Debate with Steve Easterbrook

We explore the mutual incomprehension across the climate emails divide

By Steve Easterbrook and George Monbiot, republished on Monbiot.com, 8th April 2010

The computer scientist Steve Easterbrook wrote an interesting critique of my approach to the hacked climate emails. This prompted me to write a column about the two cultures, and our inability to understand each other. Steve has now taken up the baton again, and I’ve responded to him. These comments were first published on Steve’s blog, where you can also read what other people have to say about the controversy and follow the links in Steve’s piece.


Steve writes
:

My exposé of why academics’ private emails sometimes seem cranky has gotten a lot of attention. Joe Romm posted it at ClimateProgress, where it generated many comments, many expressing thanks for saying what needed to be said. George Monbiot posted a comment, pointing out that for a journalist, FoI laws are sacred: a hard won concession that allows them to fight the secrecy that normally surrounds the political establishment. So there’s clearly some mutual incomprehension between the two cultures, academic and journalistic. For journalists, FoI is a vital weapon to root out corruption in a world where few people can be trusted. For scientists, FoI is a blunt instrument, unneeded in a world where honesty and trust are the community norms, and data is freely shared as much as is practically possible.

George expands this theme on his blog, and I appear to have shifted his perspective on the CRU emails, although perhaps not as far as I might have hoped. His thesis is that scientists and journalists have each formed a closed culture, leading each to be suspicious (and worse) of the other. Well, I think this is not strictly accurate. I don’t think either culture is walled in. In fact, I’m beginning to think I overstated the case in my original post: scientists are certainly not “walled in like an anchorite”. Pretty much every scientist I know will happily talk at length to anyone who shows an interest in their work, and will nearly always share data and code with anyone who is engaged in honest scientific work. For our own research into software quality, we have obtained source code, datasets, software bug histories, and extensive access for interviews in every climate modeling centre we have approached.

Unfortunately, scientists tend to be way too focussed (obsessed?) for most people’s taste, so lay people don’t generally want to talk to them in the first place. But scientists will accept into the community anyone who’s willing to work at it (after all most of us spend a lot of time training students), as long as they show the necessary commitment to the scientific process and the pursuit of truth. Traditional investigative journalism used to share these values too, but this tradition now seems to be another endangered species. The experience when scientists talk to journalists is usually more about the journalist seeking a sensationalist angle to sell a story, rather than a quest for understanding. And a reliance on false balance rather than weighing up the evidence.

So there is a bit of a gulf between the two cultures, but its not insurmountable, and there are plenty of examples of good science reporting to show that people regularly do bridge this gulf.

No, the real story is not the relationship between science and the media at all. It’s the story of how the media has been completely taken in by a third group, a third culture, consisting of ideologically-driven, pathological liars, who will say almost anything in order to score political points, and will smear anyone they regard as an opponent. Stern calls climate change the greatest ever failure of the free markets. I think that looking back, we may come to regard the last six months as the greatest ever failure of mass media. Or alternatively, the most successful disinformation campaign ever waged.

At the centre of this story are people like Marc Morano and Jim Inhofe. They haven’t a clue what science is; to them it’s just one more political viewpoint to attack. They live in a world of paranoid fantasies, where some secret cabal is supposedly trying to set up a world government to take away their freedoms. Never mind that every credible scientific body on the planet is warning about the wealth of evidence we now have about the risk of dangerous climate change. Never mind that the IPCC puts together one of the most thorough (and balanced!) state-of-the-art surveys ever undertaken in any scientific field. Never mind that the newest research suggests that these assessments are, if anything, underestimating the risk. No, these people don’t like the message, and so set out to attack the messengers with a smear campaign based on hounding individual scientists for years and years until they snap, and then spreading stories in the media about what happens when the scientists tell them to piss off.

