What’s Going on Behind the Curtain? Climategate 2.0 and Scientific Integrity

Cross-posted from National Association of Scholars.

Climategate, both 1 and 2, are textbook cases of gross
lapses in professional ethics and scientific malfeasance.  To understand
why, one must first understand what science is and how it is supposed to
operate. Science is the noble pursuit of knowledge through observation, testing
and experimentation.  Scientists attempt to explain, describe and/or
predict the implications of phenomena through the use of the scientific

The scientific method consists in gaining knowledge or
explanatory power through a process.  Progress is made in science by
proposing a hypothesis, and developing a theory to explain or understand
certain phenomena, and then testing the hypothesis against reality.  A
particular hypothesis is considered superior to others when, through testing,
it is shown to have more explanatory power than competing theories or
hypotheses and when other scientists running the same testing regime can
reproduce the results of the original test.  Every theory or hypothesis
must be disconfirmable in principle, which means that, if the theory predicts
that “A” will occur under certain conditions, but instead,
“B” and sometimes “C” result, then the theory has
problems.  The more a hypothesis’s predictions prove inconsistent with or
are diametrically opposed to the results that occur during testing, the less
likely the hypothesis is to be correct.

Which brings us to Climategate.  Climategate parts one
and two are a series of leaked e-mails from arguably the most prominent
researchers promoting the idea that humans are causing catastrophic global
warming. The e-mails show the scientists involved to be violating their
professional ethics with the result that climate science in particular and
science as an institution more generally is brought into question. 

The first group of e-mails released in 2009 showed
scientists attempting to suppress or alter inconvenient data, destroying raw
data so that others would be unable to analyze it, using tricks to change
reported outcomes, conspiring to avoid legally required disclosure of
taxpayer-funded data, and trying to suppress dissent by undermining the peer
review process.  On the latter point the researchers involved threatened
to boycott and get editors fired at journals publishing findings questioning
the urgency of the climate crisis. 

Climategate 2 is a second release of e-mails, in November
2011, from the same cabal of scientists exposed in Climategate 1.  There
is little new to the revelations–just more hiding data, trying to figure out
how to downplay dissent or have papers that would seem to undermine one part or
another of anthropogenic global warming theory ignored or discredited. 

To be clear, these e-mails do not disprove that humans are
causing potentially catastrophic global warming. Whether or not humans are or
are not, in fact, causing or contributing to dangerous climate change, the only
thing clear that emerges from the Climategate e-mails is that the scientists
claiming that “the science is settled” and that there is “consensus” among
scientists that humankind are acting as planet killers, can’t be trusted, nor
can their research be pointed to as solid proof of anthropogenic global

Some examples of the Climategate 2 e-mails will serve to
make the point [“< >” show the number of the e-mail and the name of the

The following three e-mails show dissent in the climate
ranks — some researchers are concerned that in portraying the current state of
climate science in journals, to the press, to politicians and to the general
public, lead climate researchers are not being honest and are downplaying
significant uncertainty. The concerned researchers note the risk to such a

<1939> Thorne/MetO

Observations do not show rising
temperatures throughout the tropical troposphere unless you accept one single
study and approach and discount a wealth of others. This is just downright
dangerous. We need to communicate the uncertainty and be honest. Phil,
hopefully we can find time to discuss these further if necessary […]

<3066> Thorne:

I also think the science is being
manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be
too clever in the long run.

<2884> Wigley:

Mike, The Figure you sent is very
deceptive […] there have been a number of dishonest presentations of model
results by individual authors and by IPCC […]

The next couple of e-mails show researchers putting their
political goals before scientific integrity in part by cherry-picking which
data to focus on:

<4755> Overpeck:

The trick may be to decide on the
main message and use that to guid[e] what’s included and what is left out.

<0170> Jones:

Kevin, Seems that this potential
Nature paper may be worth citing, if it does say that GW [global warming] is
having an effect on TC [tropical cyclone] activity.

The next bunch of e-mails discuss specific instances wherein
global warming has been claimed to be causing a particular climactic change,
but in which the data either don’t support human activities as the cause of the
change or where the change does not fit the predictions.

<5111> Pollack:

But it will be very difficult to
make the MWP [medieval warm period] go away in Greenland.

<1682> Wils:

[2007] What if climate change
appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation? They’ll kill us
probably […]

<5315> Jenkins/MetO:

would you agree that there is no
convincing evidence for kilimanjaro glacier melt being due to recent warming
(let alone man-made warming)?

