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Climategate report: 'Campaign to win hearts and minds' needed

But what's it mean for the bloke on the bus?

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The University of East Anglia's enquiry into the conduct of its own staff at its Climatic Research Unit has highlighted criticisms of the department and staff conduct - but clears the path for the individuals concerned to carry on.

The CRU played an important role in writing the UN's IPCC summaries on climate science, so the issue is far from a parochial one. The most serious charge is poor communication; Sir Muir Russell even calls for "a concerted and sustained campaign to win hearts and minds" to restore confidence in the team's work.

Russell was appointed by the institution to investigate an archive of source code and emails that leaked onto the internet last November. The source code is not addressed at all. His report suggests that the problems were of the academics' own making, stating that they were "united in defence against criticism". Yet the enquiry found that despite emails promising to "redefine" the peer review publication process, and put pressure on journal editors, staff were not guilty of subverting the IPCC process, and their "rigour" and "honesty" were beyond question.

Leading academics were called for written and oral evidence before the Russell enquiry, and in many cases the report accepts their account of events. The subjects of their criticism were not invited, not were climate scientists critical of their behaviour. For example, in their capacity as IPCC gatekeepers, the academics are cleared of excluding critical evidence, and yet bending the rules to include supporting studies. To reach this particular conclusion, for example, the report finds a criterion: a "consistence of view" with earlier work. The earlier work here was in fact produced the academics under scrutiny. So, having compared the CRU academics' work against their previous work, and found it to be consistent, they are cleared of malpractice.

Despite the gentlemanly and clubbable tone, the report nevertheless has deep systemic criticism of the institution and the team's processes. UEA "fell badly short of its scientific and public obligations", according to one review panel member, Lancet editor Richard Horton.

It criticises the team's decision to curtail a temperature reconstruction at 1960, and splice on an instrumental temperature record, without explanation, noting:

"The figure supplied for the WMO Report was misleading in not describing that one of the series was truncated post 1960 for the figure, and in not being clear on the fact that proxy and instrumental data were spliced together. We do not find that it is misleading to curtail reconstructions at some point per se, or to splice data."

There's a selective approach to criticism of scientific techniques - officially, Muir Russell says it doesn't examine the validity of scientific arguments. But as you can see, in places, it does. On the issue of the Yamal reconstruction, CRU is cleared but the related issues of basing the reconstruction on a limited sample of proxies, and using techniques which exaggerate and validate outliers (basically, one tree) is not addressed.

FOIA

On compliance with Freedom of Information requests, the inquiry found the CRU team evasive, and "found a tendency to answer the wrong question or to give a partial answer". They also found "a clear incitement to delete e-mails, although we have seen no evidence of any attempt to delete information in respect of a request already made". (Jones had told a US academic that "I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone” and requesting deletions from other staff.)

The defensiveness "set the stage", says Russell, for the barrage of FOIA requests last year, but "clear and early action would likely have prevented much subsequent grief". It adds that "CRU helped create the conditions for this campaign by being unhelpful in its earlier responses".

The institution itself had failed to anticipate the new FOIA regime, and let the academics run amok. Strangely it calls for "a concerted and sustained campaign to win hearts and minds" to restore confidence.

On information handling, the report "highlighted significant problems in the areas of: imbalance of authority; lack of effective challenge at appeal; over dependence on single individuals; inadequate escalation processes and limited strategic oversight."

The panel avoided examining the scientific work of the CRU Team - as have the two other reviews of the leaked archive by Lord Oxburgh, and the Commons Select Committee on science. If the academics had used bats' wings or tea leaves to create temperature reconstructions, that wasn't a matter for any of the panels to judge. And this is undoubtedly a shortcoming. The voter is entitled to see the evidence and understand the arguments that may answer the question: "Is this climate thing anything to worry about?"

It's worth taking a step back from the details of Climategate to understand the background to the enquiries. By understanding what the CRU academics do, we can judge how important the criticism of them may be - or not.

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