Saturday, November 21, 2009

Turning up the heat

Updated Updated again Update #3 In this case, it's the nanny-nanny naysayers on climate change looking to turn up the heat on climate scientists, continuing the campaign of innuendo-fed paranoia they've intensified as their arguments against the science become desperate and feeble.

The Guardian (UK) reports that someone apparently hacked into computer files at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK and sucked up hundreds of private emails and documents exchanged by climate scientists over the past 13 years. The files were uploaded to a server in Russia, then mirrored across the internet.

According to Raw Story,
only a few diehard skeptics doubt that the warming of the last few decades is real. Now, however, those skeptics can barely contain their glee at the release of a cache of stolen emails that they believe prove global warming is nothing but a colossal hoax.

"If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW," one of these skeptics blogged on Friday. "The conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth (aka AGW; aka ManBearPig) has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed...."

Those gloating over the emails have seized in particular on expressions of hostility towards climate change skeptics and dismissals of their papers as not representing legitimate science to elaborate theories of a conspiracy to suppress debate. They are also pointing to certain brief quotations that might be taken as boasts of manipulating data or as private acknowledgments of a lack of data to support the conclusion of global warming.
In short, they are combining cherry-picked quotes with expressions of the completely accurate sentiment that the work of the nanny-nanny naysayers is not legitimate science to claim "smoking gun" evidence of "the greatest scandal in modern science," one marked by deliberate falsification of data and cabal-like collusion among a large number of climatologists.
In one email, dated November 1999, one scientist wrote: "I've just completed Mike's Nature [the science journal] 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."

This sentence, in particular, has been leapt upon by sceptics as evidence of manipulating data, but the credibility of the email has not been verified.
More to the point, as Bob Ward, director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, pointed out, even if accurate it tells you nothing.
"You can't tell what they are talking about[," he said]. Scientists say 'trick' not just to mean deception. They mean it as a clever way of doing something - a short cut can be a trick."
But of course that won't move the nanny-nanny naysayers any more than the lack of context will. For them, like the Holocaust deniers they increasingly resemble, no proof of global warming will ever be strong enough to be accepted and no counter-"proof" will ever be weak enough to be dismissed - and they positively revel in lurid tales of massive conspiracies, one that in this case would have to include at least, as Greenpeace pointed out, "the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, NASA, and the world's leading atmospheric scientists."

I mean, just think about it: The wackos stole and have published 1,079 emails and 72 documents - and it appears that all they have to show for it, so far anyway, is one sentence in one email which can only be construed as proof of some conspiracy by assuming it is proof of some conspiracy. That's pathetic.

What a sad crew. And how sad for the rest of us that their voices are amplified first by right-wing media well-versed in conspira-philia and then by corporate media who find conflict more profitable than consensus.

The nanny-nanny naysayers insist "the truth is out there." Which it is - right out there in the open. The problem is, when you show them the truth, they refuse to believe it.

Updated with some later news: The email with the line about the "trick" to "hide the decline" was verified; it was written by Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit.

On reading the whole email (available in this post at Media Matters for America), it appears that what he's talking about is the so-called "divergence problem," something of which climatologists are well aware. Since shortly after temperature records begin in 1852 until about 1960, the records and temperatures derived from examination of tree ring data tracked pretty closely. But after 1960, they began to diverge, with recorded temperatures showing increasing warmth while the tree rings showed some cooling. No one knows why.

Given the choice between indirectly derived figures and actual observed data, scientists will of course go for the latter. The big issue with the divergence problem is how it affects the reliability of tree ring data for the years prior to when records begin.

So it appears that Jones used a short cut - a "trick" - of taking actual observed data and appending it to, or overlaying it on, tree ring data after 1960 in order to illustrate long-term temperature change since the observed data was, obviously, more reliable.

Unless he claimed that the recorded data was tree ring data (or that the tree ring data was recorded data), he clearly did nothing wrong. (Note, for example, that in the "Reconstructed Temperature" graph in this post that recorded temperatures, marked by the black line, are clearly differentiated from the results of various proxy studies.) No conspiracy to "hide" anything.

Updated again with a correction: The original version of the post, in line with early reporting, said the files hacked were from the Hadley Centre, the UK's foremost climate change research center. The hack, as the text now indicates, was actually of computers at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia; the Hadley Centre and the CRU are separate organizations.

Update #3 is another correction: The original post said "From the time temperature records begin in 1856 until about 1960, the records and temperatures derived from examination of tree ring data tracked pretty closely." Records begin in 1852 and the close tracking started not long after that, not immediately. The text has been corrected.

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