<2292> Jones:

[tropical glaciers] There is a
small problem though with their retreat. They have retreated a lot in the last
20 years yet the MSU2LT data would suggest that temperatures haven’t increased
at these levels.

The next few e-mails are interesting because they indicate
that critical research, findings that were the cornerstone of the last two IPCC
reports, while being defended against critics in public, were, in fact,
considered to be unsupportable, indicative of shoddy work, in private.

<4693> Crowley:

I am not convinced that the “truth”
is always worth reaching if it is at the cost of damaged personal relationships

I’m sure you agree-the Mann/Jones
GRL paper was truly pathetic and should never have been published. I don’t want
to be associated with that 2000 year “reconstruction”.

<4369> Cook:

I am afraid that Mike is defending
something that increasingly cannot be defended. He is investing too much
personal stuff in this and not letting the science move ahead.

<0850> Barnett:

[IPCC AR5 models] clearly, some
tuning or very good luck involved.  I doubt the modeling world will be
able to get away with this much longer

<4443> Jones:

Basic problem is that all models
are wrong – not got enough middle and low level clouds.

Finally, some e-mails detailing leading climate scientists’
efforts to prevent the release of their raw data and/or methodologies for
critical review.

<2440> Jones:

I’ve been told that IPCC is above
national FOI Acts. One way to cover yourself and all those working in AR5 would
be to delete all emails at the end of the process

<1577> Jones:

[FOI, temperature data]
Any work we have done in the past is done on the back of the research grants we
get – and has to be well hidden. I’ve discussed this with the main funder (US
Dept of Energy) in the past and they are happy about not releasing the original
station data

While all of these e-mails paint a troubling betrayal of the
scientific method, the last two are particularly troubling to me. The pursuit
of knowledge through science can’t proceed if scientists refuse to share data
and methods.  In defense of their refusal to share data, suppress its
release or even destroy it, climate scientists have claimed that because those
asking for the data are skeptics, they will only use the data to try and
undermine their results.  So what?  Either the data and methods stand
up to scrutiny and the results are robust or they are not. Either way, the
skeptics have done the world a service.  If the skeptics’ attempts to
recreate the results end up confirming the results, then the findings are on
more solid ground and the public can lend the work greater credence.  If,
on the other hand, skeptics do find flaws in the data, methods or results, then
from the point of view of knowledge, the world is still better off. 
Rather than continuing down a blind path, or worse, making policy based on
flawed research, scientists can reassess where the original research went wrong
and determine if it can be corrected or if an entirely new hypothesis, or
research methodology, is called for.

The term skeptic has historically been a badge of honor
proudly worn by scientists as indicating their commitment to the idea that in
the pursuit of truth, nothing is beyond question, every bit of knowledge is
open to improvement and/or refutation as new evidence or better theories
emerge.  However, in the topsy-turvy field of climate science, “skeptic”
is a term of opprobrium and to be labeled a skeptic is akin to being a heretic
in the Middle Ages – you may not be literally burned at the stake, but your
reputation will be put to flames.  

The Climategate scientists continue to claim that the
actions disclosed are not bad as they seem and that nothing contained in the
e-mails is really important. But this is like the Wizard of Oz saying “pay no
attention to the man behind the curtain,” when in fact the real action is going
on behind the curtain. 


  • H. Sterling Burnett

    Dr. H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a non-partisan, non-profit research institute based in Dallas, TX. His Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University is in Applied Philosophy and he specialized in Environmental Ethics.

2 thoughts on “What’s Going on Behind the Curtain? Climategate 2.0 and Scientific Integrity

  1. Let’s see. 20,000 years ago, virtually all of Canada was under ice. 5,000 years ago, the first great civilization of Egypt thrived. 2,000 years ago, the Roman civilization ruled the world. During all that time until the present time the ice in Canada receded. So we’re supposed to believe that the perceived current recessions of glaciers are suddenly the result of human activity? What incredible nonsense!

  2. Although the retreat of the Kilimanjaro glaciers is a difficult special case; K- is after all a volcano and merely dormant, not dead, glaciers on the whole are in retreat.
    Whatever the lapses of the authors, and it’s hard to tell just what isolated snippets of email traffic really mean, several robust facts remain. Glaciers really are in retreat. Migratory animals leave cold climes later in the fall and return earlier in the spring. And plants germinate and bloom earlier, in the temperate zones, than they used to. All these things are beyond reach of any fraud or misrepresentation. They’re facts, and they point to global warming. The science may be faulty in its details, but the broad general conclusion is very hard to dismiss.

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