Sometime last week the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia was hacked and materials stolen off its server. That information, including thousands of emails, has been posted on the internet (including at Wikileaks) and has caused a weekend of frantic blogging. There is more or less a rather juicy scandal brewing.
There is more to this story than the "ho hum, nothing to see here, the making of sausages, and science, shouldn’t be seen by the public" attitude being displayed by warmenists. There is, however, less to the story than the "this proves the greatest scientific fraud in human history" attitude being taken by denialists.
So far, there is no evidence I have seen that suggests the fabrication of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. Certainly, scientists at the CRU are not the only scientists working on climate science. These emails do not provide a silver bullet to kill off that theory.
Much has been made of an email by Professor Phil Jones, head of the CRU, where he says: "I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline." The word "trick" doesn’t suggest anything untoward, rather being somewhat clever about some technique. "Hide" could be a problem.
This email is dated November 16, 1999, so it cannot relate to more recent arguments over the extent of global warming.
It is clear, however, that statements suggesting "the science is settled" can no longer be sustained. In an email from Mike Kelly to Phil Jones (dated October 26, 2008), we find this gem, "I’ll maybe cut the last few points off the filtered curve before I give the talk again as that’s trending down as a result of the end effects and the recent cold-ish years.” While on July 5, 2005, Phil Jones wrote: "The scientific community would come down on me in no uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998. OK it has but it is only seven years of data and it isn’t statistically significant."
It is possible that plausible explanations can and will be made to explain these sorts of statements. At the same time the emails do provide evidence of attempts to subvert the peer-review process, refusal to make data available to journals, attempts to manipulate the editorial stance of journals, attempts to avoid releasing data following FOI requests, tax evasion, rejoicing at the deaths of opponents, manipulation of results, apparent misappropriation of grant money, and threats to physically assault rivals.
This is not a good look at all. Some of this behaviour is bad form, some of it unethical, and some of it potentially illegal. The destruction of data subject to a freedom-of-information request is illegal. The CRU has argued that a lot of their early raw data was destroyed because they couldn’t store it. That explanation is, unfortunately, all too plausible. We live in a world where as recently as 20 years ago, data would have been thrown away for want of storage space. These irreplaceable and valuable historical documents are likely to have been tossed. Why then find a 2005 email from Phil Jones: "If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone"?
If this is a global Godwin Grech moment and the incriminating emails have been seeded with misinformation, then they are in the clear. Since the scandal has broken that argument is yet to be made. Indeed, several individuals have confirmed the authenticity of emails and condemned the invasion of their privacy.
This incident reflects poorly on academics and universities everywhere.
It is important to remember that the taxpaying public invests a lot of trust and respect in academic processes; not to mention, money. The peer-review process, for example, has been held up as the "gold standard" of integrity. Yet we see numerous emails subverting peer-review. We see attempts to avoid freedom-of-information requests -- something the media and the public are increasingly impatient about.
We see overall a pattern of poor behaviour. Some have chosen to represent that behaviour as the workings of elite scientists going about their business. I am not convinced that the public, whose taxes finance that behaviour, are going to be pleased. Nor should they be.
Sinclair Davidson is a professor in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University and a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.