New Light on Acton’s Trick

The Guardian’s story on Oxburgh’s testimony (James Randerson here) is headlined:

Oxburgh: UEA vice-chancellor was wrong to tell MPs he would investigate climate research

and sub-headlined:

Edward Acton gave ‘inaccurate’ information to MPs by telling them the university would reassess key scientific papers following the UEA climate emails controversy.

And indeed, this is one of the few statements by Oxburgh to the Committee that can be taken at face value. Oxburgh’s evidence did shed some interesting new light on both Acton’s and oral evidence to the Committee earlier this year.

Summer Controversy over Terms of Reference
Controversy over the Oxburgh terms of reference has been festering for a while. It was discussed in July, with articles by both me and Roger Harrabin (among others) and a statement by the university.

I had written to Oxburgh in June asking him whether my information that Jones had admitted at an interview that it was “probably impossible” to do the reconstructions with any accuracy was true and to issue an addendum to his report if this was the case – since this was perhaps the most contentious scientific point. Oxburgh refused to confirm or deny this point. (The question was touched on again in Oxburgh’s testimony, but he evaded the question – more on this in another post.) In his reply, Oxburgh refused to confirm or deny Jones’ admission on the grounds that “science was not the subject of the study”.

This prompted me to write a CA post itemizing the representations by the university when the formation of the Science Appraisal Panel was first bruited in early February, their written evidence in late February and oral evidence on March 1 – see here for a chronology.

Concurrently, Roger Harrabin of the BBC, a long-time and sincere environmental reporter, was getting very frustrated as a reporter with the inconsistencies between what the university had represented to the public and to the committee and what they were actually doing, presenting quite acid commentary at his blog here and in a broadcast here on July 7, with a tough quote from Phil Willis, former chair of the committee accusing the university of “sleight of hand”:

Quite frankly I couldn’t believe it. I frankly think that there was a sleight of hand in that the terms of reference were not what we were led to believe.

The University issued its own joint statement with Oxburgh on July 11 here, denying that the terms of reference had changed. Here, as always, you have to watch the pea under the thimble.

University of East Anglia did not change the brief of the Oxburgh Panel Sun, 11 Jul 2010

Following a broadcast on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 on July 7, 2010, and text on Roger Harrabin’s blogsite on the BBC webpages, the following has been sent to Mr Harrabin by Lord Oxburgh and Professor Trevor Davies.

“The University asked the Panel chaired by Lord Oxburgh to consider whether “data had been dishonestly selected, manipulated and/or presented to arrive at pre-determined conclusions that were not compatible with a fair interpretation of the original data”. It is not true that Professor Davies subsequently asked Lord Oxburgh , as you claim, to adopt a “narrower…brief” of any kind. We shall be grateful if you would correct the wrong impression which has been given”

.

Watch the pea under the thimble here. The criticisms from Harrabin and myself had been that the terms of reference had been misrepresented to the public and to the committee – not whether they had “changed” between the time that Oxburgh had been appointed and his submission of the report.

I had a chat with Trevor Davies at the Guardian reception the following week. Davies accosted me in front of a young reporter from New Scientist, saying that I held myself out as expecting accuracy and demanding that I retract supposedly inaccurate statements at Climate Audit about changes in terms of reference. I asked him to identify the supposedly offending statements and undertook to correct any inaccuracies. On July 15, Davies’ secretary sent me an email attaching an email – I guess the great man was not himself going to email me:

Dear Steve,
Please see the attached from Professor Trevor Davies:

Dear Steve,
Below is the agreed statement from Lord Oxburgh and me, which was sent to Roger Harrabin of the BBC. It is now on the UEA website. On Wednesday night you indicated that you would be prepared to correct/remove any erroneous information on the Climate Audit site. I’d be pleased if you would do so with regard to this matter.

[the above statement was included]

I reverted with a detailed answer, saying that I had been unable to locate any “erroneous information”. I pointed out that the issue was the inconsistency between the evidence to the public and to the committee and the actual terms of reference, not whether the terms of reference had been “changed” between the time of appointment and the final report. I sent a follow-up but didn’t hear back from them on either email.

Backstory
Throughout all of this, I had assumed that the terms of reference with Oxburgh had been established after Acton’s evidence to the committee i.e. I made the generous assumption that Acton’s evidence was accurate at the time that he gave it and that, for whatever reason, the terms of reference finally agreed to with Oxburgh did not live up to the representations. Frustrating, but not the same thing as giving “inaccurate” evidence to a parliamentary committee.

