Posts Tagged ‘Climategate’

Communicating Climate Science (but don’t mention the b-word)

November 8, 2012

Blog.

There, I said it.

Which, as far as I can remember, is more than it was mentioned in the 7 talks or during the panel discussion at yesterday’s RMetS meeting on Communicating Climate Science.

Just to re-iterate, in a 3 hour meeting about Communicating Climate Science I don’t remember anyone saying the word “blog”.

Also to be clear, I thought the meeting was really interesting and well worth going to to. But, looking back on the event, I’m amazed that I don’t think anyone mentioned the impact of blogging on climate science communication, how it could be used better by the community or even that it exists.

Which is odd because two of the speakers are very good bloggers (Alice Bell and Adam Corner) and I noticed a few in the audience (e.g. Tamsin Edwards and Bob Ward, who seems like a blogger without a blog, unless I’ve missed it!)

So, did anyone else notice this or did I just nod off at the wrong moment?

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The Independent Climate Change Email Review not so bad for CRU…

July 7, 2010

The final of the three UK reports that resulted from the CRU email leak/theft was published today. It all sounds pretty good for CRU.

Their first of 3 key findings is very positive:

“Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.”

The second of the three key findings is also positive for CRU:

“In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.”

As suspected, they do find that there are issues relating to openness. The third key point:

But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.”

They also say later in the document:

“We find that CRU’s responses to reasonable requests for information were unhelpful and defensive.”

It looks like there’s lots of other interesting things in there – that the tree-ring proxy reconstructions and peer-review issues didn’t seem to worry the review panel much caught my eye.

Perhaps the biggest criticism relates to the infamous 1999 WMO report:

…the figure supplied for the WMO Report was misleading. We do not find that it is misleading to curtail reconstructions at some point per se, or to splice data, but we believe that both of these procedures should have been made plain – ideally in the figure but certainly clearly described in either the caption or the text.”

I need to read through the report properly but at first glance it looks very supportive of the CRU scientists.

IPCC AR5 WG1 author shake up

June 29, 2010

So, after all the issues relating to the IPCC in recent months (e.g. the unimaginatively named “Climategate”, “Glaciergate”, the now retracted “Amazongate” and the not-so-heavily-covered-…-I-wonder-why? “SeaLevelGate”) the wheel keeps on turning and we’re looking at another IPCC report in 2013.

How have things changed with the IPCC? Have they made any effort to change after all the negative publicity?

Well, the IPCC issued the list of chapters and authors for the Fifth Assement Repoert (AR5) and I thought I’d have a quick look at what’s new. I’ve only looked at WG1 because that’s what I know and what I find most interesting.

“Clouds and aerosols” get their own chapter and regional climate change is mentioned, which are key areas that need addressing. Irreversibility is also now considered.

The new author list has lots of changes from the AR4. A very quick analysis shows that less than 20% of the Coordinating Lead Authors or Lead Authors from AR4 are Coordinating Lead Authors or Lead Authors in AR5. Notable absences include Phil Jones, Keith Briffa and Michael Mann (although Mann was not an AR4 author either) – whether this is a consequence of “Climategate” is unknown but I expect it will make some people happy.

More nations are now represented in the list of Coordinating Lead Authors or Lead Authors (up to 45 from 34) but American authors now make up a slightly greater proportion (26% vs. 21%).

From this very quick look, it would seem difficult to criticise the AR5 IPCC for being the same old faces, so congratulations to them on that count.

Caveats: I’ve not looked at how these changes compare to the author-tunrover from the Third to the Fourth ARs and old Coordinating Lead Authors or Lead Authors could still turn up as Contributing Authors.

The number crunching for this post was done by Meghan Hughes. Thanks!

Dear Institute of Physics… (Part II)

June 18, 2010

Following my statement in March this year that I would leave the IoP if they didn’t withdraw their evidence statement from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee investigation into the CRU, here’s the result…

Dear Institute of Physics

Thank you for my recent reminder to renew my membership.  Unfortunately I no longer wish to be associated with the IoP.