Throughout all this, in underfunded labs, and under a barrage of attacks, scientists have done their job admirably. They chase down the uncertainties, and report honestly and accurately what they know. They doggedly compile assessment reports year after year to present the mass of evidence to anyone who cares to listen. It simply beggars belief that journalists could, in 2010, still be writing opinion pieces arguing that the scientists need to do a better job, that they are poor communicators, that we need more openness and more data sharing. That these themes dominate the reporting is a testament to how effective the disinformation campaign has been. The problem is not in the science, or with scientists at all, nor with a culture gap between science and the media. The problem is with this third group, the disinformers, who have completely dominated the framing of the story, and how honest journalists have been completely taken in by this framing.

How did they do it? Well, one crucial element of their success is their use of FoI laws. By taking the journalists’ most prized weapon, and wielding it against climate scientists, they achieved a whole bunch of successes all at once. They got journalists on their side, because journalists have difficulty believing that FoI laws could be used for anything other than good old-fashioned citizen democracy. They got the public on their side by appearing to be the citizens fighting the establishment. They set up the false impression that scientists have stuff to hide, by ignoring the vast quantities of open data in climate science, and focussing on the few that were tied up with commercial licence agreements. And they effected a denial of service attack by flooding a few target scientists with huge numbers of FoI requests. Add to this the regular hate mail and death threats that climate scientists receive, and you have a recipe for personal meltdowns. And the media lapped up the story about personal meltdowns, picked it up and ran with it, and never once asked whose framing they were buying into.

And the result is that, faced with one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, the media got the story completely backwards. Few journalists and few scientists seem to have any conception of how this misinformation campaign works, how nasty these people are, and how dirty they play. They have completely owned the story for the last few months, with their framing of “scientists making mistakes” and “scientists distorting their data”. They’ve successfully portrayed the scientists as being at fault, when it is the scientists who are the victims of one of the nastiest public bullying campaigns ever conducted. History will have to judge how it compares to other such episodes (McCarthyism would make a fascinating comparator). And the stakes are high: at risk is our ability to make sensible policy choices and international agreements based on good scientific evidence, to ensure that our children and grandchildren can flourish as we do.

We’re fucking this up bigtime, and it’s not the scientists who are at fault.

George writes:

Hi Steve,

Thanks for this. Another interesting post, though this time I think that you’re the one who has got the story backwards. Apart from anything else you’ve got the sequence of events wrong.

The FoI applications started to come in only after several years in which Phil Jones and CRU had frustrated requests for information. We didn’t have an FoI Act in this country until 2005 (and we still use chipped flints to cut up our dinner). In fact Jones made it clear that he was afraid of FoI because he wouldn’t be able to block such requests any more. Here are three examples:

1. “The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone … We also have a data protection act, which I will hide behind. Tom Wigley has sent me a worried email when he heard about it – thought people could ask him for his model code. He has retired officially from UEA so he can hide behind that. IPR should be relevant here, but I can see me getting into an argument with someone at UEA who’ll say we must adhere to it!”

http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=490

2. “If FOIA does ever get used by anyone, there is also IPR to consider as well. Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people, so I will be hiding behind them.”

http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=485&filename=1106338806.txt

3. “I’m getting hassled by a couple of people to release the CRU station temperature data. Don’t any of you three tell anybody that the UK has a Freedom of Information Act!”

http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=498&filename=1109021312.txt

To begin with, the FoI requests, like the previous applications for data, were few in number. It was only after they were blocked using bureaucratic obfuscation of the kind that could scarcely be better designed to make people furious that – in July 2009 – Steve McIntyre organised a mass application campaign.

http://climateaudit.org/2009/07/24/cru-refuses-data-once-again/#comment-188529

He managed to generate 58 requests. But even that brought the total number of requests to just 105, across five years, many of which were received AFTER the hacked emails story broke.

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/25032/response/66822/attach/2/Response%20letter%20199%20100121.pdf

As the former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas pointed out to parliament, this isn’t a great deal and did not in his view amount to a campaign of harassment. Though I think it’s fair to say that the McIntyre requests could be classified as vexatious. In either case, CRU was able to refuse the 58 requests McIntyre organised without breaking much sweat. Jones, as far as I can tell, didn’t have to deal with these requests himself: they appear to have been handled by CRU/UEA administrators, who just threw them all back in the water.

