Climategate accusations shrivel under the glare of multiple investigations

Posted on April 19, 2010

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For the second time in two weeks, an investigation has found that there was neither a conspiracy to deceive the public nor any scientific misconduct present in the scientific research of the scientists of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA). These scientists were at the center of the controversy created by the Climategate email theft.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee tasked itself with investigating what the MPs considered critical points, namely whether the scientific work of the CRU scientists was transparent and open, whether CRU had committed scientific misconduct, and whether the CRU committed any breaches of the UK’s Freedom of Information (FOI) law. In order to address each of these key concerns, the Committee collected a significant number of statements as evidence and looked into the various specific accusations made in those statements.

What the Committee found was that there were a few problems and a widespread disregard for FOI in the wider University culture, CRU’s research was reasonably transparent and free of obvious scientific malpractice.

Some critics of CRU had claimed that CRU didn’t publish their source code. Others had complained that the raw data was unavailable and thus CRU’s analyses couldn’t be verified. Still others rejected CRU’s claims that they were restricted from releasing raw data due to legal agreements. And there were other claims of a lack of transparency at CRU as well. The Committee found all of the claims to be incorrect for one reason or another.

  • All the raw data was available to anyone who chose to buy it from the national meteorological organizations even thought it wasn’t necessarily available via CRU.
  • The complete list of surface stations used by CRU in their global temperature datasets were available as of 2008.
  • CRU was legally restricted from distributing raw meteorological data and is still prevented from distributing raw data for six different countries including Russia and Canada.
  • The adjustments that CRU makes to the raw data in order to generate the global temperature datasets have been published and in the public domain since 1985.
  • The refusal by CRU to publish source code had no bearing on whether other researcher could check CRU’s work:

    [S]cience is more than individual researchers or research groups. One should put research in context and ask the question: what would one hope to find by double checking the processing of the raw data? If this were the only dataset in existence, and Professor Jones’s team had been the only team in the world to analyse it, then it might make sense to double check independently the processing of the raw data and the methods. But there are other datasets and other analyses that have been carried out…

    The results of those other analyses show that

    the NCDC/NOAA and GISS/NASA data sets measuring temperature changes on land and at sea have arrived at similar conclusions using similar data to that used by CRU, but using independently devised methodologies. We have further identified that there are two other data sets (University of Alabama and Remote Sensing Systems), using satellite observations that use entirely different data than that used by CRU. These also confirm the findings of the CRU work.

The Committee’s main complaint with regard to CRU’s research transparency was that they seemed stuck in a 25 year old publishing paradigm instead of adapting to the Internet-era. And so the Committee said that “CRU should have been more open with its raw data and followed the more open approach of NASA [which made all code and data open source years ago] to making data available.”

The key conclusion of the Committee with regard to research transparency was this:

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. (emphasis added)

The Committee also looked closely at several specific emails from the CRU email archives. Deniers have claimed that the “trick” and “hide the decline” emails reveal intent to defraud the public. Deniers have also claimed that an email by Phil Jones where he claimed that he would “redefine what the peer-reviewed literature” reveals a conspiracy to restrict the IPCC process to just pro-anthropogenic climate disruption views. While the third, as yet incomplete Independent Climate Change Email Review will look at these emails in greater detail, the Committee concluded that these three complaints against Jones and CRU were without merit. Specifically, the Committee found that

  • “Trick” was used colloquially and didn’t indicated an attempt by Jones to deceive anyone.

    “The balance of evidence patently fails to support this view. It appears to be a colloquialism for a ‘neat’ method of handling data.”

  • “Hide the decline” was “used as shorthand for the practice of discarding data known to be erroneous” and that at least one paper, published in the journal Nature, had specifically pointed out the decline and attempted to explain why it had happened. The Committee felt that a published paper in one of the most prestigious science journals in the world specifically addressing the decline “clearly refut[ed] this allegation.”

However, while the Committee also concluded that Jones and CRU did not pervert the peer review process, this conclusion is the least well supported. Whether this was due to a lack of time (the Committee was working quickly in order to complete the review before Parliament was dissolved prior to new elections) or because the Committee was deferring to the Independent Climate Change Email Review is not clear from the Committee’s report.

