November 24, 2009 at 9:55 PM 6 comments

I don’t intend to turn this blog into a political forum; I can’t keep up with my stated purpose of covering interesting science with implications for Restoration belief systems now, after all.

However, given my recent post on the inconsistency between the professed environmental concerns of the Community of Christ and its responses to environmental issues, and given also my personal experience in giving scientific advice to government agencies, I feel an ethical obligation to comment on something being reported as “climategate”.

When, as a scientist, you provide scientific advice to government, you have an ethical responsibility to be an “honest scorekeeper”. (It also applies when you provide scientific advice to the church, by the way!) If you have a policy bias, you have to try to keep your biases completely clear in your own mind, so the policy maker knows where the science stops and the personal subjective values start.

Since no one can do that with complete self-honesty, the ethical requirement then extends, at minimum, to either full disclosure of the bias or exposure of the scientific data and methods to critics with other biases, as the policy maker’s decision schedule and situation permits. You may not substitute your judgement of the appropriate policy for that of the decision-maker and maintain credibility as an advisor. Even less, in a democracy, may you deny information to the public so that they may judge the actions of the policy maker.

This is elementary conduct for a scientist. Covering up inconvenient results from your thesis advisor will bring your graduate progress to a screeching halt, for example. It won’t even matter if your overall conclusions are correct. As in the political arena. “It ain’t the crime; it’s the coverup!”

When the policy matter is as significant as global warming — which can literally affect the lives of billions of people — the ethical requirements become even more stringent. Getting the policy as right as possible in the face of fragile environmental and/or economic and/or political systems is orders of magnitude more important than academic reputations.

In the past few days, either hackers or whistleblowers have posted numerous e-mails on the web which have been obtained from Britain’s most prestigious climatic research center in East Anglia. This is the custodian of one of the most important models and climatic data sets that the international community (and the United States government) is relying upon in its plans for development of a “green economy” and greenhouse emissions regulations.

These e-mails appear to show, at minimum, a scientific establishment at East Anglia that has closed its mind to flaws in its own analyses, errors in its computer models, and to new data that might modify its previous conclusions or lead governments or citizens to support different policy preferences.

A report by CBS news gives a flavor of the problems:

Last week’s leaked e-mails range from innocuous to embarrassing and, critics believe, scandalous. They show that some of the field’s most prominent scientists were so wedded to theories of man-made global warming that they ridiculed dissenters who asked for copies of their data (“have to respond to more crap criticisms from the idiots”), cheered the deaths of skeptical journalists, and plotted how to keep researchers who reached different conclusions from publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

One e-mail message, apparently from CRU director Phil Jones, references the U.K.’s Freedom of Information Act when asking another researcher to delete correspondence that might be disclosed in response to public records law: “Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise.” Another, also apparently from Jones: global warming skeptics “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.” (Jones was a contributing author to the chapter of the U.N.’s IPCC report titled “Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes.”)

In addition to e-mail messages, the roughly 3,600 leaked documents posted on sites including Wikileaks.org and EastAngliaEmails.com include computer code and a description of how an unfortunate programmer named “Harry” — possibly the CRU’s Ian “Harry” Harris — was tasked with resuscitating and updating a key temperature database that proved to be problematic…

As the leaked messages, and especially the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file, found their way around technical circles, two things happened: first, programmers unaffiliated with East Anglia started taking a close look at the quality of the CRU’s code, and second, they began to feel sympathetic for anyone who had to spend three years (including working weekends) trying to make sense of code that appeared to be undocumented and buggy, while representing the core of CRU’s climate model.

One programmer highlighted the error of relying on computer code that, if it generates an error message, continues as if nothing untoward ever occurred. Another debugged the code by pointing out why the output of a calculation that should always generate a positive number was incorrectly generating a negative one. A third concluded: “I feel for this guy. He’s obviously spent years trying to get data from undocumented and completely messy sources.”

Programmer-written comments inserted into CRU’s Fortran code have drawn fire as well. The file briffa_sep98_d.pro says: “Apply a VERY ARTIFICAL correction for decline!!” and “APPLY ARTIFICIAL CORRECTION.” Another, quantify_tsdcal.pro, says: “Low pass filtering at century and longer time scales never gets rid of the trend – so eventually I start to scale down the 120-yr low pass time series to mimic the effect of removing/adding longer time scales!”

The e-mails also appear to invite others in the climate research community to help influence the peer review process, the scientific media, and the mainstream press to help squelch normal scientific debate.

Let me be clear: there is nothing in these e-mails to suggest that the globe is not going to warm up. But there is much to indicate that our ability to produce impacts as humans is outpacing our ability to predict those impacts. At the very least, the warming is going to be much more irregular and uncertain than our models can predict.

That increases the chance for policy errors. And hiding that fact from policy makers and the public opens the door for some of the most important decisions this generation of humans will make to be corrupted. I can’t imagine a more important case of possible scientific misconduct to be investigated.


Entry filed under: Community of Christ, current events, economics, environmental sciences, peace and justice, political science. Tags: , .


6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. FireTag  |  November 25, 2009 at 3:58 PM

    Here is an update that better sources the CBS report mentioned in the OP and includes a video to illustrate some of the effects of “hiding the decline”.

  • 2. FireTag  |  November 25, 2009 at 7:51 PM

    The HARRY_READ_ME file referenced in the OP points out that the model code and the databases themselves have apparently been corrupted by undocumented changes or errors. Despite three years of intense internal effort, East Anglica has been unable to replicate its published results for most of the 20th century. In other words, they no longer understand their own model and data well enough to know how new science affects their previously published predictions.

