Getting to the truth – gradually

I guess reaction to the UK Parliamentary report on “climategate” (see Climate scientist Phil Jones exonerated) is predictable. The more extreme climate change denier blogs are shouting “whitewash.” Scientific blogs are generally accepting the conclusions.

No scientific dishonesty

Anybody who had objectively read through the emails and explanations could not have been surprised.  The report rejects the charges of scientific dishonesty. It says of the much publicised use of the word “trick”:

“60. Critics of CRU have suggested that Professor Jones’s use of the word “trick” is evidence that he was part of a conspiracy to hide evidence that did not fit his view that recent global warming is predominately caused by human activity. The balance of evidence patently fails to support this view. It appears to be a colloquialism for a “neat” method of handling data.”

And on “hide the decline”:

“66. Critics of CRU have suggested that Professor Jones’s use of the words “hide the decline” is evidence that he was part of a conspiracy to hide evidence that did not fit his view that recent global warming is predominantly caused by human activity. That he has published papers—including a paper in Nature—dealing with this aspect of the science clearly refutes this allegation. In our view, it was shorthand for the practice of discarding data known to be erroneous. We expect that this is a matter the Scientific Appraisal Panel will address.”

Peer review and freedom of information

Regarding charges of perverting the scientific peer review process the report concludes:

“73. The evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers. The Independent Climate Change Email Review should look in detail at all of these claims.”

Conclusions on the issue of freedom of information and access to data were more complex. Blame for any problems seems to be attributed to the University of East Anglia, rather than the small staff of the Climate Research Unit including Phil Jones. And the Information Commission Office (ICO) is criticised  for its “statement to the press that went beyond that which it could substantiate and that it took over a month for the ICO properly to put the record straight.” This press statement was used by opponents of Phil Jones to “prove” he had committed a breach of the Freedom of Information Act. The ICO is urged to “develop procedures to ensure that its public comments are checked and that mechanisms exist to swiftly correct any mis-statements or misinterpretations of such statements.”

The report largely dismisses the claims that  any withholding of data or computer codes by the CRU was unusual or had interfered with peer review or verification:

“51. Even if the data that CRU used were not publicly available—which they mostly are—or the methods not published—which they have been—its published results would still be credible: the results from CRU agree with those drawn from other international data sets; in other words, the analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified.”

And it accepted that “It is not standard practice in climate science and many other fields to publish the raw data and the computer code in academic papers.”

Transparency issues

However, the report does argue for more transparency, especially considering the political importance of the field.

“We therefore consider that climate scientists should take steps to make available all the data used to generate their published work, including raw data; and it should also be made clear and referenced where data has been used but, because of commercial or national security reasons is not available. Scientists are also, under Freedom of Information laws and under the rules of normal scientific conduct, entitled to withhold data which is due to be published under the peer-review process. In addition, scientists should take steps to make available in full their methodological workings, including the computer codes. Data and methodological workings should be provided via the internet. There should be enough information published to allow verification.”

This is really a recommendation for future, more ideal, practices rather than any specific condemnation of previous practices.

The parliamentary committee could not rule on possible breaches of the Freedom of Information Act, despite prima facie evidence (Jones’s request for deletion of emails):

“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.”

I think that conclusion is wise. There really does need to be an investigation more thorough than the parliamentary committee could make. Reputations are at stake and there still remains room for mischief making until this is cleared up.

The committee made several recommendations regarding improvement of the Freedom of Information Act and “the rules for the accessibility of data sets collected and analysed with UK public money.”

Irresponsible use of public data

Unfortunately it didn’t consider ways of dealing with the problem of malicious FIO requests and the irresponsible or misleading use of public data sets. This was an aspect raised in the written  evidence of the Royal Society of Chemistry: (CRU 42) (see Volume II, the oral and written evidence)

“10. The issue of misinformation in the public domain must also be tackled. Just as the scientific community must be open with regard to their evidence base, those who disagree must also provide a clear and verifiable backing for their argument, if they wish their opinions to be given weight. When disagreements occur, the validity of the analysis must be established before credence can be given to any opinion. Increased understanding of the process of scientific research, firstly in the government, but also within the media and general public, is vital in order to foster a more open sharing of information.

