Not so Swift, Hackers: Why the scandal sometimes called “ClimateGate” is overblown

2 December, 2009 — Science Progress

And now, the climate change deniers will claim a scalp.

Yesterday, climate researcher Phil Jones, director of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in the UK—which is responsible for one of three important datasets tracking global temperature trends—announced he would be stepping aside pending an independent review of allegations that have emerged in the scandal variously referred to as ‘ClimateGate’ and the ‘SwiftHack.’ It’s just the latest development in a saga that began when a boatload of CRU emails and documents, obtained through an illegal computer hacking, made their way into the public arena last month. The files were instantly seized upon by climate change skeptics and deniers, who touted them—with a combination of glee and histrionic outrage—as evidence of mainline scientists conspiring to quash legitimate dissent, and to conceal problems with the data and analyses used to demonstrate human-caused global warming.

The truth, however, is that while the CRU emails don’t always look very good—and not all of them can necessarily be defended—in the end this saga amounts to little more than a distraction from the real and burning issues in climate science and climate policy. Moreover, its suspicious timing—coming just weeks before the U.N. Copenhagen climate conference—suggests a strategic attempt to undermine those international deliberations by once again casting doubt on the scientific basis for concern about climate change—a tried, true, and seemingly unending political strategy.

Unfortunately for climate skeptics, the CRU hacking incident fails to support the burden that they have placed upon it. Whatever behavior was revealed in these emails, even its most salacious interpretation can scarcely undermine the global edifice of knowledge about the causes of ongoing climate change—which may be bolstered by, but certainly does not rely solely upon, CRU’s research and analyses. Mainline scientists fully recognize this; thus, following the CRU hacking, the American Meteorological Society reaffirmed its longstanding statement on the human causation of climate change, remarking that ‘Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true—which is not yet clearly the case—the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited.’

In truth, of course, few if any of the CRU emails could legitimately be called scandalous. True, the files show scientists carrying on in a far less guarded fashion than they would in public, and some of them do appear suspicious—but in each individual case, we must also understand the context. Typically, the email-zipping scientists now under massive scrutiny are reacting in the communications to various controversies and scandals in the field—most of which are, in turn, the result of systematic attacks on climate research by conservative think tanks, politicians, and a small group of ‘skeptic’ scientists.

Take, for instance, a rather innocent email from the year 2003 that has been made much hay of, in which climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University opines that ‘I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.’ This has been depicted as evidence of some systematic attempt to suppress dissent or manipulate the scientific process, but the conclusion is unwarranted. Mann is referring to an episode in which this little-known journal published a wildly controversial paper on historic temperature trends that was widely attacked and picked apart by mainstream researchers; in the wake of its publication, several editors at the journal actually resigned. No wonder scientists like Mann were upset with Climate Research. That’s especially so given that, despite its flaws, the controversial Soon & Baliunas paper was instantly and inappropriately thrust into political debate at the highest level via a Senate hearing convened by Oklahoma global warming denier James Inhofe, who claimed that the paper ‘shifts the paradigm’ away from the conclusion that global warming is human caused. (Not.)

Or take another email that has been much touted, one in which Phil Jones writes, ‘I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature [the science journal] trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.’ The word ‘trick,’ and the phrase ‘hide the decline,’ have been treated as smoking guns by climate skeptics, but once again, the conclusion is unwarranted. As the bloggers at (including Mann) note, ‘trick’ here is simply a methodological device or innovation, in this case for merging and presenting data. ‘Hide the decline’ might seem more problematic when taken out of context, but what this actually means is the exclusion of one set of climate records (based on tree rings) that do not show warming after 1960, and are known to be problematic for this reason and not considered reliable. Far from being scandalous, then, this is good scientific practice.

Perhaps the most troubling document in the CRU cache is one that shows Phil Jones actively emailing other climate researchers, telling them to ‘delete any emails’ subject to a Freedom of Information request. Jones now claims he didn’t actually delete any; Mann, who received the email in question, says likewise; and CRU itself says that ‘No record has been deleted, altered, or otherwise dealt with in any fashion with the intent of preventing the disclosure of all, or any part, of the requested information.’ It is understandable that climate scientists under such intense and often politically driven scrutiny would bristle at the prospect of having skeptics selectively reanalyze their data with an ax to grind (indeed, such a qualm about selective interpretation is fully borne out by responses to the CRU emails). Still, such an email is troubling, and the inquiry just launched will understandably probe how CRU has responded to a ‘deluge of Freedom of Information requests.’

But whatever that inquiry shows, this core fact remains: Just because a group of scientists were found to have behaved like imperfect human beings in emails they thought would remain private does not mean that we don’t have to worry about global warming. Anyone arguing otherwise is making a stunning leap based on the most scanty and inappropriate of evidence—and the willingness of climate skeptics to do this has always been, and will remain, the real scandal.

Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at ‘The Intersection.’

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