Dictated and Scraped into Arcturus
Yesterday evening I went to a discussion at the Royal Institution. I’ll first give the abstract of the occasion and then my motivation and conclusions. Please read what I write very carefully, because I am not commenting on the primary science – I am commenting on how the science and its conclusions are, or are not, communicated.
The Climate Files; The battle for the truth about global warming
In November 2009 it emerged that thousands of documents and emails had been stolen from one of the top climate science centres in the world [PMR: The Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK] . The emails appeared to reveal that scientists had twisted research in order to strengthen the case for global warming. With the UN’s climate summit in Copenhagen just days away, the hack could not have happened at a worse time for climate researchers or at a better time for those who reject the scientific consensus on global warming. Yet although the emails sparked a media frenzy, the fact is that just about everything you have heard and read about the University of East Anglia emails is wrong. They are not, as some have claimed, the smoking gun for some great global warming hoax. They do not reveal a sinister conspiracy by scientists to fabricate global warming data.
To coincide with the launch of his new book, The Climate Files, the veteran environment journalist Fred Pearce discusses how the emails raise deeply disturbing questions about the way climate science is conducted, about researchers’ preparedness to block access to climate data and downplay flaws in their research.
This will then be followed by a panel involving Dr Myles Allen (University of Oxford) and Dr Adam Corner (Cardiff University).
Fred Pearce was the main speaker and described in detail his analysis of the emails which had been exposed from UEA. I would agree from his analysis that there is no “smoking gun” and that many of the emails were unfortunate rather than malicious. He was then answered by Drs. Allen and Corner, and there was clearly some disagreement between them and him. The discussion was then opened to the audience (which included scientists, journalists and many others) and a lively and valuable debate took place.
I should make it clear that I am making no comment at the moment as to whether global warming is a reality and if so how important it is. And I am deliberately taking the position of an agnostic because I want to find for myself what the evidence is and how compelling it is. For that, it is important that the information is Open and so it is as a “data libertarian” (a useful phrase which I heard last night) that I attended the meeting.
As a result of the presentations and the discussions within the panel it seemed to me that there was a serious lack of Openness in the Climate Research community. It is important not to judge from just one meeting but given the enormous public reporting and discussion I was disappointed to find that there were still parochial and entrenched attitudes about ownership and use of data.
My superficial analysis is that the CR community has retreated into defensive mode and has not changed its communication methods or interaction with the community. This is perhaps understandable given the hostility and publicity of much of the media coverage and further comment (and UEA has put a ban on staff speaking on the issue). Such bans can recoil, as it is then easier to believe there is something to hide. It may be difficult, but it seems essential to radically overhaul the governance and communication.
On more than one occasion the panel asserted that Climate data should only be analysed by experts and that releasing it more generally would lead to serious misinterpretations. It was also clear that on occasions data and been requested and refused. The reason appeared to be that these requests were not from established climate “experts”. This had led to the Freedom Of Information Act (FOI) being used to request Scientific Data from the unit. This had reached such a degree of polarisation that of over 100 requests only 10 had resulted in information being released by the University. I had no idea that this “FOI battle” had been going on for several years and that nothing had been done to try to solve the problem. This in itself should have been a signal that change was necessary – however inconvenient.
We should remember that climate research is not an obscure area or of science but something on which governments make major and lasting decisions. It surprised me that there was not an innate culture of making the data and research generally available. The CRU is effectively a publicly funded body (as far as I know there is minimal industrial funding) and I believe there is a natural moral, ethical and political imperative to make the results widely available. The FOI requests should have been seen as a symptom of the problem of not making data available rather than as, it appears, being regarded as irritation from outsiders. Whatever the rights and wrongs, it was a situation with a high probability of ending in public disaster (as it did).
I was sufficiently concerned that I spoke at the end and although I do not have my exact words I said something like the following:
“I am a Chemist and a data libertarian. I am not an expert in climate change but I believe that I could understand and contribute to some parts of climate research (e.g. data analysis and computational science and I do not accept the need for a priesthood. In my advocacy for publishing Open Data I encounter many fields where scientists and publishers are actively working to make data openly available. The pioneers of genome research and structural biology fought their culture (which included major commercial interests) to ensure that the results of the work was universally available. I see other areas where scientific papers cannot now be published unless the scientists also make their data available at time of publication. Climate research appears to have generated a priesthood which controls the release of information. For a science with global implications this is not acceptable.”
This will not be my last blog post on this issue. I was sparked into action when I heard a talk in Cambridge by Nigel Lawson (Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer). Lawson argued (using proof by political assertion) that climate change research was a conspiracy. He has now set up a foundation to challenge the mainstream view (The Global Warming Policy Foundation). However I realized while listening to him that I did not have compelling incontrovertible Scientific Data and arguments that I could use to challenge his views. This is an untenable position for a scientist and so I believe I must educate myself and my fellow scientists about which pieces of information are genuine.
To do this we have to develop a culture of Openness and a number of us discussed the problem at the Open Knowledge Foundation’s OKCon earlier this year. Although much has been written and continues to be written on climate research there is no Open repository of information.
The OKF’s goal is to create or expose Open resources. We are currently thinking about how to do this for climate research. We have to be extremely careful that we do not “take sides” and that our role is strictly limited to identification of Open resources.