Don’t let a thief steal into your heart

By Gareth Renowden 23/11/2009


Quite a fuss about stolen emails over the weekend. Let’s review the story so far. Person or persons unknown hack into servers at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia and steal lots of emails and other documents [BBC 1, 2, Times, Bob Ward at The Guardian]. This is a criminal offence in the UK, the USA, New Zealand and many other jurisdictions. The criminals then release edited highlights of these documents and emails by putting them up on a Russian web server, and let the news out via what Nature calls “a relatively obscure climate-sceptic blog” (The Air Vent which may have been Andrew Bolt’s blog in Australia). Within a matter of hours, the usual suspects are out in force, screaming data manipulation, conspiracy to exclude climate sceptics from publishing, and fraudulent behaviour. Criminals are portrayed as whistleblowers, quotes are pulled out of private emails and taken out of context, and the end of climate science is proclaimed.

I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on this issue, because commenting on stolen and possibly edited documents strikes me as unethical. In a courtroom, improperly obtained evidence is not allowed to influence proceedings, and I would prefer to apply the same standard here. That hasn’t stopped the likes of Wishart (peer review is broken, climate science is dead), propagandist in chief Marc Morano (continuously updated “Climategate” coverage at his Climate Depot), or even now well out of the closet denialist, the NZ blogger sometimes known as Poneke (warming stopped in 1998 (yet again)). However…

I’ve been asked to comment on the issue a few times today, so I’ve been doing a little research. First, the content of the emails. I’m not going to link to them (see above) — but they’re easy enough to find if you want to. What I’ve read (and I’ve read some, but nowhere near all), look to me like the normal sort of email traffic you might expect from a bunch of working scientists, in a field where critics have been throwing mud at them for years. Are they pissed off? Yes. Are they rude? Yes, sometimes — and enjoyably so, from my perspective. Are they careful? Most of the time. Is peer review broken? No. Is there evidence of some vast, over-arching conspiracy? If that’s the best they can muster, then I’d have to say they’re bloody useless conspirators.

Nor is it a complete record. It seems to be widely acknowledged that this is only part of the hackers haul, so what is there in the rest? Certainly, there will be personal emails — private stuff, family stuff, stuff that any reasonable person would admit should remain out of the public domain.

But are there emails that portray a different picture, a more anodyne, boring portrait of science in action? Who knows? The editorial decisions have been made by a bunch of crooks, and all the noise is being made by people with an overt agenda.

All of which leads me to the crux of the matter. Cui bono, or as Jerry Maguire might say, show me the money. Are we supposed to believe that in the run up to a major international conference on climate change, when there’s a big climate bill being considered by the US legislature, and when we know that for the last 20 years there has been a concerted campaign and PR effort to derail action on reducing carbon emissions, that a “whistleblower” has been so moved by the behaviour of the CRU that they have broken the law to uncover this compelling story? Frankly, that’s unbelievable. But then so is much of the denial campaign. Believability and credibility is much less important than noise and column inches.

This whole affair looks like nothing more than another beat-up by the cranks, denialists and ideologues, a crude and unpersuasive attempt to add PR pressure in the run up to Copenhagen and Waxman Markey. With that in mind, let me ask another pertinent question. Who did it? Do they have links with the US think tanks who seem to be running the denial campaign? Perhaps a real investigative journalist might do some digging…

For excellent coverage on the story so far, I recommend Greenfyre’s: Mike’s been documenting events as they happen. RealClimate provides context for the most egregious quote mines here and here (and Gavin Schmidt has been heroically dealing with a flood of comments — over 1,000 at the time of writing). For something you’ll never read at Climate Depot or Wishart’s crank central, try this exposé of ethical behaviour by climate scientists confronted by rubbish, and for a candid opinion on the quality of Chris de Freitas and Patrick Michaels PhD theses — you’ll have to search the texts… ;-)

[Richard Thompson]