You Know its Serious When it’s a Gate

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You know an issue is serious when it gets the suffix “gate” added to it.

“Climategate” seems to be sticking in the media for the publication of stolen email and program documents we covered in our story Climate Email Hacked. Even more significant: parodies are popping up:

Like all parodies, its probably not fair, and its over the top. Would we really jail someone for obfuscation? No. But it is funny.

Kidding aside, the serious issues raised by the release of the emails lies not in the idea that climate warming is a “fraud” as some attest, or that the researchers involved were knowingly passing off lies. Careful reading of the materials doesn’t reveal a “smoking gun” per se. The real story is the collusion to obfuscate some indication of recent cooling trends and attempts to silence critics.

Demetris Koutsoyiannis, professor of hydrology at the University of Athens and a scientist publishing in the field of hydrology (closely related to climate science) has some thoughts:

Due to my skeptical inclination, I’ve had the feeling that my colleagues had serious doubts about my perspective. The common dogma is that “climate change is real” and its consequences are catastrophic, so why oppose those ideas and the people who arduously work to save the planet, and us, from catastrophes?

I found it difficult to explain my convictions in a compelling manner. However, the explanation is actually simple and was formulated by my co-authors Alberto Montanari, Harry Lins, Tim Cohn, and myself in a recent paper criticizing the IPCC position on freshwater:

“A common argument in favour of the political orientation of the IPCC is that its aims are good for humanity and the natural environment and that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases will be beneficial for the planet, regardless of the ultimate validity of the IPCC model predictions. However, we believe that science is a process for the pursuit of truth and that fidelity to this system should not be affected by other aims. History shows that such distractions can be detrimental to science.”

(This paper can be found here and a comment about it, as well as the IPCC authors’ reply, has been published on this weblog).

Koutsoyiannis has selected several of his favorite quotes from the released material showing the politicization and possible corruption:

“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 !” (LINK).

“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. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong.” (LINK).

“If anything, I would like to see the climate change happen, so the science could be proved right, regardless of the consequences.” (LINK)

More alarming than the sniping and snide comments of the researchers are the comments from the code. Programmers, as a standard practice, put comments in program code to provide a road map for others (and for remembering where they were when they come back to it). Some illuminating comments found in the program code:

“OH **** THIS. It’s Sunday evening, I’ve worked all weekend, and just when I thought it was done I’m hitting yet another problem that’s based on the hopeless state of our databases. There is no uniform data integrity, it’s just a catalogue of issues that continues to grow as they’re found.”

From the file data4alps.pro: “IMPORTANT NOTE: The data after 1960 should not be used. The tree-ring density’ records tend to show a decline after 1960 relative to the summer temperature in many high-latitude locations. In this data set this “decline” has been artificially removed in an ad-hoc way, and this means that data after 1960 no longer represent tree-ring density variations, but have been modified to look more like the observed temperatures.”

More on the code comments can be found here.

Even some ardent pro-climate change journalists are expressing deep concern about the tone and tenor of the emails, and calling for more analysis of the data called into question.

Hans van Storch, savaged as helping “junk science” get published in some of the released emails, has a more measured response. Rather than striking back, von Storch, a director of the Institute for Coastal Research of the GKSS Research Centre and professor at the Meteorological Institute of the University of Hamburg, keeps the issue in perspective:

# 24. November 2009 – The scandal around the stolen CRU-mails is rolling on; the interest, as documented by traffic on the internet is enormous – and likely the damage done to the credibility of climate science by the unfortunate writing by Phil Jones and others as well. But in spite of this, one can interpret the whole affair also in positive way – namely that science was strong enough to overcome the various gate keeping efforts, even it may take a few years. The self-correcting dynamics in science is robust and kicking. And the practice of allowing our adversaries to use our data (after a certain grace period) will become finally common.

We need to publically discuss the ethical norms, science is to operate under. Obviously, science can not define itself which these norms should be, but this is a task for society at large – who pays for the efforts and is looking for utility of science. The main guard to this respect is with the media – and it seems the media beginning to become serious, finally. An example is from Wall Street Journal – online. In Germany, journalists judge the affair more cavalier, e.g., in the Tagesspiegel.

Cross posted to FrankHagan.com