Freedom of information and responsibility

Prepare for another round of “climategate,” misinformation and distortion of climate change news. This time conservative news media, denier organisations and bloggers will be concentrating on the current inquiries taking place in the UK. These will be considering issues related to the illegal hacking and release of emails from the Climate Research Unit and the University of East Anglia. One of these is the Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament inquiry which hears oral submissions this week.

Already we have seen some selective and biased reporting of written submissions and I am sure this will continue. However, there are important issues at stake to do with freedom of information (FOI), harassment of scientists and the responsibility of those making freedom of information requests or using publicly available data. I hope the inquiries will deal with the underlying principles as well as making determinations on the specific cases considered.

Clearly many of the FOI requests made to the CRU were malicious. The UEA submissions says:

“In July 2009 UEA received an unprecedented, and frankly administratively overwhelming, deluge of FOIA requests related to CRU. These amounted to 61 requests out of a 2009 total of 107 related to CRU, compared to annual totals of 2 in 2008 and 4 in 2007 (University totals for those years were 204, 72 and 44 respectively).”

I wonder if the requesters were building up to something?

(Graphics thanks to Going on a Bear Hunt).

Malicious FOI requests in New Zealand

The recent FOI request made to NIWA by the NZ Climate Science Coalition (CSC) was also surely malicious (and timed to coincide with “climategate). The CSC is a climate change  denier group which works closely with the ACT Party and the local right wing think tank The Centre for Political Research. The latter is also linked to the usual oveseas conservative organisations like The Heartland Insitute and conservative media like The American Thinker.

The CSC pretend they are only trying to keep NIWA honest. That they are doing “peer review.” But the quality of their discredited report “Are we warmer yet?” indicates they are not capable of scientific review (see NZ’s denier-gate, Peer Review for the Climate “Science” Coalition and NZ sceptics lie about temp records, try to smear top scientist).

They admit their interest is political not science. And the FOI requests and other demands on NIWA are clearly of the “when are you going to stop beating your wife?” type.

The CSC’s agenda is to discredit honest New Zealand scientists. Not peer review.

Now I hope the UK parliamentary review will consider this malicious aspect of many FOI requests and make recommendations for its treatment.

Public data and responsibility

Most people welcome the idea that data should be publicly available or accessible. I think research institutions are moving in that direction as they get their databases off paper and on-line.

But, surely with availability should come responsibility. This is a problem with denier organisations and individuals who consistently misrepresent data or use it selectively. The local deniers, the CSC, did this with the publicly available NIWA data. They presented the data in an irresponsible format (denying the need for site adjustments) and drew the wrong conclusions. Their report was then used to attack NZ scientists and to attempt to discredit their database. They used the data for political, not scientific, purposes.

I don’t know how such groups can be encouraged to behave responsibly. But surely they should be exposed to some of the same requirements our scientists must adhere to with this data. Requirements of peer review and transparency.

Unethical behaviour of local deniers

For example, how did the NZ CSC produce their report? Ask them and their answer will depend on the day of the week. On the one hand they claim that they did not have any scientific input or checking of their “research paper.” Later they did talk about a “science team” being involved – but the team wished to “remain anonymous.” They also acknowledge some science checking after their member Vincent Gray admitted to having that responsibility and acknowledged being mistaken in not having picked them up on their claim that no site adjustments were necessary.

While their rejection of the need for site adjustments was their biggest “mistake” there also appears to be something wrong with the data they used or its manipulation in the “paper.” I have asked them for information on their methodology and been told to go away. They also say that a snowball has more chance of surviving in hell than I have getting one of the “science team” to discuss things.

The refusal of the CSC to enable scrutiny of the methods used in their report may not be illegal, but it is unethical. It also indicates that they have a low confidence in the scientific credibility of the report. They are certainly in no moral postion to criticise the work of scientists in the manner they have.

So what about the requesters of official information also having responsibilities. Perhaps their treatment of data should be open to the same inspection normally given scientific reports. Perhaps they should have the same obligations to reveal data and methodologies that scientists are under.

The imposition of a “level playing field”, a requirement that requesters permit the same level of transparency required of scientists, might help limit malicious FOI requests.

See also:
The Independent Climate Change Email inquiry.
Correspondence between University of East Anglia and the Information Commissioner’s Office
The Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament:
The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia
Submitted memoranda from over 50 individuals and organisations.

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3 responses to “Freedom of information and responsibility

  1. Pingback: Chris Mooney interviews Michael Mann on “climategate” « Open Parachute

  2. Pingback: Officially a fake scandal from science perspective « Open Parachute

  3. Pingback: Shonky climate-change denial “science” | Open Parachute

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