Everyone has heard about the “Climategate” scandal by now. Someone leaked hundreds of megabytes of information from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, and the material (which appears to be authentic) is most interesting. I’m not actually going to comment on the climate-change aspect of all this, though. I have my own opinions, and God knows everyone else has one, too, but what I feel needs to be looked at is the scientific conduct. I’m no climatologist, but I am an experienced working scientist – so, is there a problem here?
I’ll give you the short answer: yes. I have to say that there appears to be several, as shown by many troubling features in the documents that have come out. The first one is the apparent attempts to evade the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. I don’t see how these messages can be interpreted in any other way as an attempt to break the law, and I don’t see how they can be defended:
Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4?
Keith will do likewise. He’s not in at the moment – minor family crisis. Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar to do likewise.
A second issue is a concerted effort to shape what sorts of papers get into the scientific literature. Again, this does not seem to be a matter of interpretation; such messages as this, this, and this spell out exactly what’s going on. You have talk of getting journal editors fired:
This is truly awful. GRL has gone downhill rapidly in recent years.
I think the decline began before Saiers. I have had some unhelpful dealings with him recently with regard to a paper Sarah and I have on glaciers — it was well received by the referees, and so is in the publication pipeline. However, I got the impression that Saiers was trying to keep it from being published.Proving bad behavior here is very difficult. If you think that Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp, then, if we can find documentary evidence of this, we could go through official AGU channels to get him ousted. Even this would be difficult.
And of trying to get papers blocked from being referenced:
I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is !
Two questions arise: is this defensible, and does such behavior take place in other scientific disciplines? Personally, I find this sort of thing repugnant. Readers of this site will know that I tend to err on the side of “Publish and be damned”, preferring to let the scientific literature sort itself out as ideas are evaluated and experiments are reproduced. I support the idea of peer review, and I don’t think that every single crazy idea should be thrown out to waste everyone’s time. But I set the “crazy idea” barrier pretty low, myself, remembering that a lot of really big ideas have seemed crazy at first. If a proposal has some connection with reality, and can be tested, I say put it out there, and the more important the consequences, the lower the barrier should be. (The flip side, of course, is that when some oddball idea has been tried and found wanting, its proponents should go away, to return only when they have something sturdier. That part definitely doesn’t work as well as it should.)
So this “I won’t send my work to a journal that publishes papers that disagree with me” business is, in my view, wrong. The East Anglia people went even farther, though, working to get journal editors and editorial boards changed so that they would be more to their liking, and I think that that’s even more wrong. But does this sort of thing go on elsewhere?
It wouldn’t surprise me. I hate to say that, and I have to add up front that I’ve never witnessed anything like this personally, but it still wouldn’t surprise me. Scientists often have very easily inflamed egos, and divide into warring camps all too easily. But while it may have happened somewhere else, that does not make it normal (and especially not desirable) scientific behavior. This is not a standard technique by which our sausage is made over here.
What I’ve seen in organic chemistry are various attempts to steer papers to particular reviewers (or evade other ones). And I’ve seen people fire off angry letters to journal editors about why some particular paper was published (and why the letter writer’s manuscript in response had not been accepted in turn, likely as not). The biggest brawl of them all was still going early in my career (having started before I was born): the fight over the nonclassical norbornyl cation, the very mention of which is still enough to make some older chemists put their hands over their ears and start to hum loudly. That one involved (among many others) two future Nobel Prize winners (H. C. Brown and George Olah), and got very heated indeed – but I still don’t recall either one of them trying to get journal editors fired after publishing rival manuscripts. You don’t do that sort of thing.
And that brings up an additional problem with all this journal curating: the CRU people have replied to their critics in the past by saying that more of their own studies have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. This is disingenuous when you’re working at the same time to shape the peer-reviewed literature into what you think it should look like.
A third issue I want to comment on are the problems with the data and its analysis. I have deep sympathy for the fellow who tried to reconcile the various poorly documented and conflicting data sets and buggy, unannotated code that the CRU has apparently depended on. And I can easily see how this happens. I’ve been on long-running projects, especially some years ago, where people start to lose track of which numbers came from where (and when), where the underlying raw data are stored, and the history of various assumptions and corrections that were made along the way. That much is normal human behavior. But this goes beyond that.
Those of us who work in the drug industry know that we have to keep track of such things, because we’re making decisions that could eventually run into the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of our own money. And eventually we’re going to be reviewed by regulatory agencies that are not staffed with our friends, and who are perfectly capable of telling us that they don’t like our numbers and want us to go spend another couple of years (and another fifty or hundred million dollars) generating better ones for them. The regulatory-level lab and manufacturing protocols (GLP and GMP) generate a blizzard of paperwork for just these reasons.
But the stakes for climate research are even higher. The economic decisions involved make drug research programs look like roundoff errors. The data involved have to be very damned good and convincing, given the potential impact on the world economy, through both the possible effects of global warming itself and the effects of trying to ameliorate it. Looking inside the CRU does not make me confident that their data come anywhere close to that standard:
I am very sorry to report that the rest of the databases seem to be in nearly as poor a state as Australia was. There are hundreds if not thousands of pairs of dummy stations, one with no WMO and one with, usually overlapping and with the same station name and very similar coordinates. I know it could be old and new stations, but why such large overlaps if that’s the case? Aarrggghhh! There truly is no end in sight… So, we can have a proper result, but only by including a load of garbage!
I do not want the future of the world economy riding on this. And what’s more, it appears that the CRU no longer has much of their original raw data. It appears to have been tossed over twenty years ago. What we have left, as far as I can see, is a large data set of partially unknown origin, which has been adjusted by various people over the years in undocumented ways. If this is not the case, I would very much like the CRU to explain why not, and in great detail. And I do not wish to hear from people who wish to pretend that everything’s just fine.
The commentator closest to my views is Clive Crook at The Atlantic, whose dismay at all this is unhidden. I’m not hiding mine, either. No matter what you think about climate change, if you respect the scientific endeavor, this is very bad news. Respect has to be earned. And it can be lost.