Finally, the Committee investigated claims that CRU had failed to release information as required under the UK FOI law. The Committee found that there was a culture of insufficient data sharing and openness at CRU in particular and at the UEA in general. However, the Committee also found that CRU had been overwhelmed in July 2009 by 61 individual FOI requests, each of which takes a minimum of 18 hours of work just to deny as “vexatious”, never mind the time that the requests might take to complete. In addition, all FOI requests are required to be answered in no less than 20 work days. It would have taken at least seven full time staff to meet the FOI requests that came into CRU in July 2009 alone.

It’s instructive to note that Steve McIntyre of the denier website Climate Audit asked his many readers to submit as many FOI requests to CRU in July 2009 as possible. It’s also interesting to note that Lord Lawson, Chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a group that denies that anthropogenic climate disruption is occurring, blamed CRU for inviting the flood of FOI requests by refusing prior requests from McIntyre: “The 2009 flood, if you look at the sequence of events, was a response to the refusal to give disclosure of various things before. That was what came first.”

All in all, the Committee generally found Phil Jones and CRU to be innocent of the accusations that had been leveled against them:

[I]nsofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty—for example, Professor Jones’s alleged attempt to “hide the decline” – we consider that there is no case to answer. Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact.

The second investigation was a seven member panel chaired by Lord Oxburgh of Liverpool, a fellow of the Royal Society (the UK equivalent of the US National Academy of Sciences). The panel was tasked by the UEA and the Royal Society with examining the research performed by CRU and verifying that the scientific conclusions had been supported by the data. If the conclusions were not, then that would qualify as evidence of research misconduct. In the process of doing this, the panel read 11 papers that had been recommended by the Royal Society and that spanned 25 years of CRU publications. The panel also interviewed CRU scientists twice, and the panel requested and reviewed additional information to help the panel understand the CRU’s research.

The panel investigated two main research areas, namely the use of tree rings for climate purposes (dendroclimatology) and the use of global weather station data to create a global temperature record over the last 130 or more years.

With respect to the dendroclimatology, the panel found that none of the papers they examined used inappropriate methods. Some used non-optimal methods, but the panel said

it is not clear, however, that better methods would have produce significantly different results.

The panel also found that all the papers contained the requisite caveats about the limitations and applicability of the analyses and data presented in the papers. They also found that the CRU tree ring data was disorganized and not very well documented. As anyone who’s ever worked in industry or academia knows, documentation takes time and money and so is almost always minimized in favor of pushing out the latest product or paper. The panel’s conclusion found that

after reading publications and interviewing the senior staff of CRU in depth, we are satisfied that the CRU tree-ring work has been carried out with integrity, and that allegations of deliberate misrepresentation and unjustified selection of data are not valid. (emphasis added)

When the panel investigated the historical temperature records produced by CRU, the panel again found that the methods used were “fair and satisfactory” even though other methods might have proven superior. In fact, the panel pointed out specifically something that the House of Commons Committee report also found:

There have been various analyses of similar publicly available data sets by different international groups. Although there are some differences in fine detail that reflect the differences in the analytical methods used, the results are very similar.

And again, the panel found that the CRU papers regarding global temperature records and the researchers themselves all provided “detailed descriptions of uncertainties” in the data, methods, and conclusions of the research.

The panel’s only major complaint with CRU’s work was that they didn’t have sufficient interaction with professional statisticians. However, the panel found no evidence that better statistical methods would have changed the results – NASA, NCDC, and now multiple different amateur reconstructions have all replicated the basic results of CRU using the same raw data CRU used.

Taken together, the two independent reviews have largely exonerated Phil Jones and the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia. Yes, both reviews found that there were some problems in the culture or in the specific statistical methods chosen, but on the central questions relating to the accuracy of climate science and data produced by CRU, both reviews were completely in agreement: CRU’s work was accurate and had been neither manipulated nor misrepresented to scientists, critics, or the public in general.

The release of the CRU emails and documents was an explosion when they burst upon the scene in November 2009. Since then, however, three of five investigations (two of three UK inquiries, one of two Penn State inquiries) have found that the accusations of misconduct and conspiracy are no more than a raisin drying up in the sun. If the last two reviews turn out like the first three have, what could have been a runny sore for climatologists worldwide may well turn into a sagging, heavy load for the climate disruption deniers who erroneously touted “Climategate” as the death of anthropogenic climate disruption.

Other sites discussing the two UK investigations:

S&R is presently in the process of reviewing all the evidence provided to the House of Commons and the evidence released to date by the last inquiry, the Independent Climate Change Email Review. S&R will publish an analysis of the evidence provided upon completion of the review.

Image Credits:
UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee
University of East Anglia
Global and Planetary Change 2008

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