Monday, November 23, 2009

Do Leaked Emails Undermine the Scientific Consensus?

For the last couple of days I've been ruminating about what to say concerning the emails and other data apparently leaked by hackers who penetrated the computer systems at the University of East Anglia's Hadley Centre Climate Research Unit, one of the major global sources of climate change data and analysis. It's clearly premature to attempt to draw sweeping conclusions about the implications for climate science and policy from the few tidbits that have been leaked to the press or published on the websites of leading climate skeptics, some of whom have already characterized the story as "Climategate." At the same time, it strikes me as naive--and perhaps ultimately counterproductive--of those in the "true believer" community who imagine that the publication of such interactions would not naturally lead to serious questions about the scientific basis of some very expensive proposed policy actions to address global warming.

Start with the official statement from the University of East Anglia. While I'm naturally sympathetic to their concerns about the breach itself and the resulting release of sensitive personal information of university employees, it is also worth recalling that the institution in question is funded by UK taxpayers and is not exactly covered by the Official Secrets Act. If laws have been broken, the perpetrators should be pursued and prosecuted. However, if university officials believe they can confine their response to the theft of data and easily dismiss the content of the material that was revealed, they are getting poor advice. I'm sure that the items that have been published so far have indeed been taken out of context, as they contend, but is that not the standard claim by nearly everyone who has suffered a similarly embarrassing exposure in the last couple of decades? The response of the University of East Anglia to date is simply inadequate in the modern era of information, and if I were in their shoes I'd at least announce a full and immediate academic inquiry into whether the emails have unearthed practices that were contrary to university policies and the normal standards of data integrity and peer review. They'd be much better off tackling this proactively than waiting for it to be forced upon them, or taken out of their hands as a result of a Question asked in Parliament--however unlikely that might be in the current political climate.

Next, consider email as a medium of discussion. In my career I have seen many emails that their senders would have subsequently preferred to see deleted from all systems, and I have probably written one or two myself. But that's not the reality of a world in which anything you write on a networked system can be divulged later as part of the discovery phase of a lawsuit or in a government investigation. The best advice I've heard on the subject is the lesson some of the authors of the Hadley emails have just learned the hard way: "Don't write anything you'd be embarrassed to see printed on the front page of the New York (or in this case the London) Times."

That doesn't mean I'm naive about how people--even scientists--interact with each other. Anyone who has spent five minutes peering behind the veil of academic politics wouldn't be terribly surprised at some of the caustic, small-minded, and downright vindictive comments that pepper the Hadley emails that have turned up around the Internet. Nevertheless, most of us aren't involved in work that is integral to a global effort to understand and avert the worst outcomes of something on the scale of climate change. These folks are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard, and if they don't, it jeopardizes not just their own reputations but the public's perception of the findings of the larger body of climate science. When I read an email in which one noted climate researcher asks another not to refer to a particular subject in his reply, but just say yes or no, or another indicating the author would delete some data points from a graph showing a recent change in the trend, I'm reminded of some precautionary advice I received at the very beginning of my oil trading career: "Avoid even the appearance of evil."

The basic issue here that many of those responding from the climate change community seem unable or unwilling to grasp is that their real problem is not how particular individuals or groups might exploit this information, but how the information itself could undermine the faith of the public in the integrity of climate science. I use the word faith deliberately, because for most of us it boils down to that. The number of people actually equipped to read the scientific papers in question and ascertain whether the manipulation of charts and data implicated in some of the leaked emails is serious or not is vanishingly small, compared to the much larger number of us who must simply take it on faith that the scientists studying the climate and reporting on alarming changes in it are behaving in a fair, transparent, and unself-interested way, to the greatest extent humanly possible. It would be hard for most of us to read the emails in question objectively and not have that faith shaken, at least a bit.

Now, it's possible this entire episode could blow over in a news cycle or two and have no impact on the impending negotiations in Copenhagen or on the Congressional debate on climate legislation. I wouldn't bet on that, because what little has come out so far fits neatly into the preexisting view by some of climate science as a conspiracy, or at least a process that has been politicized by the funding and bureaucratic power that large sums devoted to climate research have bestowed. If the climate science community wants to put this episode behind it without derailing the public's trust in the scientific consensus on global warming, then the researchers and institutions that are leading this effort should be calling loudly for a full airing of Hadley's linen, and an assessment of the center's practices by an unbiased panel, preferably one well-staffed with scientists from other disciplines. Any perception of a cover-up will only reinforce suspicions that conduct at Hadley wasn't what it should have been, and that at least one pillar of the climate change argument looks shakier than it did just a week ago.

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