Nov 262009

Last week an unknown hacker — or inside whistleblower — distributed on the internet emails and documents apparently taken from the computers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. The CRU and its director, Phil Jones, have been central players in promoting the theory of anthro­pocentric global warming that is endorsed by the IPCC. In conjunction with the Hadley Centre of the U.K. Met Office, they maintain HadCRUTv3, one of the main datasets of global temperature.

By now the purloined files have been disseminated throughout the internet, and have created quite a stir. The original zip file (62 MB) is here; when unzipped it contains about 160 MB of information, with over 1000 emails and 2000 other documents. The blogosphere has primarily focused on the emails, which include exchanges between Phil Jones and many leading climate scientists. There is now a searchable database of the emails and Bishop Hill provides a synopsis of some of the more interesting cases. The other documents — with data, code, and financial records — will probably have a greater impact over the long run. There are questions, for instance, about coding practice — see here. Evidence so far seems to indicate that all of this material is genuine; many recipients have confirmed the accuracy of emails, and as yet nothing has been disputed.

So what do the emails show? Well, they reinforce what we already knew, or should have known, about the “crooked timber of humanity.” They show scientists behaving like schoolyard bullies, using strong-arm tactics to control evidence and stifle debate. Apologists for the emails argue that this is merely “regrettable” behavior — a normal part of the scientific rough and tumble, particularly in the “contact sport” of climate science. The bad behavior, they say, has nothing to do with the science. But it seems to me that authentic scientific inquiry would necessarily suffer, and become distorted, in such an intimidating atmosphere.

The emails reinforce doubts about the validity of the science. In one email, for exam­ple, Phil Jones reports using a “trick” in order to “hide the decline” in tem­per­ature. This is not, in my view, an innocuous trick (in the sense of being a clever technique for attaining an otherwise unbiased result) but a deception that totally mis­re­pre­sents the warrant for our knowledge about historical temper­atures. See the discussion by Jean S here, and by Steve McIntyre here and here. [Update 12/10: In a fasci­nating new post, IPCC and the Trick, McIntyre examines the context for this trick: the other correspondence and the IPCC Tanzania meeting.] The emails illuminate many similar examples whose cumulative impact will take time to sort out.

The emails also document an attempt to manage the peer-review process, to prevent pub­li­cation of scholarly papers that question the AGW hypo­thesis, and to apply pres­sure on editors and jour­nals that allow such publi­ca­tion. Jones speaks of not wanting dissenting papers reflected in the IPCC reports, and then says, “Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” [1089318616] There is a thoughtful discussion of this email by Roger Pielke Jr..

Finally, the emails suggest that there was collusion to circumvent the release of data and records that had been re­quested through the Freedom of Information Act (and its UK equivalent). In an email last year to Michael Mann, for instance, Jones asked:

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.


And in an earlier email, from 2005, Jones remarked,

The two MMs [McKittrick and McIntyre] have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Infor­ma­tion Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.


This latter comment is particularly troubling in view of the recent announcement by the CRU that they no longer have the original raw data upon which their temperature recon­struc­tions have been based. Destruction of data in order to circumvent an FOIA request is a crime in both the US and UK.

This is only a small taste, a nibble, from the skeptical feast in these files. I especially noted Kevin Trenberth’s candid observation:

The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.


It is unclear where all these revelations will lead. I am somewhat encouraged by the thought that outstanding scientists like Steve McIntyre might now begin to receive an impartial hearing. McIntyre was the person most frequently mentioned in the emails. Some recent emails refer to the Yamal controversy and are discussed here.


The quality that is critically absent in these emails is what Leszek Kolakowski called the spirit of truth. The emails do not reveal any commitment to the vocation of the scien­tist, nor any discernable passion for scientific method. Charles Peirce once described scientific method as a choice that “far more than any intel­lec­tual opinion,” is “one of the ruling decisions of life” — which is also what I suspect Pope Benedict must have meant, in the Regensburg Address, when he characterized the scientific ethos as “the will to be obedient to the truth,” and claimed it as “an essential decision of the Chris­tian spirit.” Another way of expressing this, noted by Luboš Motl, is the famous expla­nation given by Richard Feynman:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over back­wards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid – not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked – to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can – if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong – to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

[Richard Feynman, Commencement Address at Caltech, 1974.]

Peirce would not have thought it possible to do science without some sort of personal commit­ment to its spirit and method. “What is more whole­some than any parti­cular belief,” he said, “is integrity of belief.”


*Peirce citations are from The Fixation of Belief, Collected Papers 5.387.

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