Curry: On the credibility of climate research
Judy Curry writes in as follows:
Having been riveted for the last few days by posts in the blogosphere on the HADCRU hack and the increasing attention being given to this by the mainstream media, I would like to provide an “external but insider” assessment and perspective. My perspective is as a climate researcher that is not involved directly in any of the controversies and issues in the purloined HADCRU emails, but as one that is familiar with this research, the surrounding controversies, and many of the individuals who sent these emails. While the blogosphere has identified many emails that allegedly indicate malfeasance, clarifications especially from Gavin Schmidt have been very helpful in providing explanations and the appropriate context for these emails. However, even if the hacked emails from HADCRU end up to be much ado about nothing in the context of any actual misfeasance that impacts the climate data records, the damage to the public credibility of climate research is likely to be significant. In my opinion, there are two broader issues raised by these emails that are impeding the public credibility of climate research: lack of transparency in climate data, and “tribalism” in some segments of the climate research community that is impeding peer review and the assessment process.
1. Transparency. Climate data needs to be publicly available and well documented. This includes metadata that explains how the data were treated and manipulated, what assumptions were made in assembling the data sets, and what data was omitted and why. This would seem to be an obvious and simple requirement, but the need for such transparency has only been voiced recently as the policy relevance of climate data has increased. The HADCRU surface climate dataset and the paleoclimate dataset that has gone into the various “hockeystick” analyses stand out as lacking such transparency. Much of the paleoclimate data and metadata has become available only because of continued public pressure from Steve McIntyre. Datasets that were processed and developed decades ago and that are now regarded as essential elements of the climate data record often contain elements whose raw data or metadata were not preserved (this appears to be the case with HADCRUT). The HADCRU surface climate dataset needs public documentation that details the time period and location of individual station measurements used in the data set, statistical adjustments to the data, how the data were analyzed to produce the climatology, and what measurements were omitted and why. If these data and metadata are unavailable, I would argue that the data set needs to be reprocessed (presumably the original raw data is available from the original sources). Climate data sets should be regularly reprocessed as new data becomes available and analysis methods improve. There are a number of aspects of the surface climate record that need to be understood better. For example, the surface temperature bump ca. 1940 needs to be sorted out, and I am personally lacking confidence in how this period is being treated in the HADCRUT analysis. In summary, given the growing policy relevance of climate data, increasingly higher standards must be applied to the transparency and availability of climate data and metadata. These standards should be clarified, applied and enforced by the relevant national funding agencies and professional societies that publish scientific journals.
2. Climate tribalism. Tribalism is defined here as a strong identity that separates one’s group from members of another group, characterized by strong in-group loyalty and regarding other groups differing from the tribe’s defining characteristics as inferior. In the context of scientific research, tribes differ from groups of colleagues that collaborate and otherwise associate with each other professionally. As a result of the politicization of climate science, climate tribes (consisting of a small number of climate researchers) were established in response to the politically motivated climate disinformation machine that was associated with e.g. ExxonMobil, CEI, Inhofe/Morano etc. The reaction of the climate tribes to the political assault has been to circle the wagons and point the guns outward in an attempt to discredit misinformation from politicized advocacy groups. The motivation of scientists in the pro AGW tribes appears to be less about politics and more about professional ego and scientific integrity as their research was under assault for nonscientific reasons (I’m sure there are individual exceptions, but this is my overall perception). I became adopted into a “tribe” during Autumn 2005 after publication of the Webster et al. hurricane and global warming paper. I and my colleagues were totally bewildered and overwhelmed by the assault we found ourselves under, and associating with a tribe where others were more experienced and savvy about how to deal with this was a relief and very helpful at the time.
After becoming more knowledgeable about the politics of climate change (both the external politics and the internal politics within the climate field), I became concerned about some of the tribes pointing their guns inward at other climate researchers who question their research or don’t pass various loyalty tests. I even started spending time at climateaudit, and my public congratulations to Steve McIntyre when climateaudit won the “best science blog award” was greeted with a rather unpleasant email from one of the tribal members. While the “hurricane wars” fizzled out in less than a year as the scientists recovered from the external assault and got back to business as usual in terms of arguing science with their colleagues, the “hockey wars” have continued apparently unabated. With the publication of the IPCC 4th Assessment report, the Nobel Peace Prize, and energy legislation near the top of the national legislative agenda, the “denialists” were becoming increasingly irrelevant (the Heartland Conference and NIPCC are not exactly household words). Hence it is difficult to understand the continued circling of the wagons by some climate researchers with guns pointed at skeptical researchers by apparently trying to withhold data and other information of relevance to published research, thwart the peer review process, and keep papers out of assessment reports. Scientists are of course human, and short-term emotional responses to attacks and adversity are to be expected, but I am particularly concerned by this apparent systematic and continuing behavior from scientists that hold editorial positions, serve on important boards and committees and participate in the major assessment reports. It is these issues revealed in the HADCRU emails that concern me the most, and it seems difficult to spin many of the emails related to FOIA, peer review, and the assessment process. I sincerely hope that these emails do not in actuality reflect what they appear to, and I encourage Gavin Schmidt et al. to continue explaining the individual emails and the broader issues of concern.
In summary, the problem seems to be that the circling of the wagons strategy developed by small groups of climate researchers in response to the politically motivated attacks against climate science are now being used against other climate researchers and the more technical blogs (e.g. Climateaudit, Lucia, etc). Particularly on a topic of such great public relevance, scientists need to consider carefully skeptical arguments and either rebut them or learn from them. Trying to suppress them or discredit the skeptical researcher or blogger is not an ethical strategy and one that will backfire in the long run. I have some sympathy for Phil Jones’ concern of not wanting to lose control of his personal research agenda by having to take the time to respond to all the queries and requests regarding his dataset, but the receipt of large amounts of public funding pretty much obligates CRU to respond to these requests. The number of such requests would be drastically diminished if all relevant and available data and metadata were made publicly accessible, and if requests from Steve McIntyre were honored (I assume that many spurious requests have been made to support Steve McIntyre’s request, and these would all disappear).
The HADCRU hack has substantially increased the relevance of Climateaudit, WUWT, etc. The quickest way for HADCRU et al. to put Climateaudit and the rest of this tribe out of business is make all climate data and metadata public and make every effort to improve the datasets based on all feedback that you receive. Do this and they will quickly run out of steam and become irrelevant ☺. Gavin Schmidt’s current efforts at realclimate are a good step in the right direction of increasing transparency.
But the broader issue is the need to increase the public credibility of climate science. This requires publicly available data and metadata, a rigorous peer review process, and responding to arguments raised by skeptics. The integrity of individual scientists that are in positions of responsibility (e.g. administrators at major research institutions, editorial boards, major committees, and assessments) is particularly important for the public credibility of climate science. The need for public credibility and transparency has dramatically increased in recent years as the policy relevance of climate research has increased. The climate research enterprise has not yet adapted to this need, and our institutions need to strategize to respond to this need.