Panel finds East Anglia Climate Research Unit "scientific"

Another panel has found that the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia was not un-scientific in its work reconstructing historical surface temperatures.  The story and its background are here.
The new report is the last in a series of investigations of leading British and American climate researchers, prompted by the release of a cache of e-mail messages that cast doubt on their conduct and raised fresh public controversy over the science of global warming.
All five investigations have come down largely on the side of the climate researchers, rejecting a number of criticisms raised by global-warming skeptics. Still, mainstream climate science has not emerged from the turmoil unscathed.
The new report stated that “On the specific allegations made against the behavior of C.R.U. scientists, we find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.”

Quite amazingly, none of the standards of "truth" or "objectiveness" to which these and other climate scientists have been held are in any way applied to the members of the media, pundits or politicians who have made this kind of scientific research even more difficult to undertake.  I think most people would laugh if they imaged this kind of criticism applied to non-scientists, who are actually much more influential in shaping public opinion:
The latest report was by no means a complete vindication. Echoing the findings of an earlier report by a parliamentary committee in London, the reviewers criticized the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit for consistently “failing to display the proper degree of openness” in responding to demands for backup data and other information under Britain’s public-record laws.
As a scientist, I am frequently appalled at the types of things individuals can say on TV, with no accountability for whether their statements are true or not.  Forget about depositing data on public servers, I'd be happy if most people could even cite a single study that supported whatever claim they are making that day.

Even within the CRU drama, the double ethical standards have been upsetting.  Somehow, we've managed to forget that the email exchanges that started the debate were made public by a hacker. When China asks Google for some emails that it would like to use to indict its citizens, the American media explodes in anger.  But when a mysteriously anonymous hacker forcibly extracts emails from a private computer in an effort to discredit an honest scientist, we somehow don't even notice.  Even the NYT article seems to have exhonerated the hacker, carefully stating that
Embarrassing e-mail messages... were purloined from a computer at the university in November and posted to the Internet...
Note there is no use of the word "stolen" or "defamation".

Now that the validity of the science has been restored, we need to take steps to protect scientists.  It is unfathomably easy get public opion angry about technical scientific issues.  If we allow private individuals to act as intellectual vigilantes without any form of recourse when they are embarressingly wrong, it will become too easy and cheap to defame scientists when their findings are at odds with vested interest groups.  

To prevent such a situation from spiralling out of control, and hindering scientific inquiry, steps should be taken to prosecute those individuals responsible for this unnecessary drama.  I'm far from a legal expert, but I'm fairly certain that hacking, stealing emails and posting them online are sufficient evidence of malicious intent in something that should resemble a libel or defamation suit. While I am certainly angry about the fiasco, I don't think the hacker should be sued out of spite.  It is increadibly important that inaccurate and malicous attempts to discredit science be punished, otherwise there is no reason for people to not do it whenever it helps them to achieve some goal.

1 comment:

  1. I bit on why it might be a whitewash...