Geez, this again? Seriously?
Two years ago, someone hacked into a University of East Anglia server and anonymously posted thousands of emails from climate scientists. Quickly dubbed "Climategate", global warming deniers jumped on this, trying to show that these scientists were engaging in fraudulent activities. However, it was clear to anyone familiar with how research is done that this was complete and utter bilge; the scientists were not trying to hide anything, were not trying to trick anyone, and were not trying to falsely exaggerate the dangers of climate change.
I wrote about this when it happened and then again quickly thereafter, showing this was just noise. Accusations of fraud were leveled at climate scientist Michael Mann, but time and again he was exonerated: like this time, and then this time, and then this time, and of course this time, and then my favorite, this time.
Climategate was widely denounced as a manufactured controversy, except, of course, by denialists. Because they denied it. That’s axiomatic.
However, like a bacterium festering away someplace dank and fetid, Climategate is poised to infect reality once again: The Guardian is reporting that a second cache of stolen emails has been released anonymously, and once again the cries of conspiracy are being heard. However, it looks like these emails aren’t really new, and were simply from the original stolen batch, but were held back until today. Mind you, the emails from the first Climategate were released right before a big climate conference, in an obvious attempt to derail it in the media. This new batch was released days before a similar conference, in what appears to be a similar propaganda move.
[UPDATE: Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) has called on the US intelligence community to investigate who stole these emails. I think this is the right move. We still don't know who did this two years ago, and I'd be fascinated to see who was behind it. H/T Michael Mann on Twitter.]
Before I say anything else in this post, I will start off right away and say that the results I’ll be discussing here have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Because of that, the results need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, due to the nature of the study’s foundation and funders, which I will get to in a moment, the results are most definitely news-worthy.
The study is called the Berkeley Earth Project (BEP), and what they found was stated simply and beautifully in their own two-page summary:
Global warming is real, according to a major study released today. Despite issues raised by climate change skeptics, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study finds reliable evidence of a rise in the average world land temperature of approximately 1° C since the mid-1950s.
Wow. Of course, I would change one word in there. Can you guess what it is? The answer is below.
Now, we’ve known this for a while. Study after study has shown that the Earth is warming, that the past decade has been the hottest on record, and that the rise in temperature has been about a degree. So what’s the big deal here?
The big deal is that this was an independent team of researchers who conducted the study (including, interestingly, Saul Perlmutter, who just won the Nobel Prize for co-discovering the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe, and knows a thing or two about data analysis), and whose funding was overwhelmingly donated by the private sector and not from any government. The study was initiated by Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, who was concerned that government researchers weren’t being as open as possible with their methods. He gathered together a team of scientists, and they used data from 39,000 temperature stations around the world, far more than the previous studies. They have put all their data and methodology online for anyone to investigate.
And if you’re wondering who these private groups were, they’re listed on the BEP website. The largest single donor? Why, it’s the Koch brothers, über-conservatives who have pumped millions of dollars into climate change denial. I find that… interesting.
Anyone claiming that climate scientists are alarmists only trying to protect their grant money will have to think about that one for a while.
You’re getting warmer
So what did the scientists working on BEP find? Read More
Virginia State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli really doesn’t like people thinking the Earth is warming up. He has used his position to continually attack scientist Michael Mann and his work done at the University of Virginia, claiming that Dr. Mann abused taxpayer money and knowingly used falsified data.
Cuccinelli was essentially riding on the coattails of the now totally-discredited Climategate fiasco. You may remember how lots of people got very upset that scientists were sending emails to each other that, when taken grossly out of context and misinterpreted, made it look like those scientists were engaged in cooking the data. Once people looked a little more carefully, it became clear that no shenanigans were going on. Interestingly, although it was hugely covered in the media and by the usual antiscience mob in politics, you hardly hear about Climategate anymore.
But Cuccinelli can’t let it go. Even though his subpoena for documents from UVa was dismissed by a judge, he retooled his claims and is now demanding that the University hand over some emails from Mann to colleagues. Apparently, he feels that
Specifically, but without limitation, some of the conclusions of the papers demonstrate a complete lack of rigor regarding the statistical analysis of the alleged data, meaning that the result reported lacked statistical significance without a specific statement to that effect.
Not surprisingly, Michael Mann — who has been repeatedly cleared of wrongdoing despite many attempts to smear him and his work — sees the situation somewhat differently:
Hear that choking sound? That’s the dying gasps of Climategate. The Pennsylvania State University’s investigation into allegations of misconduct by climate scientist Michael Mann found him innocent, specifically saying:
… the Investigatory Committee determined that Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scholarly activities.
Mann, as you may recall, was a key figure in the so-called Climategate fiasco, where leaked emails were purported to show scientists fixing data to make global warming evidence appear stronger. Since Day 1 of this I have been calling it a non-event, a manufactured controversy by global warming denialists trying to make enough noise to drown out any real talk on this topic. And time and time again I have been shown to be correct.
This conclusion by the committee is yet another nail in Climategate’s coffin.
But let me be clear: that has almost no bearing on what the denialists will say or do. They will continue to beat this drum, have no doubt. Climategate may be dead, but the zombie attacks will continue.
[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.
I think a followup on my earlier post on the climatologists’ emails is called for.
