The Climatic Research Unit and the Science and Technology Committee

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee met yesterday for a one off evidence session looking at the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. This blog post is a quick summary of what I thought were the key issues. [Apologies for the use of some jargon that crops up because of the nature of the CRU emails.]

Lord Lawson and Dr Benny Peiser were first up. They represent the Global Warming Policy Foundation who, amusingly, failed to plot 8 temperature values correctly in their logo – I’m not sure that this gives them the authority to question 25 years of academic research on climate data but let’s see what they had to say…

Lawson’s main point was about the fundamental importance of transparency in science (not that Lawson or Peiser have ever been scientists). However, he would not answer the question put to him about who funds his organisation – this was a bit of a cheap shot but it helped make the point that transparency is only important to them in other organisations.

Evan Harris MP did excellent work in setting Lawson up for a fall in his questions about the “…hide the decline…” emails. Lawson was claiming that the details of dendroclimatology divergence were not discussed in any of the subsequent key papers on tree ring based climate reconstructions. Harris then got Lawson to agree that if the CRU scientists could show that they did discuss this matter in their publications then this was not an issue. This comes up again later.

Ian Stewart MP also asked some questions about work that the GWPF plan to do that highlighted their lack of scientific credentials or ambition. Lawson also brought up an incorrect criticism of satellite measurements, which Prof. Julia Slingo (MetOffice) would subsequently correct, and claimed that the “hockey stick” graph was “fraudulent” and periods of it were based on only one tree, claims which he has no evidence to back up.

Next to be questioned was Richard Thomas CBE, UK Information Commissioner (2002-2009), who provided some quite technical details on Freedom of Information – I’m not too sure what he added to the session. I suspect I do not understand enough about FoI laws but my interpretation of his evidence was that CRU may or may not have done anything wrong and that methodology, if documented, has to be distributed under FoI requests but there is no requirement to document it.

I felt that the most important witness, Prof. Phil Jones (accompanied by UEA vice-chancellor Prof. Edward Acton), did not look particularly well and spoke a bit shakily. He went over quite a bit of the background to CRU’s work and data policies and delt with most of the issues. However, he could have done much better when asked about reproducibility of CRU’s gridded surface temperature products by others: all he needed to say was that as long as someone spent the time collecting the data from meteorological organisations and read some scientific papers then they could, with a bit of work, re-produce the CRU temperature product!

This was typical of his statments – it seemed like he missed the point of many of the questions – this was quite a contrast to Lawson who was obviously more comfortable with the rhetoric required to successfully get through these sessions. In particular, Jones’ statement that he’d sent some “awful emails” was probably meant as a joke but it didn’t get any laughs.

Evan Harris MP completed his manoeuvre of highlighting Lord Lawson’s misunderstanding of the divergence issue – Phil Jones described that the “trick” was discussed in a Nature paper, where he suspects they were the first group to use the term “divergence”, and that they were explicit in subsequent papers about this issue. I suspect that this will be a key point in the committee’s report.

Harris appeared to be the only member of the committee that understood the background enough to have devised a consistent line of questioning to the witnesses. Indeed, some of the questions from other committee members made it clear their understanding of peer review and research methods was not great.

My live streaming of the event cut out as Sir Muir Russell (Head of the Independent Climate Change E-Mails Review) took the hot seat so I missed his and Prof. John Beddington (Government Chief Scientific Adviser), Prof. Julia Slingo OBE (Chief Scientist, Met Office) and Prof. Bob Watson’s (Chief Scientist, Defra) statements but reviewing the Gaurdian live blog of the session, there don’t seeem to have been any more bombshells. The most important development was that the quite negative Institute of Physics evidence submission came up – the final group of witnesses felt that it pre-judged the outcome of the enquiry.

My overall impression was that the committee, as well as the GWPF, didn’t seem to understand enough about the scientific process to make progress in this case: papers don’t have a right to be published – they have to be good enough; scientific methods are discussed in papers but no-one publishes computer code of how the analyses were performed – this should probably change though. Phil Jones was also not well prepared to answer general questions from a non-specialist panel and would clearly prefer to deal with arguments in the pages of peer-reviewed journals.

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18 Responses to “The Climatic Research Unit and the Science and Technology Committee”

  1. SmallCasserole Says:

    I think that fits with my impression from the Guardian live blog but it’s worth pointing out that this more rounded view of the proceedings probably isn’t reflected in the wider coverage. Certainly the R4 presentation focussed very much on Phil Jones’ rather shaky performance, and almost gave the impression that Lawson was on the “panel of inquisitors”.

