November 24, 2009

Climate scientists’ hacked e-mails raise questions about their conduct (but what about the hacker?)

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The tweet from New York Times reporter Andy Revkin caught my eye right away:

Hacked climate emails all the rage w/ skeptics tonite, including at least 1 email to some journo Revkin > #climate #agw

I quickly looked at the post on the climate-change-skeptic blog The Air Vent that was first to unleash the e-mails. Unfortunately, the blogger chose to eliminate the scientists’ names, replacing them with initials because, the blogger says, “I need to understand the legal ramifications of making some of the emails public.” (Ya think?! More on that in a minute.) Not knowing who the authors were, I concluded this stuff was unintelligible. “Wt gives?” I asked my Twitter posse.

Well, Revkin and Washington Post reporter Julia Eilperin were soon out with stories explaining that the pirated e-mails of some pretty prominent climate scientists show them in a less-than-flattering light.

So far I’ve just barely perused the 62 megabytes lifted from the server of the University of East Anglia. But many climate skeptics decrying the e-mails say they’re proof of a conspiracy to defraud the public. It will be some time before we understand all the fallout.

At minimum, though, from what I’ve read in the e-mails and the journalism of those who have worked hard to understand these documents, they show  that climate scientists can be a petty and thin-skinned bunch.

Here’s Revkin’s story:

The e-mail messages, attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers, include discussions of scientific data and whether it should be released, exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptics, and casual comments — in some cases derisive — about specific people known for their skeptical views. …

In one e-mail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical ‘trick’ in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend. In another, a scientist refers to climate skeptics as ‘idiots.’

 Of East Anglia’s Phil Jones and Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann, Eilperin recounts:

Jones and Mann discuss how they can pressure an academic journal not to accept the work of climate skeptics with whom they disagree. ‘Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal,’ Mann writes.

‘I will be emailing the journal to tell them I’m having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor,’ Jones replies.

In other passages, researchers discuss withholding data. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way the scientists implicated can put a good face on that or a lot of the other stuff coming out.

It’s probably too early to say what means in terms of the politics and policy of climate change, especially with the big negotiations coming up in Copenhagen. Tonight comes news that Sen. James Inhofe and others in Congress are launching an investigation, for example.

It is not too early to say, however, that whatever one may think about how these scientists have conducted themselves, there is still a lot of data pointing to a changing climate and a human hand in that change.   

 Now, one thing I’m not seeing a whole lot written about is: Who the heck stole this stuff? Will they be prosecuted? Can any of us trust our e-mail with remotely private material any more?

Here’s a quick story about how I learned this kinda thing is wrong: When I was a beginning reporter for The Independent Florida Alligator, I was doing a story about female students’ complaints that they had to wait weeks to get in to see the only gynecologist at the university infirmary. These were college girls who had plenty to be anxious about.

I called and called. He was never there. I went to his office. The door was open. I walked over to his desk, where his calendar was laid out in front of me. I could see vast stretches on the calendar with no appointments. I started taking notes before his secretary or some flunky noticed me there.

Boy, was I in trouble! As well I should have been. My editor, Dennis Kneale, really took me to the woodshed on that one. His message, and it’s one that is relevant here, was that no matter how noble one’s purpose might be, it doesn’t excuse rifling through others’ personal effects without permission. That’s what’s happened with these ripped-off e-mails, and it needs to be pointed out every time this comes up that someone was not fighting fair here. Here’s how the scientist-produced blog put it:

 The timing of this particular episode is probably not coincidental. But if cherry-picked out-of-context phrases from stolen personal emails is the only response to the weight of the scientific evidence for the human influence on climate change, then there probably isn’t much to it.

 (I should mention that Gavin Schmidt, one of the authors of that blog, was one of the scientists whose communications were intercepted.)

Continuing with realclimate’s response, this part inspired a chuckle for me:

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research …  no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords.

— Robert McClure


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