    No Federal agency would currently issue a contract for development, or would accept as a deliverable a scientific software product with this level of programming quality control procedures.

    I am becoming more concerned about this the more I read.

  • 3. bewarethechicken  |  December 1, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    The e-mails read how one wants them to read. If one references a particular published peice and says the publisher should be avoided for publishing it – whether that is an effort to squelch information or just to punish poor peer-review practices, depends on the motives.

    I could just as easily say that your post here is trying to discredit the climatic research center of East Anglica and thus squelching their research you disagree with. Of course, you would say that you are doing so because of legitimate flaws in their research. Which is exactly what the e-mails were pointing out.

  • 4. FireTag  |  December 1, 2009 at 8:38 PM

    Thanks for the comment BTC. It gives me the opportunity to explain why the e-mails are not being taken out of context.

    When old codgers like me first learned FORTRAN, the language used by the CRU team at East Anglia, programming was an art controlled by a “guild”.

    I mean that intentionally. Its clever ideas (i.e., “tricks”) were passed down from professor to grad student to grad student exactly like the secrets of the middle age masons or metalworkers. The techniques spread from institution to institution as personnel did — much like languages do. And much like languages do, individual institutions developed their own FORTRAN dialects based on what subroutine libraries they had on site. (Which, of course, depended in turn on what research problems the particular institution had been addressing in the past.)

    In the 70’s and 80’s this was probably good enough. You wanted climate scientists, for example, to study climate — not programming. But as computers crept out of the lab and the campuses and began to move more broadly into society, this sort of seat-of-the-pants programming HAD to give way to engineering. You couldn’t put a personal computer industry in place or hand over control of systems like telecommunications or energy systems to programming techniques that STILL depended on whether or not one grad student had told another one a key piece of information.

    Software engineering became its own discipline. Things like the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model were developed and integrated with ISO 9000 quality systems to provide a standard by which organizations could ensure to external stakeholders that their programs were reliable and — most importantly — were well documented and tested so that they could be upgraded without producing nonsense.

    Whether that’s good enough is perhaps debatable (Witness the Mac versus PC commercials!). But following such procedures is NOW a standard requirement. I haven’t seen a Federal technical agency issue a “request for proposal” in the IT area for several years that didn’t explicitly require the contractor to follow these modern software engineering procedures.

    And the leaked documents contain source code and the records of the poor post doc who spent three years trying to reconstruct what the programs did. I have downloaded this HARRY_READ_ME text file and looked at it myself. It PROVES East Anglia never passed beyond the “guild” level of programming skill, and that the senior scientists never supervised their subordinates closely enough to know that the models were spiraling out of control, becoming filled with errors and used incorrectly because of poor documentation.

    That led me to take more seriously other technical criticisms. (As you’ll see by my earlier post on “Being Prophetic — Someday”, I didn’t automatically doubt that global warming is real, but only whether a prophetic church was acting seriously in response to the environmental, economic, and political issues raised by the assumption of global warming.)

    I’ll only mention one of them here: the interaction of the climate scientists with professional statisticians. One of the key findings of the IPCC had to do with the so-called “hockey stick”, the data that seemed to show a relatively flat temperature history for hundreds of years suddenly shooting up in recent decades.

    This hockey stick appears to be a statistical artifact that arises because the technique the climate scientists used, principle component analysis, requires that you know in advance the mean (average) of the entire data set you’re analyzing. They assumed instead that the mean of recent times well represented the temperatures of the past. However, their claim that temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate contradicts their own assumtion, which is a sign that the technique’s use was self-contradictory.

    The Wegmen Committee, which reported this did not accuse the climate scientists of fraud; merely of being too isolated from the statistical professionals to realize that the issue was critical to their results.

    See a common pattern here? Specialists in one area not realizing that their specialty was not the only one involved in supporting or correcting their conclusions, and closing off peer review to any one outside the guild.

    I don’t have to infer motives. As specialists outside the guild are looking at the findings, the fragility of the science is becoming apparent. Proper scientific procedure at this point is to find how much the rot has spread into other scientific papers depending on the improper techniques and contaminated data, salvage what can be salvaged of the science, and THEN see what policy should be.

    Coincidently, as I write this, news reports are indicating that the head of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit has been suspended pending further investigation of his actions.

    This is entirely appropriate, IMO.

  • 5. bewarethechicken  |  December 2, 2009 at 12:08 AM

    Whew – that was a long response to the criticism that the e-mails were taken out of context. I think if you re-read my comment, however, you’ll see I didn’t suggest the e-mails were taken out of context.

    What I suggested was that the e-mails say different things based on your perspective. For example, you seem to say that we should be sceptical of these scientists because these scientists’ methodology is poor. That’s the exact same message I got when I read the e-mail saying that they should ignore that particular journal that published an article with poor methodology.

    If one believes that the scientist was really just ideologically squelching a differing view point, one can take his e-mail that way. Just as one can be sceptical of your stated motive for questioning these scientists. I guess I just don’t see the difference.

    • 6. FireTag  |  December 2, 2009 at 12:24 AM

      Source code is unambiguous. Poor methodology is a scientifically valid reason for rejecting conclusions until the methodology is corrected. When the methodology can not be corrected because the people who used the methodology don’t have a way to recover what they did, the conclusions must be rejected until redone from scratch.

      People are going to look at all the major data bases now, and we’ll see where this goes.


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