The comments in that post have been interesting. Most of them — and there are a lot — completely missed the point I was making, which isn’t terribly surprising. I called this whole thing a non-event because it’s manufactured drama. It is not the smoking gun, it doesn’t discredit climatological research showing the Earth is warming, and it doesn’t show that scientists are some sort of priesthood guarding their domain. As Real Climate points out, it’s not what’s in the files that’s interesting, it’s what’s not in them: nothing about huge conspiracies, nothing about this all being faked. If this is such damning evidence, where’s that evidence?
What these files do show is scientists trying to deal with data, software, and science, all the while also trying to figure out what to do with attacks on their work that are largely ideologically driven. I don’t think they handled that all that well, and that doesn’t surprise me. They’re scientists, not wonks. Of course, if you look at the files from the point of view of giant conspiracies it seems very racy, and clearly a lot of the commenters on my original post feel that way. But to reiterate, this does not call into question the reality of global warming in general.
To further show that, look at some of the things being said. Many people — and some who should really know better — are saying Phil Jones, the head of the group whose files were hacked, has been "fired". That’s simply not true. He has stepped aside, temporarily, while the situation is being investigated. The news reports on this were very clear. So why would someone say he was fired? I submit it’s because they are trying to spin this situation up into more than it is.
Again, as I thought I made clear in the earlier post, the methods being used by the scientists in question don’t look to me like they were faking data. In software it’s common to test out different methods, see what works, and what doesn’t. A piece of software I wrote for working with Hubble data went through hundreds of iterations and edits before going live (and was updated quite a bit after that as well). Software used to analyze data is a little like science itself: it changes as you learn more and find better ways to do things. If you found an early version of my code you might wonder if I was faking the data too! The examples of code in the hacked files may have been early versions, or had some estimations (called, not always accurately, fudge factors) used in place of real numbers… the thing is, we don’t know. Drawing conclusions of widespread scientific fraud from what we’ve seen is ridiculous.
As far as the scientists’ attitudes go, much hay has been made of that as well. But I wonder. Imagine you’ve dedicated your life to some scientific pursuit. You do it because you love it, because you want to make the world a better place, and because you can see the physics beneath the surface, weaving the tapestry of reality, guiding the ebb and flow of forces both subtle and gross. Then you find that people start attacking you with flimsy evidence, politically motivated vitriol, and even elected officials say that what you are doing is a "hoax". How do you react?
The circling of wagons and questions of what to do and how to deal with the situation don’t surprise me at all. And again, without the context of those emails we don’t know what the real story is. You can claim scientific fraud and obstructionism all you want, but you don’t know, and I don’t either. I actually agree that this should be investigated, but I hope they look at all the evidence, and don’t quote mine and cherry pick as so many people have done.
People say I’m biased, which may be a fair cop. I am biased: to reality. If we had real evidence that global warming was not occurring, then I’d pay attention. I’ve looked at the so-called "other side", and found their claims lacking. Science is all about finding supporting and falsifying evidence. When enough data piles up that shows previous thinking is wrong, then scientists change their mind. Look up "dark energy" if you have doubts about that. In this, I am in agreement with the American Meteorological Society, Nature magazine, and Scientific American.
Science is necessarily conservative. Once something is established as being an accepted model/theory/law, then it becomes the standard paradigm until it is shown to be flawed in a significant way. You may not like it, but in modern climatology, global warming is accepted as the standard. It’s not up to me or anyone to prove it right at this point, it’s up to scientists to show it’s wrong. To do that you’ll need a lot of really good evidence, and from what I have seen and read that evidence is not there. Maybe it’s fair to say not yet there, but in reality it may not be there at all.
This has become so politicized it’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong. I personally would be thrilled to find out the Earth isn’t warming up. I’d like my daughter to grow up on a planet that isn’t on the fast track to environmental disaster. But I have no stake in the claim scientifically either way; I don’t cling to AGW because of political bent or any ideology. I think global warming is real because of the overwhelming evidence pointing that way.
I’ll note that some people are still upset by my use of the term deniers. Again, to be clear: a skeptic is someone who uses evidence and logic to reach a conclusion. A denialist is someone who will say or do anything to deny an issue. I stand by my definition. There are actual global warming skeptics out there — and I would not only support their efforts but praise them — but what I see on the web and in the comments overwhelmingly is denial, not skepticism.
Joshua Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas has a lengthy post on these hacked files, which is well worth reading. He is more adamant about the icky nature of the data theft than I am — I do see where it’s wrong, but also understand that motivation is an issue, as I point out in my original post (after all, what one person calls a thieving hacker another would call a whistleblower)– but we largely agree on everything else.
Also, as predicted the comments in my original post accuse me of all sorts of horrid things, which I take in stride. I maintain that the vast majority of what I have seen claimed by the global warming deniers is simply taken out of context. Programmers and scientists complaining about software and data? Quelle horreur! Wow, we never do that.
In conclusion: I called this a non-event because it has no real impact on global warming science or our understanding of it. Of course it has a huge impact, politically. But that’s because the ideologues out there have seized on this and made as much noise as they can, so in that sense it is an issue — an issue of how political science has become, how easy it is to disrupt the process, and the effect this has had on the scientists themselves. This issue won’t go away any time soon, but we need to focus on the signal, not the noise.