11. Support from the scientific community is needed to provide context and to explain the process by which conclusions are reached. Encouraging scientists to openly engage with the public can only be achieved if researchers are given the necessary backing in the face of any unfounded arguments against their work. This support must come from the highest levels, sending out a strong message on the importance of scientific methodology and research and promoting open sharing of information between scientists and the wider community.”

I have written about this problem before (see Freedom of information and responsibility) becuase it is also an issue in New Zealand. Legal changes to achieve this are not immediately obvious. However, I have seen a couple of suggestions in internet discussions. For example there could be a requirement that all FOI applications are registered and there is a requirement for public disclosure of what use is made of the data. Personally I would also like some sort of requirement of peer review. Surely it would improve responsible use of this sort of data if any resulting report or publication was submitted to the same sort of review as that required for the original scientists.

One commenter even suggested that this could be done now, by making a FOI request to public institutions for a list of such FOI requests. The individual requests could then be publicly listed on the internet with a chance for comment and update. This would become a sort of “wall of shame” for those making malicious FOI requests. This may help reduce, or at least publicly expose, vexatious FOI request campaigns such as those organised by Steve McIntyre and readers of his blog Climate Audit (see Submission to CRU Email review by Dr P. C. Mathews) last July.

In conclusion

A useful inquiry with an outcome generally favourable to science. It is a start to discovering the truth that has been obscured by the “climategate” hysteria. There are two more inquiries yet to report:

These will obviously be more detailed and their conclusions more authoritative. Hopefully the issue of responsible use of public data could be considered here. We should also remember the favourable report from the Pennsylvania State University Inquiry into Michael Mann (see Spinning exoneration of Dr. Michael Mann Into “Whitewash”) and a subsequent inquiry (yet to report) into the science produced by Mann’s team.

I hope these can finally put to rest the doubts that have circulated about climate scientists and their findings.

See also:
The beginning of the end of climategate? « Andy Russell’s Blog.
CRU evidence to Sir Muir Russell’s review: Download pdf (78 pp)
Report from UK Parliament Science and Technology Committee  (The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia‘, HC 387-I).


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6 responses to “Getting to the truth – gradually

  1. On the one hand, making data etc. more public and transparent is a good thing. Generally, I agree this is a good thing for all fields of science. I’m especially a fan of the PLOS model (Public Library of Science).

    Of course, it will mean they will cherry pick data.

    However, it does blunt one of their biggest allegations: that scientists hide data and conspire to keep it secret.


  2. Richard Christie

    Research transparency… an interesting topic and one I don’t know a lot about, but it seems to me as a layman that right wing market driven ideologies have hijacked and distorted the concept of public good in the area of pure scientific research (patenting genes etc for example).

    Was there ever a golden era for science pre 1970s or is that an illusion? I suspect it was better in the past.


  3. It is certainly true that the science reforms in NZ in the late 80s/early 70s closed a lot of things down. Databases would have been seen as opportunities to make a profit. Intellectual Property was a buzz word. Publications were held up.

    For a while there profit was the king – and I remember being picked on for stressing the importance of science. Science actually became a dirty word for some.

    So that has been a real problem in making research transparent – not one of scientists making. But an approach the bureaucrats loved.

    The internet has really opened up possibilities for transparency and data sharing. In general scientists will be very much in favour of this. Especially as the future research teams will be more international.


  4. Agree – the Internet is having that effect on pretty much every academic/research orientated discipline.

    As a lay person, I’m excited by what I now have at my finger tips. The flip side is the massive amount of disinformation out there.

    Still, I think the analogy of when the printing press first came out holds true: it created an explosion of information and sharing of ideas.

    Both the scientific revolution and the reformation where fueled by the new technologies. It’s happening again, but at a much more accelerated rate. Data travels across the world in seconds.


  5. Pingback: A more transparent approach « Open Parachute

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

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