Climategate is a topic I’ve rarely discussed on this blog. Mostly because it’s clear that it’s not possible to have a constructive discussion with those who have different views about its significance. However, since I watched the BBC show about it last night, I thought I might risk it. It’s a bit of a pity that they decided to cover it, since it really doesn’t have much significance when it comes to climate science specifically. It does illustrate the lengths some will go to in order to undermine our scientific understanding, but it’s not clear how we really benefit from reminding people about this fake scandal.
What struck me was how difficult it was for some of those involved. Phil Jones clearly found it a very difficult time and it was pretty obvious that Tim Osborn found it difficult to talk about some of what he had experienced. One of the main things it highlighted in the emails was Mike’s Nature trick….to hide the decline. This is typically misrepresented by those who promote it. The context was the cover of a report which showed the temperature history for the last 1000 years. Most tree ring series ended in 1980, so Mike’s Nature trick was simply the addition of the instrumental temperature record after 1980.
However, one tree ring series diverged after 1960 and showed cooling. This is clearly wrong, since we know that temperatures kept rising after 1960. Hence the instrumental temperature record was added to this series post 1960, rather than post 1980 as per the other tree ring series. If this was a figure for a scientific paper, you’d expect this to be made clear in the paper itself. However, this was for a cover of a report, the resulting figure was a reasonable representation of our millenial temperature history, and showing the diverging portion of the tree ring series would have been wrong.
The show did illustrate that the stolen emails did indicate that some of what was going on was sub-optimal. In particular, some of the scientists weren’t as open as they could have been. However, we do keep getting told that science is social, and this seems to be an illustration of that. As scientists we have some obligation to engage with critics of our work. However, we do have jobs that require quite a lot of attention, so there is a limit to how much time we can spend responding to people who question what we’ve done. We’re also not obligated to engage with those who do not appear to be engaging in good faith.
Similarly, we should be willing to share what we’ve done with others, but – again – there are limits. A key aspect of scientific research is that others should be able to reproduce what you’ve done so as to check your results. However, this simply requires that it be possible to do so, not that researchers are obligated to share every bit of what they’ve done with those who are trying to reproduce their work. In some cases it may not be straightforward to share everything. I’ve on occasion used codes that you need to ask to use. If someone else wanted to use the same code, they’d need to go to the source, rather than expect me to give it to them. In most cases, this is simply because the developers would like to keep track of who is using their codes, not because they’re aiming to limit who can actually use them.
So, as far as I’m concerned, Climategate is mostly an indication of the lengths some will go to in order to undermine our understanding of an important topic. It may also indicate that some of the conduct by the scientists involved was not ideal, but science is a social endeavour and scientists can get as frustrated as anyone when faced with a barrage of bad-faith requests. There is absolutely no indication that anyone engaged in anything nefarious when it came to the science itself, and attempts to check the results from the groups involved have confirmed their results and further strengthened our scientific understanding.