Climategate: Violating the Social Contract of Science (Updated)
The scientific method only works when fellow researchers can implicitly trust the results offered by their colleagues.
November 22, 2009 - 6:06 pm
Updated: Chris Horner and CEI today announced their intent to file suit if necessary to force NASA to release documents relating to the ongoing Climategate controversy.
Today, on behalf of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, I filed three Notices of Intent to File Suit against NASA and its Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), for those bodies’ refusal — for nearly three years — to provide documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
The information sought is directly relevant to the exploding “Climategate” scandal revealing document destruction, coordinated efforts in the U.S. and UK to avoid complying with both countries’ freedom of information laws, and apparent and widespread intent to defraud at the highest levels of international climate science bodies. Numerous informed commenters had alleged such behavior for years, all of which appears to be affirmed by leaked emails, computer codes and other data from the Climatic Research Unit of the UK’s East Anglia University.
This is especially interesting:
[CEI is requesting files] relating to the content, importance or propriety of workday-hour posts or entries by GISS/NASA employee Gavin A. Schmidt on the weblog or “blog” RealClimate, which is owned by the advocacy group Environmental Media Services and was started as an effort to defend the debunked “Hockey Stick” that is so central to the CRU files. RealClimate.org is implicated in the leaked files, expressly offered as a tool to be used “in any way you think would be helpful” to a certain advocacy campaign, including an assertion of Schmidt’s active involvement in, e.g., delaying and/or screening out unhelpful input by “skeptics” attempting to comment on claims made on the website.
On November 19, 2009, climate science was severely shaken by the release of a collection of email messages, together with a collection of data and data processing programs, that were alleged to have been stolen, or hacked, from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (CRU). (See here and here for previous PJ Media coverage.)
So what is this “climate science” of which we speak? Trimmed down to the essentials, what scientists really do comes down to these steps:
- Look at something happening.
- Think of a way to explain what’s happening.
- Make a convincing case, based on evidence and experiment, that this is the best known explanation. Part of this “convincing case” is providing enough information so that a knowledgeable person could, if necessary, perform the same experiments and get the same results. (This should really include some weasel-wording about “within experimental error,” but that’s a technical detail. What’s important is that the knowledgeable third party can get close enough to the same results to satisfy that third part.)
- Submit that convincing case to other knowledgeable people to review, in order to see if they also find it convincing. This is what is called peer review.
- Publish that convincing case for the rest of the world, where the results can be seen, commented upon, and challenged.
- Every so often, others perform the same experiments and confirm or question the results.
Step 4, peer review, is essential to this whole process. To be useful, a peer review should:
- be done anonymously, so that reviews are uncolored by fear of retribution or expectation of reward.
- be done independently, by disinterested third parties; it’s generally bad form to have close associates of the authors doing the reviews.
This is really all about trust. If Professor A. Einstein publishes E=mc2, the fact that the publication has been peer reviewed, the publication includes enough detail that you feel confident it could be replicated, and the results are then subject to challenge means that you can trust what’s in the publication. “Science” is a social contract — an agreement that allows scientists to trust what they’re told by their fellows.
So let’s look at a few of these emails. (All links are to email texts in the searchable index on the website anelegantchaos.org.) Here’s an email from Phil Jones at the CRU to Ben Santer at Lawrence Livermore (quoted in Santer’s reply, email # 1233249393):
With free wifi in my room, I’ve just seen that M+M have submitted a paper to IJC on your H2 statistic — using more years, up to 2007. They have also found your PCMDI data — laughing at the directory name — FOIA? Also they make up statements saying you’ve done this following Obama’s statement about openness in government! Anyway you’ll likely get this for review, or poor Francis will. Best if both Francis and Myles did this. If I get an email from Glenn I’ll suggest this.
This appears to be Jones informing Santer of the contents of a submitted paper ahead of time, which would seem to say it’s not really an anonymous process. What’s more, the paper criticizes Santer’s own work, and this email appears to suggest that Santer will be a reviewer; this doesn’t seem very independent.