Quite frankly, I hadn’t even contemplated the possibility that Acton’s evidence to the committee about the terms of reference had been “inaccurate” at the time that he gave it i.e. that the terms of reference had been agreed to with Oxburgh prior to Acton’s evidence on March 1.

Oxburgh shed a great deal of light on this, both through his direct statement that Acton’s evidence was “inaccurate” and some interesting evidence on the chronology of his appointment. Here’s an approximate transcript of the relevant section of Oxburgh’s evidence yesterday. In his opening paragraph, Oxburgh said that he was “approached in February”:

I was approached in February, would I chair a very brief study on the honesty of the people, not expected to go into emails.

Later, he went into more detail about this initial approach, which seems to have been a visit to his house in Cambridge by two senior UEA officials, at which the terms of reference were hammered out. Whether this visit was the “approach in February” or whether it had been preceded by earlier feelers doesn’t seem material at this time. I place this visit between Feb 11 and Feb 25, the significance of which dates I’ll explain below. Here is Oxburgh’s evidence on the terms of reference and the Cambridge visit:

Stringer – you said that your inquiry about integrity and honesty.

Ox – As far as we could

Stringer – When Prof Acton before the previous committee, he said that your panel was to reassess the science and make sure there is nothing wrong –that’s a direct quote. What you say is very different..,

Ox – That was inaccurate. I think that the scope of our panel was made quite clear in the university’s press release at the time we were appointed and in the first paragraphs of our report. You’ll have to bear in mind the vice chancellor in his post for a month or something like that. laugh I think that this all came as rather a abrupt [unintelligible] in his first months as VC.

Q -Can I come back to this. People are saying that the terms of reference changed

Ox – Terms of reference have not changed.

Q – That’s what they’re claiming. UEA press notice did so it would be an independent and external reappraisal of the science . Now you’re clear that you didn’t see it that way. Can we just why to get to the bottom as to why there’s a slight difference between what the press release said and what you’re saying?

Ox – I can’t comment on other people saying things. Let me tell you. I was visited in Cambridge by the Deputy VC and a senior member of the university who wanted to persuade me to take this on. This had to be done rapidly. They really wanted it within a month. There would be no way that panel could validate the science. If you wanted to validate the science, you would have a different panel. You wouldn’t appoint me as chairman. You’d appoint experts from the field. It’s a very different activity. I was quite clear that what we took on was to look at the integrity of the researchers.

10-48 Q – Who set terms of reference, yourself, Royal Society or uni?

Ox- In subsequent discussions, it was made a much more formal process than what happened, the terms of reference emerged at discussions in my house in Cambridge, the university explained what they wanted, they’re encapsulated in 1st paragraph of our report and I don’t think that there’s any disagreement between me, our committee and university.

There seems little doubt that as at Feb 10-11, the date of the Muir Russell press conference and the date of their written submission to the committee, the university’s intention and representations were to “reappraise the science”. That’s what their contemporary statement said.

It also seems certain that Oxburgh hadn’t been approached as at Feb 10. On Feb 10, Trevor Davies emailed UK Chief Scientist John Beddington (Andrew Montford has been attentive to his shadowy role in these events) as follows:

Muir Russell is launching the Independent Review tomorrow. Our understanding is that he will state definitively that he will not be reviewing the ‘science’. Given the time which has elapsed since we instigated the Review (Dec 3) and other events, we are of the view that there should be as rapid as possible scientific assessment of key CRU publications. There has been discussion between the Royal Soc (Martin Rees, Brian Hoskins), UEA (me, Peter Liss) and Alan Thorpe [NERC]. Initially we were hoping that the Royal Soc would undertake this, but Martin feels it more appropriate that the Soc helps us identify people with the appropriate standing, independence etc. We plan on issuing a statement to this effect tomorrow, Muir Russell has agreed.

It is difficult to say anything about the time-scale until the assessors have been appointed but we want this to be done as quickly as possible. Will keep you in the loop and seek your advice.
Best, Trevor

Beddington replied the next day:

Trevor, thanks for this. I am currently in India, back next week and there may be merit in speaking on the telephone when I retyrn. I think that it is important that UEA indicates that this decision relates to the science and is complementary to Muir Russell. It will be very important to have a Chair for such a review who would be seen as independent. I will ponder this, the choice of experts is rather more straightforward.
Best wishes, John

Beddington then suggested Oxburgh as one of two candidates (per March 4 email from Davies to Beddington and May DEFRA statement in response to Montford FOI request).

