Some comments on Kate Sheppard’s piece.
Before discussing her article, note that accounts of Climategate are also starting to filter into the academic (“peer reviewed”) literature. Some of the academic accounts so far (e.g. Nerlich 2010; ….) seem academic in the worst sense – disconnected from reality and little more than mythology promoting the class interest of academics. On the other hand, Kate Sheppard has a reasonable handle on the major chronology. As a result, while her take on events is biased – not surprising given the publication – it bears enough resemblance to reality that it’s interesting to observe her blind spots – the things that she doesn’t notice illuminate that bias. And conversely to consider potential blind spots on my own part. (In contrast, Nerlich 2010, a peer reviewed publication, cited recently in Nature as a reference on Climategate, tried to analyse Climategate through the prism of the blogs, but instead of discussing Climate Audit, WUWT, Bishop Hill, Jeff Id and Lucia, looked instead to blogs like Dakota Voice and PA Pundits, whose involvement was so peripheral that I, for one, had been unaware of them until Nerlich’s article.)
While her understanding of the main sequence is much better than Nerlich, far too often, she uncritically accepts self-serving Team assertions as authoritative. For example, she uncritically accepted the Team’s spin on the NAS panel report. We’ve discussed this at length on other occasions. The NAS panel did not disagree or dispute any of our findings. And North pointedly said that he agreed with Wegman (at the committee hearing). Even though the NAS panel avoided the most pointed issues (e.g. withholding adverse verification statistics), Eduardo Zorita’s take at the time was that it was as harsh as was possible at the time.
She spends lots of time on angry and threatening emails. Fortunately, I haven’t been the target of such despicable behavior. At this blog, I urge people not to be angry and it disappoints me that people engage in such unacceptable conduct.
Sheppard mentioned that Mann keeps a hockey stick signed by Middlebury College’s championship team “to show support for his work”. CA readers may not realize that this was a women’s hockey team, the captain of which was the daughter of two of our best friends and who played on rep teams in Toronto with our daughter. (There is a CA post on Mann’s visit to Middlebury). From first hand knowledge, I am quite confident that the Middlebury College hockey team did not have strong views on principal components, verification r2 statistics or strip bark bristlecones, but, in the absence of more positive endorsement by the NAS panel or the Wegman report, I do not begrudge Mann taking comfort in the perceived support of the Middlebury women’s hockey team.
Sheppard describes me as “genial in interviews’, but says that my tone “towards the scientists” on the blog ranged from “inquisitive to openly hostile”. I recognize “inquisitive”, but do not believe that it is fair to say that my tone towards Mann and other scientists is “openly hostile” or even covertly hostile. I try very hard both not to convey such a tone or to have it. From time to time, people make similar accusations at the blog and I ask them to identify occasions where they believe that I’ve lapsed into such conduct. People have a very hard pointing to specific incidents and generally don’t respond. I recognize that there is considerable hostility on the other side towards me, but I’d like to think that I’ve avoided holding that attitude myself. I recognize that that may be a blind spot on my part and, if so, I’d like to understand it better so that I can exercise more self-discipline. Having said that, I distinguish between the “scientists” and the “inquiries”. I think that the failure of the inquiries to observe even the remotest vestige of due process has gotten under my skin more than I’d like.
She at least recognized that my interest in climate has cost me money in lost income – this is usually a complete blind spot for most activists, who presume that a critic must necessarily be in someone else’s pocket. She also correctly characterizes me as someone who is not ideologically opposed to government. As to “lukewarmness”, I wouldn’t say that I hold this view nearly as strongly as (say) Dick Lindzen, the prototype lukewarmer, and do not exclude the possibility of a conventional estimate of climate sensitivity, even if the position is not presented to the professional standard that the situation clearly calls for. I do not have enough personal understanding of cloud feedbacks to feel that I’m in a position to have a personal opinion. As I’ve said frequently, I strongly believe that IPCC has failed to provide the sort of analysis that third parties require. That five-year literature reviews have become more of a shout-out to all the climate scientists in the world rather than the comprehensive exposition that third parties are entitled to.
