Climategate

Apparently that’s what some people are calling the revelations found in a bunch of emails by climate scientists that were hacked into and made public by climate change deniers.  Stephen “Freakonomics” Dubner gets the vapors, talking about how this exposes the “very ugly side” of climate science.  For a less heated discussion, check out Andrew Revkin’s summary of the controversy, and for the mainstream climate science point of view, go to RealClimate.

I know nothing at all about climate science (although I share 1/2 of my genes with someone who does), so I won’t say anything about the scientific merits of the issues.  But I have been a scientist for quite a while, so naturally I’ve spent a lot of time talking to and emailing other scientists.  As far as I can tell, what’s in this trove of emails is exactly what you’d expect to find if you listened in on the private conversations of a bunch of scientists discussing any remotely controversial subject.  Personally, I rarely call people who disagree with me “idiots,” for instance, but I’ve certainly heard that, and a lot worse, from colleagues.  If this is as “ugly” as it gets, things are just fine.

One supposed smoking gun in the emails is the scientist Phil Jones’s statement  that he used a “trick” in a graph to “hide the decline” in temperature in a time series.  From Revkin’s article,

Dr. Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, confirmed in an interview that the e-mail message was real. He said the choice of words by his colleague was poor but noted that scientists often used the word "trick" to refer to a good way to solve a problem, "and not something secret."

That’s exactly true. In my experience,  scientists use “trick” very often to mean simply “good idea,” not anything underhanded. If you’re going to worry about anything in that quote, it should be the bit about “hiding”:  science isn’t supposed to be about hiding things, right?  So let’s look at that.  Here’s the full quote from the email (via RealClimate):

 I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.

In other words, the “trick” in question consisted of plotting the supposedly problematic data in plain sight, while comparing it with another data set.  No actual hiding was done — in fact, apparently the paper explicitly displays the supposedly “hidden”material. I don’t know which of his own papers Jones is referring to, but the original source of the “trick” is Figure 5b in this Nature paper, in which the supposedly “hidden” data are right there in view.

So here’s what Jones is guilty of: behaving in a completely scientifically appropriate manner, and then describing that he did somewhat inaccurately in a private email exchange later.

Let me repeat that I’m not qualified to make judgments on the science: this just isn’t my field.  But here’s what I can say.  Some climate change deniers claim essentially that the mainstream community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to suppress the truth.  If they were right, this trove of hacked emails would prove it.  But from everything I’ve seen, what’s contained in them is pretty much exactly what you’d expect under the opposite hypothesis — that the climate science community is behaving like a normal, healthy scientific community.  Rather than bolstering the conspiracy theorists’ claims, the new data provides strong evidence falsifying them.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

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