Oxburgh is attested in a Feb 27 email from Davies to Rees and Hoskins, saying that Davies and Oxburgh had settled on a list of 13 “possible canadidates”. The Cambridge visit is thus firmly bracketed between Feb 11 and Feb 27.

Acton’s oral evidence to the committee was on March 1 after the Cambridge visit establishing the terms of reference. At the time of Acton’s testimony, Oxburgh had already refused to “reappraise” the science, agreeing only to the very limited appraisal of the “honesty” of the scientists in selected publications (more on this). At the time of Acton’s evidence to the committee, it had already been agreed that Oxburgh would not reappraise the science and Acton’s opposite testimony was, as Oxburgh stated, “inaccurate”. (Beddington also testified to the committee and his evidence is worth examining as well.)

As to Oxburgh’s excuse for Acton’s “inaccurate” evidence to the committee – that Acton had been in his post as Vice Chancellor much longer than a “month or so”. Not a very convincing excuse even for the University of East Anglia.

However, even this excuse is untrue. Acton’s appointment as VC had been announced in April 2009, about 11 months before his evidence to the committee. And prior to that he had been acting VC for a number of months, following over five years experience as pro-vice-chancellor. His press release had stated:

Professor Acton has been acting in the role of vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia following the announcement of Professor Macmillan’s retirement, earlier this year. He had been the University’s pro-vice-chancellor for academic matters since 2004 where he provided leadership in areas including quality assurance, student satisfaction and student recruitment.

More on other aspects of Oxburgh’s evidence to come.


33 Comments

  1. Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 10:53 AM | Permalink

    Steve, minor correction I think. Oxburgh:

    I was approached in February, would I chair every brief study on the honesty of the people, not expected to go into emails.

    I believe “every” should read “a very”.

  2. Hu McCulloch
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 11:37 AM | Permalink

    As to Oxburgh’s excuse for Acton’s “inaccurate” evidence to the committee – that Acton had been in his post as Vice Chancellor much longer than a “month or so”.

    Should “had” be “hadn’t”?

  3. mpaul
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 11:40 AM | Permalink

    The development of the British legal system is surely one of the great accomplishments in human history. Most of the systems of the developed world are direct descendents of the British system. Yet lately, the British system seems to have dissolved into something more akin to what you would see in a third world country. It seems that people with social standing now routinely think they can pull the wool over the eyes of parliamentarians and suffer no repercussions. It will be interesting to see if the committee follows up with Acton.

    And now, with the benefit of full context, what on earth did Beddington mean when he said:

    “Dear Ron

    Much appreciated the hard work put into the review, general view is a blinder played. As we discussed at HoL, clearly the drinks are on me!

    Best wishes, John”

    • Hu McCulloch
      Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 1:11 PM | Permalink

      Apparently to play a blinder means to play skillfully:

      http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/play+a+blinder

      Nothing devious here.

      • mpaul
        Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 1:46 PM | Permalink

        Hu, see my comment below (I got a bit mixed up on the threading). “But it just seems like such an odd choice of words. In the UK does the word generally have a connotation of craftiness in the face of opponents or is it a substitute for a job well done. In other words, if your daughter did a great job at a violin recital, would you say it was a ‘blinder’? Would you ever use the term ‘blinder’ when craftiness and a bit of deception was not involved.”

        Can you shed light on the connotation of the word?

        • artwest
          Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 2:24 PM | Permalink

          There’s no necessary indication of deviousness I’m afraid, in using the term “played a blinder”.
          The original context I would think of for the term is sporting, e.g. someone played a spectacular game, but it has widened to mean “to have done exceptionally well” in any context.
          You could use it in the context of doing well in a violin recital (or chairing an inquiry) but to do so would be slightly deliberately flippant, though not necessarily insincere, just because of the original less-elevated context.
          To use a phrase in a context which is slightly flippant about an important subject (like any form of understatement) is second nature to many/most British people so there shouldn’t be too much read into that either. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker doesn’t take the subject seriously.

        • mpaul
          Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 2:31 PM | Permalink

          Ah, thanks, that’s helpful.

        • dougie
          Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 5:24 PM | Permalink

          but remember, only people on the same ‘Team’ use this expression to each other!!

