Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Rifled Faculty Mailbox

A recent New York Times article, "Hacked E-Mail Is New Fodder for Climate Dispute," details how the electronic mail exchanged on scientific mailing lists has become evidence to those who are global warming deniers. Hackers snatched almost two hundred megabytes of e-mail from the British Climatic Research Unit, which is suddenly receiving more traffic from the general public for open electronically published material on its servers as well. They attempted to upload the data to RealClimate.org, which published the following statement in response that provides an interesting commentary about digital rhetoric.

As many of you will be aware, a large number of emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia webmail server were hacked recently (Despite some confusion generated by Anthony Watts, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Hadley Centre which is a completely separate institution). As people are also no doubt aware the breaking into of computers and releasing private information is illegal, and regardless of how they were obtained, posting private correspondence without permission is unethical. We therefore aren’t going to post any of the emails here. We were made aware of the existence of this archive last Tuesday morning when the hackers attempted to upload it to RealClimate, and we notified CRU of their possible security breach later that day.

Nonetheless, these emails (a presumably careful selection of (possibly edited?) correspondence dating back to 1996 and as recently as Nov 12) are being widely circulated, and therefore require some comment. Some of them involve people here (and the archive includes the first RealClimate email we ever sent out to colleagues) and include discussions we’ve had with the CRU folk on topics related to the surface temperature record and some paleo-related issues, mainly to ensure that posting were accurate.

Since emails are normally intended to be private, people writing them are, shall we say, somewhat freer in expressing themselves than they would in a public statement. For instance, we are sure it comes as no shock to know that many scientists do not hold Steve McIntyre in high regard. Nor that a large group of them thought that the Soon and Baliunas (2003), Douglass et al (2008) or McClean et al (2009) papers were not very good (to say the least) and should not have been published. These sentiments have been made abundantly clear in the literature (though possibly less bluntly).

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.

Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.

It’s obvious that the noise-generating components of the blogosphere will generate a lot of noise about this. but it’s important to remember that science doesn’t work because people are polite at all times. Gravity isn’t a useful theory because Newton was a nice person. QED isn’t powerful because Feynman was respectful of other people around him. Science works because different groups go about trying to find the best approximations of the truth, and are generally very competitive about that. That the same scientists can still all agree on the wording of an IPCC chapter for instance is thus even more remarkable.

It is interesting to analyze how these assertions operate and the implications they contain: that old-school listservs are better suited to scientific debates than blogs, that there exist private spheres as well as public ones, and that the Internet fosters conspiracy theories rather than a recognition of dissensus.

From the perspective of what my colleague Mark Marino calls "Critical Code Studies," perhaps the ClimateAudit attempt at reading lines of code is perhaps most interesting and their assumption that a simple comment annotation serves as the "smoking gun" rather than more sophisticated black box algorithms.

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Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Eugene Volokh wrote what I thought was the most interesting bit about the e-mails. I have been following ClimateAudit.org a long time and have been intrigued by their struggle to look at raw data and source code. The stonwwalling baffled me.


And there is also a really good bit about academic integrity and scientific responsibility by mathematician Serge Lang here:


It's a little long but relevant to the climate debate and worth the read.

8:14 AM  

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