Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/10/oxburgh_science_select_committee/

'Is this science, or literature?'

MPs mull 'climate enquiries' that failed to enquire

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 10th September 2010 12:11 GMT

Might the University of East Anglia now rue its handling of the Climategate affair? An MP tells us that the University has ignored instructions given to it by the House of Commons Science Committee earlier this year, and MPs were given misleading impressions.

"Everybody on the Committee last time asked that there be no gaps between our report, and the Muir Russell report and the Oxburgh Report - but there are huge gaps. The Muir Russell people and the Oxburgh people didn't talk to each other, so there were bound to be gaps," says Committee veteran Graham Stringer MP. "We are left with the science left unlooked at."

The allegations of misconduct and intellectual corruption raised by the release of the emails, data and source code last November are amongst the most serious British academia has ever heard. UEA responded with two internal enquiries, but MPs won't let it lie. Members on the Commons Science Select Committee have summoned the two chairmen of the UEA enquiries back for further interrogation. At the first of these yesterday, the chairman of the Science Assessment Panel, Lord Ron Oxburgh, puzzled Committee MPs with his answers.

How the Panel was formed

When the University announced the composition and role of the Science Assessment Panel, it billed it as an "independent internal reappraisal of the science". In March the University's Vice Chancellor Lord Acton confirmed the impression, telling the select committee that Oxburgh's enquiry would "reassess the science and make sure there is nothing wrong".

That was misleading, Oxburgh told MPs yesterday.

"I think that was inaccurate ... You have to bear in mind the Vice Chancellor had been in the post for a month or so. It came as rather a deluge."

Oxburgh pleaded time pressure.

"They wanted something within a month. There was no way our panel could in that time validate the science. If you wanted the science validated, you'd appoint another panel.

"We were meeting a deadline to help the University with a particular problem. Given our particular remit I don't think we needed any more time."

Oxburgh was proud that he'd used a non-confrontational approach. The CRU academics were interviewed just once, collectively, in private, and he'd rejected calls for televised proceedings. As Oxburgh described it, the enquiry sounded more like a health spa program for stressed executives.

"People wanted to bring television cameras in. Given the nature of the individuals concerned, we felt that we would get much more out of them, and get them to unwind and relax, and if indeed if they had chinks in their armour, to expose them, that if we did this in a much more relaxed way.

"Certainly one of the key people there is someone who is pretty highly-strung - and I think we were able to get him to relax and explain things."

MPs were stone-faced at this. Oxburgh developed a nasty cough. So what had been the purpose of his enquiry?

Oxburgh at work

"I would chair a brief study, really, into the honesty of the people - not all the aspects of the science, we were not expected to go into the email saga. But they wanted evidence if people had been behaving dishonestly."

MPs wondered how he could measure honesty.

"I think that we or the University would have been content had we said the researchers there were incompetent-but-honest, or misled-but-honest. We were looking for deliberate manipulation of data that led in a different direction to meet some pre-determined aspect of an agenda. We found none."

This failed to impress Committee member Stringer, the MP told us today.

"One of the biggest attacks on Jones was by Professor [Doug] Keenan, it directly accused him of fraud. One would expect Jones' use of Chinese data to come up. They had been very selective with what they'd put in and left out of their graphs, even if they hadn't fiddled the figures," said Stringer.

Stringer says the practices exposed at CRU undermine the scientific value of paleoclimatology, in which CRU is a world leader.

"When I asked Oxburgh if [Keith] Briffa [CRU academic] could reproduce his own results, he said in lots of cases he couldn't.

"That just isn't science. It's literature. If somebody can't reproduce their own results, and nobody else can, then what is that work doing in the scientific journals?"

The depth and rigour of Oxburgh's panel also raised eyebrows. Oxburgh said the intensive interrogation (described above) had taken several days, but FOIA requests show his team of seven spent just two days on the job, clocking up "45 man hours" including lunches and coffee breaks. The final report amounted to five pages of assessment.

Although the Science Assessment Panel didn't publish notes, MPs have seen a highly critical assessment of CRU's work by Cambridge physics Professor Michael Kelly. [PDF, 540kb], who has acted as a scientific advisor to government.

Kelly quoted Ernest Rutherford, who once said that "if your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment". Complex simulations that can't be exhaustively tested against 'real' data have limited value.

"I take real exception to having simulation runs described as experiments (without at least the qualification of 'computer' experiments). It does a disservice to centuries of real experimentation and allows simulations output to be considered as a real data. This last is a very serious matter, as it can lead to the idea that real 'real data' might be wrong simply because it disagrees with the models."

In fact, this arises quite often in climatology - as we saw here. It provides a good illustration:

Temperature time trends from Douglass et alii (2007). Only at the surface are the mean of the models and the mean of observations seen to agree, within the uncertainties.

Douglass et al. Temperature time trends (degrees per decade) against pressure (altitude) for 22 averaged models (shown in red) and 10 observational data sets (blue and green lines). Only at the surface are the mean of the models and the mean of observations seen to agree, within the uncertainties.

Observational evidence doesn't find the higher temperatures in the troposphere that the models confidently predicted. The implication is clear: our level of understanding of the climate is much lower than the climatologists claim it to be, and politicians should be careful when devising policy based on the output of computer models.

Where next?

The issue of publication and peer review is a troubling one. MPs didn't raise it yesterday, but may well follow-up with Muir Russell who is scheduled to appear before the Select Committee next month.

The emails show the academics rubber-stamping each other's work, pressuring publications to suppress critical academics, and in promising to subvert academic conventions to exclude papers from the IPCC. "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!" wrote Jones in 2004. Another practice cited by critics is "check-kiting", where a climate paper cites a work that is never published.

Muir Russell will appear before the select committee next month, and Anglia's Vice Chancellor Acton has agreed to make a further appearance.

The composition of the Science Select Committee can hardly be described as skeptical. Its concern rather seems to be that of the reputation of British academia. A university - ultimately funded largely by the public - has had serious allegations levelled against it, while its own enquiries have failed accept that structural reform of scientific may be needed. ®