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How Important Are Those Stolen Climate E-mails?

I've been away for a few days and have only just caught up with the story of the hacked e-mail accounts at the University of East Anglia's Climactic Research Unit (CRU). Juliet Elperin has a nice rundown in The Washington Post. From what I've gathered, the stolen e-mails reveal that climatologists are: a) engaged in a lot of boring and dry data-crunching, b) extremely hostile toward global-warming skeptics like Cato's Pat Michaels, and c) not always nice people. But does this add up to a "scandal," as folks like James Inhofe are crowing? Well, yes and no.

One major question is whether any of the stolen e-mails show that climate scientists are somehow fudging data. And the answer, as best I can tell, is "certainly not." A lot of the early press coverage focused on CRU director Phil Jones's missive to colleagues about using a "trick" to "hide the decline" in temperatures. That sounds nefarious at first, but as Gavin Schmidt explains, Jones is simply referring to a method of concatenating two different data sets—this "trick" has been openly discussed in scientific journals like Nature since 1998. There's nothing in the e-mails I've seen (here's a long index compiled by a climate skeptic) to suggest the vast body of research on climate change—which extends well beyond the handful of scientists represented here—is suspect. Nothing to suggest fraud.

There is a separate issue, though—the stance some of the scientists take toward skeptics. At one point, CRU's Phil Jones refers to two papers that question the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and rising temperatures and tells a colleague, "I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow—even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" In another e-mail exchange, Jones and Penn State's Michael Mann talk about pressuring a journal not to accept work by global-warming deniers. That sounds bad, doesn't it?

First, some background: It appears that Jones and Mann are referring to a particular episode from 2003, when the journal Climate Research published a miserable paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas disputing the widely held notion that the rate of warming in the twentieth century has been unprecedented. Climate scientists from around the world began writing in, unsolicited, to point out fatal flaws in the paper (noting especially that the paper's own evidence didn't even support its conclusion), and eventually half the journal's editorial board resigned in protest.

Now, do these e-mails really reflect badly on the scientific process? You could make a good argument that they don't. After all, if a paper's that badly flawed—and if it's likely to give ammunition to politically motivated deniers—then it ought to be protested, no? Shoddy research should be excluded from IPCC assessments. (To be sure, IPCC chapter heads have to respond to every single objection they receive—so nothing's ever "excluded" entirely.) If I was trying my hardest to slip an intelligent-design paper into a biology journal, it'd be greeted with the same overt hostility. As Tyler Cowen observes, "it's very often that scientific consensus 'sounds that way.' " And while a consensus can sometimes be wrong and get overturned, that doesn't mean we should just abandon the peer-review process entirely and accept all research as equally valid.

On the other hand, I agree with George Monbiot here: Some of these e-mails are unseemly, and it's unwise to brush them off. The scientific community absolutely has to take the high ground on the climate issue—it doesn't matter that deniers behave far worse, or that scientists feel beleaguered after years of being smeared by conspiracy nuts on the right. And, true, science has never been as "clean" as people like to romanticize; scientists have acted like agenda-wielding jerks throughout history, yet the process remains robust. But on an issue this politicized, that process has to be as pristine as humanly possible. I'm not sure if Jones should resign as head of CRU, as Monbiot suggests, or if the U.S. peer-review process needs to become more transparent, as is happening in Europe, or what. But trying to ignore this whole episode doesn't strike me as viable. Even if this story changes nothing about climate science itself, perceptions do matter.

More: Maggie Koerth-Baker has a smart, balanced take raising similar concerns (she focuses on CRU's refusal to release certain data sets, which may be understandable but doesn't seem to have been handled well) and also provides a nice, comprehensive link round-up.

(Flickr photo credit: lwtclearningcommons)