‘Climategate’ Redux

Occasionally politicians,* for whom constituent interests are normally paramount, must remind scientists that the public’s reverence for science can not be assumed.  Such was the case recently after someone in November 2009 hacked into a server used by the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the publicly funded University of East Anglia, a little over 100 miles northeast of London. Thousands of documents, including e-mails, appeared on various Internet sites whereupon critics of the anthropogenic global warming thesis noisily sought to use the hacked material to discredit it.

One need not be especially cantankerous to observe that  anthropogenic global warming is a compound proposition, consisting of not one but two principal elements, one of which is much more difficult to prove than the other.  It may be indeed true that a steady increase in global temperatures over time can be shown by a mountain of systematically collected quantifiable evidence.  However, verifying the nature and extent of discrete human causes of such a phenomenon is a far more complex matter. There are numerous variables in such a process, many of which are interactive, and all of which are difficult to isolate from the others. The computer coded algorithms on which most such theses rely are no more nor less than highly sophisticated exercises in statistics. And even the best educated among us occasionally confuse statistical correlation with causation.

In response to the ‘global warming’  tumult in cyberspace, widely dubbed “Climategate,”** during the early months of 2010 various august persons and organizations investigated allegations that the hacked data and e-mails revealed manipulation of evidence and a conspiracy to unlawfully withhold data to protect the CRU scientists’ conclusions from public scrutiny.  These inquiries prudently avoided investigating or debating the merits of the anthropogenic global warming thesis itself. The resulting reports focused instead on (1) whether the scientists had adhered to “standard scientific practice” in managing their climate data and computer codes; and (2) whether CRU researchers had attempted to prevent the release of data and e-mails responsive to lawful requests under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.

Now, let’s pause to consider an interest far more important than the the careers of the ‘Climategate’ combatants, and certainly no less significant for human society in the long term than the persistent warming of the planet.

Scientists traditionally look to the fellows of their guild to judge the validity of their work (‘peer review’), arguing that only scientists can judge science.  But scientists are not only members of their profession.  Most are also members of a form of civil society wherein actions are judged and policy is made on the basis of constitutionally adopted and publicly –openly– administered principles and laws.  What’s more, there are likely to be policymakers both here and in the UK who are the intellectual peers of the best scientists practicing.

Those who work with numbers and algorithms, as ‘hard’ scientists and engineers do, are not exceptionally reliable arbiters of qualitative or moral judgments–including their own.  Codifying this view the  U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of cases during the 1990s, affirmed that the judiciary, not scientists–notwithstanding all their peer reviews–determines what is valid evidence in federal law, even when litigation involves scientific or engineering questions.

Likewise, the Freedom of Information Acts of both the UK and the United States do not exempt from public disclosure scientific information per se held by public authorities (of which the University of East Anglia is one).  However, academic research institutions in general and the science establishment in particular–neither of which could survive without regular infusions of public funds–have managed to insert weasel wording into their respective countries’ FOIA regulations allowing them to withhold from disclosure research data salient to matters of public policy.

Here’s how: In 1998 U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala) introduced language into the Omnibus Appropriations Act for fiscal year 1999 extending the FOIA to research data produced not only by government researchers, but under federally funded research awards.  During the lengthy federal administrative process of revising legislative implementation guidelines that followed, the National Academy of Sciences, along with various research institutions partially supported by federal research grants and contracts, successfully lobbied the White House Office of Management and Budget to exempt from the FOIA disclosure of research data “necessary to be held confidential by a researcher until they are published, or similar information which is protected under law [e.g., intellectual property or national security information].” Thus did the guild reserve to itself the discretion to reveal the existence of research data acquired with public funds, and to decide whether any of it might be subject to timely public release. The scientific establishment in the U.K. obtained similar language in the U.K.’s corresponding statute.

Returning to ‘Climategate,’ the British Information Commissioner (IC) found that the CRU data at issue was indeed subject to the FOIA and the European Union’s Environmental Information Regulations, enforceable by the IC.  The IC also found that the CRU’s e-mails disclosed by the hacking episode provided prima facie evidence that “some requests for information were considered an imposition, that attempts to circumvent the legislation were considered and that the ethos of openness and transparency the legislation seeks to promote were not universally accepted.”  Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on where one stood, the initial FOIA complaint had not been made within the six-months period required by the statute, and thus the Information Commissioner’s inquiry could not proceed beyond the prima facie evidence.