My concern goes back to March this year when I contacted the Institute regarding their evidence submission to a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee investigation into the work of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

The IoP evidence submission was particularly one sided in its analysis and engaged in wild speculation.  It appeared to have an agenda to undermine the work of the CRU without supplying any evidence to substantiate its claims.  This is clearly irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour from a professional society.  [My quick analysis of it is here.]

The response from the IoP to my concern about this evidence submission was also well below what I expected.  The only specific response [which I can’t find on the IoP website now but is reproduced at the bottom of my letter from March 2010 here] was an anonymous note from a member of the board that issued the submission saying that we should be “relaxed” about the process by which the statement was written (despite the fact that “working scientists just don’t have time to [produce the first draft of the statement]”.  If any other responses were issued I suspect I missed them as I had no further communication from the Institute.

The anonymous statement, and refusal to disclose who had actually written the submission, was particularly ironic as the evidence statement was calling for greater openness from the scientists it was criticising!  Furthermore, IoP journals do not even require the level of data “openness” that the submission criticised CRU for not following.

In the end, the HoC S&TC report was very supportive of the CRU so at least your evidence submission had no impact in that respect.  However, the IoP still set a precedent that it is willing to openly criticise the work of scientists without providing any evidence to warrant such an attack.

I am sad to leave the IoP as I have been inspired by some of your work and recognise what you do to promote physics.  However, following this episode, I can no longer support the Institute.

Your faithfully,

Andrew Russell

[In the IoP’s defence, I did have some private conversations with a few people from the Institute and they were aware that there was a problem here to be dealt with.  I have no idea if anything was done as they were obviously keen to deal with it in private.  However, I still feel that the IoP should have more open about their efforts to get things in order and that a mistake had been made.]

The “Hockey Stick” evolution

June 15, 2010

This is a post that aims to go through the evolution of the “Hockey Stick” from 1990 to the present day.  It naturally misses out parts of the story, which deserve far more analysis, simply to keep the post short.  Comments that expand on the bits I’ve omitted are welcome!

What is the “Hockey Stick” and who cares?

One of the key areas of controversy relating to climate change and the body that synthesises all the science – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – is the so-called “Hockey Stick” graph that first appeared in the IPCC in 2001.

The graph is important because it tries to reconstruct large-scale temperatures for the past 1000 years or so to put the current warming in context.

Lots of people have spent many hours trying to assess or discredit the graph and the science behind it:

  • There have been several official (and controversial) inquires and reports on the science and the scientists.  Two of the most well-known are the NRC Report and the Wegman Report.
  • The Climate Audit blog, and its many followers, have been picking at the science, the raw data and the method that produced the “Hockey Stick” for a long time.
  • The Bishop Hill blog has many posts on the “Hockey Stick” and the man behind that blog has even written a book about the graph (I’ve not read the book but I’d like to review it for this blog soon).

So if it’s so important, how did the “Hockey Stick” get here and where did it go?  Let’s have a look…

IPCC First Assessment Report (FAR) – 1990

The temperature reconstruction of the last 1000 years or so in the FAR was little more than a best guess.  The figure shown below from the report (you can find it on page 202 of the FAR (big pdf)) was even labelled as a “schematic” diagram and had no scale on the temperature axis:

It’s a composite overview of the evidence available in 1990 from ice cores, tree rings, historical records and other so-called “proxy” measures of temperature.  This field of research was in its infancy so the schematic wasn’t highlighted much in the report.

[UPDATE: Having looked through the IPCC FAR again it doesn’t actually say how this schematic was constructed.  Looking at Jones et al. 2009 (“High-resolution palaeoclimatology of the last millennium: a review of current status and future prospects” The Holocene, 19, 3-49) it seems that it was compiled from a series of publictions by H. H. Lamb and was only based on temperature records associated with Central England, so I doubt very much that any ice core data was used! The key message from Jones et al. that casts serious doubt over the schematic is: “At no place in any of the Lamb publications is there any discussion of an explicit calibration against instrumental data, just Lamb’s qualitative judgement and interpretation of what he refers to as the ‘evidence’“. The schematic also failed to make it into the 1992 IPCC Supplementary Report as it was decided that more data was required and it was not representative of a large area.]