I don’t see evidence here of “a denial of service attack by flooding a few target scientists with huge numbers of FoI requests.”

Remember, if CRU hadn’t blocked the early requests for data, none of this would have happened.

With best wishes, George

Steve writes:

George: Good points – I’ve conflated a number of things, and you’re right “flooding with FoI requests” is not strictly accurate. What I meant to say was that the FoI requests were just the most visible part of a much longer campaign, going back at least a decade. When Phil Jones writes “The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years” it’s clear that we’re coming late into an ongoing battle, and Jones is already pretty pissed off with the whole thing. Taken out of context, the email reads like an attempt to cover up misdeeds. But in the context of many years harassment by people who have no interest in constructive criticism, a long track record in misrepresenting the science, and no obvious sign of ever backing off, well, it looks much more like letting off steam in private with trusted colleagues (particularly as there’s no evidence that he ever did destroy any data).

It’s clear from reading the accounts from Mann and Santer that they were under constant bombardment, and that they’d already come to understand that rebutting each criticism is pointless. Mann and Santer have been much more effective in getting their side of the story on record; Jones hasn’t communicated this so well, and I think he has been slow to understand the game that was being played, and a little foolish in what he said about it in the emails. But it’s wrong to say that if the CRU hadn’t blocked the early requests for data none of this would have happened. The original station data was tied up with restrictive licenses, because it’s commercially useful in the forecasting community. It’s not clear that Jones could ever have handed this over to M&M, and in the early days, it appears Jones offered constructive suggestions for how to get hold of the data directly from source (as the CRU never owned this data in the first place). But M&M saw this as a smokescreen, and went on the attack, and things just went downhill from there.

The real story that needs to be told is why M&M went after Jones in the first place. John Mashey has been investigating who they work with and why; his dossier is here:

http://www.desmogblog.com/sites/beta.desmogblog.com/files/plagiarism%20conspiracies%20felonies%20v1%200%201.pdf

and DeepClimate has been exploring how M&M systematically distort the evidence – see for example:

http://deepclimate.org/2010/03/10/mcclimategate-continues-yet-another-false-accusation-from-mcintyre-and-mckitrick/

I remain convinced that the more important story is an examination of the motivation and sponsorship for M&M’s attacks, the impacts they have had on the scientists who have been the victims, and an account of how the science has stood up robustly to everything they’ve thrown at it. I don’t think endless examinations of the contents of Phil Jones’ emails serves any useful purpose.

And given that none of this changes the science in anyway whatsoever, I can only conclude that as a way of distracting everyone’s attention, it has been a remarkably successful propaganda exercise.

George writes:

Hi Steve,

I haven’t yet read the Mashey report, which I will do now. But don’t the emails suggest that M&M might actually have been right to believe that the restrictive licences were, at least in part, a smokescreen?:

“If FOIA does ever get used by anyone, there is also IPR to consider as well. Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people, so I will be hiding behind them.”

Here’s what Jones told another requester:

“Even if WMO agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/memo/climatedata/uc3502.htm

And shouldn’t we be concerned that commercial considerations are getting in the way of the free flow of information? Is that not antithetical to the open society and the spirit of scientific inquiry? It’s something I’ve campaigned against in other areas: particularly the patenting of genetic material.

I react against it for two reasons: first that it’s an enclosure of a common (and in this case publicly-funded) resource, secondly that it’s the kind of convenient excuse everyone in authority hides behind these days, when there’s something they don’t want to tell us. (Sorry, I can’t tell you that – security you know, er, health and safety, er commercial confidentiality). Here in the UK the terms of the stealthy privatisation of almost the entire public sector (the Private Finance Initiative) were kept secret from the public on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. I campaigned against that excuse for years. Only by using the FOIA, and by harassing the bastards mercilessly, did we finally open up that can of worms, by which time it was all too late. I hope this gives you more of an idea of why my gut response is different from yours.

