Institute of Physics in hot seat

By Ken Perrott 05/03/2010 5

The UK Institute of Physiscs (IOP) is currently the darling of the climate change deniers, but has upset its own members. The Guardian has found their submission to the UK Parliamentary “Climategate” Hearing was prepared by a small clique, including a well known climate change denier. Now members are protesting. Some may even resign. The IOP may be forced to withdraw their submission.

Climate change politics can be a poisoned chalice for scientists. Trained to deal with objective reality and to test statements and ideas against that reality they are ill-equipped to confront the prejudice, misinformation, emotion and outright nastiness of the political world.

Unfortunately “climategate,” the hysterical anti-science campaign organised around the release of selected stolen emails from the Climate Research unit of the University of East Anglia, is beginning to bring that political world to the scientists themselves.

UK Parliament “climategate” hearings

Looks like the staid old IOP may become the latest victim of “climategate.” Mind you, they did bring it on themselves with their submission to the recent Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament inquiry (see IoP’s evidence submission). They succumbed to politicking in their own ranks and used decidedly authoritarian, undemocratic procedures in preparing their submission. This has caused a backlash from members, and reporters from the UK Guardian have been exposing the kerfuffle. The Institute’s leadership have been forced to backtrack a little on their submission and may yet be forced to withdraw it, at least in part.

Never mind – the climate change deniers loved the submission. Reading those sources your wouldn’t have known that it was only one of 55 submissions representing all points of view. It was heavily promoted in the denier echo chamber on twitter and blogs – even in New Zealand. The local popular blog, Kiwiblog, uncritically reproduced sections (see Institute of Physics on Climategate).

Perhaps, though, this promotion has gone too far. Lord Mockton’s climate change denial organisation, SPPI, has now reproduced the submission, given it a pretty cover and made it available from their own web site. An “official document” in their reprint series! I should think this will be the kiss of death, credibility wise, and cause even more consternation to institute members.

Who wrote the submission?

The Guardian reports that the evidence for the submission “was drawn from an energy industry consultant who argues that global warming is a religion” (see Climate emails inquiry: Energy consultant linked to physics body’s submission). They also found “the submission was approved by three members of its science board, but would not reveal their names. The Guardian contacted several members of the board, including its chairman, Denis Weaire, a physicist at Trinity College Dublin. All said that they had little direct role in the submission.”

Three members out of 14! (Governance Science Board).

The Guardian was “unable to find a member of the board that supports the submission. Two of the scientists listed as members said they had declined to comment on a draft submission prepared by the institute, because they were not climate experts and had not read the UEA emails. Others would not comment or did not respond to enquiries.” (See  Institute of Physics forced to clarify submission to climate emails inquiry).

Apparently the report was prepared by the IOP’s Energy Group and the Environment Group was left out of the loop! While environmental and climate scientists generally overwhelmingly accept the IPCC conclusions from their review of climate science, energy and mining scientists are usually less accepting. Understandable given their commercial environment. Terry Jackson, the founder of the IOP Energy Group and Director of the Independent Climate Research Group in Bangor  (a denier group) publicly promotes naive climate denial arguments (see Sammy’s right, man is not responsible for global warming, Pouring cold water on global warming, and Scientists see signs of global cooling). This might provide an idea of the orientation of those physicists who approved the submission.

The IOP’s “clarification” to members

After protests from members the IOP produced a statement “clarifying” their position (see IOP and the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into the disclosure of climate data). It said:

“the Institute’s position on climate change is clear: the basic science is well enough understood to be sure that our climate is changing — and that we need to take action now to mitigate that change.”


“these comments, focused on the scientific process, should not be interpreted to mean that the Institute believes that the science itself is flawed.”

However , members were not satisfied. The Guardian reported “the statement appears to contradict sections of the original submission, which suggests the emails showed scientists had cherry-picked data to support conclusions and that some key reconstructions of past temperature cannot be relied upon.” (See Institute of Physics forced to clarify submission to climate emails inquiry).

