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Climategate: Violating the Social Contract of Science (Updated)

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 Pajamas 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:

  1. Look at something happening.
  2. Think of a way to explain what's happening.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. Publish that convincing case for the rest of the world, where the results can be seen, commented upon, and challenged.
  6. 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.

Then there is this email from Tom Wigley to Tim Carter (email # 1051190249):

PS, Re CR [the journal Climate Research] I do not know the best way to handle the specifics of the editoring. Hans von Storch is partly to blame -- he encourages the publication of crap science "in order to stimulate debate." One approach is to go direct to the publishers and point out the fact that their journal is perceived as being a medium for disseminating misinformation under the guise of refereed work. I use the word "perceived" here, since whether it is true or not is not what the publishers care about -- it is how the journal is seen by the community that counts.

I think we could get a large group of highly credentialed scientists to sign such a letter -- 50+ people.

Note that I am copying this view only to Mike Hulme and Phil Jones. Mike's idea to get editorial board members to resign will probably not work -- must get rid of von Storch too, otherwise holes will eventually fill up with people like Legates, Balling, Lindzen, Michaels, Singer, etc. I have heard that the publishers are not happy with von Storch, so the above approach might remove that hurdle too

Hans von Storch is a well-known climate scientist who has been critical of some aspects of the global warming debate. This email appears to suggest that he was seen as too favorable to other opinions; they are discussing how to "get rid of von Storch." Remember that the reason for independence is to ensure that there's no fear of retribution nor expectation of reward.

It's interesting to note that Hans von Storch actually was made editor in chief of Climate Research and then resigned soon after. The reason: he wasn't allowed by the publisher to publish an editorial critical of the very paper this email discusses.

Von Storch has responded to the email releases on his web page:

As far as I myself can judge, and according to responses by others, the files are authentic, but not complete. .... There are a number of problematic statements, which will be discussed in the media and the blogosphere. I found the style of communication revealing, speaking about other people and their ideas, joining forces to "kill" papers, exchanges of "improving" presentations without explaining.

Others have noted that the review process for climate change research seems flawed. In the Wegman report, prepared for the Committee on Energy and Commerce by a committee selected under the auspices of the National Academy of Science, a section is included on the connections among the reviewers of various papers, with the interesting observation that published papers are nearly always reviewed by the same small group of people, and almost all of these people are also co-authors on other papers.

The effect is that climate research is produced by a small "in group" who insist on a particular model, and apparently reviewed by the same group. Critics of the particular model, even if they agree in general with the notion of anthropogenic global warming, are then relegated to an "out group."

Roger Pielke, Sr. of the University of Colorado is a notable climate scientist who has been relegated to the "out group." Dr. Pielke was the lead author of part of the most recent IPCC report, until the section he was writing was replaced at the last minute. At the time, Dr. Pielke wrote (PDF):

The process that produced the report was highly political, with the Editor taking the lead in suppressing my perspectives, most egregiously demonstrated by the last-minute substitution of a new Chapter 6 for the one I had carefully led preparation of and on which I was close to reaching a final consensus. Anyone interested in the production of comprehensive assessments of climate science should be troubled by the process which I document below in great detail that led to the replacement of the Chapter that I was serving as Convening Lead Author.

We're only beginning to analyze and understand the full implications of these emails and the associated data. Among other things, however, these emails suggest that a number of highly reputable climate scientists had been conniving for years to prevent other researchers from obtaining the data needed to replicate climate science results. At the same time, these scientists appear to have colluded to subvert the whole peer review process in order to prevent critical or contradictory results from being published.

This violates the whole social contract that is the basis of what we call science.