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Emails from East Anglia -

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Emails from East Anglia

Hundreds of emails between scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit have
been published. Do they question our understanding of climate? Fred Pearce investigated for New
Scientist magazine.


Robyn Williams: When politics meets science a certain innocence vanishes. What to make of the
leaked email uproar enveloping the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit? One view can
be heard on this week's Counterpoint program on ABC Radio National. Another is in this week's
Economist magazine. An impressive investigation was also carried out by the New Scientist magazine
in London by Fred Pearce, their environmental consultant. So how did someone manage to hack into
the message bank in the first place? Anyone know?

Fred Pearce: No, nobody knows how they hacked in or indeed who hacked in. The first anybody knew
about it was an attempt to dump emails that had been collected onto the Real website,
which is a website run by climate scientists to discuss issues. That failed because it simply
crashed the system, and that happened two weeks ago now. That having failed, a couple of days later
most of the emails turned up on a climate sceptical website and everybody started taking notice.

Robyn Williams: There are several hundred of them and they cover a number of years, and it looks as
if they were collected together, possibly as a result of a freedom of information request, so they
were all sitting there as a huge lump. And you went through them. How did you examine them

Fred Pearce: I've simply looked at the ones that have been posted online. One or two of them
mentioned me, I have to say, there was a lot of correspondence over one or two features that I
wrote for New Scientist over the years, though I don't appear to have been traduced in any way.
They don't strike me, to be honest, as terribly frightening, terribly worrying, terribly exciting.
A lot of the climate sceptics have claimed that this is a smoking gun for fraud in the climate
science community. I see no evidence of that at all. There are one or two emails where you thought,
hmm, I wonder what they were talking about there, because the scientists are talking in a shorthand
that is not immediately obvious what they're referring to. I mean, don't we all in our emails?

I've made a few enquiries about the ones that struck me as potentially troublesome and by and large
or indeed entirely the scientists involved have given me perfectly sensible explanations for why
they were using language which looked as if they might have been messing around with the data. So,
for instance, there was a reference to somebody's 'Nature trick' being used, which turned out not
to be a device to manipulate or shut down data but it was simply a management of data issue which
was perfectly clear in the paper where it was published in Nature journal ten years ago. So there
were a range of those issues where you thought, okay, let's have the question answered, exactly
what's going on here. I must say I've not been through all of them but I've been through a great
number, and I see no evidence at all of any scientific fraud or manipulation of any kind that you
might regard as dubious.

Robyn Williams: Let me ask you about this question of the computer codes because the scientists
involved are very careful not to reveal their raw data, and one would have thought the essence of
science is to have the raw data so that other people can look at the conclusions, the
extrapolations being made. Why were they so reluctant to release this material?

Fred Pearce: I think there are serious issues here. The one area where I think there is room for
legitimate criticism, and I've made criticism myself of what the scientists are doing, is their
bunker mentality against climate sceptics or anybody criticising them from outside the mainstream
scientific community. And they clearly have not wanted to hand over data to these people, and I
think that's a mistake. I think you need to have as open a debate as you can, even with people who
are not part of the mainstream.

Robyn Williams: Yes, that's being reversed now, isn't it.

Fred Pearce: That's right, in so far as they can they're going to. The other issue that arose and I
think was the source of a lot of the bad blood between the particular science group, the Climate
Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, and the sceptic community, was access to raw
temperature data which Phil Jones the director of the unit uses to compile his database of trends
in global temperatures, essentially his graphs that show that the world is warming and has been
warming more or less continuously for over a century.

There is an institutional reason why he couldn't hand over that data and that is that much of the
data is collected from national meteorological organisations under condition of confidentiality.
The reasons are various; some organisations regard that it's commercially valuable data, that
applies to the UK Met office, and others just simply don't want it handed around. So the scientists
were caught in a bit of a cleft stick in that they weren't in a position to hand over the data that
the sceptics wanted in order to analyse. But it has to be said, if you read the emails it's quite
clear that they don't want to anyway, they regard this as hard-earned data that they've spent, in a
number of cases, more or less their entire career building up this dataset. And they're not, as you
can perhaps understand, terribly keen to hand it over gratis to critics who they know are going to
use it in order to try and discredit the work that the scientists are doing.

The fact that you can understand that, I don't think makes it justifiable. I think ways have to be
found to allow sceptics and indeed any critic or any outside observer looking at the science being
done, get access to the data. Even the most honest, even the most lily-white scientists are only
kept honest by being under constant scrutiny. We all need that, we all know in our daily lives, in
our professional lives, we have to be open to criticism, we have to be open to outsiders seeing
what we do, it's good for us, it's good for public debate.

Robyn Williams: Yes, indeed, but when it comes to the publication of results in journals there was
also a suggestion that they're kind of freezing out the people who went against the orthodox line
and saying if that journal publishes them we'll ostracise that journal.