Indeed, the reason for including this plot at all in the FAR is probably summed up by this quote:

“So it is important to recognise that natural variations of climate are appreciable and will modulate any future changes induced by man”

However, this plot is still referred to by a lot of people as the temperature at the “present day” end of the graph is not the highest value on the plot.

Given that it’s essentially a sketch, I’m surprised that people read much into this plot.

For example, the usually meticulous Science of Doom was, in my opinion, off the mark with his analysis of the development of the science here, skipping straight from the First to the Third Assessment Report version to imply that something underhand was going on.  This doesn’t represent the scientific progress properly.  So, we’ll look here at the parts of the story that SoD missed out.

[The SoD post also doesn’t show the IPCC FAR version of the plot (he uses one from a 1993 textbook that has a temperature scale) and he points to the Wegman report as the point of reference for analysis of the “Hockey Stick”, which is perhaps not the best source.  Indeed, the Stoat blog has recently examined Wegman’s analysis of this plot and the conclusions are not supportive.]

IPCC Second Assessment Report (SAR) – 1995

So where did the science go between the FAR and SAR?

It seems that it went backwards; the SAR reconstruction only goes back 600 years and not 1000 years like the FAR.

Here’s the relevant plot from page 175 of the IPCC SAR (another big pdf):

Why does it only go back 600 years?  Well, here’s a quote from the SAR:

“Prior to 1400 data are insufficient to provide hemispheric temperature estimates.”

Ok, to be fair on the IPCC, there is now a temperature scale, which is a big improvement.  Also, the IPCC has recognised what they do not know enough about the climate prior to 1400 AD and removed that part of the plot.  I suppose you could read this as the start of a conspiracy to “cover-up” the Medieval Warm Period but there is no evidence for that. [For example, here’s a recent example of interpreting a decent paper poorly to reach the conclusion you want regarding the MWP.]

The report also says:

“A recent analysis, using tree-ring density data, has attempted to reproduce more of the century time-scale temperature variability in this region (Briffa et al, 1995). This shows that the 20th century was clearly the warmest in the last 1000 years in this region, though shorter warmer periods occurred, for example, in the 13th and 14th centuries.”

So the state of the art science in 1995 was not particularly clear but it does give an indication of where it was going…

IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) – 2001

Here’s where the story really takes off…

This plot is a composite of all the “best” proxy climate data available at the time of writing the TAR – you can find the plot and lots of background information here on pages 130-136 of the TAR.

It is most strongly linked to Michael Mann of Penn State University and it was this version that was dubbed the “Hockey Stick” (because it looks like an Ice Hockey Stick, I thought that was worth mentioning in case UK readers are wondering why it doesn’t curl around at the end!)

As hinted at in the SAR, there was a lot of new work looking at these reconstructions between the SAR and the TAR so it goes back further and includes regions of uncertainty.

But this was still quite new science.  If it could be trusted then it would be an important addition to the TAR.  [But it wouldn’t be the only or most important part of the report and not a fundamental result that supports the rest of the science, that’s not how science works.  To steal an analogy, science is more like a jigsaw than a house of cards.]

The IPCC clearly came to the conclusion that this plot was trustworthy and delivered this verdict:

“Taking into account [the] substantial uncertainties, Mann et al. (1999) concluded that the 1990s were likely to have been the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, of the past millennium for at least the Northern Hemisphere.”

This did not go down well with some people (and the language was toned down in the subsequent IPCC report).

The controversy is quite well documented, Wikipedia is as good a starting place as any.  More recently, some of the discussion between the IPCC scientists that appeared in the incomplete email record that was taken from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in 2009 has further fueled this controversy. [The “hide the decline” email being the most obvious and relevant example, although this has been misinterpreted and blown out of all proportion – RealClimate give a good account of the context.]

The raw data, the methodology and the statistical tools used to produce the graph have all been examined in great depth.  Everyone from bloggers to the US Senate have been interested in it.  It must be one of the most intensely scrutinised graphs ever produced.

But it’s only a graph, so why all the fuss?

