Climategate? Not likely.

Posted on November 20, 2009


In case you were unaware, hackers got into the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) servers and published hundreds to thousands of documents and private communications from CRU climate scientists that pertain to climate disruption. And the climate disruption denial and conservative blogs have subsequently gone completely apeshit over it. The Wonk Room has a few of the better quotes from the deniers:

“If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW,” says the Telegraph’s James Delingpole.

Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey claims the emails discuss “repetitive, false data of higher temperatures.”

The National Review’s Chris Horner salivates, “The blue-dress moment may have arrived.”

“The crimes revealed in the e-mails promise to be the global warming scandal of the century,” blares Michelle Malkin.

The Australia Herald-Sun’s Andrew Bolt claims the emails are “proof of a conspiracy which is one of the largest, most extraordinary and most disgraceful in moderrn [sic] science.”

So, do these emails and documents represent proof of a “conspiracy” and “scandal”? At this point it seems highly unlikely, and the more that people look at the illegally-obtained emails and documents, the less likely it will become. Here’s why.

First, there has been much ado made about some emails that supposedly talk about “tricks” and procedures to “hide the decline”, as well as other words used that indicate that the CRU scientists (and their various correspondents) were lying about their data (something that RealClimate discusses). And it’s much ado about nothing (with apologies to Shakespeare). I work in electrical engineering where I use words and phrases that, taken out of context, could be misinterpreted as nefarious by people who are ignorant of the context or who have an axe to grind. For example, I regularly talk about “fiddling with” or “twiddling” the data, “faking out” something, “messing around with” testing, and so on. In the first case, I’m analyzing the data to see if I can make it make sense or if I can extract the signal from the noise. In the second case, I’m often forced to force a piece of electronics into a specific mode manually so I can test it and verify some other function, or I use the phrase to provide artificial test data for calibration and/or verification that my electronics are working correctly. And in the third case, it usually involves trying to deduce whether a problem is caused by the electronic board I;m testing or by the equipment that is doing the testing.

Second, it might be unpolitical to say that you’ll be happy when someone died, or that Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts are pricks and assholes, but that doesn’t make the statements a scandal. I personally was happy when former Senator Jesse Helms died, and I will probably enjoy a drink of expensive scotch when Marc Morano, James Inhofe, and Steve Milloy kick the bucket. And I’ve got no problem calling someone like Joe D’Aleo a liar or Steve Milloy an oxygen thief. If that makes me a bad person, well, I’m OK with that. I expect that most people hold enough contempt for some of their enemies to relish it when they die. So it’s not political and it’s not nice or decent, but it’s also not scandalous. It’s still human, and scientists are just as human as anyone else.

Third and probably most importantly, no matter how much the deniers scream, these emails aren’t likely to reveal any evidence of scientific malfeasance. And even if they do, there’s an entire globe of researchers whose independent research has bolstered the case that climate disruption is real and that it’s predominantly caused by human civilization. It will take more than even a couple of thousand emails to knock the massive, reinforced scientific foundation that underlies anthropogenic climate disruption.

And let’s not forget – the emails and documents were obtained illegally. If there is truly damning information (such as a critical scientist or three overtly saying stuff along the lines of “I fudged my data and nobody caught me. You lost the bet – pay up.”), then the illegality of the release will fade somewhat in the face of other data. But if not, this hack will be a major problem for not only the hackers who released it but also for all the people who are republishing the emails. Hacking is illegal, but in some states and countries, releasing private email correspondence is considered breach of privacy and is thus also a crime.

Finally, let’s point out that some of the people here screaming the loudest from their soapboxes are hypocrites (such as Michelle Malkin and Ed Morrissey). If the hackers had got into military computers and released private communications, they’d be screaming for the hackers’ blood and demanding that any site republishing the emails be brought up on federal charges. But here they’re screaming for the victim’s blood. If hacking and leaking emails is wrong, then it’s wrong. Claiming that it’s wrong when a leak targets your friends but OK when it targets your enemy makes you a hypocrite and a political hack worthy of nothing but disdain.

There’s a chance that the hack will end the career of a scientists or two, probably for political reasons. But the supposedly damning emails the conservatives and deniers are touting are nothing of the sort. And given how strong the science is, it can survive this latest round of denier dirty tricks.

For anyone interested, here’s a link to a Memeorandum page where there’s lots of links about this topic.

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