Fred Pearce: Yes, there was a journal where indeed exactly that happened, and this is my principal
area of criticism of them, that it appears from their emails that they really wanted to organise
mainstream scientists to keep away from journals that were publishing papers by climate sceptics,
and I think that's unacceptable and I think that was bad practice. With the case involved, there
was some quite heavy politics, there was a particular journal which appeared to be taken over by
climate sceptics, but I don't even think that's a justification for the kind of, as I say, bunker
mentality which I think was building up among the mainstream scientists. They did feel that they
were under siege and in many respects they were. The climate sceptics really had no great interest
in a constructive scientific debate. I think many of the sceptics were in the business of trying to
make mischief and pick over stuff and call things into question in any way that they could.

Robyn Williams: What about the question of having a kind of cabal? We depend on peer review, in
other words referees who know something about the subject, and the implication of this kind of
coterie of people saying, well, we'll form a club and we'll keep out the outsiders, that there's
some doubt about whether you can trust what the journals are publishing suggesting it's a kind of
nodding ring of mates.

Fred Pearce: Exactly, it's counterproductive. This is a constant problem in science, there's
nothing particular about the climate science community. I think there's a constant tension in
science. It's a fairly adversarial process but it has to be an open adversarial process, and as
soon as it becomes competing groups who are more interested in doing down their opponents than
engaging in good science then we have a problem. I think some of the language used in these emails
suggested that we were getting a bit close to that in the climate debate. I don't think it
undermines the science that's been done, but I do think it suggests that we're on a wrong track.
Mainstream science has a continuing problem with critics of all sides from outside their community,
people who don't quite play by their rules, who don't always use the peer reviewed journals, who
are as likely to write an op-ed piece for the newspaper rather than writing a considered academic
paper to criticise people.

There is a problem with...I call it the priesthood of science; science can become a bit of a
priesthood and a bit of a closed shop and try and keep the outsiders away. And I think it has to
find a better way of engaging with more and more people who want to talk about the scientific
issues but are not part of that mainstream community. That can be climate sceptics but it can also
be environmentalists. There have been big disputes between the mainstream science community and
some groups of environmentalists. So its politics are not straightforward.

Robyn Williams: What's the University of East Anglia doing about this at the moment? George Monbiot
has said that Professor Jones should resign. He hasn't. Any other changes?

Fred Pearce: The scientific community in Britain and I think elsewhere has taken the view that
while there was some, if you like, unfortunate language in the emails and people were talking, as I
guess we all do, not thinking that other people are going to be listening in or reading our
emails...I don't think many of us could survive without blushing if somebody read ten years of our
emails, there would bound to be something in there which we wish we hadn't said.

George Monbiot is a noted environmental writer and says that he thinks that Phil Jones should
resign. As I understand what he's saying, he's not saying that because he thinks the science has
been fiddled or it undermines the science of climate change but simply, rather as I've been saying,
that some of the scientists and Phil Jones the director of the unit is prominent and responsible
for what's been going on to some extent. Some of them were trying to keep some of their critics out
and down and silent in ways that were not appropriate.

I think sacking or having Phil Jones resign wouldn't really help, I think it's a more systemic
problem, I think it's a problem about how mainstream science engages with its critics and with
heretics and with outsiders. I think the higher ups in science, the Royal Society or the national
academies around the world need to think seriously about that, and I think until now they haven't.

Robyn Williams: It might be a good way for the Royal Society to celebrate its anniversary coming up
in 2010. But my final question to you is really about the fact that the stakes couldn't be higher
really, we're talking about the future of civilisation and indeed the political situation in
Australia in upheaval, you've got the meeting in Copenhagen, leaders around the world. The big
question that the public wants to know is; can we trust the scientists, and have the projections
about climate change been legit?

Fred Pearce: Broadly, yes we can. My own view is that the sceptics have a kind of point when they
say that we can't trust all the details that are in the models, we really don't know exactly what
climate is going to be like in Queensland in the 2040s. We may have models but there are quite a
lot of uncertainties in that local detail. But we do know the big picture, we know very clearly the
big picture, and nothing that has been found in those emails in any way undermines that.

Some scientists are talking about critical tipping points that we might be close to which could
mean that global warming and perhaps sea level rise happen much faster that predicted by the
current models. So to suggest that the models are perhaps not as perfect as one might want them to
be is certainly not to suggest that we need to worry less about climate. The way I look at it, it
makes me think that we need to worry rather more because there might be rather scarier things out
there in the future, things that we've not fully got to grips with. I know that quite a lot of the
climate scientists say much the same thing, they say, look, there are certain things out there that
do worry us that aren't in the models yet.

Robyn Williams: Fred Pearce, whose investigation of the leaks from the University of East Anglia
appears in the New Scientist magazine this week. You may also like to check Counterpoint on ABC
Radio National, and the Economist magazine. In the meantime, Professor Phil Jones from the
University of East Anglia has stood down pending investigations.