Monday, November 23, 2009

Maybe Not Fraud, But Definitely Some Blinders

By now, most people who spend time online have probably heard that the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit, home to some of the strongest voices supporting the existence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), recently had its servers hacked, leading to a massive amount of potentially embarrassing e-mails and other files being publicly posted. A good summary for many of the e-mails involved (and links to specific e-mails) can be found here. The full archive can be found here.

By now, most people who spend time online have probably also heard that most of this material seems to be genuine. It's hard to know if something fraudulent has been slipped in among the real deals, but after several days, I'm not aware that any particular item has had its authenticity challenged.

I've held off blogging about this until now, because I wanted to look over as much of this material as I could before saying anything. And maybe even more interesting than the hacked material itself has been seeing the reactions in the comment threads of the various websites discussing this. Those comments range from people who are convinced this material completely debunks the existence of AGW to people giving a knee-jerk defense for every single potential issue in that material.

As of this morning, put me somewhere in the middle.

I agree that “trick” is most likely just an unfortunate choice of wording. Having been a science editor/ghostwriter for more than 20 years now, I've dealt with a lot of peer-review studies and publications. And I’ve seen enough unfortunate wording from brilliant people who should know better to last me a lifetime. “Hide the decline” seems a lot harder to explain away, though, and should throw up enough red flags to make even the hardest-core AGW proponent demand that a second, closer look be taken at the specific work in question.

I agree that a lot of these e-mails are cases of smart guys with big egos behaving like utter and absolute a-holes. And that should surprise no one who has ever worked with noted scientists at the top of their field. But when they start talking about deleting e-mails, data, and code to keep them out of anyone else’s hands, that should also throw up enough red flags that make anyone, on either side of the AGW debate, who actually does care about legitimate science demand a second, closer look at the work by these particular researchers.

I also agree that the majority view among scientists is that AGW exists, especially in the peer-reviewed literature. So when you have noted researchers not just complaining about AGW-skeptical papers making it through peer review, but also discussing having the journal editor in question removed, how to prevent other skeptical articles from seeing print in the primary literature, and how to de-legitimize a peer-review journal that has published such articles, well, one would think that might give those who uses the "consensus" of the peer-reviewed literature as their argument for AGW at least a moment’s pause. And, again, want the work of those researchers to be thoroughly reviewed -- if only to protect the integrity of the argument for AGW and show there really is no room for “bad” science on their side.

I don’t know if these researchers have been deliberately committing fraud. I get the impression, though, that they’ve become so convinced they already know the answer, they’ve stopped looking for problems and holes in their own data and methods in the way that they should. And that’s usually when a lot of bad science starts to happen.

There’s a lot to be concerned about in this hacked material. And whatever their intentions, the people who are denying that fact aren't defending good science.