Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Obama picks Perino to exemplify a "free and professional press" | Main | Win $1000: 3quarksdaily's Top Quark prize for political blogging »

November 22, 2009

Scientists talk smack on listervs! News at 11

Real Climate debunks allegations by global warming deniers that stolen emails from a closed climate science listerv reveal some kind of conspiracy. 


This is no big deal, the article you linked to even gloats that the "‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords" remains secret.

The privacy violations are a very big deal. The revelation that there's freewheeling debate on climatology listervs, not so much.

I wonder, what are the ethics of publishing a story almost entirely involving information obtained from illegal hacking? If the illegal hacking itself uncovered something illegal or unethical that's one thing, but this all seems like mostly trash talk.

I'd take the climate "skeptics" more seriously if many of them weren't also the same people who are skeptical of evolution/natural selection. Climatology is no more a conspiracy than evolutionary biology is. Hyperventilating conspiracy theorists like Michelle Malkin can call it "The global warming scandal of the century" if she'd like but it amounts to a very weak tempest in a minuscule teapot. Conspiracies don't happen in science. That's what peer review is for.

I'm waiting to hear about explosive revelations that will blow the lid off the unconscionable conspiracy of the secret clique of sinister, America-hating evolutionary biologists to suppress evidence supporting intelligent design/creation theory.

That's what peer review is for.

Unless everyone's mind is made up, and that some of the peers choose to make peer review meaningless

In another, Phil Jones, the director of the East Anglia climate center, suggested to climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University that skeptics' research was unwelcome: We "will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"
from Wall St Journal

I'm no expert on this subject, but there has been the whiff of Lysenkoism about the Gore movement, the unwillingness to debate, the contempt for alternate views, etc.

There has been no debate. For years, we've been told that " the debate is over, so shut up. ". Let's start the discussion now.

what peer review is for

If you want to make a big splash in science you cobble together convincing evidence that upsets a currently accepted paradigm. There's no doubt that there are plenty of ambitious climatologists who are scrutinizing the data very carefully for evidence that the earth's climate is not changing or will not change. Conspiracies don't last in science, particularly in high profile subjects that have many workers involved. It just doesn't work like that.

This story is just beginning

If I hear correctly, the " warmists " have sought to prevent publication of alternate viewpoints on the subject.

Have just heard Bob Zimmerman, a science writer ( and no dogmatist ) on the radio, and he describes this as a scandal.
We'll see.

Re: Lysenko. Soviet Stalin era geneticists, embryologists, agronomists, etc. risked a good deal more than any current climatologist for not hewing to the party doctrine. What's the worst that could happen now? One might not get tenured. No one is being sent to the Gulag and no one has been shot. You're insulting those Soviet scientists who had to try to keep abreast of developments in their fields and perhaps even make a small contribution of their own under brutal circumstances.

I own for instance a book on sturgeon embryology written by Soviet scientists who had to flee the Lysenkoist oppression in Moscow and Leningrad to work in the relative hinterlands on the Caspian Sea. They faced difficulties that no climatologist must confront, no matter how contrarian or "sceptical", and they kept on working.

If the "warmists" are wrong we have replace "soon to run out" polluting fossil fuel from foreign countries with clean cheap renewable energy that is right here. If the "others" are wrong lots of us will be dead and most of us will be homeless. It seems that most of us live by the sea. We won't have much energy since we didn't invest in renewables and we ran out of fossil fuels.

The Pantom,

Part of being a member of the scientific community is maintaining acceptable scholarly and scientific standards. This includes indirect means (choosing what conferences/journals to read/cite/attend/submit to/review for) and direct means (establishing conferences/journals/etc., editing or chairing them, reporting on their quality, etc., teaching, examing PhDs).

This is, in fact, part of peer review and the peer review process.

This includes excluding crap. And, of course, just as our crap filter lets in crap, our crap filter can keep out good stuff. Such is life. We are fallible.

That doesn't mean that crap filters aren't a good thing. Overall, they improve the quality of our work not in the least by giving us less to pay attention to. It isn't worth scrutinizing and rescrutinizing obviously broken or bogus stuff on a regular basis.

There are plenty of alternative views and debates in climate science (just as there is in every scientific field). Being open to reasonable debate is not the same as being open to arbitrary debate.

Phantom, what you say about "the whiff of Lysenkoism" isn't true even excluding the fact that climate scientists haven't murdered anyone. In the Soviet Union, one fringe scientist convinced the government to dictate a certain worldview. There was no peer review there, and non-Soviet scientists laughed at Lysenko's ideas. Over and over, there were scientists who explained that Lysenko was promoting ideas that biologists abandoned in the 1830s, when they adopted Darwinism.

Nothing like this is happening with climate change. No climate scientist is claiming global warming isn't happening or isn't anthropogenic. The criticism comes mainly from politicians, who quote scientists in other fields who understand nothing of climatology. The climate science community's response looks little like Lysenko's, and more like the AIDS research community's response to HIV-AIDS denialism, the evolutionary biology community's response to creationism, and the historical community's response to Holocaust revisionism.

I for one think this is a big prank to wip up conversation about global climate around upcoming big climate meeting. Sort of baiting the media with sordid story of hacking. But really just a way to make the idiots to start discussion and print real climate news for once.

One thing I always want to ask when people claim global warming isn't happening: why not?

Are measurements of radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane, etc, all wrong? Are concentrations of greenhouse gases not rising? Is there some other greenhouse gas which we're inadvertently destroying even as we emit new ones, meaning that our net impact is neutral or even coling?