In my opinion, using relatively new science to advise policy makers on issues that affect the whole population’s way of life is bound to throw up problems, especially if you don’t like what the message is.  But that was the situation that the IPCC was in and they were probably right to stress the importance of this graph – it was new science but none of the investigations into it have landed a killer blow.

Indeed, maybe all the scrutiny would help the science develop faster and become more reliable.

So did it?

IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) – 2007

Here is the most recent IPCC “Hockey Stick”-type plot.  Its background information can be found here in the AR4.

Despite all the attacks on the 2001 “Hockey Stick”, an improved version was included in the 2007 IPCC report.  The report discussed the peer-reviewed criticisms of the methodology, which the IPCC deserve credit for.

Questions still remain over the statistical methods used in this graph and this does not make the discussion very accessible but here is a very quick attempt.

The main conclusion from several of the relevant inquiries was that the statistical methods were not ideal but they did not change the result (i.e. the shape of the graph) in any significant way.  To give a specific example, Lord Oxburgh’s review of the science concluded that the climate scientists should collaborate more with statisticians.  This point is hard to disagree with.

Some people, however, still believe that the statistical methods are a terminal issue for the “Hockey Stick”.  Here’s Bishop Hill in 2008 on the stats (from a very “sceptical” point of view).  He also reported on a couple of papers that aimed to refute the major criticisms of the methods and their tortured journeys to get into the IPCC AR4 (although, having published in both GRL and CC myself, this story doesn’t sound as remarkable as Bishop Hill spins it!)  And here’s a defence of the “Hockey Stick” methods from RealClimate in 2005.

This argument is going to continue and the science will continue to improve.

The thing that strikes me as odd, though, is that most of the criticism aimed at the “Hockey Stick” is still aimed at the 2001 version.  I suppose that there is more ammunition to attack this version with – the data was very new, the methods were new, it was high-profile and the CRU emails give new opportunities to quote mine.  I get the feeling that some of the “sceptic” community have put nearly all their eggs in this basket and it therefore needs to continue to attack the 2001 version.

In the meantime, the science has moved on and improved.  Indeed, the latest Mann et al. version of the work in PNAS has been questioned in the same journal and the response by Mann et al. showed suggested that some of those criticism were quite strange.

IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) 2013

So what’s going to happen next?

I assume that the work of some of the key players may have been slowed a little because of all the inquiries they’ve had to deal with.

However, as the field has developed other groups will have taken on the challenge and there are now more groups than ever (with new ideas and perspectives) working on these issues.  Indeed, the IPCC has increased the prominence of this type of work for their next report – the outline for AR5 includes a whole chapter (Chapter 5) on palaeoclimatology – it was a chapter sub-section in AR4 and TAR.

This is good news and hopefully we’re getting closer to truth, which is what the scientists wanted all along.

Reference:
ResearchBlogging.orgMann ME, Zhang Z, Hughes MK, Bradley RS, Miller SK, Rutherford S, & Ni F (2008). Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (36), 13252-7 PMID: 18765811

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Does the Today programme have an anti-Climate Science agenda?

May 19, 2010

I was listening to Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday and was quite surprised that they spent nearly 5 minutes reporting from the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC).  This conference is different to almost all other climate conferences as it is dominated by climate change “sceptics”.

The Today programme is one of the UK’s most influencial news programmes and I’ve never heard a report on this show from any other climate science conference despite there being many, many others every year.  (I’m not including Copenhagen here as that was a climate policy conference, not a science conference.)

So why report from the ICCC?  Well, their angle in the report was that its not just right-wingers that are climate change “sceptics”.  This strikes me a bit lame and not really news.

I’m beginning to think that the Today programme has an anti-Climate Science agenda.

My main other concern with the Today programme and its climate coverage is Justin Webb.  A relatively new host, he seems to think that his views should shape the programme’s stance on climate science.  His most notorious moment was an awful interview with Prof. Ian Plimer (geologist turned climate “sceptic”) where Webb failed to question Plimer on any of the controversial things he was saying.

Reporting the consensus view on climate science is probably getting a bit dull and maybe that is why the media like the contrary view.  I just thought that the Today programme was better than that.

[The relevant piece starts at 2:49:49 of the Today programme from 18th May 2010, which is available here for a limited period on the BBC iPlayer.]

