Withholding the data

I thought I’d made my last remarks about the climate scandal, but another development has occurred that requires comment. First some background.

One of the serious criticisms of the climate science community that predates the leak of the CRU documents is its frequent refusal to disclose their data and methodology. Real Climate tries to argue that doing so is perhaps unfortunate, but no worse than that:

From the date of the first FOI request to CRU (in 2007), it has been made abundantly clear that the main impediment to releasing the whole CRU archive is the small % of it that was given to CRU on the understanding it wouldn’t be passed on to third parties. Those restrictions are in place because of the originating organisations (the various National Met. Services) around the world and are not CRU’s to break. As of Nov 13, the response to the umpteenth FOI request for the same data met with exactly the same response. This is an unfortunate situation, and pressure should be brought to bear on the National Met Services to release CRU from that obligation. It is not however the fault of CRU.

But that’s crap. CRU researchers have made it clear that they have no desire to release their data, and their reasons have nothing to do with agreements with third parties. For example, in 2005 Phil Jones (the now-embattled head of CRU) wrote to an Australian scientist named Warwick Hughes:

We have 25 years or so invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?

So Jones was not punctiliously observing his agreements with national met services; he was protecting his data from skeptical scrutiny.

That was known before the climate scandal hit. Now, the leaked emails [1107454306, 1106338806, 1212166714, 1155333435] make it even more clear that CRU was looking for a pretext not to release their data:

  • Phil Jones wrote of “hiding behind” various excuses for withholding the data (including agreements with third parties). He gives no hint that he really wants to release the data but unfortunately cannot. Quite the contrary.
  • Jones also suggests that he will “delete the file rather than send [it] to anyone”.
  • Tim Osborn wrote to people asking if their emails were intended to be confidential. When at first he didn’t get the desired response he made his intention explicit: if they said yes, “we will use this as a reason to decline the [freedom of information] request”.
  • Keith Briffa wrote that he was just too busy to release his data, but “Will supply the stuff when I get five minutes!!” That was in 2005, and it seems it never happened.

That brings us to today. It is now revealed that CRU deleted their raw data:

SCIENTISTS at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based. . .

The UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was forced to reveal the loss following requests for the data under Freedom of Information legislation.

The data were gathered from weather stations around the world and then adjusted to take account of variables in the way they were collected. The revised figures were kept, but the originals — stored on paper and magnetic tape — were dumped to save space when the CRU moved to a new building.

It seems safe to say that if they really wanted to release the data, they would not have deleted it. Real Climate’s claim notwithstanding, the “main impediment” to releasing the data is not the national met services; the “main impediment” is the data is gone!

You might think that over at Real Climate they would be hanging their heads in shame, but no. They say that the data is not lost, because:

The original data is curated at the met services where it originated.

Terrific. The data wasn’t destroyed; someone could go collect it all over again.

This is disingenuous for at least four reasons:

  1. Who is to say that the met services still have the data? Governments (I still believe) are more corrupt than scientists. If CRU deleted the data, maybe some of the met services have as well. As barring that, maybe some of the data has been destroyed accidentally.
  2. If the data is still there, someone would still have to go collect it again. That would take ages in the best of circumstances; and with the debate as politicized as it now is, we are hardly in the best of circumstances.
  3. No academic is going to go to the effort to collect that data again. Academia runs on publications and you cannot publish something that’s been published before. Recreating the CRU data is not likely to result in an original research result, so no academic will take the time to do it. Those skeptics who might be so inclined generally don’t have the expertise to do it.
  4. Here’s the kicker. In any case, no one can reproduce the raw data set that CRU used. Even if someone re-collected all the raw data, realistically it would not be exactly the same data set. It’s not as though there is a definitive list of agencies, each of whom has a file called “the definitive historical meteorological data” that has been unchanged since CRU first collected it. And even if, beyond all probability, someone did manage to re-create the exact data set that CRU destroyed, they could never know that they had done so. Consequently, no one can analyze what CRU actually did with the data.

In short, the data is gone. It’s highly unlikely anyone will ever reconstruct it, and if they do, it won’t be exactly the same, so no one can ever check CRU’s work.

(Previous post.)

UPDATE: I agree with just about everything Megan McArdle writes here.

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