31 March 2010

House of Commons CRU Email Report

The UK House of Commons has released its report (PDF) on the issues associated with the release of emails and other materials from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia last November. The report keeps a tight focus on CRU and Phil Jones. It provides a nice summary of issues, complaints and responses but adds very little new substance, which is probably to be expected as the report is based on a single day of testimony and has been prepared in just a few weeks. It punts some of the more challenging issues to other ongoing investigations.

Defenders of CRU will no doubt paint the report -- particularly the ambiguity of the rather trivial issues involving language, such as "trick" and "hide the decline" -- as a complete vindication of their arguments and those who have been critical will also focus on these phrases and call the report incomplete or a whitewash. These issues have always been a sideshow. The matters of greater importance are not about the behavior or language used by certain individuals, but rather what the released emails say about the culture and norms of institutions of climate science. On this subject the report offers a nuanced message. On the one hand, it largely explains the discussions and associated actions revealed in the emails as fairly normal for the profession. At the same time, the report offers of a fairly harsh rebuke of the profession for allowing such behaviors to become the norm.

Here are a few comments of some of the more interesting parts of the report:
We recognise that some of the e-mails suggest a blunt refusal to share data, even unrestricted data, with others. We acknowledge that Professor Jones must have found it frustrating to handle requests for data that he knew—or perceived—were motivated by a desire simply to seek to undermine his work. But Professor Jones’s failure to handle helpfully requests for data in a field as important and controversial as climate science was bound to be viewed with suspicion. He was obviously frustrated by other workers in the field trying to “undermine” his work, but his actions were inevitably counterproductive. Professor Jones told us that the published e-mails represented only “one tenth of 1%” of his output, which amounts to one million e-mails, and that we were only seeing the end of a protracted series of e-mail exchanges. We consider that further suspicion could have been allayed by releasing all the e-mails. In addition, we consider that had the available raw data been available online from an early stage, these kinds of unfortunate e-mail exchanges would not have occurred. In our view, CRU should have been more open with its raw data and followed the more open approach of NASA to making data available. . .

. . . a culture of withholding information—from those perceived by CRU to be hostile to global warming—appears to have pervaded CRU’s approach to FOIA requests from the outset. We consider this to be unacceptable.
Is the Committee really suggesting that Phil Jones should release a million emails (presumably he still can)? I seriously doubt that the information in a million more private emails among climate scientists would allay suspicion. This is just a bad idea.

The Committee concurs with the ICO that there is evidence that CRU scientists broke UK law in their efforts to circumvent FOI laws. However, the Committee would like to see this issue investigated to closure, rather than abandoned at a preliminary stage due to the fact that no prosecutions would be forthcoming in any case due to the a statute of limitations:
There is prima facie evidence that CRU has breached the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would, however, be premature, without a thorough investigation affording each party the opportunity to make representations, to conclude that UEA was in breach of the Act. In our view, it is unsatisfactory to leave the matter unresolved simply because of the operation of the six-month time limit on the initiation of prosecutions. Much of the reputation of CRU hangs on the issue. We conclude that the matter needs to be resolved conclusively—either by the Independent Climate Change Email Review or by the Information Commissioner.
Like the advice to release a million emails, it is hard to see how this advice would allay suspicion. Given that there is consensus on what the prima facie evidence says, it would seem more likely than not that CRU and UEA would be found to have broken the law. A conclusive determination of this would probably intensify suspicions and even further damage the reputation of CRU, so much so that it would likely have to undergo some sort of serious institutional reform. A better strategy, in my view, would be to skip right to the institutional reform, rather than engaging in polarizing and damaging legal process with little formal significance.

The Committee suggests a broad indictment of climate science:
Reputation does not, however, rest solely on the quality of work as it should. It also depends on perception. It is self-evident that the disclosure of the CRU e-mails has damaged the reputation of UK climate science and, as views on global warming have become polarised, any deviation from the highest scientific standards will be pounced on. As we explained in chapter 2, the practices and methods of climate science are a key issue. If the practices of CRU are found to be in line with the rest of climate science, the question would arise whether climate science methods of operation need to change. In this event we would recommend that the scientific community should consider changing those practices to ensure greater transparency. . .

. . . A great responsibility rests on the shoulders of climate science: to provide the planet’s decision makers with the knowledge they need to secure our future. The challenge that this poses is extensive and some of these decisions risk our standard of living. When the prices to pay are so large, the knowledge on which these kinds of decisions are taken had better be right. The science must be irreproachable.

17 comments:

  1. This says it best.

    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/8368/

    "Pointless"

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  2. Actually, since Jones has said he did not in fact wind up deleting any emails, the investigation might clear both institution and scientist. Also, its pretty clear that the UEA was in contact with the ICO on how to handle responses to these FOI complaints, so I think it would be useful to learn what the ICO itself was telling UEA to do--have they in fact criticized the UEA for in essence following their advice.

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  3. From the ICO to UEA, letter dated the 29th Jan 2010, "The prima facie evidence from the published emails indicate an attempt to defeat disclosure by deleting information. It is hard to imagine more cogent prima facie evidence." - Graham Smith, Deputy Commissioner, ICO.