And several IOP members have written open letters of protest. Andy Russell (see Dear Institute of Physics…) detailed his objections to the submission and finished with:

Finally, I am confused as to why the Energy group was tasked with preparing the statement and not the Environmental Physics group, who would have been more aware of the particular issues in this case.

I realise that a small clarification has been issued but if the IoP continues to stand by this statement then I will have no other option but to reconsider my membership of your organisation.

Ian Hopkinson (see A letter to the Institute of Physics) made the following specific complaints:

1. Item 1 mis-represents the current scientific practice of sharing of data and methodologies. Currently methodologies are generally shared by publication in scientific journals not by the explicit sharing of computer source code. Raw experimental data from third parties is not routinely shared. To imply that the researchers at CRU are acting out of step with current practice is false.
2. Item 4 specifically casts doubt on the historical temperature reconstructions based on proxy measures whilst not acknowledging that such reconstructions have been repeated by a range of research groups using a range of methodologies, as described in the IPCC 2007 report.
3. Item 5 accuses the researchers at CRU of “suppression” of the divergence between proxy records and the more recent thermometer based record. This is ridiculous, the CRU has published on this very divergence in Nature.
4. Item 6 makes no recognition of the un-usual circumstances that CRU found themselves in, subjected to a large number of Freedom of Information requests, culminating in the publication of a substantial fraction of their private e-mail correspondence.
So, an ongoing saga. I wonder if IOP members will be calling for their own inquiry into unethical behaviour in the leadership. (That’s all we need – another “climategate” inquiry!)
Are we going to see the IOP withdraw their submission to the parliamentary committee?
And how are they going to explain the republication of the submission as a reprint of Mad Mocktons SPPI denier group?
See also:

The IOP fiasco

Physicists’ message to world leaders in Copenhagen: Institute of Physics Press Release


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5 Responses to “Institute of Physics in hot seat”

  • Ken

    The key point from all the professional bodies of scientists that submitted to the hearings was that all the data and workings should be made available and the CRU had failed in this regard. By failing to do this the CRU’s science was ultimately unverifiable and that, to a greater or lesser extent, called into question the quality of their science. I personally was also a bit surprised that the CRU have said that the peer reviewers for publication didn’t ask for this information.

    I also thought you had accepted that all of this was problematic for the quality of climate science, but from the above I’m not sure.

    As to the impact of all this on the conclusions that might be drawn about AGW I know not. In the end it won’t be answered by a strident defence of the indefensible, it will be answered by the adoption of better quality practices.

    I hope that will be what comes out of the various review processes underway.

    Don’t you?

  • Simon, I am surprised you seem so attached to the IoP submission. Many of the other submissions did stress the desirability of availability of data. Some expressed concern that this should oblige some responsibility on the part of all those who use the data – not just scientists. I think there are real issues around this, it is a developing area and obviously, in future, protocols will come into place to handle this properly. They aren’t here yet.

    In contrast the IoP submission went much further – without justification. And this is why it has been picked up by the denier echo chamber. And why IoP members are so concerned.

    Take, for example this from their submission:

    “The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions “

    Now that is patently untrue. There is a prima facie case that Jones may have removed some emails – that is all. Hardly “honourable scientific traditions”. The evidence was his angry email asking for it to be done. So far no-one has found evidence that it was done. Mann for instance did not delete any.

    I hope the existing inquiries sort that out once and for all. It is bad that the office responsible for monitoring FOI compliance issued the “prima facie” press statement – and left it at that! As it exists it is just a smear and the University has tried to get the office to correct it. But the specific application was for emails – not data. The IoP was unjustified in its statement. Similarly they made statements about the reliability of climate change findings which were unwarranted and conflict with other statements by the Institute.

    It’s not true to say that all the professional bodies judged that the CRU had failed – quite rightly they, unlike the IoP, didn’t pass judgement on the specific case (leaving that for the relevant inquiries) but spoke about general principles. But, of course, the denier echo chamber have distorted that one.

