Monday, November 23, 2009

Climate Research Unit email scandal

Hackers got access to a trove of private emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit that is being trumpeted by those who disbelieve in anthropogenic global warming as proof of scandal. I've looked through the data a bit myself--you can find a searchable archive of the emails here. I suspect this collection of emails may end up being put to good research use as the Enron email corpus was. While I found a few embarrassing things, I found no evidence of outright data fabrication or fakery.

The main email that has been cited as such evidence is an email from Phil Jones that says:
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.
Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate explains:
The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the ‘trick’ is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the ‘decline’, it is well known that Keith Briffa’s maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the “divergence problem”–see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while ‘hiding’ is probably a poor choice of words (since it is ‘hidden’ in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.
In other words, "hiding" in this case is using temperature measurement records instead of tree rings as a proxy for temperature records for a period of time where the tree rings are known not to be an accurate proxy, for whatever reason.

It's also claimed that these emails show a concerted effort to subvert the peer review process and stop publications by climate change skeptics, but most of those emails seem to center around an issue where the scandal was actually from the skeptics--the publication of a 2003 paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas in the journal Climate Research that was considered by 13 authors of papers cited to have misrepresented their work. Subsequently, half of the editorial staff of the journal resigned in protest at what they saw as a failure of peer review, and the managing director of the journal's parent company issued an apology (see Wikipedia's summary). The emails show that these scientists were upset by Climate Research's publication of bad science and encouraged protest and those resignations.

A few blog posts that seem to have good overviews of the issues:
An interesting comparison to past scientific controversy is:
And, to compare to the climate change skeptics:
The last of these posts, from Univ. of Alabama climate scientist and skeptic Roy W. Spencer, notes that:

If all of this sounds incompatible with the process of scientific investigation, it shouldn’t. One of the biggest misconceptions the public has about science is that research is a straightforward process of making measurements, and then seeing whether the data support hypothesis A or B. The truth is that the interpretation of data is seldom that simple.

There are all kinds of subjective decisions that must be made along the way, and the scientist must remain vigilant that he or she is not making those decisions based upon preconceived notions. Data are almost always dirty, with errors of various kinds. Which data will be ignored? Which data will be emphasized? How will the data be processed to tease out the signal we think we see?

Hopefully, the scientist is more interested in discovering how nature really works, rather than twisting the data to support some other agenda. It took me years to develop the discipline to question every research result I got. It is really easy to be wrong in this business, and very difficult to be right.

Skepticism really is at the core of scientific progress. I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong about all my views on manmade global warming. Can the IPCC scientists admit the same thing?

Another noteworthy comment, from Real Climate, is this one from caerbannog and Gavin Schmidt's reply:

Just a reminder: CRU is just one of many organizations focusing on climate research. The fact that its director has reacted badly (i.e. appearing to go for the “bunker” mentality) to repeated scurrilous attacks has no bearing on the validity of the science.

Hansen’s approach has been quite different — he’s basically said to his detractors, “here are all of the source code and data — go knock yourselves out”.

Under Hansen, the NASA/GISS data and source code have been freely available on-line for years. And all of the sceptics’ scrutiny of said data has uncovered only one or two minor “glitches” that have had minimal impact.

Just a quick question (or two) to Gavin, if you feel the need to spend even more of your weekend downtime answering questions here.

Given that all of your climate-modeling source-code has been available for public scrutiny for quite a long time, and given that anyone can download and test it out, how many times have climate-model critics have actually submitted patches to improve your modeling code, fix bugs, etc? Have you gotten *any* constructive suggestions from the skeptic camp?

[Response: Not a single one. - gavin]

I think this illustrates that it's far better to be completely open with your data and methods.

UPDATE (November 26, 2009): There's now an official response from the Univ. of East Anglia, the Climate Research Unit, and Phil Jones. Jones notes, regarding the Freedom of Information requests:

We have been bombarded by Freedom of Information requests to release the temperature data that are provided to us by meteorological services around the world via a large network of weather stations. This information is not ours to give without the permission of the meteorological services involved. We have responded to these Freedom of Information requests appropriately and with the knowledge and guidance of the Information Commissioner.

We have stated that we hope to gain permission from each of these services to publish their data in the future and we are in the process of doing so.
UPDATE (December 4, 2009): The journal Nature has weighed in on the controversy.

Climate scientist Judith Curry makes good points of criticism about climate scientists' behavior.

