Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:53 PM GMT on December 03, 2009
The embattled director of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU), Dr. Phil Jones, announced that he will be temporarily standing aside as director. An independent review of his conduct in light of the emails illegally hacked from his computers last month is in progress. In a press release, Professor Jones said: "What is most important is that CRU continues its world leading research with as little interruption and diversion as possible. After a good deal of consideration I have decided that the best way to achieve this is by stepping aside from the Director's role during the course of the independent review and am grateful to the University for agreeing to this. The Review process will have my full support".
The University and the police are investigating the break-in, and it is currently unknown if this was the act of an insider or an external break-in. I think it is highly unlikely this was the work of an insider in a whistle-blower type of action, since a computer at realclimate.org was hacked into the same week (via a computer in Turkey), and the criminal attempted to upload the emails stolen from CRU to the realclimate.org server. This is not the sort of action a whistleblower would do. Dr. Gavin Schmidt of realclimate.org said in a comment yesterday that the CRU break-in appeared to have been done from the outside, into a backup mail server. It is unlikely the hacker acted alone, since hackers aren't typically intimately familiar with the details of the climate change science debate. The emails and code stolen were selectively culled by someone who appeared to have considerable expertise in climate science.
What did Dr. Jones do wrong?
So, what did Dr. Jones do wrong? For starters, he should have confronted the allegations raised by his critics immediately and talked candidly to the press about some of the specific accusations being made. For example, one of the emails contained the statement that he would like to "redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is" to exclude two questionable papers from the IPCC report. Well, that's not something a good scientist should seriously advocate, and is an impossibility, in any case. No one can redefine the peer-reviewed literature, since the rules for this are well-established an not subject to change. When I read the comment in the context it was made, it reads as a joke. There is no discussion in the hacked emails about how to go about redefining the peer-reviewed literature. In the end, the two papers Jones was referring to with this comment, McKitrick and Michaels (2004) and Kalnay and Cai (2003), ended up being cited and discussed in Chapter 2 of the IPCC AR4 report. Those intent on discrediting the science of human-caused global warming are spinning the comment differently, creating a controversy about something that is impossible to do, and was not being seriously suggested. Jones should have immediately spoken up to quash the hype on this comment.
The "trick" to "hide the decline"
Another area of concern is over a graph Dr. Jones helped construct in 1999 showing the "hockey stick" of Earth's surface temperature going back 1,000 years. This graph combined instrumental measurements made since the 1800s with older paleoclimate data (including data from tree rings) to show a continuous 1,000 year record of Earth's temperatures. The paleoclimate data after 1960 show a bogus decline in Earth's temperatures that does not agree with what modern thermometers have been measuring, due to a well-known variation in tree ring thickness as a function of time, referred to as "the decline". Thus, Jones elected to toss out the bogus paleoclimate data (using a "trick" to "hide the decline") rather than present it in the graph. The graph was not properly labeled to show this was done, so viewers of the graph would have had needed to be familiar with a 1998 paper published in Nature or the 1999 paper referenced in the caption on the graph, which explained this well-known data issue. The graph that Jones used his "trick" on was put into a 1999 report called the "WMO Statement on the Status of the Global Climate". The report was given to policy makers, but was never published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. No reputable climate scientist believes that the paleoclimate data since 1960 is of higher quality than the instrumental record (this is discussed in detail in Chapter 6 of the 2007 IPCC report). In order to make the "hokey stick" graph less confusing, removing "the decline" from the tree ring data is a reasonable thing to do--provided one labels the graph properly. The graph was not properly labeled. Does Jones' "trick" and failure to properly label the graph constitute data falsification, or was it merely sloppy science? The hacked emails contain no suggestions that the "trick" was done to intentionally fool people, and the "trick" never appeared in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, including the IPCC reports. In Dr. Jones' words, "This is well-known and is called the "decline" or "divergence". The use of the term "hiding the decline" was in an email written in haste. CRU has not sought to hide the decline. Indeed, CRU has published a number of articles that both illustrate, and discuss the implications of, this recent tree-ring decline, including the article that is listed in the legend of the WMO Statement figure".
Figure 1. The WMO 1999 "hockey stick" figure (top) with climate reconstructions and instrumental temperatures merged, and a version (bottom) with the climate reconstructions (coloured) and instrumental temperatures (annual & summer in black) shown separately. Note "the decline" in the temperature obtained from tree ring data (green curve) in the bottom curve. Image credit: University of East Anglia.
