The buck starts here
23 August 2014 05:23 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Anatomy of a whitewash

  • Ivo Vegter
Did anyone expect more than an exculpatory whitewash from a UK government report about data manipulation by climate scientists, when a guilty verdict would condemn the politicians themselves for relying on junk science?

The moment the report into the implications of the leaked email archive of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was released, the messages came: “I hate to say I told you so.”

The report, put together by a committee of British parliamentarians, deplores the culture of secrecy at the institution, to which it attributes much of the controversy. Nevertheless, it largely clears the scientists named in the thousands of emails of wrongdoing, and in particular of manipulating or falsifying data.

It is true that the emails do not provide evidence for such a claim. The passage that was highlighted most frequently in the popular press – about employing Michael Mann's “trick” to “hide the decline” raises serious questions, but it does not provide clear evidence either way. However, the report's explanation, that it involved data “known to be erroneous”, is itself erroneous. It involved data from one data set (tree rings) that contradicted data from another set (the instrument record). Neither is “known to be erroneous”, although one of them logically must be. The cause of the divergence is unknown.
At the very least, this complication casts doubt on the utility of tree ring proxy data in reconstructing historical temperatures. Hiding the contradiction might imply deliberate manipulation to support a prior conclusion, but the CRU leak in isolation is merely circumstantial evidence, not proof, of such a charge.

It doesn't say much for the committee's grasp of the issues that it misrepresented what the statement was about, however.

No less suspicious is that only one member of the parliamentary committee, Graham Stringer, appeared at all curious about the extent of the delinquency at the CRU. Perhaps he's angry at being lied to, instead of merely hoping to cover up that politicians swallowed alarmist twaddle hook, line and sinker.

He expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that there wasn't a single sceptic to be found on the Independent Climate Change Email Review panel on whose findings much of the parliamentary committee's work is based. This “independent” review was established and paid for by the University of East Anglia itself. No surprise, then, that it turns out to be composed of fellow travellers invested in the idea that climate change is a man-made crisis that demands prompt and far-reaching government intervention. It may well be that many of its members possess the integrity not to let this colour their findings. However, would you stock a panel on bias in cancer research with tobacco lobbyists, or a panel on soft-pedalling pollution with factory bosses?

Without a blush, the report says: “We accept the assurances that Sir Muir Russell [the chairman of the panel] has given about the independence of the Independent Climate Change Email Review and we expect him to be scrupulous in preserving its impartiality.”

When the politics surrounding this affair are so toxic, why would politicians accept the bona fides of the university-selected investigators on their say-so alone? How credulous do they get?

It comes as no surprise that in addition to misdirecting the public about the real implications of the CRU leak, the committee also finds no evidence to support claims that the peer review process was undermined. That the top echelon of climate scientists repeatedly and explicitly discussed how to freeze sceptical scientists out of jobs and journals, didn't even warrant a rebuke.

In particular, the bald-faced threat to use American Geophysical Union channels to oust James E. Saiers from the editorship of its important journal, Geophysical Research Letters, merely because he was suspected of being “in the greenhouse sceptics camp”, didn't merit even a mention. That it didn't, despite the remarkable coincidence that Saiers was in fact ousted, beggars belief.

The same goes for the committee's disregard of the hubris implicit in the talk of keeping papers out of the journals “even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is.”

This renders laughable the report's repeated appeals to peer reviewed literature when it comes to other controversial issues, such as the quality of computer code used to construct temperature records. These appeals betray the committee's lack of diligence, surfeit of credulity and abdication of responsibility.

Even a cursory reading of the infamous HARRY_READ_ME.txt file, for example, leaves anyone who has ever written a computer program convinced that the code and data it documents is in a dismal, and probably irredeemable, state of chaos.

This file alone is enough to consider the CRU leak a fatal stroke against the credibility of climate change orthodoxy and the scientists that promote it.

The report goes on to soft-soap the criminal refusal to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests.

Over the years, the former head of the CRU, Phil Jones, has given conflicting reasons why the raw data demanded by researchers could not be released. Among them was that the data had been deleted because of storage constraints in the 1980s, which is a ludicrous claim on the face of it, both because only a few magtapes would have been required to store all the data, and because it is unthinkable to delete raw data on which such a massive and politically significant body of scientific work has been built.

Other reasons he gave included confidentiality agreements with other countries, the fact that the data might be available via other sources, and the reluctance to disclose data when the person requesting it seeks to check the validity of statistical adjustments made to it.

In a court of law, if you give four conflicting reasons for your actions, a judge is unlikely even to have the patience to hear you out, let alone find you credible.

Yet the report, despite finding prima facie evidence of a breach of the law, merely raps the university over the knuckles and politely requests it to change “the culture of non-disclosure”. That's like investigating Enron and concluding that it should probably stop cooking the books in the interests of its own reputation.

While finding no wrongdoing, it does recommend further investigation of potential criminal contraventions of the Freedom of Information Act. This hardly inspires confidence in the subject of this investigation.

The whitewash goes further, however. Wrote the politicians: “We believe that the focus on CRU and Professor Phil Jones, Director of CRU, in particular, has largely been misplaced. Whilst we are concerned that the disclosed e-mails suggest a blunt refusal to share scientific data and methodologies with others, we can sympathise with Professor Jones, who must have found it frustrating to handle requests for data that he knew – or perceived – were motivated by a desire simply to undermine his work.”

The committee clearly does not understand the scientific method. Among its pillars is the principle of falsification. A theory that cannot be falsified is no theory at all, and it is the constant goal of a scientist's peers to find mistakes, wrong assumptions and methodological errors in their work. That is how science works. In essence, Jones's position amounts to citing the annoying features of the scientific method itself – the very features that make it robust and self-correcting – as grounds for refusing to disclose research data. In his own testimony he says that it probably should be standard practice to disclose data if the science is to progress, but that this has not been the norm in the field of climate research. Stringer was the only parliamentarian to propose several (defeated) amendments that were harshly critical of the adherence in climate change circles to good scientific practice.

Finding nothing wrong in the face of an explicit admission to the contrary is, quite frankly, scandalous. That the parliamentary investigation does not even grasp the severity of this problem is sufficient reason to dismiss the committee's competence to adjudge the issue.

In short, the UK government report is a blatant whitewash of the science on which it bases public policy that affects all of us. It does not restore the credibility of the climate scientists involved, nor does it redeem the main stream of climate science. It does not make the credulous politicians, who base their power-grabbing, tax-hungry policies on climate science, any more worthy of their offices.

If you told me so, then you were perfectly right.

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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