UPDATE (December 6, 2009): Univ. of East Anglia climate scientist Mike Hulme (author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, a book that I read several chapters from in a class on human dimensions of climate change this semester) on the issue:

The key lesson to be learned is that not only must scientific knowledge about climate change be publicly owned — the I.P.C.C. does a fairly good job of this according to its own terms — but the very practices of scientific enquiry must also be publicly owned, in the sense of being open and trusted. From outside, and even to the neutral, the attitudes revealed in the emails do not look good. To those with bigger axes to grind it is just what they wanted to find.

This will blow its course soon in the conventional media without making too much difference to Copenhagen — after all, COP15 is about raw politics, not about the politics of science. But in the Internet worlds of deliberation and in the ‘mood’ of public debate about the trustworthiness of climate science, the reverberations of this episode will live on long beyond COP15. Climate scientists will have to work harder to earn the warranted trust of the public - and maybe that is no bad thing.

But this episode might signify something more in the unfolding story of climate change. This event might signal a crack that allows for processes of re-structuring scientific knowledge about climate change. It is possible that some areas of climate science has become sclerotic. It is possible that climate science has become too partisan, too centralized. The tribalism that some of the leaked emails display is something more usually associated with social organization within primitive cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science.

It is also possible that the institutional innovation that has been the I.P.C.C. has run its course. Yes, there will be an AR5 but for what purpose? The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production - just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.

UPDATE (December 11, 2009): PolitiFact gives its analysis of the CRU emails, which is fairly balanced.

UPDATE (December 12, 2009): Deep Climate catches Stephen McIntyre engaging in quote mining of the CRU emails in order to mislead.

UPDATE (December 24, 2009): David Douglass and John Christy, in "A Climatology Conspiracy?", argue that the CRU emails show a concerted effort to delay the publication of their paper, publish another paper criticizing it along side of it, and deny them the right of final reply. Their case is somewhat weakened by the fact that the second paper points out a significant error in their paper and they have apparently not tried to publish a reply or correct the error.


Hume's Ghost said...

My favorite response to this "global warming scandal of the century" has been Michelle Malkin's

"The Chicago Way is the Global Warming Mob Way."

It's like such individuals - Malkin, Beck, Hannity, et al - live in some alternate reality consisting of perpetual, hysterical wrongness.

Jason S said...

There are numerous examples of Skeptics making constructive contributions.

For example, Gavin is partially responsible for the GISS temperature series.

Steve McIntyre identified an error in this data ( which was subsequently fixed by GISS.

Although GISS wen to pains to avoid giving Steve credit, and to minimize the impact of the error, they have on several other occasions published papers about even smaller adjustments. (

I can think of a dozen such helpful suggestions off the top of my head that Gavin is personally aware of. This is undoubtedly only a small fraction.

Quite a number of these helpful suggestions, like Steve's observation of the Y2K splicing error in the temperature record, have in fact prompted alarmist climate scientists to fix or otherwise improve their methods and calculations.

So when Gavin says that he is unaware of any constructive criticism from skeptics, he is lying. He has personal knowledge of numerous examples.

Jim Lippard said...

My impression was that Schmidt had in mind something more substantial than identifying minor errors, which is something that even young-earth creationists can do for evolutionary biology.

Do any of the other "dozen helpful suggestions" you mention involve substantive contributions of method, data, or line of inquiry that has led to, say, a frequently cited publication in a scientific journal?

Jason S said...

I doubt very much that Schmidt would agree with your definition of substantial. It would force him to remove numerous papers from his own CV.

I would be curious to know what your definition of substantial is.

Regardless the contribution of skeptics is substantial by any definition.

You can find virtually any type of contribution you want on this list of peer reviewed skeptical papers:

This is a small fraction of the research that I consider to fit this label (but I lack the time to compile a list).

Some of the people on the list would deny being skeptics (Pielke Jr. for example) but I certainly expect Gavin to agree with the list creator's assessment.

Gavin himself has obviously been captivated by McKitrick and Michaels methodology; so much so that he recently published a paper analyzing it. (He found that by using satellite data he could also show a significant correlation between urban civilization and temperatures but, oops, he didn't notice that the sign of the correlation is reversed. Doh!).

Bottom line: there is a vast body of skeptical contributions. The precise definition doesn't matter much.

Jim Lippard said...

"Substantial" is certainly a fuzzy category with some degree of subjectivity.