        • Chris S
          Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 3:30 PM | Permalink

          As always, context is key.
          When a prominent AGW alarmist proponent tells the Chair of a review panel that he “played a blinder”, you can be sure that he is extremely happy that the outcome was the desired result.

        • dearieme
          Posted Sep 10, 2010 at 5:41 AM | Permalink

          “In the UK does the word generally have a connotation of craftiness”: no, none at all. Perhaps your thought arises from the American use of “blinder” for horses. In Britain those devices are called “blinkers”. A “blinder” means just a very successful performance. Which is, no doubt, what Oxburgh pulled off for his chums.

        • Dave
          Posted Sep 10, 2010 at 8:37 AM | Permalink

          To ‘play a blinder’ is to blind the onlookers with brilliance. No negative connotation, although it does seem an ironic choice of phrase.

  4. Lorne
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 11:53 AM | Permalink

    Steve eye’s wider open thank’s

  5. Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 12:24 PM | Permalink

    What a shambles. Step 1 of any such inquiry is to make sure it has a clear written remit before it starts, so this one failed before it had started. The statements are all still there on the UEA site and very clear:
    11 Feb: New scientific assessment of climatic research publications announced. An independent external reappraisal of the science in the Climatic Research Unit’s (CRU) key publications has been announced by the University of East Anglia.
    22 Mar: CRU Scientific Assessment Panel announced. Lord Oxburgh FRS, a former chair of the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, is to chair an independent Scientific Assessment Panel to examine important elements of the published science of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia.

  6. Dave L.
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 12:56 PM | Permalink

    I believe that this whole affair closely mimics the classic routine of Abbott & Costello:
    “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.”

  7. Lorne
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 1:13 PM | Permalink

    Apparently to play a blinder means to play skillfully:

    http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/play+a+blinder

    Nothing devious here.

    what the hell is this?

    • mpaul
      Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 1:29 PM | Permalink

      A blinder used to be a shot that was difficult for the goalie to see because other players were in the line of sight of the goalie — a bit like a screen in hockey. But I acknowledge that the word in the UK now means a crafty play.

      But it just seems like such an odd choice of words. In the UK does the word generally have a connotation of craftiness in the face of opponents or is it a substitute for a job well done. In other words, if your daughter did a great job at a violin recital, would you say it was a ‘blinder’? Would you ever use the term ‘blinder’ when craftiness and a bit of deception was not involved.

      It seems to me that it has exactly the same meaning as how the CRU defines the word “trick”.

      • Paul_K
        Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 2:34 PM | Permalink

        I disagree on the usage question. It is common idiom in sport in the UK to talk about someone “playing a blinder”. Whatever the etymology, it now means (no more than) that someone played with great skill to the point of brilliance. It might be slightly out of context to describe one’s daughter’s violin concerto, but only because the idiomatic usage is normally reserved for less sublime pursuits. (It would be equivalent to describing the Tajh Mahal as a “pretty nifty tomb”, if that helps.) No deviousness is normally implied in the use of the term.

        • Schiller Thurkettle
          Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 2:55 PM | Permalink

          Paul K,

          Determining with absolute precision meaning of the phrase, ‘play a blinder’ may not be entirely necessary, and that’s because of its context.

          The context is, ‘a game’. An activity involving two opposing teams, the point of which is generally to gain applause for the prevailing team.

          With the admission that the inquiry was considered to be ‘a game’, nearly any interpretation of ‘play a blinder’ is ghastly and egregious.

    • WillR
      Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 3:00 PM | Permalink

      Re: Lorne (Sep 9 13:13), Or perhaps a deception.

      http://austriantimes.at/news/Around_the_World/2010-09-07/26609/Subs_play_a_Blinder

      and there you have it.

      Steve:

      Subs play a Blinder

      A cash strapped soccer boss who shut down part of his stadium because of falling fan numbers has played a blinder – by substituting the real thing with rolls of plastic supporters.

      Frustrated Stefano Fantinel – who runs Italy’s Serie B side Triestina – reckons he’s going to save 100,000 GBP a year on maintenance with his new fans.

      Printers simply took crowd shots of real supporters from matches and printed them life-sized on special roller blinds that stretch down over the empty stands.

      “People are struggling with money and can’t afford to come to football in the way they used to,” said one club official.

      “These fans never cause trouble, they don’t even drop litter and when you want them to leave you just roll them up,” they added.