    Jones seems to have missed the obvious clear answer on this: that replication of scientific results isn’t on the basis of providing the contents of your lab. The paper describing the method should be sufficient, and indeed people have reproduced both the tree ring reconstructions and the thermometer temperature reconstructions from those descriptions.

    I understand that Phil Jones directed Steve McIntyre to the “owner” of the Yamal tree ring dataset who provided it to him, but that McIntyre continued to harry Jones for something he already had.

    • andyrussell Says:

      Excellent point about replication.

      It doesn’t seem right to me that CRU should be criticised because of their reaction to an orchestrated campaign of FoI requests for data that they only “held”, especially after Jones was willing to give up time to take some of these people through the details of his work. But I would say that as I would be very happy to see CRU come out of this with their reputation intact!

  2. ninad Says:

    sir
    do take time to comment on the website.
    http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/international/the-hottest-hoax-in-the-world

    cheers

    • andyrussell Says:

      Hi, not sure when I’ll get the time to read it but, having a quick glance, it looks like most of the criticisms of the IPCC are not new and have been dealt with elsewhere. I’ll have a proper read through soon. Thanks.

  3. Leading climate sceptics: CRU emails did nothing to question the science | Left Foot Forward Says:

    [...] Russell notes on his blog how Lord Lawson tripped up when discussing the now infamous ‘hide the decline’ emails too: [...]

  4. Jamie Says:

    The most interesting part of the hearing for me was when Dr. Phil Jones agreed that it ‘might be a good idea’ to make data and programs available as ‘standard practice’ across the climate science industry.

    It seems to me that this is one of the more constructive things that could come out of this whole debacle. Basically a much more proactive approach to online dissemination of data so that it’s easier for academic institutions to reference open datasets.

    • andyrussell Says:

      I just left a comment on your blog! Here’s what I said:

      I’m not so sure of the value of making all the data publicly available as a matter of course – in the past I’ve spent days if not weeks re-formating data files so that they can be uploaded to national data archives. In the CRU case, very few people would be that interested in the raw data – the whole rationale behind CRU’s work on surface temperature time series is to produce a usable product that has been properly quality controlled. The only reason that certain people are desperate to get CRU’s data is because they’ve been told they can’t have it (from CRU, who don’t “own” it). In most cases, I’m sure if you went to the data owner with a legitimate scientific purpose, then they would give you the data – this is exactly what CRU did.

      As for code, I suppose if it had to be made public I’d probably programme a bit more elegantly but, like Jones, no reviewer (or even paper co-author!) has ever asked to see my code. Maybe it should be submitted with papers as supplementary material but I doubt anyone would be particuarly interested in it – at least in that case it would be there if there were ever disputes over papers. I’m not sure how impressed publishers would be at having to archive GBs of code though!

      I assume you saw my review of the evidence session, I don’t think Phil Jones did a good job describing how the scientific process works but I also don’t think that reproducability should mean that you have to give anyone everything you’ve ever worked on. There are issues here but I hope that knee-jerk solutions aren’t imposed because of this case.

      • Jamie Says:

        Hi Andy,

        Thanks for your comment.

        My point about making ‘raw data’ available is not that the CRU or any equivalent academics should be responsible for doing any re-formatting (that’s exactly why we need a *standard* way, so that they can focus on science), but that now in the age of the internet we can begin to share data more easily and allow it to be accessed publicly as a matter of default. Taking inspiration from sites such as the Guardian data store – http://www.guardian.co.uk/data-store – this would hopefully make conclusions easier to interrogate, and more to the point stop giving people like Lawson fuel for their witch-burning fires.

        Re. program code, have you come across Github – http://github.com ? It’s basically a version control system for that works in a similar way to other software such as Subversion but makes it very easy to make a codebase ‘open’ online. Given that there is very little to hide once a paper has been published, it seems that we could better encourage scientific collaboration in this way (the codebase should only be opened once conclusions have been drawn).

        The idea being that once you have open data + open code, we can reinstall some rational debate about science rather than the shrill squawking about whether or not datasets or code are open. I thought it was apt that Dr Benny Peiser had to sheepishly admit that he is not a climate scientist – perhaps following some of the above suggestions would more acutely highlight his lack of expertise.

        There may indeed be risks in this approach if raw data is further construed to misrepresent warming trends, but I agree with the statement in the hearing that science must be as open as possible, and using the internet to its full potential seems to be a good way to do this. I also have faith in most humans to generally make their mind up independently when all the facts are in front of them, and I think that something must be done to halt the worrying drop in public belief in climate change.