Global warming contrarians are spinning the "trick" as reason to discredit the "hockey stick", claiming that the data was falsified to hide the fact that tree rings were telling the real story. Since the hockey stick was falsified, some claim, the entire science behind human-caused global warming needs to be questioned. This is plain ludicrous. The graph was never published in a scientific journal. Several updated versions of the "hockey stick" graph have been published in the ten years since the disputed graph was produced, and the "hockey stick" can be reproduced in essentially the same form excluding the controversial tree rings, using other paleoclimate data such as boreholes (See Mann et al., 2008, Figure 2). Furthermore, the peer-reviewed science supporting human-caused global warming is not based solely upon the "hockey stick" and the CRU data used for the last 150 years of the hockey stick graph. There are three separate data sets of global temperatures maintained by NASA, the CRU, and NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, that all show essentially the same global warming. We also have evidence from nature herself in the form of plants and animals expanding their ranges poleward, the record loss of Arctic sea ice in 2007 and record loss of multi-year Arctic sea ice this year, the shrinking of mountain glaciers, reductions in the length of freeze season in many Northern Hemisphere lakes and rivers, the shifting of spring blooms earlier in most regions of the world, and on and on and on. Again, Jones should have spoken up immediately to kill the ridiculous hype being pushed by global warming contrarians about the importance of a 10-year old graph that is now scientifically irrelevant, and was never published.
Figure 2. The "hockey stick" of global temperature anomalies since 300 A.D., as published in a 2008 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Mann et al.. Even if one excludes tree rings (blue curve), the hockey stick looks the same.
Resistance to releasing data to other researchers
The hacked emails also show that Dr. Jones resisted releasing his data to contrarians and urged others to delete emails regarding Freedom Of Information (FOI) related requests. Many countries protect their weather data under an international agreement called World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40, which prohibits the data from being made public (this is why wunderground can't give out the UKMET model forecasts on our web site, for example). About 5% of the CRU data fell in that category, making release illegal. However, deleting emails related to FOI requests is inadvisable and implies one has something to hide. The investigation should certainly pursue the issue of whether Dr. Jones properly handled the requests to turn over his data to outside researchers. Ideally, weather data documenting Earth's climate history should be free to everyone on the planet (I am not a big fan of WMO Resolution 40). However, another aspect to this issue is the time it takes for the scientists involved to prepare the data for release. Large, complicated data sets require extensive documentation and access to related computer codes in order to process them, and making the data available to every amateur investigator interested in the data puts an unfair burden on the scientists who maintain the data sets. In particular, an amateur climate science investigator named Stephen McIntyre, who runs the web site Climate Audit, has created such an issue. McIntyre, a retired mining executive and an investor, is not a professional scientist, but has been successful identifying several technical errors made in the published literature. He has also generated a huge amount of misleading and incorrect information over the years, and has done a tremendous amount of damage to the understanding of climate science. McIntyre is intent on discrediting the science of human-caused global warming--presumably for ideological reasons, since he has no obvious ties to the fossil fuel industry--and has generated a large number of Freedom of Information requests to further his cause. One of the hacked emails, from Dr. Ben Santer, complained that McIntyre's FOI requests were intrusive and unreasonable with no scientific justification or explanation given, and appeared to be a calculated strategy to divert Santer's attention and focus away from research. It's worth reading Santer's reaction to the hacked email affair to learn more. Given such tactics by McIntyre, Dr. Jones' resistance to FOI requests from McIntyre is understandable, but appears to have been poorly handled.
The science of human-caused global warming remains unaffected
None of the hacked emails reveal any conspiracy to publish falsified or "fudged" material in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The science of human-caused global warming will require no revision as a result of this affair. Baseless accusations of fraud, data manipulation, and conspiracy against climate change scientists stemming from the hacked emails are being massively hyped by the Manufactured Doubt industry in an effort to discredit climate scientists, since no flaw with the science can be found. Most of the public is in no position to distinguish good science from bad, so if you can create doubt, uncertainty, and confusion, you can win--or at least buy time, lots of it. The hacked email affair is all about politics, not science. Dr. Jones is an excellent scientist, but unfortunately was over-matched as a politician. It was hardly a fair fight--one scientist against the political might of the mightiest PR campaign against science ever waged, armed with some selectively culled stolen emails taken out of context.
Other posts in this series
The Manufactured Doubt industry and the hacked email controversy
Is more CO2 beneficial for Earth's ecosystems?
I'm working on a post called, "Don't shoot the messenger", and plan to run this Sunday or Monday.
Our Climate Change expert, Dr. Ricky Rood, will be in Copenhagen for Monday's start to the crucial COP15 climate change treaty negotiations. Be sure to tune into his blog for updates on the talks. Wunderground has provided financial support for several University of Michigan students to attend the talks, and I may be featuring portions of their blogs over the coming weeks.
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