She seems to take exception to our work getting a lot of attention, referring particularly to Wall St Journal coverage. But it wasn’t just the Wall St Journal. Our 2005 articles were discussed in Nature, Science and many European newspapers. There was a long article in a Dutch science magazine and I was interviewed on Dutch television. Yes, it was a lot of coverage for a single article, but the same thing could be said even more forcefully about the original Hockey Stick article – something that they didn’t comment on.
Like other environmentalists, the think tanks are a bugbear for her. From my perspective, I think that she over-rates the importance of think tanks in our story. There’s no question that the think tanks loved the idea of someone undressing Mannian statistics and were eager to tell the story. That didn’t mean that our criticisms were wrong – a point that activists seem to lose sight of. In my opinion, the greater fault lies with scientists and IPCC authors who uncritically presumed that Mann and the rest of the Team were right about the dispute, without ensuring that the issues were fully assimilated.
I can understand that most climate scientists’ eyes glazed over when they heard about strip bark bristlecones and Yamal and principal components and did not wish to wade into the matter themselves. However, had the same situation occurred in a business, someone independent would have been assigned to try to resolve the dispute rather than letting it fester unresolved and corroding the business itself.
Sheppard loses her way on CRU chronology. I had contacted Jones in late 2002 about station data. He had promised to send me data when Jones and Moberg (2003) was published, but didn’t. It wasn’t a primary interest of mine and I didn’t follow up. (Ironically he did put up station data following the publication of Jones and Moberg 2003, though this wasn’t publicized or linked. This was the subject of the “mole” post in summer 2009). Willis Eschenbach had asked them for station data under FOI and I followed his efforts with interest. However, I didn’t personally ask CTU for CRUTEM station data until June 2009, when I learned that they had sent the station data to Peter Webster and I asked for precisely the same data. Neither Mother Jones nor any of the inquiries seems to have asked Jones about the opportunism of invoking supposed confidentiality agreements when asked for data by critics, while readily sending data to “friends”.
She also has a tin ear towards the corrosive effect of CRU’s mendacious response to my FOI request – a piece of mendacity that none of the inquiries dealt with either. CRU made the laughable and untrue excuse that they had confidentiality agreements that permitted them to send the data to Webster but prevented them from sending the data to me. There were no agreements containing this narrow prohibition, a point conceded by UEA just prior to the release of the dossier. Climate Audit readers rightly disbelieved this fabrication and requested copies of the supposed confidentiality agreements under FOI. Nor did Phil Jones argue at the time that these FOI requests created an unmanageable burden. A Climategate email shows that he was able to dispose of the matter with a short webpage. The “burden” excuse came much later, and again was accepted uncritically by Nature and the credulous climate community.
Too often, Sheppard accepted untrue statements by the Team at face value. She repeats Santer’s wild accusations. In fall 2008, I’d quickly shown that some of its results were invalid using up-to-date data. When I sought further data to test other parts of the paper, Santer went ballistic. Nonetheless, my request was reasonable. Santer’s results were relied upon by assessment reports. In a Climategate email, even Wigley thought that archiving the results would be a good idea. Indeed, Santer’s boss, David Bader, emailed me and said that they had planned to archive the results all along. And while Santer accused us of not using the data, I had written numerous posts at CA on the topic. Further, Ross and I submitted a comment to the originating journal showing that key results were incorrect. The submission was rejected – one of the referees appears to have been a Santer coauthor – but we could not be faulted for not submitting to an academic journal, an untrue allegation that Santer has continued to make. Many months later, Ross managed to get an article on the topic into a statistics journal.
Although realclimate was part of the Climategate network almost from its startup in December 2004, Sheppard does not mention it in her chronology until Sep 2009, when she characterizes it has having been launched to “fight back against sceptics”. In fact, it was started in December 2004, with Climate Audit being started soon thereafter to fight back against attacks from realclimate.