Steve writes:

George,
Yes, the emails make it quite clear Jones doesn’t want to hand over his data, and is prepared to use any excuse not to. At face value, it certainly looks like he’s got something to hide. But what? His work on the temperature reconstructions is sound, as has been shown by other reconstructions. The allegations made by M&M about temperature biases in surface station selection were clearly shown to be wrong by several independent analyses, including work by Tamino:

http://tamino.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/false-claims-proven-false/

by Wood and Steig:

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/12/are-the-cru-data-suspect-an-objective-assessment/

and many others. There’s nothing wrong with any of the data, nor any of the science from Jones’ team at the CRU. So why does Jones act in the emails like someone who wants to hide evidence?

The only reasonable explanation is that he wants to withhold the data because he’s quite simply fed up with the constant baseless attacks. Ben Santer had already warned him how much time and effort it takes having to correct misrepresentations of their work. Refusing to cooperate with time-wasters is completely rational. We can argue whether in the long run this was a good idea; we can argue over what strategy scientists might best adopt in this situation. But the fact is that Jones chose the path of withholding his data, motivated partly by anger and partly by the desire to protect his time.

Bear in mind of course, that releasing datasets requires a non-trivial amount of work (to define the meta-data, and document the processing that has occurred), and often will still be useless to anyone else anyway. Bob Grumbine explains why:

http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/2009/11/data-set-reproducibility.html

http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-should-be-reproducible.html

The normal practice is for other labs to get hold of the raw data independently and do their own reconstructions. So when someone comes along demanding the data, because they want to find flaws in work that’s already been thoroughly replicated elsewhere, and is known to be sound, well, they’re just timewasters.

And yes, there is a bigger context here – this science is fundamentally important for public policymaking, and must withstand a much higher degree of scrutiny than normal. Phil Jones might be guilty of not grasping this bigger issue, but then I don’t think many people have put much thought into how we do this. The climate modelers I’ve spoken to cannot defend their software practices, nor can they adequately demonstrate they are using best practices (comparable, say with the best in the commercial software world). However, when you look at what they do, it turns out to be phenomenally good. The problem isn’t that the code isn’t subjected to scrutiny; the problem is that it’s subjected to so much scrutiny in so many ways by so many people that nobody can give a coherent account of all of these, nor how they add up (I’ve made it my research goal to produce such an account for software development practices of climate scientists – I hope others can do the same for the data handling practices).

Bottom line: There are two hypotheses for why Jones talks this way in the emails: (1) because he has something nefarious to hide or (2) because he’s fed up with people wasting time and making unfounded allegations, and wants nothing to do with them. Hypothesis 1 depends on there being something wrong with his work, but the reconstructions show it’s sound. So we have to go with hypothesis 2.

BTW I agree completely with your comments about commercial considerations getting in the way of the free flow of information in the science community. Unfortunately, this is a result of lack of funding, particularly of meteorological research. Many weather services around the globe (the Met Office included) gain part of their funding from selling commercial forecasting services, and there is tough competition for some of the bigger customers. The dataset that M&M are after is drawn from meteorological services in many different countries, and many of them place different restrictions on it to protect their interests (several countries, including Canada, have refused to release their portions). Most of this, Jones and the CRU have no control over; when they obtained the data from these many different sources they had to sign agreements to respect confidentiality. Part of Jones frustration is the amount of effort it took to do this (hence his response that M&M go collect the data from these various sources themselves).

We’d all much prefer meteorological data data to be free and open – it would make our lives much easier. But we’re faced with constant pressure on universities and government research labs to prove their value by commercializing the outcomes of their research, and by selling services. A growing proportion of the research is no longer publically funded – it’s funded by industrial research grants and by income earned on “intellectual property”. We’re going to have to untangle the mess that free market ideology has made of our public research institutions to fix this problem. The real irony is that the those on the rightwing who have been most active in pushing this commercialization of research labs are now the ones screaming most loudly about freeing the data.

