Fiona Harvey Muired in controversy, still: Climategate continued

This week’s second report on the infamous “climategate” controversy came out with a bang on Wednesday afternoon.

The £200,000 review, headed by ex-civil servant Sir Muir Russell, was into the emails hacked last November from the University of East Anglia, and which purported to show that climate scientists at the university were conspiring to distort conclusions, conceal data and subvert the peer review process.

Except that they didn’t, according to the Russell review. His committee found: “On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of [UEA] Climatic Research Unit scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.”

Further, “we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments”.

CRU scientists were also accused of withholding crucial temperature data. This they did not, said Sir Muir.

“We find that CRU was not in a position to withhold access to such data or tamper with it. We demonstrated that any independent researcher can download station data directly from primary sources and undertake their own temperature trend analysis.”

Nor was there any evidence of bias, as had been alleged, in the choice of which weather stations to take measurements from.

Where the 160 page review did come down hard on the UEA scientists was over failing to respond properly to requests for data under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. They were “unhelpful in response to legitimate requests”. And “we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the university and indeed the credibility of UK climate science”.

More seriously, the report also found that “e-mails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them”.

On this last point, there was frustratingly little detail. What emails were deleted, when and what would they have shown? The review committee does not appear to have questioned Prof Phil Jones, the director of the CRU and the scientist at the centre of the scandal, sufficiently closely on this count. The UEA said it asked Prof Jones whether he had deleted any emails in response to FOI requests. He said no.

But this still means he could have deleted emails that he feared could be the subject of future FOI requests. Prof Edward Acton, vice chancellor of UEA, defended this on the grounds that everyone in academia and the public sector has deleted emails that could conceivably be subject to future FOI requests. Well, yes, that is true, and no one can be expected to keep every trivial jotting. But it would be good to hear from Phil Jones whether he deleted any emails that did turn out subsequently to be the subject of FOI requests. The report refers to a clear statement by Prof Jones on December 3, 2008 that said: “About two months ago I deleted loads of emails, so have very little – if anything at all.”

On the other hand, the report also notes that “it seems likely that many of these deleted emails subsequently became public following the unauthorised release from the backup server”. It “seems likely” – but it does not seem that the Russell committee followed up on this by asking Prof Jones for a clear answer on whether any of these deleted emails did resurface among those hacked.

So, to sum up: the science of the UEA’s climate scientists given a thumbs-up, but they are slammed for a culture of secrecy that damages science.

But if Sir Muir, the UEA, the IPCC or anyone else involved thought that this week’s two reports would draw a line under “climategate”, they will be disappointed. The blogosphere is humming with cries of “whitewash”, “bias”, “travesty” and similar accusations. Sir Muir and his fellow committee members are accused of having a vested interest in ensuring that the review found no evidence of falsified conclusions; of failing to ask the right questions; of not understanding the science.

Some of these criticisms have a point. There are legitimate questions over the way the long-term temperature graph was treated in this report, for instance, and it is possible to pick holes in some of the conclusions. But other attacks seem to be more knee-jerk than this – the review was on many so-called “sceptic” blogs condemned as a whitewash before it had even got under way.

Sir Muir referred to this problem in his press conference on Wednesday:

“I believe this [our methodology] has given authority to our conclusions and should stop in their tracks those who have made up their minds that this is a whitewash, without waiting to see what we have done.”

Alas for Sir Muir, there was little evidence of track-stopping.

Related links:

Phil Jones, exonerated – but not climate science practices - FT Energy Source
CRU explains ‘trick’ and ‘hide the decline’ - FT Energy Source
Hacked emails: Bad behaviour, but not bad science - FT Energy Source