Sheppard is right to observe that the resistance of climate scientists to providing data only “egged” me on. Instead of being frustrated about it, I documented these refusals in detail on the blog. The Team didn’t like their obstruction being placed in the sunshine, but so what?
Sheppard is pretty accurate on the details of how the emails became known. A notable omission was Gavin Schmidt’s realclimate post on November 20. As someone that took a lot of calls that day from mainstream media, it seemed to me that Gavin’s post was far more important in breaking the Climategate story than contemporary posts by Chris Horner or NewsBusters, which Mother Jones mentioned.
She observes that the controversy was quickly picked up by Jon Stewart, but did not do full justice to Stewart’s commentary, which, in my opinion, was far more insightful than any of the “inquiries”. Stewart neatly lampooned the Gavin Schmidt defence of the trick to hide the decline:
It means nothing…He’s just using a trick to… hide the decline. It’s just scientist-speak for using a standard statistical technique for calibrating data in order to …. trick you…into not knowing about ….the decline.
Staring into the camera, Stewart also sharply criticized the scientists for not adhering to the best possible standards in something important. He realized that this would fuel to right-wing critics and lamented the shoddy conduct that gave rise to it. George Monbiot expressed similar regret a few days later.
While Climategate handed a club to the think tanks (as Stewart had feared) and the think tanks were quick to pile on, as someone who had a battlefield perspective, it doesn’t seem to me that the think tanks had anything more than a peripheral involvement, though Mother Jones and their allies fervently want to think otherwise. Sure the Cato Institute was happy to boast that Pat Michaels was at the “center” of the Climategate controversy, but, from my vantage point, his role seemed peripheral. Nor was Chris Horner very ”central”. The story was taking place on the climate blogs – Climate Audit, Bishop Hill, Jeff Id, Lucia and WUWT.
Sheppard briefly considered the unsolved question of who released the emails, noting speculation on the one hand that it was internal to CRU and on the other hand that it was an outside hack. The timing seems to me to develop out of the FOI dispute in summer 2009, but I concede that reasonable people can be more impressed by the timing relative to Copenhagen. There’s a playfulness to the initial uploading to realclimate and the initial announcement that seems to me to be more consistent with students than with secret services, but again I concede that reasonable people can differ.
Mother Jones uncritically accepts some discredited piffle from the University of Victoria as evidence of a wider conspiracy. Yes, someone did try to steal computers at the University of Victoria from a climate scientist, but there were also attempts to steal computers from the anthropology and other departments. They refer to Wikileaks about an attempt to hack into US diplomatic cables. I haven’t seen any previous commentary purporting to link the two events. The Wikileaks incident describes a method for taking control of a remote computer – is there any evidence of this at CRU? No one’s described any yet, but we haven’t heard from the police yet.
Sheppard uncritically accepts the inquiries at face value – not commenting on their failure to interview critics, their failure to provide transcripts, their failure to examine or report on the issues that had been raised at Climate Audit. She laments:
But none of the exonerations mattered: The scientists had lost control of the narrative.
This may be the most important line of the article. If so, this may testify to the common sense of the general public, as compared to the ideological wishful thinking of the climate science community, over-eager for vindication. In addition, perhaps the climate science community might consider welcoming Judy Curry’s outreach efforts rather then stoning a heretic.
Sheppard reports a hardening of the political divide on the issue – a hardening that is paralleled on the blogs. While “climate communicators” blame this on the think tanks or on the public themselves, my own take is that most of the blame rests with the lack of self-discipline in the climate community. I don’t perceive the malaise as being due to malificent orchestration by the think tanks (much as they would like to take credit for it), but due to almost epic mismanagement of the file by the climate science community, where no one stepped up to provide “adult supervision”. In my opinion, there were opportunities where Ralph Cicerone or Gerry North or some other elder statesman might have accomplished something by exercising moral authority. But no one did.