Papers like the ones at the tops of these lists by citation are clear-cut cases of substantial contributions to climate science.

Those published in the Journal of the American Physicians and Surgeons (a couple on the list you cited), by contrast, are clearly not.

Jim Lippard said...

BTW, some of the other journals that appear in your list include the social science journal Energy & Environment, the anomalies-in-science journal Journal of Scientific Exploration, and the embarrassed-by-failure-of-peer-review journal Climate Research (mentioned in the original post).

Real Climate's post on "Peer-Review: A Necessary But Not Sufficient Condition" is instructive in this regard.

Jason S said...

I can drill holes in Team papers all day and you can drill holes in skeptical papers all day, and we could both be right each time. That's science for you.

But for ANY standard of "contribution", there are skeptical papers that have met that standard.

geochoww said...

Jason S:

I certainly expect Gavin to agree with the list creator's assessment.

Gavin has replied and he, like many others - even RPJr. - have pointed out the illegitimacy of the Poptech list.

Also, what paper of Gavin's are you talking about? I'd like to take a look at it please.

Jim Lippard said...

Jason: I agree that there are climate change skeptics who have legitimate academic positions and have published legitimate scientific work in legitimate scientific journals.

I'm not, however, aware of any that make a dent in the case that there's a significant human component to atmospheric CO2 and that atmospheric CO2 is a major cause of a long-term warming trend; even some of the people classified in the "climate skeptic" category on your list agree that this is the case (e.g., Balling and Pielke Jr., talks by both of whom have been summarized at this blog, Balling here and Pielke Jr. here and here).

Pielke Jr.'s papers on hurricanes and property damage are on that list, but they don't express skepticism of anthropogenic global warming, contrary to the heading at the top of the list (see the two summarized talks; he discussed those papers in the second one).

Jason S said...


I never suggested for a moment that Gavin agrees with the skeptical papers. He does not. (Although I'd love to know what fault he finds with, for example, the Pielke Jr. papers on hurricanes).

I meant that Gavin would agree with the labeling of the Pielkes as skeptics (which Pielke Jr. certainly does not).

S09 == "Spurious correlations between recent warming and indices of local economic activity" in IJC.

You can find the last three entries in this sequence towards the bottom of the references for the Wikipedia entry for Urban Heat Island [Currently 39 through 41]. I recommend them to anybody who likes this sort of analysis. I'm pretty interested to see if Gavin is going to be able to rebut the last entry.

Jason S said...

Finally, Jim,

If skepticism of anthropogenic global warming means that you don't believe that anthropogenic CO2 is heating up the planet, then I am not a skeptic.

Neither is Steve McIntyre, or Ross McKitrick or any of a host of other individuals who are routinely identified as skeptics.

I agree that you _can_ define skeptic in a way that excludes all or almost all meaningful contributions. But by doing so you also exclude all or almost all of the meaningful skeptics.

Jim Lippard said...

Jason: How do you define it (either for yourself, or that includes the class of people that you call skeptics)? Does Glen Whitman's taxonomy of questions about global warming help?

Is it skepticism about negative impacts of warming in general, or only in some particulars (sea levels? ocean acidification? arctic ice sheet melting?)?

geochoww said...

Jason S:

Thanks. I've read the paper over and I don't see how your critique of it overturns its main conclusion that dLM06 and MM07 both overstate the significance of their results as their approaches do not treat (a) scale mismatch in data and (b) spatial correlation effects appropriately.

To add on to Jim's question - what is it about AGW that you are skeptical about? The science? The implications to policy? The politics per se?

Jim Lippard said...

W: It seems to me that if people aren't skeptical about AGW, they shouldn't call themselves AGW skeptics, or publish list of documents under titles like "papers skeptical of man-made global warming," and should be trying to correct the clearly erroneous public skepticism about AGW.

It seems odd that people who say they aren't skeptical about AGW are doing exactly the opposite, trying to increase public doubt about AGW.

The Heartland Institute's "Legislator's Guide to Global Warming Experts" defines the skeptics by saying: "No one can speak for all these scientists and analysts, but skeptics generally are united in their assertions that insofar as global warming exists, it doesn’t pose a catastrophic threat to the Earth, and mankind’s contribution to the release of greenhouse gas is insignificant."

That description characterizes skeptics as both minimizing the quantity or doubting the existence of warming and doubting the significance human contribution to GHG as a cause of any warming.