    So there is prima facie evidence that Phil Jones had deleted information to prevent disclosure.

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  4. Right. Read the committee report. The ICO gets a wrist slap for their handling of the issue, for assuming that prima facie evidence = a proven case.

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  5. I sympathize with the idea of a avoiding a "polarizing and damaging legal process" and "to skip right to the institutional reform". Blaming is usually counterproductive when implementing organizational improvements. On the other hand, it's hard to solve problems without understanding them fully. As long as there's a blanket of obfuscation hiding the dynamics of the problem, improvement attempts may bog down.

    In particular, I'm referring to the idea that there is a war going on and the belief that "skeptics" or "denialists" as used by the climategate crowd is an analytical concept and a valid generalization rather than a rhetorical label used to discredit their own critics. Right now, the willingness to accept this belief system seems to be the norm in scientific and political circles.

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  6. Coverups are tough work, but co-opted politicians are up to the task.
    I would suggest that since no personal e-mails were released in cliamtegate, and that all e-mails produced on CRU systems and stroed on CRU servers are, in fact, public property and paid for by tax payers.
    It is a small thing, but with so much paint available, the painters should at least have to use obfuscation and deflection, and not pretend the e-mails do not even exist.

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  7. A point often missed is that we only know the skullduggery revealed by the released emails. When someone is caught selling drugs on the street, do you assume that you know all crimes committed by the suspect? Given the attitudes revealed by the Climategate emails, I think that a reasonable person would assume that we've only scratched the surface of what went on between Jones and the Team.

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  8. The British government whitewashes in its sleep.

    The only dissenting voice was Graham Stringer, who was the only member with a science degree (BSc (Hons) in Chemistry).

    **

    One dissenting member of the committee, Labour MP Graham Stringer, said he was unhappy that neither of the independent reviews had a climate sceptic member.

    "There should be a reputable scientist on the panel [who is] sceptical about man-made global warming," he said.


    http://www.news.pushpi.com/tag/mp-graham-stringer

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  9. I think this is the most revealing sentence in the just-cited article, "Setting up oppositional positions within a committee tended to hinder its work," he said.

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  10. Jones's comment about one hundredth of one percent was probably rhetorical (or fudged). That comes out to 274 emails a day, every day, for the last 10 years; no weekends, no holidays. The comment smells of a red herring.

    I think if everyone would just step back from this issue a bit, the real concerns would become clear. The important thing for science is not freedom of information acts and statues of limitation. The real question is why the data was not being shared from the very beginning. Why hide it? Because someone will use it to try and point out weaknesses or problems with methods and conclusions? Well I hope so! That's how science advances.

    Climategate did not damage climate change science. These scientists acting like political activists damaged the science. If anything, Climategate actually gives the science a chance to get back on track.

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  11. Release of someone's emails wouldn't do *them* any good--like the old saying says, "no one is a hero to his [e-]valet." But what a boon it would be to those of us who study science talk. Data! Data!--Jean

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  12. New oxymoron

    "a reputable scientist who is sceptical about man-made global warming"

    Even Roger don't qualify.

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  13. Quote from the MPs report, "There is 'prima facie evidence' that CRU has breached the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would, however, be premature, without a thorough investigation affording each party the opportunity to make representations, to conclude that UEA was in breach of the Act. In our view, it is unsatisfactory to leave the matter unresolved simply because of the operation of the sixmonth time limit on the initiation of prosecutions. Much of the reputation of CRU hangs on the issue. We conclude that the matter needs to be resolved conclusively— either by the Independent Climate Change Email Review or by the Information Commissioner."

    So the MPs, as well as ICO, concluded there is prima facie evidence that Phil Jones had deleted information to prevent disclosure.

    As the MPs say, "Much of the reputation of CRU hangs on the issue."

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  14. This report is about as hard-hitting as you could get.

    "We consider this to be unacceptable."

    "Much of the reputation of CRU hangs on the issue."

    "The science must be irreproachable."

    It was never going to overturn the apple cart, but politics is the art of the possible. It has given the media a few sound bites to take the sting out, but make no mistake this is a first class institutional spanking. Its the way things get changed.

    Roger's commentary is highly perceptive as always.

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  15. So the elimination of data that doesn't support your position now = good science.

    Only a politician would appreciate that logic.

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  16. What more should we expect from politicians? They have been embarrassed. If they criticize CRU too harshly, they would be admitting that they were not just miss led but are guilty of being “conned” into over funding a rather questionable enterprise. As I read it, in the future the CRU, and potentially any other climate science projects are going to have considerable difficulty in obtaining funding at present levels in the future.

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  17. The political background is that there is no mainstream opposition to global warming in Britain. Nigel Lawson is no longer an MP and Lord Monckton is (thankfully) not a member of the House of Lords.

    Despite an avalanche of government and corporate propaganda, only 26% believe in human created global warming. Almost the exact same number who believed in the existence of George Bush's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

    It's probably not a coincidence. There has always been a small, very gullible group in society that are very conventional and accept whatever authority tells them.

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