14 Aug 2009

Science or Not? CRU Admits It No Longer Has Original Temperature Records

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This is a great example of where suspicion of the other side’s motives can really juice up a conflict. The global warming debate is chock full of this tendency. Check out this story, which is based on true facts (as I understand them):

The world’s source for global temperature record admits it’s lost or destroyed all the original data that would allow a third party to construct a global temperature record. The destruction (or loss) of the data comes at a convenient time for the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia – permitting it to snub FoIA requests to see the data.

The CRU has refused to release the raw weather station data and its processing methods for inspection – except to hand-picked academics – for several years. Instead, it releases a processed version, in gridded form. NASA maintains its own (GISSTEMP), but the CRU Global Climate Dataset, is the most cited surface temperature record by the UN IPCC. So any errors in CRU cascade around the world, and become part of “the science”.

Professor Phil Jones, the activist-scientist who maintains the data set, has cited various reasons for refusing to release the raw data. Most famously, Jones told an Australian climate scientist in 2004:

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.

In 2007, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, CRU initially said it didn’t have to fulfil the requests because “Information accessible to applicant via other means Some information is publicly available on external websites”.

Now it’s citing confidentiality agreements with Denmark, Spain, Bahrain and our own Mystic Met Office. Others may exist, CRU says in a statement, but it might have lost them because it moved offices. Or they were made verbally, and nobody at CRU wrote them down.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some kidney shots in the above–like calling Phil Jones an “activist-scientist.” But even so, you can get why the “global warming is a hoax” crowd would look at this and think their worst fears had been vindicated decisively. I mean, just think of it: The group that is the caretaker of one of the most venerable global temperature series, is basically just asking us to trust it!

That was actually Roger Pielke’s take on the whole sordid affair. And I have to confess, it did seem crazy to me that Jones gave his excuse with a straight face. But then Chip Knappenberger, a climate scientist who often blogs at MasterResource, posted a comment on Pielke’s blog that made me doubt my quick conclusion:

I have plenty (probably the vast majority) of papers which I couldn’t provide the raw data for if asked, much less many of my analysis routines. But, in my published papers, I include Data, Methods, and Results sections where I describe my work. And the fact that it is peer-reviewed means that someone, somewhere, with some qualifications in the field thought it was reasonable. So readers of my papers don’t simply have to “trust me” even if I can’t provide the data and/or the routines at some later date. If what I have done is wrong, it’ll be replaced by new and improved science, either by me or others—that is one of the primary ways that science moves forward—historically with our without the co-operation of all interested parties.

Perhaps my way of thinking about this is old-school and a new era is upon us (one which I have yet to fully embrace and not sure I ever will, especially the latter) in which everyone has to use the same data archiving techniques and the same analytical tools and reviewers will be required to precisely replicate the results before they are published—if not the reviewers themselves, perhaps a staff of analysts employed by the journals. But even if this will someday be the case, I don’t see how it should be retroactively applicable. Will all the journals be wiped clean of all past material, only to have it reinstated once each and every article has been replicated?

So if the CRU is guilty of requiring people to just “trust them” them, I would imagine that so too are 90% or more of all the authors ever published in the scientific literature.

I should stress that there are two distinct issues in the global warming (aka climate change) debate: First, what is our understanding of the impact of human activities on the environment? Second, what (if anything) should the government do, in light of this scientific understanding?

Libertarians shouldn’t be afraid to find out that the climate’s true sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions is on the high end of the range of guesses. And they certainly shouldn’t rest their opposition to cap and trade legislation on the relatively fragile claim that “global warming is a hoax.” I consider it a much safer argument to observe, “Politicians have never solved a societal defect in the history of the world.”

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