Another “climategate” inquiry…

April 15, 2010

This is starting to get a bit repetitive: another inquiry clears the CRU scientists.  This time the report came from Lord Oxburgh’s Science Assessment Panel.

The main criticism from this report was regarding the level of collaboration between CRU and statisticians in relation to the integration of different climate datasets.

New Scientist got a bit carried away and ran with the headline “Climategate scientists chastised over statistics” despite the report saying that “it is not clear, however, that better [statistical] methods would have produced significantly different results” and “in the CRU papers that we examined we did not come across any inappropriate usage although the methods they used may not have been the best for the purpose.

If this is what New Scientist are referring to then this is pretty weak chastisement.

But why not go further?

Others have called for professional software engineers to develop the routines CRU use to industry standards.  How about some editors to help with writing their papers?  The Oxburgh report also pointed out that CRU were quite disorganised so let’s get in some management consultants as well.  They could do with a drawing office to help draft figures.  Professional archivists would be useful to keep track of all their data and they could use some people to deal with all the FoI requests and media interest.  I suspect that some social scientists and politics scholars would help focus their research on the needs of society and policy makers.

Clearly this would all be too expensive for a small research group.

As it is, CRU have 3 permanent staff and the nature of academic research funding means that work is done with the best people available at the time (i.e. PhD students and postdocs who often have in-depth statistical training) with the funding that has come through.

However, I do agree that CRU should keep up to date with the latest advances in all the disciplines that their work overlaps with, which is a huge task in such a new and dynamic field as climate reconstructions. I have no doubt, though, that all the criticism that this field is receiving at the moment will accelerate this process of tightening up the methods.

This isn’t an ideal situation but its the way things have been in UK science for many years and the fact that CRU have produced so much world-class and timely science is a testament to their dedication.  Maybe the New Scientist should have picked a headline from this extract:

“We believe that CRU did a public service of great value by carrying out much time-consuming meticulous work on temperature records at a time when it was unfashionable and attracted the interest of a rather small section of the scientific community.”

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The beginning of the end of climategate?

April 3, 2010

The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (S&TC) published their report on “The disclosure of climate data from 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 matter.

What did they find?

The key conclusions from the report were:

“The focus on Professor Jones and CRU has been largely misplaced.”

“We have suggested that the community consider becoming more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies.”

and

“Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact.” *

I am very happy with the first and third points here. The excellent work of Phil Jones has been instrumental in bringing attention to climate change and its great that this inquiry has acknowledged that.

Data policy

As for the second point above, I have no problem with this as long as any rules imposed are carefully considered and not “knee jerk” measures designed just to show that something has been done.

Indeed, James Annan has pointed out on his blog that this criticism of “standard practice” regarding data policy must surely be aimed at the Research Councils and not individual scientists or universities. Chris Rowan neatly tweeted that this stance boils down to the “Government condemning government-funded scientists for following government IP policy”. Hmm.

It is also worth considering this point from the S&TC report:

“Even if the data that CRU used were not publicly available—which they mostly are—or the methods not published—which they have been—its published results would still be credible: the results from CRU agree with those drawn from other international data sets; in other words, the analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified.”

This seems to be saying that, whilst desireable, even ideal data sharing rules are not fundamental in verifying CRU’s work.

(To clarify my own position, I’ve never said that I don’t think that data should be shared. However, I did think that it was unfair to criticise CRU for not following ideal data sharing standards that never existed. It seems that the S&TC largely agree with this. Rather, the S&TC criticise UEA for not supporting and advising researchers appropriately.)

Evidence

The S&TC came to these conclusions despite receiving a rather skewed view of climate research from their evidence.

For example, there was the flawed IoP evidence submission and there were a high number of submissions from prominent “skeptics” (e.g. McKitrick, McIntyre, Global Warming Policy Foundation).

This input, though, does not seem to have shaped the findings of the report in any significant way, other than some of these people being the source of many of the Freedom of Information requests that CRU received and dealt with poorly.

