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MPs to Climategate boffins: Keep Calm and Carry On

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To the dismay of its sole scientific member, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science has come to the aid of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit - the department at the centre of the Climategate scandal - giving the boffins and the institution a gentle ticking off.

Phil Willis, head of the committee, said it was outside the remit of the committee to examine "the science". He concluded the affair was a product of the scientists' own making, but recommended that Jones return to his post as Director of CRU.

"His actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community," the report concludes.

In doing so, it's considerably more charitable than some leading environmental campaigners. George Monbiot called for CRU Director Phil Jones to resign, while James 'Gaia' Lovelock said he was 'disgusted' by the behaviour revealed in the Climategate archive, and predicted it may be years before CRU could restore its reputation.

However, the only MP on the committee with a scientific background, chemist Graham Stringer, said that by doing so the committee had gone too far. Indeed, it is not clear that MPs have attempted to read the emails in the archive themselves, merely excerpts presented to them by critics.

Surprisingly, the MPs chose to discard some evidence on two of the most serious allegations against Jones and his CRU colleagues: that he destroyed emails (in anticipation of FOIA requests) and nobbled the peer review process, rejecting valid scientific papers that disagreed with his theory, and applying pressure to editors of journals who dared publish them. On the third allegation, that Jones' team grafted part of the temperature record onto proxy reconstructions to dramatise recent temperatures, the Committee accepted Jones' method.

The Committee had made a few recommendations.

It found that "a culture of withholding information — from those perceived by CRU to be hostile to global warming — appears to have pervaded CRU’s approach to FOIA requests from the outset". This was "unacceptable" and "regrettable" the MPs concluded and must change. They write: "Had the available raw data been available online from an early stage, these kinds of unfortunate e-mail exchanges would not have occurred."

The Committee regarded this as "clear evidence" that the FOIA loophole allowing employees to delete emails older than six months now "presents a systemic problem", and called for the law to be changed.

The Committee briskly dealt with the serious issue of peer review, by choosng to ignore the heated passages in the email archive where scientists discussed applying pressure on journal editors. One journal editor targeted later resigned, as the climate scientists had hoped. While the MPs received written evidence from the editor of the sceptical journal Energy and Environment, they concluded:

"The evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers."

As for charges of cooking the temperature record, MPs took an unusual approach. The problem is called 'divergence' - where proxy indicators of temperature (eg, trees) no longer tally with the known instrumented temperature record. The proxies may indicate a decline, throwing calibration out of the window. Common sense suggests that the entire proxy being used should be regarded as ropey, and should be discarded.

Jones "trick" grafted recent instrument temperatures onto a proxy on dubious grounds. MPs accepted his explanation.

They wrote that:

"Critics of CRU have suggested that Professor Jones’s use of the words “hide the decline” is evidence that he was part of a conspiracy to hide evidence that did not fit his view that recent global warming is predominantly caused by human activity."

Proving a "global conspiracy" raises the bar somewhat higher for critics.

As to the science, the Committee said it was a matter for the second Anglia enquiry, the Scientific Assessment Panel (SAP), announced last week and led by global warming advocate Lord Oxburgh.

CRU director Phil Jones had refused disclosing his work on the grounds that somebody might "find something wrong with it". MPs offered solace.

"We believe that the focus on CRU and Professor Phil Jones, Director of CRU, in particular, has largely been misplaced. Whilst we are concerned that the disclosed e-mails suggest a blunt refusal to share scientific data and methodologies with others, we can sympathise with Professor Jones, who must have found it frustrating to handle requests for data that he knew — or perceived — were motivated by a desire simply to undermine his work."

Download the report here (pdf, 320kb). ®

Bootnote

Compare the following two statements:

i) "The Prime Minister conspired to send British armed forces into Iraq on false premises"

ii) "The Prime Minister sent British armed forces into Iraq on false premises"

The argument is the premises: the lack of evidence of a conspiracy does not make a false premise true. This is disappointing, and by making such a mistake, the Committee showed a lack of thoroughness.

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