'Climategate' May Hold Lessons on Openness for Researchers Under Pressure

December 06, 2009

Most scientists don't have a band of bloggers and hobbyists watching their every move—demanding their raw data, their personal e-mail messages, and even their bank records. But some climate researchers have recently faced the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for celebrities.

Hackers essentially dug through the digital trash of scientists and published the researchers' personal notes last month, when someone stole more than 1,000 e-mail messages from a climate-research group at the University of East Anglia, in England. The messages have raised serious questions about whether—under the unusual outside pressure—the scientists worked to hide inconvenient data and suppress information that didn't fit a neat pattern of man-made global warming.

As the United Nations opens a summit in Copenhagen on Monday on global climate change, U.N. officials have said that they will investigate charges that the climate scientists cooked their data and improperly manipulated the process that led to a key report by the organization's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The U.N. soul-searching follows announcements last week that two universities will investigate the e-mail behavior of their top climate scientists.

A consensus is emerging among scientists that nothing in the hacked e-mail messages would alter the scientists' conclusions: Global temperatures are rising, they say, and most evidence published in peer-reviewed journals suggests that forces related to human activity are to blame. In fact, even if the particular climate-data set compiled by the researchers caught up in the e-mail incident is discredited, at least two other major independent studies found evidence of human-caused global warming.

At issue in the so-called Climategate scandal is public trust in science and in the way that scientific findings have been used in the political process.

The latest uproar is further polarizing sides in the issue of what, if anything, should be done about global warming, with Republican lawmakers in the United States calling for hearings about the e-mail messages, and Democratic leaders rushing to condemn the theft of the messages and defend the underlying science.

In the end, the hacking incident may end up serving as a lesson in what not to do when scientists unwittingly find themselves on the public stage in a major political debate.

"I've long been worried about a backlash against climate scientists, and their strong overinsistence on the purity of what the science is telling you," said Daniel Sarewitz, a co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University. "There's been an overclaiming about the uniformity of the findings on climate change, and now a tragic and not surprising backlash against an unwillingness to be open about how science and politics work together."

Frustrations of a 'Climate Auditor'

One way to understand the roots of Climategate is to talk with David Holland, a retired engineer in Britain. He has never worked as a climate scientist, but he now spends much of his time trying to expose what he sees as corruption of scientific practice by climate researchers.

He calls himself a "climate auditor," and he is one of a handful of people around the world who have made it their mission to question the science about global warming.

Mr. Holland says he had nothing to do with the hacking incident, but he has been making legal demands for the release of those same e-mail messages for years, citing Britain's freedom-of-information laws. He says he has filed seven requests with a handful of British universities asking for the release of scientists' communications (and, in one case, bank records), believing that the messages would reveal efforts to manipulate data or to improperly block his requests. He is also a co-author of papers questioning the U.N.'s major climate study, known as "AR4," or the "Fourth Assessment Report" by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Mr. Holland said in an interview with The Chronicle that he has been frustrated with what he sees as efforts to block his requests, and that such roadblocks only make him more certain that he is right. "They do not believe there should be any discussion of the scientific research," he said of the climate scientists. He seems most frustrated by the idea that scientists may be flouting the rules of how they conduct their work. "It's a bit like saying that we shouldn't bother with jury trials; we should just hang people," he said.

The hacked e-mail messages reveal scientists' disdain for Mr. Holland and other climate auditors—and suggest an organized effort to thwart their requests for information.

"Can you delete any e-mails you may have had with Keith re AR4?" wrote Phil Jones, director of the climate unit at East Anglia in one of the stolen e-mails, apparently referring to the U.N. report. (Mr. Jones last week announced that he will step down temporarily while his university investigates the e-mail messages and their implications.)

In an earlier message, Mr. Jones said that if anyone used Britain's freedom-of-information act to demand the lab's raw climate data, "I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone."

Such statements seem to violate a spirit of scientific openness, and some observers wonder if the scientists violated laws if they followed through on their deletions.

The tone of many of the messages can be summarized as "How dare these nonscientists meddle in this."

Onerous Demands on Researchers

Mr. Jones did not respond to requests from The Chronicle for comment. But one of the scientists whom Mr. Jones urged to delete messages, Michael E. Mann, said he felt uncomfortable with the request and did not comply.

"I absolutely did not act on it, nor did I approve of it," said Mr. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. "Phil Jones is a scientist. He's not a public-relations expert. He's not a lawyer. He was being hounded by climate-change deniers who were issuing frivolous freedom-of-information demands that had no bearing, and they were all rejected."

Mr. Mann said that the researchers were not able to release their raw climate data because some of it is protected by confidentiality agreements with governments. He argued that the scientists have made substantial efforts to answer critics—and that the messages do show plenty of time spent attempting to correct what the scientists see as misinformation by climate auditors.

"There are some that have been exploiting this situation to act out a personal vendetta against scientists with whom they have strongly disagreed," argued Mr. Mann.

An editorial published in the latest issue of the journal Nature argues that the lesson of Climategate is that climate auditors' requests have grown too insistent and onerous for researchers to handle on their own, reaching beyond what is typically shared by scientists.

"If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the U.S. and U.K. Freedom of Information Acts," the editors argued. "Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden."

Several scientists say that Climategate might have been avoided if requests by Mr. Holland and others had been answered.

"The problem seems to be that the 'circling of the wagons' strategy developed by small groups of climate researchers in response to the politically motivated attacks against climate science are now being used against other climate researchers," wrote Judith A. Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, on a blog. "The number of such requests would be drastically diminished if all relevant and available data and metadata were made publicly accessible."