If I have a silver nitrate solution, and a stick a copper wire in it, then we would predict that silver will precipitate out and copper nitrate will form. Maybe that doesn't happen, but it isn't satisfactory to say "that didn't happen." Why didn't it? Did we screw up our experiment? How?

The biggest problem is a) oil companies b)US car companies, but this has gone away c)International trade.

People like Inhofe is basically mouthing oil company lobbyist. He wouldn't know global warming from a tuna sandwich if it bites his ass.

So what he got is big corporate media, lobbyists, and congress are in the pocket of oil companies.

No, car companies are still strong, politically if not economically. Their lobbying thinktanks are still well-funded - for example, GM's American Highway Users Alliance's mouthpiece on urban issues, Wendell Cox, is still as vocal as Exxon-Mobil's mouthpiece, Randall O'Toole. Both claim that cars are greener than public transit and people should just shut down the subways and build mega-highways.

Even outside lobbying, the idea of GM is strong in American culture. For that reason alone it's likelier to get subsidies, import protection, and bailouts than companies that produce goods people actually want. If it hadn't, none of the Big Three would've survived the 1980s.

And international trade people are split on climate change. Bhagwati and Collier both participated in Bjorn Lomborg's "What? Me worry about climate change?" conference, but Jeffrey Sachs has railed against this conference, Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong consider greenhouse gas reductions to be a matter of saving the planet, and Larry Summers has compared climate change skeptics to people who say smoking doesn't cause cancer.

Lindsay writes

"stolen emails from a closed climate science listserv"

Very few are from mailing lists. It's mostly private correspondence.

It's actually a little mysterious to me how this specific collection of emails was acquired and produced. It's not all from/to one person - by my reckoning there are at least three separate people at CRU whose emails are on display here. From the perspective of making the case for scientific malfeasance, there is an awful lot of irrelevance, yet I'm not seeing any emails which are genuinely not about climate research (though some are administrative/operational in nature). So it's as if there has been *some* filtering. Maybe promising mail folders were copied??

The favorite theory in the skepticsphere is that this was a disgruntled insider, releasing a zipfile of information that CRU itself had assembled in response to a FOIA-type request which it ultimately managed to evade. Of course that comports with the popular belief that the insiders must know it's all a scam. (The more sophisticated skeptics are a little more cautious about such imputations of bad faith.)

According to the Real Climate website, As people are also no doubt aware the breaking into of computers and releasing private information is illegal, and regardless of how they were obtained, posting private correspondence without permission is unethical.

I think many investigative journalists would disagree.

Speaking for myself, and I assume the vast majority of investigative journalists: hacking someone's computer is completely unethical. It's the equivalent of breaking into their home or office and rifling through their papers.

Is it ethical to publish materials that someone else hacked without your knowledge or approval? That's a much more complicated question.

As Mitch suggested, above, this might have been a leak instead of an out-and-out hack, in which case I think it would have been okay to publish.

>I think many investigative journalists would disagree.

Which is one of the reasons they tend to be grouped with used car salesmen and real estate agents - present company excepted, of course, and acknowledging their function in the social ecosystem.

I think the end result of this gleeful inquisition / swarming is going to be the reverse of what the crackpots expect.

There's very little there. They got sick and tired of FOI harassement and dragged their feet. Maybe even tried to erase angry emails. Used some I'll advised language re a minor issue around a tree ring data set. Guess what - it's not watergate.

The end result? As Lindsay said - scientists get pissed about crackpottery, news at 11am. All the email "trove" really reveals to non wingnuts is - no conspiracy. No hoax. Working scientists, doing their human best. They are what they present themselves as.

My prediction is this is going end up being the worst thing that ever happened to the climate conspiracy crowd.

Lindsay, the point I thought might raise disagreement from investigative journalists was the very broad claim that regardless of how they were obtained, posting private correspondence without permission is unethical Given that you've just said that you believe it would be OK to publish private correspondence that had been leaked, I guess you are one of the journalists who would disagree with the assertion made on the Real Climate website.

The NY Times opposes publishing stolen data like this.

Unless it's in on the deal - i.e. publishing classified material. Then it's cool.

"As people are also no doubt aware the breaking into of computers and releasing private information is illegal, and regardless of how they were obtained, posting private correspondence without permission is unethical."

If the RealClimate authors are asserting that it's unethical to post private correspondence without permission under any circumstances, then yes, I disagree (as would most investigative journalists).

It's not clear to me whether the data was leaked or stolen. If it was stolen, then obviously it was wrong for the thieves to spread it around the internet.

There's an important ethical distinction between publishing a carefully selected document placed in context by the reporter/blogger/activist vs. indiscriminately dumping someone's private papers on the internet for anyone to find. The former is journalism. The latter is pure harassment. The posters claimed they posted a random assortment of the documents they obtained. I think they're lying, but if they were telling the truth, that would be a despicable thing to do in itself. There's a good argument for publishing someone's private correspondence (redacted where necessary to protect the innocent) in order to shed light on a vital issue or expose wrongdoing, but there's no justification for leaving that person open to identity theft or other depredations by spewing potentially personally identifiable information around indiscriminately.

Phantom, the NY Times article that I read is short on ethics complaints and long on scientific context.

In the print editions of the NY Times that I saw yesterday and today, this story got very little space. Astonishing for the kind of story that it is, regardless of one's political or environmental stances

Meh. The most criticized email, the one with "hide the decline," was about how, when you include the 1961-81 dataset only, a smooth function would show temperature decline, but when you include extra data from both earlier and later, the smoothing function changes, so that it shows increase in temperature even in the 1961-81 period. Jones was saying that papers should include full data and not partial or imprecise data.

The comments to this entry are closed.