  8. DaveJR
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 1:50 PM | Permalink

    I’ve only ever heard “blinder” refer to a well played game or something done really well. Beddington seems to be suggesting that the “establishment” consider Oxburgh’s report to be especially well executed. We have only the due diligence involved in creating, and the content of, the report itself to inform us as to why they believe this is so.

    • Paul_K
      Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 2:24 PM | Permalink

      I agree. When I was a lad in the UK, it was common idiom in sport to talk about someone “playing a blinder”. The connotation was only of skill to the point of brilliance – hence blinding the beholder.

    • JEM
      Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 3:11 PM | Permalink

      I think the key here is that the game these folks privately understood Oxburgh was playing was not run to the same rulebook as the public was given.

  9. Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 2:13 PM | Permalink

    Ox- In subsequent discussions, it was made a much more formal process than what happened, the terms of reference emerged at discussions in my house in Cambridge, the university explained what they wanted, they’re encapsulated in 1st paragraph of our report and I don’t think that there’s any disagreement between me, our committee and university.

    Unless I’m missing something, for an enquiry to be “independent” should it not come up with its own terms of reference based on the accusations and general situation, rather than let the body being investigated dictate the terms?

    If someone investigates me, I don’t get a say in what they’re able to investigate. It would seem obvious to me what the university “wanted”, and that’s exactly what we got.

    • JohnH
      Posted Sep 10, 2010 at 2:23 AM | Permalink

      In the UK the inquiry does not normally set its own terms of ref, this of course means that when they finally report their findings if the amount of whitewash applied is excessive you end up with another inquiry. The Iraq war is on its 3rd inquiry and this 3rd one has its widest terms of ref.

      The UAE has played a blinder by having several inquiries running at the same time so critics of one can be diverted to another.

      PS Pun intended

  10. pesadilla
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 3:28 PM | Permalink

    “To play a blinder”
    The meaning of this term is dependent on the user and the context. The phrase could certainly mean,”to outwit”
    “To outwit! in turn is defined as “decieve”
    The successfull completion an assignment in (for example,double quick time or with apparent aplomb) could be described as playing a blinder.
    It could be straight out of “Yes Prime Minister”
    In this particular case, i think that the expression would correctly be described as SMUG.

    • Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 6:27 PM | Permalink

      I don’t think “outwit” necessarily means “deceive”. I suppose it could mean that, but context is important.

  11. pesadilla
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 3:30 PM | Permalink

    oops,typo
    should read…………completion of an etc

  12. TimM
    Posted Sep 9, 2010 at 10:55 PM | Permalink

    Playing a blinder means you played blindingly well. In this context blindingly means dazzlingly. So brilliant you were blinding.

    The simple interpretation is (as Chris S said) Beddington was very happy with the outcome. My inference is that the two are (and were from the outset) on the same team playing against an opposition team. So much for an independent review.

    • OldUnixHead
      Posted Sep 10, 2010 at 3:53 PM | Permalink

      TimM,

      Of course, Beddington’s blinder reference could have some interesting subsequent fallout if it was meant at all in a context similar to Pres. GWB’s post-Katrina “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” comment.

  13. Posted Sep 10, 2010 at 7:06 AM | Permalink

    Blinders are used to keep a horse from seeing something that will frighten or excite it. It keeps the field of vision narrow.
    Keeping someone from seeing what you are up to such that you outplay, outwit or deceive them usually results in winning whatever contest you are undertaking.
    There, once again, appear to have been some brilliant plays being made by the “team” as they recruit more members.

    • apl
      Posted Sep 11, 2010 at 11:48 AM | Permalink

      PJB
      What you describe as ‘Blinders’ are known in England as ‘Blinkers’

  14. PhilJourdan
    Posted Sep 10, 2010 at 9:46 AM | Permalink

    Fascinating analysis of the mis-direction!

    And many thanks to the many Brits for explaining some of your idioms.

  15. hide the decline
    Posted Sep 10, 2010 at 8:20 PM | Permalink

    There is a lot of dog-whistling here with respect to the context of the sentence. The sentence states: “Much appreciated the hard work put into the review [pause] general view is a blinder played.” – The sentence is in two parts, with the first part being the subject and primary part of the text: “work put into the review” – The second part: “blinder played” is subordinate to the first part however directly relevant to the first part. There is no football, golf or any other “Games” played here it is simply that the referred “Review” was a “Blinder” according to Beddington.

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