On the eve of the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen, the scientific community that studies global warming has recently come under the spotlight. The reason: hundreds of emails and documents spanning exchanges between officials from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA) between 1996 and 2009, have recently been hacked and posted online, as confirmed by the New York Times.
According to climate change skeptics, the emails supposedly offer evidence that scientists manipulated data to match predictions of temperature changes made by computers. The scandal has already become popularly known as “Climategate” although many scientists and bloggers insist it appears to be a case of attempted political manipulation.
The emails and documents have been posted on a Russian server, and continue to be shared on many websites and over the P2P networks.
Robert Graham, a specialist in computer security, issued, on his website Errata Security, a few assumptions about the hacker:
The data is oddly specific. Only Phil Jones e-mails were copied, and a lot of the data that was hacked is specific to certain climate controversies. If it was not an insider, it was certainly somebody familiar with the central debate about reproducibility of climate reconstructions. The fact that they posted the data to an anonymous FTP site in Russia also points to somebody who is active in the hacking community. This narrows things down. I suspect that at the end of the data, they'll find some sort of computer administrator working for CRU.
The CRU quickly acknowledged the theft and the authenticity of documents, through the voice of its director Phil Jones, one of the main participants in the scandal.
“Mike's Nature trick”
The climate change skeptics have seized on Climategate as evidence that there is room for doubt about the reality of global warming. Several blogs and news websites have linked to the “suspicious” emails. An email from Phil Jones got the full treatment on several blogs and news websites for mentioning something called “Mike's Nature trick” that refers to a “trick” used by Michael Mann to “mask a decline” (instead of an expected rise) in temperature. “Did they invent the numbers?” asks Sophie Verney-Caillat on Rue89.com [fr].
Skeptics have their answer. Jean S, on the website ClimateAudit, shows graphs from several different sources that help illustrate claims of data manipulation.
A coordinated manipulation
Lubos Motl Pilsen, who describes himself as a “conservative physicist” on his blog The Reference Frame, says he read through the files and emails thoroughly. He sees evidence that scientist not only invented data, but also manipulated stakeholders. He found a file “explaining 20 recommendations for a good propagandist”, on how to “use emotions”, the necessity to “connect alarm with ‘home’ not with ‘faraway regions’, and so on”. Additionally, he writes, “the climate scientists also synchronize their efforts to block certain papers from being published, or even eliminate a journal (Climate Research) from a de facto list of peer-reviewed journals”.
This plot to discredit climate change science has been enabled by mainstream media, according to bloggers who reprimand their stance. Vincent Bénard, on his blog Objectif Liberté (Destination Freedom), describes [fr] how (french) media failed to follow-up:
Par contre, il est tout à fait regrettable que les médias, et notamment les médias hexagonaux, adoptent sur ces questions, de façon quasi pavlovienne, la thèse des chercheurs du GIEC. Ils adoptent de ce fait une posture purement idéologique et oublient toutes les bases du journalisme sérieux: vérification de l'authenticité (faite par le New York Times et ses pairs anglo-américains), analyse, recoupements, et conclusions. Nos journalistes environnementaux écrivent d'abord la conclusion, puis l'habillent d'analyses à l'emporte pièce, en tenant pour acquis un seul point de vue et en dénigrant par avance toute opposition.
“Much Ado About Nothing”?
UEA and CRU have refuted the charges that any of their data is false. In an article posted on the website of the university, they state that 95% of climatic data collected has been published. According to them, “… there is nothing in the material stolen which indicates that peer-reviewed publications by CRU, and others, on the nature of global warming and related climate change are not of the highest-quality of scientific investigation and interpretation.”
According to ClimateChange, a group blog by American and European scientists, the plot the skeptics claim to have unveiled is nowhere to be found:
There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, 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. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.
Concerning the Mike's Nature trick, they state that's all about vocabulary :
Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all.
The blog Carbon Fixated, dedicated to photosynthesis and climate change, dismissed the plot with humour. He imagined what would happen if letters from Newton to other scientists had been made public:
If you own any shares in companies that produce reflecting telescopes, use differential and integral calculus, or rely on the laws of motion, [you] should start dumping them NOW. The conspiracy behind the calculus myth has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed after volumes of Newton’s private correspondence were compiled and published.
It is unclear what impact Climategate will have on the Copenhagen summit, but we can hope it may at least have had a positive effect of encouraging transparent debate, as suggested by the famous American physicist Richard Feynman in 1974:
It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked – to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.”