Climate Email Hacked

By Frank Hagan | Related entries in Climate Change

To paraphrase Julie Andrews, “The Blogs are Alive …”, but this time with stolen emails rather than “Music”.

Documents and archived emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Hadley Climatic Research Center (CRU). The first accounts indicate that 1,072 emails and 72 documents were stolen and then posted anonymously on file servers.

The stolen property appears to be the genuine article, as the CRU director has confirmed them. Less certain is what all this means.

Much has been made about the tone of the emails. Scientists are complaining about those with whom they disagree, insulting them and acting like normal, partisan human beings. There are some “plain English” misunderstandings afoot as well, as evidenced by this quote from an email that is being reproduced in several blogs:

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) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. Mike’s series got the annual land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999 for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.

The blogs typically highlight or bold the word “trick” and the phrase “hide the decline” as evidence of a smoking gun.

The problem is that the email is about a well-known and discussed issue, the “divergence problem.” As I understand the issue, historical proxies, like tree ring, lake sediment and ice core samples, provide a measure of accuracy in the aggregate, but are not as accurate for telling us what the temperature was in the last few decades. It evidently is a common and well-known issue, even though the pro-climate change advocates will tell you there are no problems in the data. The scientists involved debate this issue, and come to an agreement on how to best deal with it; the advocacy groups simply gloss over any difficulties, even if they do not alter the end result. So the average person can be forgiven if finding this issue is shocking; what about the “consensus”? This is the messy stuff that leads to that consensus; like sausage, you sometimes don’t want to know what’s in it.

Now, about the word “trick”. In this context, it is used to indicate there is a difficult task at hand, such as in this statement that might be made to a winter driver:

When you find yourself in a skid on ice, the trick is to keep from making it worse. Steer in the direction of the skid and keep your foot off the brakes.

So the hard part about reconstructing historical temperature records is merging the proxies with the instrument data, and we need to discuss how to do this; that seems like an OK statement.

Less clear is what the phrase “to hide the decline” means; it appears this is either to correct what they truly believe is an error in the data when you combine the proxies and instrument data (most likely in my view), or is the “smoking gun” of a conspiracy to hide warming data (extremely unlikely, at least in my view again).

As to the language of the emails, I am shocked, shocked to find there is emotion in them! As stated in our post Climate: Mistakes or Prevarication, scientists are surprisingly human underneath those white smocks with pocket protectors.

As the popular RealClimate blog explains:

Since emails are normally intended to be private, people writing them are, shall we say, somewhat freer in expressing themselves than they would in a public statement. For instance, we are sure it comes as no shock to know that many scientists do not hold Steve McIntyre in high regard. Nor that a large group of them thought that the Soon and Baliunas (2003), Douglass et al (2008) or McClean et al (2009) papers were not very good (to say the least) and should not have been published. These sentiments have been made abundantly clear in the literature (though possibly less bluntly).

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.

Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.

Cross-posted to FrankHagan.com


This entry was posted on Friday, November 20th, 2009 and is filed under Climate Change. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Climate Email Hacked”

  1. Tweets that mention Donklephant » Blog Archive » Climate Email Hacked -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. eric taylor Says:

    “hide the decline” in this context means that you don’t post uncorrected data for the tree rings, because too many graphs clutter up a paper.

  3. Frank Hagan Says:

    Eric, thanks for the clarification; I think its still an unfortunate “turn of phrase”, unless it is one of those esoteric phrases used normally in this kind of thing. That’s why context is important. And even in the context, at least what we have of it, the idea of not cluttering the paper with too many graphs seems like it would be easier to express.

    It could be that “the decline” in temps are known to the participants to be an anomaly caused by the way the data is put together, and the author of the email is using shorthand to address the problem. “Correcting” the data, or “fixing” the data would make more sense to use.

    Having been a party to discovery in a lawsuit that involved gathering up emails referring to a specific issue, I know that people treat email as conversation rather than “memos”. It can be shocking to read email conversations, where innocent remarks can seem damning.

    Probably the most illuminating thing to come out of the emails so far is the attempt to stifle dissent. We like to think of science as open and fair, but it has been shown to be anything but historically, and climate science is no exception. The “conspiracy” to get an editor fired, and to “starve” a journal of articles shows how dedicated the researchers are to getting their message out and suppressing what they feel is “bad science”. The question of how much they would do remains in our minds.

  4. Nick Benjamin Says:

    @Frank
    IMO it’s quite clear what these guys would do to defend their position. We have email records of them discussing tactics. If they were doing something worse, such as falsifying all their data, where would they do it?

    It’s also pretty clear this group is the most extreme group out there. They think the UN estimates are too low and they say so.

    So unless there’s some scientist who’s really good at sneaky stuff, going around pretending to be less extreme than these guys but secretly conspiring to make them look good, I think this is probably the worst anybody’s doing.

    And it’s not exactly evil stuff. “Starving” a Journal is a boycott, and they tried to get a journal editor fired because they thought he’s an incompetent idiot. Heck what do you think the anti-global warming crowd would do if one of their periodical printed an article implying that global warming could be a small problem, and that fixing it won’t cost that much? They’d demand the staff resign in protest (“starving” the periodical), and call for the head of anyone involved with the decision to print the article.

    And it’s not like such an article would be unsupported by science. Oil is $75 a barrel, therefore it’s probably a good idea to invest in technologies that use less of it. In investments there are up-front costs, but they eventually pay for themselves. That’s the point.

  5. kranky kritter Says:

    It’s unfortunate if and when folks who oppose climate legislation try to smear good-faith scientific inquiry. I haven’t seen much of anything that suggests to me that folks who support efforts to combat climate change are acting in bad faith.

    Every group effort is going to include some measure of this when both politics and emotion are so heavily involved. But by and large, I support continued scientific inquiry from a range of researcher as they continue to find out more and more about the nature and extent of recent warming trends. And the extent of our role in these trends.

    As mentioned, there is disagreement about the growth rates, and that is a HUGE issue when it comes to making projections. Among the folks that disagree, they need to remind themselves that projections are at best educated guesses, and then behave accordingly. (Like by not calling someone an idiot because you think their estimate is way off.)

    We need to keep studying and keep watching our climate. And we need to at least make the sorts of changes to our behavior that are virtues all by themselves, like conserving energy and developing alternative energy sources. Even if folks disagree about something like cap and trade, we can still agree on other things that are wise and prudent.

    Conservation is just taking care not to waste resources. This can often be done with minimal effort. That makes it a virtue all by itself, especially if efforts focus on designing plans to treat the individual efforts of folks as a precious resource not to be wasted. (For example, single stream recycling blows away individual sorting). And fostering alt energy just makes sense on the basis of knowing that we have a finite supply of fossil fuel.

    No brainers and low-hanging fruit first.

  6. Frank Hagan Says:

    As more and more is evaluated, especially the program code comments (where the programmer puts in comments to define what the program is doing), the less leeway I’m giving these guys. It appears that they are colluding to squeeze out dissent, and are manipulating the data to fit a preconceived idea of where it should be going.

    Comments in the code like “shouldn’t usually plot past 1960 because these will be artificially adjusted to look closer to the real temperatures” look particularly damning, and seem to support the idea of “hide the decline.”

    The response should be to release all the data, and all the program code, and let the skeptics have a field day with it. Then, those that are challenging the conventional wisdom will have to put up or shut up, and in the process the rest of us … who are going to pay for the end result one way or the other … will get the full story.

  7. Donklephant » Blog Archive » You Know its Serious When it’s a Gate Says:

    […] 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 […]

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