Climategate Deniers

Peter Wood

Proponents of the theory of man-made global warming have been discomforted by the revelations beginning in late November that some members of the scientific community engaged in dubious conduct that reached the level of misleading the public.  They reported data that has since proved to be missing or non-existent; they devised mathematical algorithms that turned statistical noise into supposedly meaningful graphs; they erased deep discrepancies; they selectively omitted findings at odds with their own; and conspired to withhold documents they were legally obligated to share with researchers who had properly requested them; they sought to prevent the publication of scientific work that contradicted their favored hypotheses; and they sought to damage journals that accommodated that work. 

All of this mischief was clear within a few days of the unauthorized release of the emails and computer code from the Climate Research Center at the University of East Anglia.  But in the weeks and months since, the picture of how proponents of the man-made global warming theory have abused “climate science” has only worsened.  Most conspicuously, a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has proven to be riddled with claims presented as “scientific findings” that turn out to be little more than wild conjectures by advocacy groups or, in some cases, unsubstantiated claims by eccentric individuals.  Other data—such as “tree rings” research and the locations of Chinese weather stations where temperature measurements were located—have been deliberately kept hidden or conveniently lost.

This cascade of news about the dubious foundations of a theory has registered profoundly with many in the scientific community and it has also shocked public opinion, which is now turning away from general assent with the theory and becoming instead conspicuously skeptical.  But shock and dismay are not the only possible reactions.  Some proponents of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) have chosen instead to set aside the evidence of scientific error and misconduct.  This would seem, on its face, a difficult path.  The evidence is clear, strong, and easily accessible.  Wishing it away would seem to be an act of futility.  And yet, there are within the academy a fair number of people who have set out to do just that. 

For instance, Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and member of the National Academy of Sciences, has attempted to conjure away the now infamous “hide the decline” statement made in an email by CRU head Phil Jones, referring to a paper by Penn State professor Michael Mann published in the journal Nature. Jones wrote: 

From: Phil Jones <[email protected]>
To: ray bradley <[email protected]>,[email protected], [email protected]
Subject: Diagram for WMO Statement
Date: Tue, 16 Nov 1999 13:31:15 +0000
Cc: [email protected],[email protected]

Dear Ray, Mike and Malcolm,
Once Tim's got a diagram here we'll send that either later today or first thing tomorrow.
I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline. Mike's series got the annual land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999 for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998. 
Thanks for the comments, Ray.


The email certainly sounds as if Professor Jones was attempting to use statistical subterfuge to hide data that was at odds with his preferred views.  But not so fast, says Dean Chameides.  Actually he said this more than once, most recently on a Huffington Post essay published yesterday, “The Boys Who Cried ‘Climategate.’”  Chameides helpfully points out:

Much explanation has come to light to show that such a conclusion of malfeasance is off-base. As noted on this blog last month (and in many other places, too):

  • "Trick" is a term of art to indicate an elegant mathematical algorithm. Not convinced? Try doing a search on "computational trick." I get 4,600 hits, most linking to papers with the term in their title.
  • "Decline" refers to a decline in tree wood density since the 1960s, a phenomenon that is well-known and well-documented in the literature.
  • "Hide" refers to a decision to produce a "tidy" graph that did not include the well-known divergence between observed temperatures and temperatures inferred from tree rings after the 1960s.

Suffice it to say, none of the investigations into the behavior of the scientists implicated by the hacked e-mails has yet to find any evidence of data distortion. (See here and here.)

The technique on display here might best be called by that fashionable term from the 1980s and ‘80s: deconstruction.  The words don’t mean what they seem to mean.  They have different, secret meanings, which, however, are plain to insiders.  Read the message in context with the eyes of an insider and it is benign, even wholesome.  There are no bears in the woods.  Just honest scientists doing an honest day’s work.

Dean Chameides is certainly not the only Climategate apologist striking this line.  Much the same view has been circulating from early on in the scandal.  Here it is presented by an anonymous Canadian writer who hosts a blog called “Deep Climate” devoted to attacking “the climate science ‘skeptic’ movement in Canada."  Other observers have reduced the dismissal to a single sneer.  Professor Robert Parks at the University of Maryland, for example, manages to reduce the whole affair to the need for researchers to be more careful about what they put into writing:


In an editorial this week, Nature acknowledges that "climate research has taken a very public battering in recent months," and so it has.  A few climate scientists ignored the simple rules of such a fight at considerable cost.  Rule one: never imagine that your e-mail conversation is bound to remain private.

Shouldn't "Rule One" be "Do good work?"  And Rules 1.1-1.2-1.3, etc:  Report your findings accurately.  Don't lie.  Don't plot to suppress discrepancies.  Respect colleagues who have findings at variance with yours.  Keep your original data (assuming you haven't invented it out of thin air). Check your sources if you are using someone else's data.  Don't use algorithms that smooth the data to the level of statistical nonsense. 

I can think of a lot of lessons more compelling than Parks' notion that climate scientists ought to be more adroit at covering up their malfeasance.

And here Stephen Sheehi, professor of Arabic in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of South Carolina, kindly explains to the Faculty Senate that it was proper for the CRU folks to exclude critics of manmade global warming from science journals.  He is responding (towards the end of the video, at 1:24:06) to the chair of the Faculty Senate who has just spent several minutes expressing temperate concern about the dereliction of good science evident in the CRU emails.  Professor Sheehi responds: “The problem is that people are desperate to get a very urgent message across, particularly because many of the people they are trying to exclude are corporately funded hacks who have a veneer of credibility.” 

Well, OK then. If you think your opponents are corporately funded (and are therefore hacks) it is perfectly fine to sabotage peer review and take whatever other steps may be needed to “exclude” those opponents of your thesis from the usual channels of scientific exchange.

“Politics ain’t bean bag,” said Mr. Dooley. Apparently, climate science isn’t either. 

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