George writes:

Thanks for this Steve. I think you make a good case for what Jones’s motivation might have been (and I wish to God that he or the university had come forward at an early stage to explain it: the mishandling of this crisis is a whole other saga).

If true, it sounds like a tragedy straight out of a Hardy novel – Jude the Obscure or Tess of the Durbervilles perhaps – misplaced action, misunderstood intentions, letters under the doormat. I’m prepared to believe that Jones is a good man who, partly because of the constraints he was under, made a series of disastrous tactical errors. On this account he emerges as a tragic figure, in the classical sense.

But, as Hardy shows, ultimately it’s the actions, not the intentions that count. This is what we end up being judged by, and why it is so important both to act strategically and to act as if the world is watching. These days it probably is. It remains possible to praise the intention and condemn the action. Though he might have been acting with good intentions I still believe that what Jones did was wrong – and offensive to democratic values.

The points you make about commercial agreements are good ones. I would love to see scientists use this crisis to campaign for proper public funding of climate science and an end to the jumblesale of public assets.

Robert: thanks for your points on this too. Let’s mobilise against these stultifying legal agreements and cost recovery arrangements.

George writes:

Hi Steve et al,

I’m reposting a comment by someone calling him or herself Gladiatrix, that has just turned up on the Guardian website. It’s pertinent to our discussion.

“I am going to write this post as an experienced public sector lawyer who has lived through the introduction of the FoI Act and given extensive advice to various clients on its effects.

The FoI Act was clearly expressed from the outset to apply to all public sector bodies of every kind. It was NEVER intended only to apply to HMG. The assertion that it was is factually incorrect. In other words, every body that is funded from the public purse or which carries out a public sector function is subject to the FoI Act and must comply with its provisions.

The FoI Act had a 5 year lead in period during which every public body had ample opportunity to put in place all and any necessary procedures, to appoint its Information Officer (a statutory office) and provide training to everyone concerned. The UEA had and has no excuse.

Commercial agreements and non-disclosure agreements are not exempt from disclosure under the FoI Act and never have been. They are covered by what is known as a qualified exemption only, i.e. they can be disclosed if the public interest requires disclosure. All exemptions under the FoI Act are required to be interpreted under what is known as the Public Interest Test. A public body may disclose a commercial agreement, and may indeed have a separate statutory obligation to do so and this will be upheld by the courts. See: Veolia ES Nottinghamshire Ltd v Nottinghamshire County Council and Shlomo Dowen and Audit Commission [2009] EWHC 2382 (Admin).

Under guidance issued by the Office of Government Commerce all public sector FoI contract clauses are expressed such that the public body may disclose commercial data and may consult with its contractor beforehand, but is under no obligation to do so. This is a direct read across from the FoI Act. All contractors try to have this clause changed to make consultation mandatory, only very inexperienced public sector officers would agree to this.

In short, UEA and its employees of all grades knew what the Act said, they knew what their legal obligations were, they knew what they could and could not disclose.

Professor Jones and his colleagues and his employers knowingly flouted the law of the land without any excuse whatsoever. What is worse is that they bullied a junior employee (who should have blown the whistle to the ICO and the Standards Board) into allowing them to flout the law.

For myself I would dearly love to know what the UEA’s legal advisers were doing while all this was going on, what they knew and when they knew it. This it seems to me is a question that both the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority could usefully ask.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/apr/08/hacked-emails-freedom-of-information

Steve writes:

George: I’m still at a loss to understand how exactly he’s supposed to have broken the law. Gladiatrix’s comment talks a lot about the nature of the law, and the obligations it places on public institutions, and then goes straight to a guilty verdict. But, despite lots of sabre rattling in his emails, Phil Jones never deleted any information that was subject to FoI requests (indeed, it seems he never deleted anything), and his institution used the appropriate processes to handle all the FoI requests. The parliamentary enquiry found no instance in which anyone had broken FoI laws. So, unless the law prevents people moaning about the FoI act and threatening to withhold information, there’s nothing here. No law was broken.