    Simon – I can’t see why you are surprised with Jones’ comment on reviewers not asking for raw data. I have been involved in this sort of process for over 40 years and that is certainly the case. Some journals have systems in place for making data accessible but I don’t think it’s used much. As a reviewer I would never have asked for the raw data unless there was something decidedly fishy about the paper or I was offering to help the author with their analyses.

    Where I have asked for, and been given, access tor raw data is in situations where I am working on a similar topic, maybe alongside people from different institutes. The thing about climate data, of course, is that most of it is available anyway. To some extent this has been a red herring because people could have accessed data from the original creators (not Jones’ group) and the CRU appears to have made data available when they weren’t restricted by agreements with the creators. Let’s wait for the inquiries to ascertain if there has been any real obstruction by the CRU.

    I don’t know where you get the idea I thought “all of this was problematic for the quality of climate science,”. Actually climate science is one area which has been heavily reviewed and scrutinised. There have been hearings before the US House, for example, on Mann’s work. The NRC review of this work vindicated Mann but this doesn’t stop deniers trumpeting the mantra that the “hockey stick has been discredited”, etc. etc. All lies.

    If your look at the IPCC reports you will see the degree of review they put in and the objectivity and even-handedness of their conclusions.

    Currently there is a real witch hunt against science going on. Many distortions and lies are being circulated. People like Jones and Mann are being demonised, condemned, even threatened, before the juries have had a chance to look at the evidence. In Mann’s case he has been vindicated by the Penn State inquiry – but still the deniers lie about him. It all reminds me of Stalin and McCarthy.

    I also look forward to the outcome of the reviews in place. I refuse to give in to deniers and prejudge people on rumour and emotion. Maybe, or maybe not, protocols on handling data, and on peer review, will come out of these (I rather doubt it). If individuals or institutes have transgressed acceptable legal or ethical standards they should be treated appropriately.

    But the current atmosphere of hatred towards science (yes I think it is wider than just climate science) should not be given in to. We should adopt a sceptical attitude towards rumours and claims, like the IoP submission, which prejudge the situation and which are peddled so avidly by the denier network.

  • Ken

    You’ll appreciate that responses like yours are difficult to follow on from. The conversation I thought I was having seems quite different from the one you seem to be having.

    I do try and be precise in what I write, or ay least as precise as is possible in the context of commenting on blogs in amongst everything else that happens in life. But despite this you are not following what I am saying, and consequently I simply left dealing with what look to me like a series of straw men and non sequiturs.

    Let me pick my way through your response, and see if I can help get this back on track. I should say that I’m taking the time to comment on your posts at SciBlogs because this is an issue of both science policy and practice that I feel deserves careful and thoughtful consideration. I’d like it if I could to get you away from the polemic and into a more dispassionate scientific frame of mind.

    You start by saying “Simon, I am surprised you seem so attached to the IoP submission”.

    If you reread my comment I think you would find it difficult to judge my degree of attachment or otherwise. In a comment a couple of days ago I did say I found it useful, which it is – as will come obvious below.

    What I actually said above was there is a common critical theme coming out from the three submissions from professional bodies of scientists (for those who haven’t been following closely the IoP, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Royal Statistical Society My point in part Ken is that if you are a defender of science and scientists you should take careful account of what these bodies say.

    You accept the point that “Many of the other submissions did stress the desirability of availability of data”, but having set me up as a fan of the IoP, you set about criticising its submission as going “much further – without justification”.

    I want to unpick a couple of your crticsims of the IoP submission partly because, warts and all, it doesn’t deserve the treatment you are giving it here. It warrants more intelligent discussion. In part I think you miss some of what has been going on here and in part I think you misrepresent the IoP’s views to strengthen the foundation for your arguments.

    Your main criticism relates to the IoP’s comment “prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions”. You assert that is patently untrue, but concede that “Jones may have removed some emails”.