Meanwhile, the report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, issued March 31, 2010, reproduced “hacked e-mails [which] appear to reveal scientists encouraging their colleagues to resist disclosure and to delete e-mails, apparently to prevent them from being revealed to people making FOIA requests.” Nonetheless it chose to defer to the IC’s necessarily inconclusive inquiry into the alleged University of East Anglia’s FOIA violations.  The committee concluded:  “A great responsibility rests on the shoulders of climate science: to provide the planet’s decision makers with the knowledge they need to secure our future.  The challenge that this poses is extensive and some of these decisions risk our standard of living.  When the prices to pay are so large, the knowledge on which these kinds of decisions are taken had better be right.  The science must be irreproachable.”

This conclusion begs the question of just whose responsibility it is to ensure that the science used to shape public policy decisions is irreproachable.  The answer must be that the responsibility for justifying national policy decisions belongs to the people, through their elected representatives, even when scientific or technical judgments are involved.  (Indeed, in the 21st century few national policy issues lack some scientific or engineering component.) The uses of scientific research in resolving public policy disputes are a matter of judgment.  Such judgments must be made in the public forum, through open and fully informed debate.  Not only is this so as a matter of constitutional principle; it is so because the reality of science is that its truths are not imperfect or immutable. To argue otherwise is to argue doctrine, not experience.


* Politician: a policy-maker whose policies one opposes.

** A designation inspired by the 1972 break-in of Democratic Party National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel-office complex in Washington, DC, which became a factor in the downfall of the Nixon presidency.

Text sources: Available on request.

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  • Gwyneth Fries wrote:

    Dr. Kraemer,

    Thank you for starting your blog! I hope that I have understood your post and that the comments I offer are meaningful:

    In some cases, the public may misuse scientific data and research irresponsibly if it is disclosed prematurely. Though, as you wrote, “scientists are not exceptionally reliable arbiters of qualitative or moral judgments” (though I believe there are exceptions), scientists could arguably be more capable at envisioning the damage that misuse of their work could do if exposed to the general public prior to completion. The law-abiding, informed public citizen is not the enemy, nor the concern of scientists, though private companies, competitors and uneducated critics with influence over mass media – all of whom fit within this ‘general public’-surely are.

    You question “whose responsibility it is to ensure that the science used to shape public policy decisions is irreproachable”. But science, and especially climate science, like qualitative evidence or moral judgment, is never irreproachable. From what I understand of climate science and the research into anthropogenic global warming, scientists and policy makers alike recognize the limitations of CURRENT data and research methods to be able to isolate particular human behaviors and quantify their contribution to climate change. They recognize the danger of making short-sighted conclusion based on imperfect information. Research must be done to develop new methods that can hopefully lend more certainty to the exact cause and effect relationships of global warming, as well as the most high-impact solutions to protect a decent standard of living for future generations.

    The public policy question is not “Do we trust the conclusions of the climate scientists?” but instead, “What is the best way to financially encourage the development of effect new research methods for climate change? Without being positive, should we devote substantial public funds to preventing currently perceived and growing threats to our quality of life? If so, how much?” As with the University of East Anglia case, public disclosure of imperfect information has led to uninformed individuals sharing openly how they missed the point. Premature, public dissemination of errant analysis can kill politicians abilities to best advocate for the needs of their constituents.

    I believe in your conviction that public funded scientific research that plays a key role in public policy should be accessible and open to the public. I regret to report however, that – because of some key elements within the general public – I trust the public even less than the scientists. Even the innocent and educated citizen is more likely to absorb and develop opinions based on FOX evening news than on an independent, critical analysis of the issue at hand – and this leaves out issues of imperfect information. I value the scientists attempts to protect their research.

  • Thank you so much for your thoughtful reading of “Climategate Redux” and well articulated comments. It is true that scientists may have a keener sense of the uses/misuses to which their science can be put–but they are not always agreed on that. Consider the different views of physicists on the development of the atomic bomb.

    As for not wanting to release information prematurely, can we–even researchers–be absolutely certain when the information is ‘mature?’ The authors of the FOIA, and its application to publicly funded (that is such an important qualifier) research intended that even ‘premature’ information be released for just that reason–perhaps data will be critical before someone considers it ‘mature.’ Perhaps drug research by pharmaceutical companies makes this question a little more salient than climate research.

    As for mischief makers, crazies, violent extremists, etc., such persons have always been a part of civil society, and keeping them in ‘control’ has always been the classic excuse for restrictions on open government. Admittedly, in an era of FOX and MSNBC ‘news’ and talk radio, extreme and nutty and sometimes potentially violent views are amplified enormously. My concern is that the level of their noise become a rationalization for self-imposed restraints … so we get into the habit of withholding information from “them,” with the result that eventually we withhold it from ourselves. — SK

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