Bryan Lawrence : Drawn into climategate

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Drawn into climategate

It's a long time since I bothered to write a letter to the editor, but the cru email controversy pushed me over the edge. Or to be more precise, Anne McElvoy's opinion piece did. Of course I would never have known anything about it, not normally having access to London Evening Standard , but their letters editor actually approached me to solict an intervention in the next edition (by which I assume that a) he was desperate, and/or b) he figured I might say something silly, or both).

In the event, I must say I was pretty inpressed with the way he elicted the following from me:

Anne McElvoy's opinion piece (25 November) strikes an unrealistic view of what has occurred in the University of East Anglia hacked emails controversy. Extended scientific conversations occur in parallel through various channels, and it's completely unreasonable to expect these conversations to be comprehensible based on a small subset without all the previous baggage. The point of scientific record and peer review is for scientists to stand up their claims and have them evaluated. Of course scientists have a prior view of what data could be telling them but the difference between scientists and most "sceptics" is scientists change their hypotheses when necessary. Most practising scientists will go out of their way to have an honest discussion about issues in their work. Among the sceptics are those who frame their questions in terms which can be addressed; but there aren't enough climate scientists or hours in the day to educate those who believe in the climate physics equivalent of a flat Earth.

with Most practising scientists will go out of their way to have an honest discussion about issues in their work being bit that they chose to highlight.

Of course I never had time to write anything that brief, the following is what I actually wrote (in a tiny amount of time, obviously while doing other things):

The Original

(decorated with a link to my favourite parody)

Anne's opinion piece strikes a harsh and unrealistic view of what has occurred in this recent controversy.

My personal opinion is that extended scientific conversations occur in parallel using multiple mechanisms (phone, email, actual meetings etc), and we are only seeing a part of conversations where the correspondents have sensibly used shorthand like "trick" ... and it's completely unreasonable to expect these sort of conversations to be comprehensible in their entirety based on just the email subset without all the other baggage from prior and parallel conversations that's not explicitly included. Indeed, we can construct versions of reality from these subsets of actuality which are completely bogus, and that's what we are seeing happen ... (and the fatuousness of doing so is what some of the parodys that Anne is so dismissive of are trying to demonstrate, for example this).

Further, the entire point of the scientific record and peer review is for folk to be able to stand up their claims and have them evaluated (and to put effort into defending if that's appropriate). The process of doing science, however, involves the construction of hypotheses and their evaluation without documenting every blind alley to a publishable level for the benefit of other folk who steal notes or emails. Of course scientists have a prior view of what the data is or could be telling them, but the difference between scientists and sceptics is that scientists evaluate the evidence and change their hypotheses when necessary. There seems to be no evidence that the sceptics are doing this ... and there is no evidence that I'm aware of in these emails that Phil Jones or any of the other key participants are not.

Finally, most practising scientists will go out of their way to have an honest discussion about the facts and issues of their work, and it's my opinion that that is particularly true of those working in climate sciences. However, what we can't do is make the time for every argument from a community which does indeed seem to "deny" basic physics. Of course, amongst the sceptics are those who can and do frame their questions in terms which can and are addressed, but there aren't enough climate scientists or hours in the day, to educate those who believe in the climate physics equivalent of "a flat earth".

A few days later

I had clearly realised by writing something so long, I had made a hostage to editorial fortune, so I have to say, all kudos to their editorial team; their abstraction is a fair reflection of what I was trying to say (and by virtue of its brevity, probably a lot more effective).

However, despite thinking brevity is a good thing, I can't quite leave it alone because I think some things still need to be said. But, I can't do justice to what I want to say either, because I don't have time ...

In the best of possible worlds I'd like to spend time stressing and explaining how unreasonable this deconstruction of the CRU email is, but Gavin has already done that (context and original), and Anne didn't buy that.

I'd like to spend some time explaining just how time consuming debating the issue is when one has to spend most of the time dealing with basic scientific issues rather than the issue of global warming. Frankly, I don't think that's a good use of tax payers money, I'm paid to do climate science, not teach high school and/or undergraduate physics. Which is not to say I don't think more communication should happen, just that I'm not the best person to do it, and neither are most of my colleagues. But she'd probably think I was in my ivory tower, rather than just trying to be practical ...

I'd like to spend some time explaining what we know, and what we think, what we mean by probability and uncertainty, and give her that rigour, but like all communication, it takes two to party, and given that she appears not to have actually herself talked to a climate scientist about the import of these emails, I'm not sure she'd listen.

I'd like to explain why "deniers" is exactly the right word for some of the "sceptic" community, and why it's not sloppy to use slang and abbreviations when the other party to your communication knows what you mean, and you have no expectation that anyone else is ever going to see what you have written. If I really thought posterity was going to judge everything I wrote, I would be much less efficient ... is that lack of efficiency worth the price? Is it really? Of course, when I do try to communicate to a wider audience, then of course it's reasonable to expect a professional effort ...

And there is much much more.

However, it's not the best of possible worlds, because I haven't the time to take on all thse conversations and simultaneously do what I'm paid to do ... this week alone, I have no time that is not already committed to meetings and actions, and it's a rather typical week.

Quality communication and education takes time, lots of it, and that's why I wish for more quality journalism ... and, if society wants it, more professional scientifically educated communicators to work in the interface between the scientific coal face and the public and their policy engine of state.

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Comments (2)

Joe on Tuesday 01 December, 2009:

I don't hold with any conspiracy or deliberate fraud / data manipulation in these leaks but you can't honestly suggest that there's nothing of concern in them?

Requesting deletion of emails ("Please delete anything..." can't really be taken out of context!) after an FOI request has been received is asking someone to commit a crime - there's an obvious and valid question then about what might be in those email.

Also, as a matter of general concern about the data underpinning the alleged consensus, in order to post this I have been asked to give the answer to "What is 25 + 51", presumably as an anti-spam measure. I answered 76 because that is the correct and scientifically verifiable result.

Had I used the code that poor old "Harry" had to deal with my answer may well have been:

011001 + 110011 = 000100

That involves an overflow, giving a result that 25 + 51 = 8 and is similar to what was happening in at least one part of the CRUs code.

I can explain the slightly more complicated, twos complement, version if you'd like but it seems that the people who developed the CRU database, in which the alleged consensus is rooted, couldn't!

Martin on Friday 08 January, 2010:

> there's an obvious and valid question then about what might be in those email.

Given how the emails that _were_ stolen were distorted, ripped out of context and made into conspiracy theory fodder, I for one am rather happy that we'll never find out...

And BTW an FOI violation is just breaking the law, punishable by 5000 pounds max.

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