    The full paragraph from the IoP submission reads:

    “The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital. The lack of compliance has been confirmed by the findings of the Information Commissioner. This extends well beyond the CRU itself – most of the e-mails were exchanged with researchers in a number of other international institutions who are also involved in the formulation of the IPCC’s conclusions on climate change.”

    The principle as stated by the IoP above clearly is an “honourable scientific tradition” so this part isn’t “patently untrue”, and the balance of the submission deals in more detail with how the emails relate to the compliance with “honourable scientific tradition”. I think a prima facie case is made, you should perhaps reread and come back on specific issues in this regard.

    As to the Information Commissioner’s views on the FOI matters (and the University of East Anglia’s) you can read them at . I rather assume that this is the part that you see as “patently untrue”. In its defence the IoP would hang its hat on is the last para on the first page of the letter from the Commissioner which states “The prima facie evidence from the published emails indicate an attempt to defeat disclosure by deleting information. It is hard to imagine more cogent prima facie evidence.” The use of the word “findings” in respect of the Commissioner’s letter is over egging it, but on balance definitely not “patently untrue”.

    You then say the IoP “made statements about the reliability of climate change findings which were unwarranted and conflict with other statements by the Institute.” I’ve reread the submission a number of times and nowhere does it take a view on what the science is saying about climate change. What it does say is that the emails raise doubts about some data sets and suggest intolerance to challenge (with the consequent potential vulnerability to bias and manipulation).

    It then suggests ways to restore confidence in the scientific process, which is after all a crtical issue.

    Turning now to submissions for all the professional Societies. drew conclusions that justified me saying

    You state in respect of my post: “It’s not true to say that all the professional bodies judged that the CRU had failed.” I didn’t say this. What I said is “By failing to do this the CRU’s science was ultimately unverifiable and that, to a greater or lesser extent, called into question the quality of their science”. However on reflection I think two of the Societies did imply the CRU was failing science by not being open.

    So what do the submissions say?

    In respect of the IOP simply from the quotes above it is clearly saying what I summarised. It is also saying there is a prima facie failure to meet the standards of science not just by the CRU but potentially by a wider group involved with them.

    The Royal Society of Chemistry says:

    “The apparent resistance of researchers from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) to disclose research data has been widely portrayed as an indication of a lack of integrity in scientific research. The true nature of science dictates that research is transparent and robust enough to survive scrutiny. A lack of willingness to disseminate scientific information may infer that the scientific results or methods used are not robust enough to face scrutiny, even if this conjecture is not well-founded. This has far-reaching consequences for the reputation of science as a whole, with the ability to undermine the public’s confidence in science.”

    Pretty close to what I said, and again by implication saying the CRU had failed by not being open.

    And finally the Royal Statistical Society is less explicitly critical of the CRU, but concludes:

    “More widely, the basic case for publication of data includes that science progresses as an ongoing debate and not by a series of authoritative and oracular pronouncements and that the quality of that debate is best served by ensuring that all parties have access to the facts. It is well understood, for example, that peer review cannot guarantee that what is published is ‘correct’. The best guarantor of scientific quality is that others are able to examine in detail the arguments that have been used and not just their published conclusions. It is important that experiments and calculations can be repeated to verify their conclusions. If data, or the methods used, are withheld, it is impossible to do this.

    “The RSS believes that a crucial step in improving the quality of the debate on global warming will be to place the data, the analysis methods and the models in the public domain.”

    Overall I do wonder if you haven’t got so tied up in defending your champions against the madding hordes that you aren’t keeping an eye on the wider and more important game.

    Thankfully the professional societies in the UK appear to understand the problem, are willing to call it, and know what needs to be done.

  • In looking at this again I see that about 2/3rds the way through I have the rogue phrase “drew conclusions that justified me saying” not attached to any sentence. This is an artefact of using Word as an editor and failing to pay attention as a cut and pasted. It should be ignored.

    I’m also aware I didn’t explain the reasons why I was surprised that “the CRU have said that the peer reviewers for publication didn’t ask for this information”. I rather thought I had gone on long enough in my response, but in retrospect it is important.