Looking at the minutes of the report, it seems that Graham Stringer MP attempted to amend some elements of the document to bring it more in line with the “skeptical” evidence. He was unsuccessful. However, as Deep Climate points out, even his proposed amendments would not have changed the conclusions much.

Why did this situation arise in this inquiry? Some of the comment on a recent post from Stoat suggests that those working in climate science should be more active in contributing to these inquiries, which sounds like a good idea to me.

Where next?

Of course, this is only the first of three inquiries to investigate this episode with the other two being the Muir Russell headed Independent Climate Change Email Review and the Scientific Appraisal Panel, which includes some very big names.

Hopefully, though, this report heralds the beginning of the end of “climategate”.

* Graham Stringer MP voted against the inclusion of this point.

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Dear Institute of Physics…

March 3, 2010

After publishing my post on the CRU and S&TC yesterday, I looked into the IoP’s evidence submission in a bit more detail and was quite surprised. Here is an open letter to the IoP about that evidence:

Dear Institute of Physics

As a member of the IoP I am very concerned about the recent memorandum submitted by the IoP to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

In my view, it is unfair to criticise the CRU on the basis that they did not comply with data sharing standards that, at present, don’t exist. There is clearly a need for rules regarding openness in relation to data and methods but it is foolish to retrospectively admonish people for not following them! Do the journals currently published by the IoP employ the data policies suggested in your statement?

There also seems to be some misunderstanding in the statement of the particular issues relating to the data that the CRU use in their research and how some of the issues discussed in the private and incomplete email records were resolved in the peer reviewed literature and other open arenas. In particular, point 5 of your evidence is incorrect and irresponsible given that it casts unwarranted doubt over the findings of the IPCC.

Furthermore, your statement gives no recognition to the efforts of the scientists in question to engage with their critics before they were subjected to unfounded attacks on their work and integrity and orchestrated FoI request campaigns.

Finally, I am confused as to why the Energy group was tasked with preparing the statement and not the Environmental Physics group, who would have been more aware of the particular issues in this case.

I realise that a small clarification has been issued but if the IoP continues to stand by this statement then I will have no other option but to reconsider my membership of your organisation.

Yours faithfully,

Andy Russell MInstP

Some similar posts:

Stoat: The IoP fiasco
Some beans: A letter to the Institute of Physics

CORRECTION: The statement was written by the “Energy Sub-group of the IoP’s Science Board” not the “IoP’s Energy Group” as I previously thought. Either way, the IoP has still not been open about who wrote the statement.

UPDATE 5/3/2010: In response to my letter I was sent an email from the IoP standing by the submission and an anonymous statement from a member of the Science Board about the process of writing the evidence submission. Here is that statement:

“The IOP contribution has been widely understood and welcomed – not universally, apparently, but then there is a debate going on. Scientists are sometimes criticised for not engaging, and I hope we can look forward to hearing from professional bodies representing other branches of science.

“The Institute should feel equally relaxed about the process by which it generated what is, anyway, a statement of the obvious. The standard process for policy submissions by IOP – it makes dozens per year – was followed. Typically a call for evidence is spotted or received by IOP HQ. Usually the timescale is tight. A first draft is put together at Portland Place – working scientists just don’t have time to do this. The draft is then emailed round to all members of IOP advisory bodies that might want to contribute, which is where working scientists come in. Science Board is one of several such bodies. When we do respond – my personal strike rate is definitely under 50 per cent – we copy round our responses, so other committee members get multiple opportunities to comment if they wish to. During this phase people can and do say “Sorry, I disagree”. Remember that there is a tight deadline, and by the time it is reached, everyone who seriously wants to comment will have done so. Collective responsibility then kicks in, which is why I am not revealing my identity.”

UPDATE 6/3/2010: apparently not realising that it kind of proves my point about the sort of behaviour Phil Jones has had to deal with for years, I got an email today in response to my perfectly reasonable assessment of the IoP’s evidence submission:

For a physicist you are a bit of a cretin.

However your views on the release of scientific data for verification are positively neolithic.

What kind of blind, bigoted AGW Alarmist tosser are you?

Pull your head out of your arse and smell the coffee!

Have a nice day!

The Climatic Research Unit and the Science and Technology Committee

March 2, 2010

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.