The Truth Behind the Hacked Climate Email Controversy


Image via Tech Daily

When news broke that a leading climate research unit had been infiltrated by hackers last Friday, it (of course) lit up the blogosphere. Thousands of emails exchanged between a few of the top climate scientists in the world were posted online, and eagerly sifted through by those eager to find errors in judgment or evidence of great conspiracies behind global warming. Predictably, those hungry to stir controversy found a few sentences (out of perhaps hundreds of thousands) that appeared to fit the bill, and immediately hailed the emails as 'smoking gun' proof that global warming was fake. Here's what they really mean.There are actually a number of interesting things that the emails reveal. However, none of them are anything close to a massive conspiracy to thrust a fabricated global warming theory onto the unsuspecting public.

Climate Scientists--They're Real Live People!

Instead, we learn interesting insights like this: some of the world's top climate scientists don't like some people, and write mean things about them in emails. We learn that some climate scientists can be competitive and have big egos, and like to get ahead of people they disagree with. We learn scientists email each other in jargon that's difficult to understand, and can easily be taken out of context.

Too bad tabloid magazines have no interest in climate scientists--they could fill an entire They're Just Like Us! sort of feature with this stuff. These emails reveal little besides the fact that scientists are people with (gasp!) the same professional and social instincts as anyone else.

Think about it--if someone were to go through every email you sent to every one of your colleagues or peers from the last ten years, do you think they might come up with three or four sentences that could make you look bad--if they could take them out of context? I'll admit that they'd probably find more than a few in my email archives.

Behind the Controversial Quotes

Now, I won't dedicate this post to debunking the quotes pulled from the mass of emails that are alleged to be the 'smoking gun' evidence of conspiracy, if only because the scientists at RealClimate have already done a better job of that with their excellent article on the hacks than I could. I will excerpt this explanation of two of the most-quoted exchanges, to give you an idea of how this thing is being spun. And remember, the writers at RealClimate are real, live scientists--not surly columnists or conservative bloggers dying to get their hands on a 'Gotcha!' case. Via RealClimate:

No doubt, instances of cherry-picked and poorly-worded "gotcha" phrases will be pulled out of context. One example is worth mentioning quickly. Phil Jones in discussing the presentation of temperature reconstructions stated that "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."
The word 'trick' and the phrase 'hide the decline' are two of the press's favorites to cite. RC explains, however, that:
The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the 'trick' is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term "trick" to refer to a "a good way to deal with a problem", rather than something that is "secret", and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the 'decline', it is well known that Keith Briffa's maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the "divergence problem"-see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while 'hiding' is probably a poor choice of words (since it is 'hidden' in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.
Elsewhere, the scientists make fun of some other scientists they disagree with. As you can see, it's not exactly the tantalizing stuff the coverage of this 'scandal' would have you believe.

Not 100% Innocent--But the Science is Sound

In fact, the only stuff that I can think of being even slightly controversial at all is the subject of this Washington Post article, in which the scientists write about trying to keep their ideological foes and competitors out of journals. But again, while this isn't necessarily show the utmost moral fiber, consider any time that you may have discussed wanting to get other people to help you win professional victories or advancement. It may be a little murky morally, but it reflects nothing on the science, either. It's a natural instinct, albeit an unfortunate one.

Well, I hope that helps clear some of the air behind the whole event, and that we can move on to working to pass clean energy reform and see the framework established for a global treaty in Copenhagen---quibbling of bloggers and writers and a few unfortunate word choices by scientists or not, the scientific consensus remains that climate change is occurring. Now let's get back to work doing something about it.

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Tags: Global Climate Change

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