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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 11/24/2009

Climate scientist criticizes skeptics, press

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The climate science email scandal known to some as "climategate" continues to reverberate throughout the climate science and policy communities. Since the story broke late last week that the University of East Anglia's servers had been hacked into, spilling hundreds of personal emails between prominent climate scientists onto the Web, scientists and political leaders have been weighing in on the significance of the information contained in the emails.

Reporters and bloggers have been combing through the emails, which have motivated staunch climate skeptic Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to call for an investigation of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In one of the messages, Phil Jones, who heads up Britain's government-run Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, alluded to a "trick" that a colleague performed to analyze historical temperature data. For more background on the scandal, including that particular message, check out Saturday's story from the Washington Post.

In an effort to provide readers with a range of views on the significance of the email scandal, I've been conducting interviews with top experts in climate science and related fields. Yesterday I featured an interview with science historian Spencer Weart.

Today, I bring you an email interview with geochemist Thomas Crowley, a professor of geosciences and director of the Scottish Alliance for Geosciences and the Environment at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Crowley served as a chapter reviewer of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, and has published extensively on the Earth's climate history.

Crowley's reconstructions of Earth's temperature history have independently corroborated those of Pennsylvania State University's Michael Mann and other scientists, who were the subjects of the email hack.

Note that the use of all caps are Dr. Crowley's original emphasis.

Andrew Freedman: What effects, if any, do you think, or perhaps fear, this will have on public perceptions of climate science and climate scientists?

Thomas Crowley: Most people will not change their mind, but I suspect a majority will seize onto this as an indication that scientists are dishonest - which in this particular case is not the case.

AF: What do you think this story reveals about the conduct of climate science?

TC: I have only read a few emails and then realized I shouldn't read any of it - it is, let us not forget, illegally obtained material from a personal email, and in my view has the same respect as would any personal letters that one may get in the mail.
That said, it really doesn't say anything. The "trick" referred to involves slang used often by scientists as to how to deal with some "tricky" problem - you know you have a problem but you are trying to address in a mathematically consistent way. I am sure that is what Jones was referring to - they figured out a way to deal with this "tricky" problem in a mathematically consistent way.
In that respect it just shows that people have to grapple with real-life data, (because of inherent problems in the data) and try to figure out the best way to treat it fairly.
To sum, it doesn't reflect badly at all - it reflects badly on the people who are so desperate to discredit global warming that they will unhesitatingly seize on a figure of speech, take it out of context, blow it all out of proportion (notice how quickly the WSJ [Wall Street Journal] got in on this?) and use it for their own predetermined purpose. Now that's real dishonesty!

AF: What should climate scientists such as yourself do to ensure the public has a better sense of their research techniques and results?

TC: If one were to examine the results of the recent IPCC [report] they would have the answer. There were two separate draft documents that were open for review - the first by basically anyone in the world, the second by any government representative in the world (who then turned to scientists for additional input).
The IPCC strategy was then to have each chapter leader assign someone to respond to EVERY question or objection they obtained. In the case of the critical chapter 9 of working group 1 (the one that established confidence levels for statistically meaningful detection of warming trends) that involved about 3,000 questions that had to be responded to!
EVERY response is written down and on record for IPCC.
So if you multiply the number of chapters, etc, there clearly were TENS OF THOUSANDS OF COMMENTS FOR THE WHOLE DOCUMENT that were responded to and are on record as to how they were treated in subsequent revisions.
After the final draft has been vetted by the scientists and the Summary for Policy Makers synthesized for the ~150 governments that would VOTE as to whether to accept the report or not, the SPC [Summary for Policy Makers] went through an additional round of review among scientists and after those changes they were presented to policymakers.
When the ~150 government represntatives met in Paris two and a half years [later], the IPCC heads then went through the SPC, ONE SENTENCE AT A TIME, with government representatives voting on acceptance FOR EACH SENTENCE (discussion is allowed and sometimes scientists redraft the sentence until both they, and the government reps, are satisfied).
After spending 50-60 hours going through the SPC, the report is accepted only after the government representatives (NOT THE SCIENTISTS) vote on acceptance.
ONLY THEN is the report released to the groups who charged the IPCC to produce the report (jointly, UNEP [United Nations Environment Program] and the World Meteorological Organization).
I cannot recall ANY scientific document, of any nature, that has EVER received that kind of vetting.
That is why it is totally ludicrous to claim that some cabal is trying to put something over on the public - it is probably the most intensely scrutinized scientific document ever.
And furthermore, the government reps, not the scientists, vote on the final draft.
The only problem is that the press has not reported on this methodology (which is common knowledge, no one is hiding it - how could you?).
Or... that some groups will go to any length to discredit the document by throwing sand in people's face.

Additional interviews will follow as they are conducted.

For further background on the email scandal, this blog post from Antonio Regalado of Science Magazine explores the possibility that climate scientists violated British law by deleting correspondence they had with skeptic researchers. (Of course, the hacker(s) also broke laws by breaking into the University of East Anglia's server, downloading the emails and then distributing them on the Web).

Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, also posted an insightful analysis yesterday.

The views expressed here are the author's and interview subject's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  12:15 PM ET, 11/24/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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