Climategate Update: Two Reports Down and One To Go

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climategate dog

Last November leaked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit suggested that prominent climate scientists were manipulating data and engaging in other skullduggery. Dubbed "Climategate" three different investigations into the affair were launched. At the end of March, a British parliamentary committee was first off the mark in issuing its report on the Climategate affair. That report found:

We believe that the focus on CRU and Professor Phil Jones, Director of CRU, in particular, has largely been misplaced. Whilst we are concerned that the disclosed e-mails suggest a blunt refusal to share scientific data and methodologies with others, we can sympathise with Professor Jones, who must have found it frustrating to handle requests for data that he knew—or perceived—were motivated by a desire simply to undermine his work.

In the context of the sharing of data and methodologies, we consider that Professor Jones's actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. It is not standard practice in climate science to publish the raw data and the computer code in academic papers. However, climate science is a matter of great importance and the quality of the science should be irreproachable. We therefore consider that climate scientists should take steps to make available all the data that support their work (including raw data) and full methodological workings (including the computer codes). Had both been available, many of the problems at UEA could have been avoided.

We are content that the phrases such as "trick" or "hiding the decline" were colloquial terms used in private e-mails and the balance of evidence is that they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead. Likewise the evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers.

In the context of Freedom of Information (FOIA), much of the responsibility should lie with UEA. The disclosed e-mails appear to show a culture of non-disclosure at CRU and instances where information may have been deleted, to avoid disclosure. We found prima facie evidence to suggest that the UEA found ways to support the culture at CRU of resisting disclosure of information to climate change sceptics. The failure of UEA to grasp fully the potential damage to CRU and UEA by the non-disclosure of FOIA requests was regrettable. UEA needs to review its policy towards FOIA and re-assess how it can support academics whose expertise in this area is limited.

Translation: Perhaps the folks at the CRU were a bit too secretive, but there's basically nothing to see here. Move along.

Now, a second Climategate report by the International Science Assessment Panel, a group of scientists organized by the University of East Anglia and the Royal Society came out yesterday. A lot of the panel's investigation involved reading various papers produced by CRU researchers and chatting with them. Apparently the panel did not talk with or read any of the literature that is critical of the CRU's work. The panel found with regard to tree ring data used to construct long term temperature trends:

With very noisy data sets a great deal of judgement has to be used. Decisions have to be made on whether to omit pieces of data that appear to be aberrant. These are all matters of experience and judgement. The potential for misleading results arising from selection bias is very great in this area. It is regrettable that so few professional statisticians have been involved in this work because it is fundamentally statistical. Under such circumstances there must be an obligation on researchers to document the judgemental decisions they have made so that the work can in principle be replicated by others.

CRU accepts with hindsight that they should have devoted more attention in the past to archiving data and algorithms and recording exactly what they did.

OK then, I guess.

With regard to more recent historical temperature reconstructions, the panel found:

Like the work on tree rings this work is strongly dependent on statistical analysis and our comments are essentially the same. Although there are certainly different ways of handling the data, some of which might be superior, as far as we can judge the methods which CRU has employed are fair and satisfactory. Particular attention was given to records that seemed anomalous and to establishing whether the anomaly was an artefact or the result of some natural process. There was also the challenge of dealing with gaps in otherwise high quality data series. In detailed discussion with the researchers we found them to be objective and dispassionate in their view of the data and their results, and there was no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda. Their sole aim was to establish as robust a record of temperatures in recent centuries as possible. All of the published work was accompanied by detailed descriptions of uncertainties and accompanied by appropriate caveats. The same was true in face to face discussions.

Well, it's certainly a relief to hear that face-to-face talks—no doubt over tea—found the CRU folks "objective and dispassionate."

Despite the CRU folks having the "sole aim" of establishing a "robust" record, the panel did note:

We cannot help remarking that it is very surprising that research in an area that depends so heavily on statistical methods has not been carried out in close collaboration with professional statisticians. Indeed there would be mutual benefit if there were closer collaboration and interaction between CRU and a much wider scientific group outside the relatively small international circle of temperature specialists.

Indeed.

A third Climategate report from a committee headed up by Muir Russell, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow is expected shortly. Sad to say that group got off to pretty rocky start.

In any case, some commentators in the debates over climate change see these reports as amounting to little more than a "whitewash."

In other Climategate news, the police are reportedly investigating some of those who had the temerity to make Freedom of Information Act requests of the CRU researchers.