admission that anthropogenic climate change is a fabrication, a conspiracy, when there is simply no evidence of that. Jones’ apparent wish to avoid repeated FOI requests, however spurious, should be the subject of an investigation at UEA, in order to publicly determine whether what was done on this issue was in line with legislation. Certainly though, the leak itself and the smear campaign which has followed has already done its job, which is to undermine public support for the issue of global warming, ahead of the Copenhagen climate change summit in December. And unfortunately, Monbiot’s breathless and apologetic response does little to calm this storm in a teacup.