The Heartland Institute's site also touts the fact that the general population is skeptical of the existence of global warming in a way that suggests they wholeheartedly approve.

Jason S said...

Geo: I didn't mention dlm06 because I don't think its on solid ground.

Have you already read McKitrick's response to Schmidt? If not, I think he should get first crack at showing you the problems in S09.

Jim: As Pielke Jr. has done a good job of documenting, there has been a concerted effort aimed at labeling anyone who doesn't agree with most climate advocates as, not just skeptics, but deniers.

In Pielke's case this seems to be especially inappropriate, since he seems to agree with all of the key scientific conclusions.

Still, I would characterize Jr's published papers as undeniably skeptical in nature.

1. He shows that hurricane damage has not increased any faster than would be expected given the increase in population, and the gravitation of that population towards the coasts.

2. He observes that we presently lack the technology to implement certain existing plans to reduce emissions, and indeed that those plans are unlikely to be realized as a result.

On the first point, he was successful in getting the IPCC to change their language. Does this mean that he is not a skeptic (because the IPCC says something he can agree with)? Or does his moving the IPCC report in a skeptical direction actually make him a skeptic? I don't know.

Similarly, Steve McIntyre seems to agree with just about every global warming issue except their math and scientific detachment (both of which _are_ deserving of scorn).

I can't imagine a definition of skeptic that doesn't include Steve McIntyre. That's just not consistent with how the word is used in the blogosphere.

As to myself geo, I am generally skeptical [outside of global warming as well], but I am especially critical of three things in climate change:

1. I think that climate model assumptions of feedback are very seriously in doubt. [Most of the predicted warming results from feedback, and observations of tropospheric temperatures are not consistent with these assumptions]. I don't think that this has been proven false, but its looking very tenuous at the moment.

2. I am skeptical of the focus on CO2. It seems highly probable that the contribution of human land use changes has been grossly underestimated by the IPCC (and warming due to emissions over estimated as a result).

3. I am, like Pielke Jr, extremely skeptical of our ability to reduce emissions through legislation and/or Copenhagen-like processes.

In fact, I'd say that fantasy engineering schemes (like those in the superfreakonomics book) seem more plausible than getting citizens of developed nations to accept the economic and social consequences of reducing their emissions by 95%.

That's not all I'm skeptical about, but that's what matters. I'm deeply skeptical about the surface temperature record, but I don't actually believe that properly collected data would erase the warming signal, so my skepticism here (and elsewhere) seems moot.

geochoww said...

Have you already read McKitrick's response to Schmidt? If not, I think he should get first crack at showing you the problems in S09

Can't say I have. What's the link?

Also, as a user of climate models (albeit for micro/mesoscale models rather than GCMs) what is it about its feedbacks that gets your goat?

While I agree that we modeling folk still have problems evaluating various feedbacks (as discussed in depth in Chp 8 of IPCC AR4), I am unconvinced that the way the feedbacks are included in GCMs have significant errors in the way that folks like Spencer et al. think they are.

I also find it interesting that you, like RPSr. and Bob Balling, think that land cover change impacts may be "grossly underestimated" by IPCC. Like Gavin, I think that this view neglects the scale mismatch between regional and global scale climate forcings.

Further, the main driver of LULC change is deforestation (IPCC AR4, which may increase albedo at local/regional scales, but isn't this more than offset by the increased CO2 flux to the atmosphere from the removal of this carbon sink? Besides, pg. 683 of the AR4 lists several papers that discuss the relatively insignificant impacts of LULC change at global scales.

Have to agree with you and RPJr. that global-scale mitigation efforts are doomed for now - Jim knows my views on that rather well. :-)

Duae Quartunciae said...

Uh, guys? Gavin's comment "[Response: Not a single one. - gavin]" is specifically in relation to bug fixes or the like in his climate model programs. The skeptics kept demanding that for ages, long after it was all available for easy download. End result? Zip.

I have no idea what Gavin would say of a more generally worded question about any useful comment from skeptics.

Jim Lippard said...

Duae: You're right--thanks for pointing that out.

Jason S said...

Which specific model does he say the skeptics were asking for code for?

I remember many requests for the GISS Temp code (which was released, did receive fixes from skeptics, and, frankly, is a total mess).

I'm not sure what skeptics would do with the code to a climate model. Since the main problem with the models is the input assumptions, I'm surprised anybody asked.