The Sciences

Climate scientists cleared of malpractice by panel

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMay 5, 2010 2:41 PM


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[Update: This press release came out a few weeks ago, so it's not exactly breaking news as I originally put in the title -- I removed that word. Interestingly to me, I didn't see any mention of it in the usual places I haunt, which means it's not getting the coverage it deserves. But my conclusions in this post are still solid; Climategate is a manufactured controversy, the mainstream media need to cover this, and denialists are still wrong.]

Score yet another one for reality: a panel of six scientists have investigated the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit -- the target of the so-called "climategate" -- and has cleared them of "any deliberate scientific malpractice". Moreover, they found that while the scientists at the CRU could have been better organized and could use some assistance from statistics professionals, their overall methodology is sound. In other words, the major cries of foul from global warming deniers when it came to climategate are turning into whimpers. As a backstory, you may wish to read two earlier posts I wrote on this topic, the first introducing climategate, and a second following up to clarify some points. Basically, some emails from climate scientists were leaked by a still-unknown hacker, and to some people it indicated knowingly fraudulent activity by the scientists. However, those of us familiar with the way science and scientists actually work knew from the start there was nothing nefarious going on. When the emails were made public, a lot of noise came from the usual places. The deniers went into overdrive. But it turns out they were just spinning their wheels. This is the second investigation to show nothing bad was going on; the first was from a Parliamentary committee which also cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing. So now we have a panel of politicians as well as a panel of scientists, both of whom have concluded that the CRU scientists are honest. Kinda makes you wonder where Inhofe and Cuccinelli are going, doesn't it? The specific conclusions of this new panel are pretty interesting. Here are some choice quotes:

We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it. Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention. As with many small research groups their internal procedures were rather informal.

That made me smile; that's almost exactly what I said when this whole non-story broke. The way scientists talk to each other uses a kind of informal shorthand that packs a lot of meaning into a few words, but to people unfamiliar with it makes it sound like the scientists are goofballs. It's like the way scientists use the word "theory" to mean a rock solid fact, while to the public it means little more than a guess. The words used by the scientists in their hacked emails were taken grossly out of context by denialists (and run with by the media, not so shockingly). This made me happy too:

A host of important unresolved questions also arises from the application of Freedom of Information legislation in an academic context. We agree with the CRU view that the authority for releasing unpublished raw data to third parties should stay with those who collected it.

Scientific data is not easy to understand by people unfamiliar with it, and simply releasing it will lead to politically-driven misuse. I guarantee it, and we have plenty of evidence that will happen. I am not saying that science should be kept secret; I am saying that people train their whole lives to work with data, and people who are inexperienced are unlikely to understand how to interpret it. That's not an insult to non-scientists; I wouldn't want a random passenger flying my airplane or someone off the street performing brain surgery on me either. There's a reason why some professions take decades of training and experience. The panel did mildly chastise the scientists in one area:

We cannot help remarking that it is very surprising that research in an area that depends so heavily on statistical methods has not been carried out in close collaboration with professional statisticians. Indeed there would be mutual benefit if there were closer collaboration and interaction between CRU and a much wider scientific group outside the relatively small international circle of temperature specialists.

I have no issue with this; it can't hurt to talk to statisticians. I'd welcome that sort of thing. I expect the scientists at the CRU felt they had a handle on the stats, but I also suspect they could use some input from other professionals as well. As far as the public understanding of this situation goes, these next two bits are critical:

The Unit has demonstrated that at a global and hemispheric scale temperature results are surprisingly insensitive to adjustments made to the data and the number of series included.

A lot of the deniers are talking about how the scientists worked with the data, introducing all sorts of errors and inaccuracies. The panel concluded these claims are hollow. The data are robust, and what the scientists did was fine. And finally:

We believe that CRU did a public service of great value by carrying out much time-consuming meticulous work on temperature records at a time when it was unfashionable and attracted the interest of a rather small section of the scientific community.

OK, got that? This isn't a cabal of craven, greedy scientists trying to bilk the public out of grant money. This is a group of people who, when they started this research, were bucking the establishment. They worked incredibly hard with tedious data to try to solve what they felt was an important problem. And when they realized that the Earth was indeed getting warmer, and the climate indeed changing, what did they get? From scientists they got skepticism and healthy attacks on their data, as any scientist expects and in fact should hope to see. But from the deniers they got hit with charges of fraud, of impropriety, of falsifying results, and of any other mud they hoped would stick. That mud is looking awfully thin now. There is still one more investigation underway, but that one is more about the procedure the climate scientists used rather than their results or methods of working with data. With this second investigation's conclusion, climategate is deservedly dying its last gasp. The bottom line: the climate scientists at East Anglia's Climate Research Unit worked honestly, and their results are robust. And one final thing: I challenge the mainstream media to give this even a fraction of the attention they gave to the story when it broke. I won't hold my breath.

Tip o' the thermometer to Slashdot.

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