Which brings me back to my original point. This is all a distraction. We shouldn’t be focussing on Phil Jones’ actions at all. We should be looking at how the denialist machine is attempting to undermine solid science through these attack campaigns. George – you wrote in your book about the similarity with the tactics used by the tobacco industry (and indeed how many of the same players are involved). Why aren’t we discussing how and why people like M&M are allowed to get away with a continual campaign of distraction and obfuscation, by trying to discredit scientists, and pick nits in a solid body of scientific research? What concerns me, is that you, along with many other journalists, are still stuck in M&M’s preferred framing (i.e. that they’re sniffing out corruption in the science and trying to free the data), rather than recognizing that they set the whole thing up as a smear campaign and that it was never about the data in the first place?

George writes:

Steve, surely incitement is an offence, regardless of whether anyone acted on that incitement? But my intention in reposting that comment was not to turn this into a legalistic discussion, but simply to remind us that commercial confidentiality, the issue we had been discussing, does not automatically exempt you from the FoI Act.

And sure, let’s also discuss the campaign of distraction and obfuscation: as you know, I have spent much of my career doing just that. But to retain the moral high ground we have to be sure that we’ve got our own house in order. That means demanding the highest standards of scientific openness, transparency and integrity. Blocking, “hiding behind”, urging deletions, regardless of the pressures at play, don’t meet those standards.

Steve writes:

George,

So this is what it comes down to? Suggesting, in a moment of weakness, that emails should be deleted is now a resigning offense? And in the context of an information warfare, where the reason for the suggestion was to avoid further abuse by denialists, rather than to conceal anything? And even then, as nothing ever was deleted, and we’re only seeing carefully selected portions of the email conversation, presumably good judgment eventually prevailed? You’re setting impossible standards for hard pressed scientists.

And that, I think, is the crux of the problem. This argument that scientists should somehow be more virtuous is a huge fallacy. Openness is a great virtue to strive for. But it cannot ever be a standard by which we judge individual scientists. For a start, no scientific field has ever achieved the levels of openness that are being demanded here. The data is messy, the meta-data standards are not in place, the resources to curate this data are not in place. You’re falling for straight denialist logic here: that we can’t act on the science until every last bit of data is out in the public domain. While, in truth, climate science has developed a better culture of data sharing, replication, and results checking than almost any other scientific field. One datapoint to back this up: in no other field of computational science are there 25+ teams around the world building the same simulation models independently, and systematically comparing their results on thousands of different scenarios in order to understand the quality of those simulations.

We *should* demand from scientists that they do excellent science. But we should *not* expect them to also somehow be superhuman. This argument that scientists should never exhibit human weaknesses is not just fallacious, it’s dangerous. It promotes the idea that science depends on perfect people to carry it out, when in fact the opposite is the case. Science is a process that compensates for the human failings of the people who engage in it, by a continual process of questioning evidence, re-testing ideas, replicating results, collecting more data, and so on. Mistakes are made all the time. Individual scientists screw up. If they don’t make mistakes, they’re probably not doing worthwhile science. It’s vitally important that we get across to the public that this is how science works, and that the results of this process are more trustworthy than any other way of producing knowledge, precisely because the process is robust in the face of error.

In this particular case, calling for scientists to take the moral high ground, and to be more virtuous, is roughly the equivalent of suggesting that victims of sexual assault should act more virtuous. And if you think this analogy is over the top, you haven’t understood the nature of the attacks on scientists like Mann, Santer, Briffa, and Jones. Look at Jones now: he’s contemplated suicide, he’s on drugs just to help him get through the day, and more drugs to allow him to sleep at night. These bastards have destroyed a brilliant scientist. And you’re arguing that the response is to be more virtuous.

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