At the very least, a number of people on both sides of the debate—from Judith Curry, who studies the relationship between climate and hurricanes at Georgia Tech, to Pat Michaels, who has often questioned the certainty of climate science—seem to agree that these e-mails don’t reveal any substantial problem with the science, but rather with some of the politics and procedures within a competitive field of research. Though the public deserves a full airing of all the issues raised by the e-mails, this seems to be the half of the equation that warrants more investigation on the part of journalists.
The Politics of Climate Science
In the politics category there have been three major points of contention covered in depth by major newspapers and Web sites:
1) Charges that University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit has attempted to shield raw data from critics. The university has responded by saying that it is difficult to store that data over the course of decades, especially for older records, and that it is not allowed to release much of the raw data from meteorological agencies from around the world without their permission. The press has done a fair job explaining this, though it hasn’t been a major focus of the coverage. It is not a new problem, either, and the university seems to be taking adequate steps to improve transparency by recovering and releasing the raw data.
2) Discussion among a group of scientists about deleting e-mails and files in order to deny critics access through freedom of information laws. This has been a major point in the press coverage. There has been almost universal condemnation of the statements, although it isn’t clear that any e-mails or files were actually deleted. The mere suggestion is unethical, however, and the act, if carried out, could prove illegal. We should definitely hear more from the press on this point, but it is likely that reporters will have to wait for conclusions of pending investigations at East Anglia and Penn State, as well as a Congressional investigation in the U.S.
3) Charges that a group of scientists conspired to block the publication of dissenting research in peer-reviewed journals and boycott those journals that do publish dissenting research. In the e-mails, East Anglia’s Phil Jones suggests that the group “redefine what peer-review is” and speaks of a “troublesome editor” at the journal Climate Research. This has also been a major focus in the media, but the press has done an incomplete job of explaining or investigating it.
The e-mails date back to an episode in 2003 in which a controversial paper arguing the twentieth century wasn’t the warmest in the last thousand years was published in the journal Climate Research. Five editors—including editor-in-chief Hans von Storch—resigned soon thereafter, citing a breakdown in the review process that failed to catch severe methodological flaws in the paper and inadequate steps to address those flaws after publication. The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin was one of only a few reporters to cover the resignations at the time. RealClimate.org and others have offered the story as evidence that the scientists in the e-mails were talking about restoring the integrity of the peer-review process rather than undermining it. Few articles have explained this side of the story, and fewer still have reported it further.
Only The Wall Street Journal seems to have interviewed von Storch, who told its reporters that while peer-review had indeed broken down in 2003, the “gatekeeping” discussed in the e-mails “violated a fundamental principle of science.” Journalists must be careful, however. The Journal article quoting von Storch reported that the e-mails showed the authors “sought” to block the publications of dissenting research. The past tense of that verb, which a few other outlets have employed, implies that they actually tried to carry out the plan. If that is the case, more detail is needed, but at this point, it seems they merely discussed it. Again, it is the job of journalists to find out and report exactly what did, and did not, happen.
There are probably other allegedly damning e-mails in the politics category, but I haven’t had enough time to thoroughly search them or other online conversations. Certainly, though, this is an area that the press should be fleshing out more aggressively.
Tribalism and Ideological Bias
What to make of all this? Again, there are many unanswered questions about these e-mails, and journalists could be doing more to answer them. But when it comes to tribalism, there are many in the press—from George Monbiot at the Guardian to Clive Crook at Atlantic.com—who quickly demanded formal investigations. And they got their wish. With White House science advisors being “grilled” over the issue, according to the Associated Press, this story is not going away.