The “inquiries” made matters worse. The climate science community was far too hungry for a “vindication” and was far too quick to accept their reports despite conspicuous failures of process and findings that flew in the face of facts known to thousands. In a pre-internet world, maybe academics could get away with negligent inquiries like Oxburgh or Muir Russell or Penn State. But they seemed totally unprepared for the fact that the inquiries would be parsed by people outside the cloisters of East Anglia. And that there were thousands of people who were more familiar with the nuances of bristlecones and Yamal than the scientists of the inquiry.
The inquiries seemed to think that they could “control the narrative” through PR and captive coverage in the mainstream media. Muir Russell invested heavily in PR contracts. But all the PR in the world couldn’t make up for things like exposing Muir Russell not attending the interviews with Jones and Briffa and the panel not even asking about the deletion of emails. Nor did Oxburgh and Muir Russell seem to contemplate the possibility that they would be recalled to the Parliamentary Committee. (No one seems to have asked how that came about.) Both of them made embarrassing appearances. Although the Parliamentary Committee grudgingly decided to move on, their dissatisfaction with both the university and the inquiries was very clear.
The blogs, especially Bishop Hill and Climate Audit obviously provided a continuing medium for exposing the shortcomings of the inquiries, with WUWT picking up the more notable stories.
In my opinion, if the climate science community wanted to get back on their narrative, they would have served their own interests better by including critics or representatives of critics in the inquiries and by ensuring that the issues were dealt with. This is not new to climate science; it’s how inquiries succeed in dealing with issues. By excluding critics and failing to deal with the issues, the “inquiries” arguably made the problem even worse – a point that Sheppard is blind to.
In May last year, I commented on the conundrum of the community’s failure to be offended by Climategate conduct at the Heartland conference as follows (and the comments still seem apt):
But there’s a price for not being offended, because the public expects more. If climate scientists are unoffended by the failure to disclose adverse data, unoffended by the trick and not committed to the principles of full, true and plain disclosure, the public will react, as it has, by placing less reliance on pronouncements from the entire field – thus diminishing the coin of scientists who were never involved as well as those who were. This is obviously not a happy situation at a time when climate scientists are trying to influence the public and many have lashed out by blaming everyone but themselves, using the supposed exonerations by these ineffectual inquiries as an additional pretext.
To the extent that things like the trick were sharp practice, the practices needed to be disavowed. The scientists do not need to be drummed out, but there has to be some commitment to avoiding these sorts of sharp practice in the future. George Monbiot suggested early on perceived that apologies were necessary on the part of the climate scientists involved both to the targets and to the wider community – something that, in my opinion, would go a long way to achieving some sort of truth and reconciliation in a difficult situation. Right now, this seems less likely to happen than ever.
Sheppard’s own diagnoses seem wrongheaded in the extreme. She says that climate scientists were unprepared to deal with the news circus. However, climate scientists have been issuing news releases for years. Indeed, as someone used to mining promotions, I was amazed at how promotional these press releases were. The Climategate scientists had inside tracks to the most influential science reporters in the world and used those connections without a second thought.
Her other conclusion – that it’s just a problem of finding a “better communication” strategy – is one that we hear more and more. Nor does it seem to me that the establishment of another Team, this time the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, is really what the situation calls for. After all, realclimate started out its existence with a similar objective, but, in my opinion, it has dissipated much of its original franchise by the attitudes and condescension of its principals, conduct that has arguably created more sceptics than WUWT.
Linking back to Mother Jones. As I’ve said on many occasions, many of the most important “communication” problems for the climate science community are elementary ones that should have been learned from their mothers. Don’t be untruthful – the mendacity of excuses by climate institutions in refusing data was easy for third parties to understand and corrosive to public respect for the institutions. Answer the questions that are asked (Lucia has written eloquently on this.) Disclose data without arguing – if you’re asking the public to take actions, you can’t simultaneously attempt to protect supposed intellectual property rights to data collected with public money. Disclose adverse results and data on your initiative without them being dragged out of you. Above all, be polite.
It shouldn’t take a Climategate to understand such simple things.