        To reiterate, I think that opening up historical data is not something that the academics themselves should have responsibility for, otherwise we’ll get more frustration and productivity bottlenecks such as the ones catalysed by the FOI requests at CRU. But going forward we can instil a culture of openness more proactively by using web-based dissemination techniques.

        Jamie

      • andyrussell Says:

        Jamie

        This must sound like I’m trying to be difficult but I just don’t think that any archive would be so lax – if there’s funding to do it, then they will have to do it properly! I agree it would be nice to just dump data somewhere but it would never work out that way.

        You clearly know what you’re talking about re: computer code, which isn’t the case for most climate scientists! From what you say, it sounds like the discipline would stand to gain by getting up to scratch in this area.

        I expect something is going to change, which is a good thing, but I’d hate to think that it was done because of percieved failures in the CRU.

  5. Spotty Dog Computer Services | Say No To Clean Feed Internet Says:

    [...] The Climatic Research Unit and the Science and Technology … [...]

  6. UEA, natural disasters and Fairtrade swaps Says:

    [...] Andy Russell blogged: “My overall impression was that the committee, as well as the Global Warming Policy Foundation, didn’t seem to understand enough about the scientific process to make progress in this case.” [...]

  7. Dear Institute of Physics… « Andy Russell's Blog Says:

    [...] Andy Russell's Blog Always thinking about the weather and climate « The Climatic Research Unit and the Science and Technology Committee [...]

  8. Peter Whale Says:

    I am a taxpayer and I am also concerned about pollution, climate and the economic state of the world. My children and grandchildren and the planet we all live on are my concern for the future. Surely if research is carried out with my tax money I am entitled to have the method, raw data, and computer programs used made available for all scientists or talented amateurs to pose discrepancies or improvements to whatever conclusion has been obtained. So that the decisions taken on the future economic or carbon reductions necessary for the harmonious living of all humanity is there for all clearly to see.

  9. per Says:

    forgive me if i am amused.

    According to one of your correspondents, just the publication is enough; you don’t need to go back to data and code. RCUK specifically makes clear that this is not acceptable, and the various RCs have specific guidance mandating that their funded research is auditable. Are the RCs wrong to have their clear and specific policies about data and code disclosure ?

    If someone publishes a paper, and you don’t have enough information from the paper to replicate or understand the paper, wouldn’t you ask the scientist concerned ? Would you be miffed if they refused to give you the details necessary ?

    I notice you speak of “an orchestrated campaign of FoI requests for data”. I am just wondering what you mean by this ? Do you mean the 60 requests in one year to CRU ?

    Do you know the circumstances of these requests, its resolution, and are you still standing behind that phrase ?

    to the small casserole; it was briffa who was involved with Yamal.

  10. Paul Biggs Says:

    Well Andy, I guess you will also be complaining about the Chemical and Statistical Societies statements to the parliamentary Climategate inquiry, along with Al Gore and Lord Stern not being scientists – both having produced dodgy dossiers on Weather of Mass Destruction. The GWPF may have made a mistake with a logo, but the IPCC have made many deliberate ‘mistakes’ in order to exaggerate and extrapolate ‘basic science.’ It’ good that climate alarmism is now being scrutinised rather than being accepted as gospel truth. But, whatever the science does or doesn’t say, any resultant policies need to be practical and politically feasible, which is lacking in the current policy of setting impossible, arbitrary, unilateral CO2 emissions targets.

  11. Kees van der Leun Says:

    Some more interesting views on climate change from mr Peter Gill, the IoP’s Source, and (according to LinkedIn) Member of the Energy Sub Group of the IoP’s Science Policy Board : http://bit.ly/Gillview

    Some highlights:
    - pre-industrial CO2 was 335, not 270 ppm (the famous EG Beck!)
    - for most of earth’s history, CO2 was higher than it is now
    - human CO2 emissions were much larger in the past than they are now!
    etc. etc.

    Mr Peter Gill is Chair of the London & Home Counties Branch at Energy Institute, which is a merger of the Institute of Petroleum (where mr Gill’s Crestport regularly takes part in management teams) and the Institute of Energy.

    Well, well, IoP certainly knows where to find their experts!

  12. Kees van der Leun Says:

    To be more precise on mr Gill’s petroleum links: in December 2003 he said the following about his company Crestport (http://bit.ly/Crestport): In recent years CPSL has worked especially with oil and gas production companies including Shell, British Gas and Petroleum Development Oman. [...] CPSL works in a variety of ways to best meet our clients needs. Increasingly CPSL`s consultants become interim members of the client`s management team.

  13. The beginning of the end of climategate? « Andy Russell's Blog Says:

    [...] the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia” last week. This follows their oral evidence session and requests for written evidence concerning this [...]

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