The Climate Files

Now I have been itching to write something on this subject since the whole “Climategate” UEA email scandal happened. I had my own views on the whole thing, and actually they have turned out to be pretty much correct. I thought that there really was no scandal and that no-one at UEA had behaved wrongly. The leaked comments about stopping papers from being published and “re-defining what peer-review literature is”, seemed to me to be simply researchers who disagree with one point of view and think it to be wrong, trying to keep this view from propagating. The commments about hitting one of the opponents, though unfortunate, were meant in jest and were not intended for the public eye. In fact, none  of the emails were intended for consumption by anyone other than those people to whom they were addressed.

Of course what has come out is not quite as simple as that, but attending an event at the Royal Institution last night (15th June) has finally given me the chance to find  about more about this so-called scandal, and to write about it. The event was called The Climate Files, and was evidently a vehicle for one of the main journalists involved in the saga, The Guardian‘s Fred Pearce, to promote a new book he had written. Whether it was successful in this is a question I may answer later.

The debate was split into several sections. First, Pearce had the chance to describe his experiences and ideas on the subject. This half hour or so was follwed by two further speakers, each with their own differing experiences and responses to Pearce’s comments; Dr Myles Allen from University of Oxford, who is working on climate change modelling, and how scientific research informs policy, and Dr Adam Corner from Cardiff University, who is a psychologist looking at the comunication of climate change. Pearce then gave a brief response to their arguments, before the debate was opened up to questions from the floor.

The views of the individuals involved in the formal debate can be summed up as follows:

Pearce – Data, in particular the data at the centre of this debate, the instrument record data curated by Phil Jones at UEA and now held by the Met Office, should be publicly available. In general, the public should have access to information that affects them and that has been (if only partially) funded by public money. Jones’ main error was in his liberal interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, and in encouraging his colleagues to break this also by deleting emails etc. Questions are raised about the peer review system.

Allen – The whole scandal didn’t really affect the data and journalists generally don’t understand the science. Even those who did deliberately misquoted the academics involved to grab headlines. The peer review system works fine. Those who were going to do something useful with the data already did have access to it and it was only the people anticipated to be troublemakers who were not “allowed” to see it. This situation is acceptable.

Corner – Scientists understand the way science works but non-scientists do not. Therefore access to scientific data should be limited those who have qualifications in that area. The whole Climategate affair has not adversely affected public opinion about the realities of climate change in any long-term way.

The audience itself was of some interest. Apart from the people I already knew (my husband and some of his colleagues), much of the rest of the audience was made up of RI members (distinguishable by their advancing age and smart suit-style clothing) and journalists, many of whom introduced themselves by asking questions. For an institution supposedly aiming at enlightening the public, there was a surprisingly low number of members of the public present. The RI might want to consider how and to whom it is marketing such events, and what it is really trying to achieve.

My own views have come out of the debate largely unchanged. In my opinion, Pearce and his journalist colleagues do not understand how the peer review system works, and they have not been successful in conveying a true impression of this to the public. I do not find the system to be perfect, however it must be recognised that it is not possible for a single academic, or even group of academics to prevent the publication of every paper with which they disagree. The decision to publish is made by the journal editor based on his/her knowledge of the field and using advice from various referees and, when controversial, probably also from journal board members. Papers that go against popular opinion are more difficult to publish (I disagree with Allen here) but, providing they are justified with a good level of evidence, journal editors will publish these to promote debate and, more cynically, to encourage citations to their journal. The whole Climategate affair was at root a problem of how science and scientific methods, including methods of publishing it, are communicated to the public. In order to engender trust, it is important that the public are given more information, not only (and possibly not even including) raw data, but also more detail about what is being targeted, and how this is being done. Journalists do not appear, in general, to have the time or the will to do this. Pearce spent three months researching his book but has still apparently failed to understand some of the most fundamental principles involved in the quality control of the science; how can we then expect journalists who are writing ten stories a day that may or may not make it out into the world to invest enough time to understand the complexities of each subject? This motivates my personal belief that there is a place for, and indeed a need for, science communication by scientists rather than or in addition to journalism by journalists.

So how did Pearce and his book come out of this debate? Yes, the debate raised the profile of a book I would probably not otherwise have heard of. Yes, I believe that the book probably contains an interesting account of Pearce’s experiences and interviews with the academics involved. No, I did not buy the book and I do not intend to. I would rather give my money to someone who is more open to the idea of improving communication between scientists and the public, than to someone who appears to wish to allow the scientists to be cut out of the debate by taking complex data to people who are not equipped with the understanding to be able to interpret it correctly. Journalists are not experts in anything except journalism, and they need to accept this. Phil Jones’ account of the events would make much more interesting reading, if he ever decides to go public with this.

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3 Comments on “The Climate Files”

  1. […] of entire data sets to create better transparency. I’ve touched on my opinions about this before. This really only creates transparency if you are in a position to be able to use the data. It […]

  2. […] ins and outs of peer review Throughout the whole saga of the UEA email debacle I noticed how little understanding there seemed to be in the media or the general public of how peer […]

  3. […] RI debate format seems pretty constant as it was the same at the last one I attended – each person gets five minutes to state their position, Fox asks some questions […]

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