    The reason for my surprise is that if this information (which is not without controversy) had never been requested, then it hadn’t really been subject to peer review.

  • Simon, I may respond to you previous comments later. However, it’s worth dealing with the question of raw data and peer review separately.

    1: What is your experience?
    A: Have you ever, when acting as an external referee, requested raw data?
    B: Have you experienced any external referee of any of your papers requesting the raw data?

    2: I don’t know your answers – but mine are No, and No. They are honest answers and I believe Jones was honest in answering No to what was effectively question B.

    3: I make a proviso on my answer to question B. I often experienced internal referees, biometricians, asking for raw data during internal refereeing of papers. They would then usually work on the data to investigate better analyses. Often this was just one statistician refereeing another as I always incorporated statisticians into my work before it got to the writing up stage.

    I really valued internal refereeing of papers (especially by statisticians) and was somewhat surprised to realise that this in not practiced in many universities.

    However, there are differences between internal and external refereeing. External referees may recommend, question, etc. But it would be very unusual for them to wish the repeat the work (although they may demand it of the authors).

    4: I think it is wrong to equate publication refereeing with peer review. I think this encompasses far, far more. Including colleagues and competitors doing similar work on the same or similar data.

    5: Most people in this sorry dispute and in the science community generally support open access to data. Its a bit like motherhood and apple pie. Of course there are complications and provisos and these can be debated. My experience has been that while scientists prefer open access they are often constrained by institutional bureaucracy. Especially in recent years with the introduction of commercial interests. I have experienced a paper of mine being held up for publication because a commercial manager wanted to “capture IP!” They had the same attitude towards data. And they had more power than the scientists.

    6: Obviously the introduction of open access is in progress. We are in a transitional stage. Mechanisms and protocols are developing. One advantage the CRU & EAU has with their inquiries is that sensible recommendations are likely to come out of them (as well as identifying any violations of law or ethics). They will probably end up in a better position than most other institutes.

    7: I don’t think parliamentary committees are the proper organisations to determine protocols of handling data. Probably much of this must be decided at an institutional level. However, I think it is very appropriate that professional institutions play some sort of leading or encouraging role in this. In practical terms professional scientific journals must play an important role in imposing requirements for open access.

    8: While all the professional organisations at the inquiry argued for the principle of open access I suspect they do not practice it very well (The IoP has been far less than transparent in its behaviour). I really must have a look at the journals published by the different professional bodies and see what their requirements are for access to raw data. What proportion of them actually have a requirement.

    9: It is right and proper that the professional bodies at this hearing advanced the principle of open access to data. However, the IoP was specifically criticised there for demanding a requirement on Jones which was not yet generally accepted by the science community. For using a criteria for judging that was not widely practiced – and not by themselves.

    10: Finally, I believe that in developing protocols for open access there must be an attempt to ensure the responsible use of data. Locally we have had the situation of a blogger taking NIWA data, fiddling with it and claiming that they could manufacture any result just be choosing baseline periods. When challenged they refused to explain their methodology and finally admitted that their result was a “crap result.” But they didn’t apologise for their ignorant criticism of NIWA.

    Similarly the local denier group “Climate Science Coalition,” produced a “paper” using NIWA data which was scientifically completely inadequate. They denied the existence of site effects and denied that corrections had to be made when data was combined. Their intentions were of course political.

    When challenged they refused to produce their methodology or data. Unfortunately they do not have the same obligations under FOI legislation that our genuine scientists do.

    My point is that publicly financed data can be used irresponsibly and maliciously. I don’t know how to prevent that – but I wish this problem could be considered.

    In following these issues there is also the need to adopt a sceptical attitude towards the messages we get. Jones’ statements on not being asked for raw data was combined with his comment that he had written some horrible emails to produce the message, twitter comment and conservative newspaper headline:
    “Climategate scientist admits to using horrible emails to hide data!”

    Unfortunately, that sort of distortion and outright lying is not uncommon – particularly around Phil Jones.

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