A controversy is brewing in the world of climate science. On Thursday, November 19, a Russian website posted over 1,000 e-mails and almost 3,000 data files from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. The CRU is one of the major centers of climate research in the world, and provided much of the data for the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
The e-mails, written by some of the leading climate scientists in Britain and America, seem to suggest some very disturbing behavior:
* manipulating climate data to fit pre-existing theory
* refusing to share data with peers to check for accuracy
* circumventing legal requirements to release information, and even deleting some of it
* pressuring journals to reject papers that don’t fit the theory, and even pushing editors out of their posts
The story has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. You can find a good summary of how the story broke on Pajamas Media. Blogger Bishop Hill is keeping a running list of the most controversial e-mails. And, if you just want a quick summary, there’s “Three Things You Absolutely Must Know About Climategate.”
The University has acknowledged that its system was illegally hacked, but cannot vouch for the authenticity of every item. (There is also some suggestion that the information may have been leaked by an insider.) Several authors and recipients have verified some of the e-mails as genuine; as of this writing, none of the messages have been refuted. The sheer amount of data – over 170 megabytes – suggests this is not a hoax, though many authors have cautioned that it would be easy for a prankster to slip a few bogus e-mails in with all the legitimate ones.
But, assuming the e-mails are genuine, what do they tell us?
The alleged non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is a legal matter. We can say nothing about it, other than no charges have been filed, and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The e-mails which seem to describe fudging the facts to fit the theory have received the most attention. It would be disturbing indeed if scientists at a major research institute were falsifying data. Though only a handful of papers have so far been implicated, if the allegations are borne out it would cast a pall over these scientists’ other work, their collaborations, and even work done by other scientists which was based on the disputed data.
These particular e-mails have also received the strongest defense. The authors, and even some third-party observers, maintain that the messages are being quoted out of context and misinterpreted, and that some phrases which appear damning actually have innocent explanations. (To date, there has been little reporting on the much larger, much more complex data files, which may shed light on this issue.)
Perhaps most disturbing, from a science standpoint, are the withholding of data from outside researchers, and the pressure put on journals to not publish dissenting views. Science absolutely relies on vigorous, evidence-based debate. If the evidence is not made available, the debate cannot take place. Furthermore, proponents of human-caused global warming have long criticized dissenters for not publishing their papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, if it turns out that those journals were controlled by proponents who actively kept dissenters out, then the argument loses merit.
On this last point, global warming proponents and dissenters agree. Writers such as Megan McArdle and George Monbiot argue that the case for human-caused global warming remains strong, but that subverting the peer-review process blocks scientific progress and is a major blow to credibility.
So, what next? Politicians in Britain, Australia and America are calling for investigations. Climate studies are funded with taxpayer dollars, and lawmakers pass legislation based on the information the studies provide. Governments have an obligation to make sure it is accurate. And, as noted earlier, the easy work of reading the e-mails has largely been done. The more difficult task of sifting through the data files will take longer. Already, some programmers are questioning the computer models CRU developed to predict climate. If there are more updates, we’ll be sure to post them here.