Monday, November 30, 2009

Those CRU guys sure act guilty

My husband posits the "White Bronco Theorem."
I posit a White Bronco Theorem: people usually don't act like they have something to hide unless they do.
They refuse to share their data. They intimidate climate journals to keep out skeptical articles about their research and then turn around and deride those critics for not having peer-reviewed research. And now we find that the University of East Anglia dumped the raw data in the 1980s.
SCIENTISTS at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based.

It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.

The UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was forced to reveal the loss following requests for the data under Freedom of Information legislation.

The data were gathered from weather stations around the world and then adjusted to take account of variables in the way they were collected. The revised figures were kept, but the originals — stored on paper and magnetic tape — were dumped to save space when the CRU moved to a new building.

The admission follows the leaking of a thousand private emails sent and received by Professor Phil Jones, the CRU’s director. In them he discusses thwarting climate sceptics seeking access to such data.

In a statement on its website, the CRU said: “We do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.”

The CRU is the world’s leading centre for reconstructing past climate and temperatures. Climate change sceptics have long been keen to examine exactly how its data were compiled. That is now impossible.

Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at Colorado University, discovered data had been lost when he asked for original records. “The CRU is basically saying, ‘Trust us’. So much for settling questions and resolving debates with science,” he said.

Jones was not in charge of the CRU when the data were thrown away in the 1980s, a time when climate change was seen as a less pressing issue. The lost material was used to build the databases that have been his life’s work, showing how the world has warmed by 0.8C over the past 157 years.
Think of the scientists who have been requesting that data and been stonewalled. And think of how long it's taken these scientists to admit that they don't have the raw data that they have been massaging, er, adjusting for their research. That is the core of scientific research: the ability of other scientists to study your methods and try to replicate your results. The scientific method is what raises hard science above social sciences. It is not rare for scientists to have to adjust data, but what is rare is not to refuse to release the raw data so other scientists can study and question the methodology that was used to make such adjustments. Even if Jones wasn't in charge of the CRU when the data were thrown away, he should have be up front about the lost data and we shouldn't have had to wait two decades for someone to have leaked the emails to uncover this.

And these guys are the ones who are demanding that the nations of the earth spend hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions, in response to their research. And they've been building their research on data that they no longer have. As Gordon Crovitz writes today in the WSJ,
These disclosures have led to some soul-searching. "Opaqueness and secrecy are the enemies of science," wrote George Monbriot, a leading British environmentalist. "There is a word for the apparent repeated attempts to prevent disclosure revealed in these emails: unscientific." Demetris Koutsoyiannis, a hydraulic engineer who has written on climate change, wrote that scientists who suppressed others "must have felt that this secrecy was their best weapon: to censor differing opinions, to develop 'trick' procedures, to 'balance' the needs of the IPCC, and even to 'redefine' peer review."

This unseemly business reveals another flaw. Why are scholars who review papers allowed to remain anonymous? Reforming scientists and lawmakers might put the question more concretely: How many of the anonymous reviewers who spiked skeptical scientific papers over the years are the people who wrote these emails detailing how they abused peer review to block contrary evidence?

Science was one of the first disciplines to insist on transparency in order to foster competition in data and ideas. In the case of global warming, transparency is better late than never, as policy makers now have the chance to review the facts. Facing up to high-profile flaws is hard for any profession, but honest scientists will cheer how in our digital era eventually the truth will out, and will accept that no scientific hypothesis can be viewed as sacred or can be proved in secret.
No wonder the BBC wanted to hide this story.

This whole story reminds me of the Michael Bellisles scandal. He was the historian who received the prestigious Bancroft Prize for writing Arming America, a book that purported to show that Americans in the early years of our nation's founding didn't really own that many guns. He purportedly used wills and probate documents to show that antebellum Americans just weren't that well armed. Anti-gun rights advocates were ecstatic about his book because they wanted to use it to weaken support for Second Amendment supporters.

Clayton Cramer, a blogger, software engineer and historian who had been studying concealed carry laws in the early Republic was able to destroy Bellisle's claims to have studied actual probate records.
When the book length version of Bellesiles’s claims, Arming America, appeared in 2000, I received a review copy. My first reaction after reading the first few chapters was a mixture of “There’s a logical flaw here” and “What? Could this possibly be true?” When I reached chapters that covered periods that I knew well—the early Republic—my incredulity increased. Then I started to find Bellesiles using quotations from travel accounts that I had read—and the quotations didn’t match either my memory of them, or the texts, when I re-read them.

I sat down with a list of bizarre, amazing claims that Bellesiles had made, and started chasing down the citations at Sonoma State University’s library. I found quotations of out of context that completely reversed the author’s original intent. I found dates changed. I found the text of statutes changed—and the changes completely reversed the meaning of the law. It took me twelve hours of hunting before I found a citation that was completely correct. In the intervening two years, I have spent thousands of hours chasing down Bellesiles’s citations, and I have found many hundreds of shockingly gross falsifications.
When pressed for his data, he claimed that it had been lost in a flood when a pipe burst in his office. Except that wasn't believable.
The "flood" became a special problem for Bellesiles after he used it as an excuse for missing records. The waterline break at Emory occurred in April 2000, after his book went to press. In that edition, Bellesiles did not give the total number of probate records that he had investigated. The following year, after the "flood," Bellesiles included in the paperback version the claim that he had investigated 11,170 probate records. But "by his own account, the flood had destroyed all but a few loose papers of his data. It was a mystery how supposedly lost original data could reappear to enable him to add the number of cases to the 2001 paperback edition, then disappear once again when the committee of inquiry sought the data from him." Hoffer, 153.
Bellisles should just have claimed that he threw out the raw data because he didn't have room to store it.