Dr. Phil Jones, head of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, and star of the leaked e-mail and document set from that institution, has stepped down pending an independent review of the unit and its research. So ClimateGate (hate that name) claims its first head on the science side. (Apparently the head of the opposition in Australia fell this week, largely due to a cap-and-trade scheme perhaps exacerbated by the ongoing scandal.)
I have been following the developments, reading relevant blogs as well as skimming a chunk of the e-mails and related text documents. I've also read most of the famous 'HARRY READ ME' file, containing the tribulations of a programmer trying over a period of three years to repeat the derivation of the CRU's temperature database from a poorly documented and sometimes missing set of programs and data. I've made a few comments elsewhere, but not posted here, as those with a lot more familiarity with the climatology data and personalities have entered the conversation, and others a lot more current in the software engineering community, e.g., Eric Raymond, have started tearing apart the released code.
I have drawn a few conclusions, though:
- No one, including those from CRU, has suggested that these files are a fake or have been 'salted', so I can let the latter worry go. Given (for instance) the dearth of 'chatter' or housekeeping type e-mails, it's still a safe bet that they are a careful selection from the available material. Leading to:
- This was an inside job, a leak. No random hacker grabbed these files. It's a dossier assembled over time by someone who knows just where the skeletons have been buried. I suspect that CRU is now 90+% positive who did the deed, but is going to go real easy under the fear (or knowledge) that enough has been held back to make any prosecution into an even worse debacle.
- The main story of the e-mails is the deliberate corruption of the scientific process. From blackballing opponents' articles, to getting non-cooperative editors fired, to specifically declaring their readiness to alter the peer review process to keep skeptics' views out of the IPCC discussions. This isn't rebutting criticism, it's attempting to rule it out a priori. The dishonesty seen here just reeks, and casts a deserved pall over everything published by the CRU and other implicated scientists.
- The public (or media) have an incorrect impression of 'peer review'. I've served on a number of conference program committees, albeit in different domains, and done reviews for journals as well, so I feel qualified to say: 'Peer review' is an initial screening of submissions to see if they are fit to enter the conversation. You're looking for things such as citation of the relevant literature and knowledge of prior art, significance of the result, (non)repetition of previous work, a minimal level of readability, and making sure that the submission is not completely in left field (e.g., in computer science claiming to have solved a known NP-complete problem, without an exhaustive demonstration). No one expects a reviewer to attempt to duplicate the described results. Peer review does not validate the submission. Attempting to confirm, rebut, or refine a paper is another project, worthy of another publication - that's how the conversation proceeds. Attempting to prop up the validity of any model by calling it 'peer reviewed' is dishonest, particularly when the peer review process is corrupted into a stone wall against the unorthodox.
- The main story of HARRY_READ_ME.txt and the related program files and comments is of an incompetent data and code management process. 'Harry' (or perhaps his coder) has my entire sympathy. Back in my grad student days I also implemented models and converted datasets, in FORTRAN even. Projects that aim to get a one-off result determined and published don't tend to be encumbered by documentation and source code maintenance, let's say, particularly when untaken by amateur coders. But somewhere along the line at CRU, what might have started as a grad student's climatology study passed the point of collapse for a project run out of the hip pocket. CRU's unwillingness to grapple with this before their results became Big Science speak very poorly to their competence, or honesty, depending on your views. Either way, not a good testimony for something on which to base global and national policy.
I came to this with skeptical views about catastrophic human-caused warming (CAGW in the jargon). There have been gross perturbations of climate in the past, and yet, here we are. Obviously there are homeostatic processes at work in climate that we understand incompletely at best. Arguments about irretrievable 'tipping points' and runaways leave me cold, and somewhat suspicious of those making them.
On the other hand, I have found the notion of a human impact on warming to some extent to be quite plausible. CO2 has known greenhouse properties, and there's no getting around that we've pumped out a lot of it. That plausibility is now shaken. I've seen a chunk of the research process, and it's a dog's breakfast. The credibility of those pointing out that we haven't accounted for things like solar radiation fluctuations or the effects of urbanization on climate records increases accordingly. I'm reset back to "not proven", which is certainly not going to make me support gross governmental interference in personal liberties and the global economy in the name of global warming.
What I've seen so far of the 'modeling' process is also dismaying. Much of what I've encountered is modeling only in the very grossest sense, consisting of things like cross-correlations and other purely statistical procedures. Such things are notoriously vulnerable to problems like over-fitting, or divergence when dealing with conditions that are uncommon, and therefore under-sampled. (Like, for instance, CO2 driven warming.) It's dismaying to see so little embedded theory and learning process in such a critical domain. I plan on pursuing this somewhat further, in hopes that some of the vaunted redundant sources to CRU do rest on some attempt at theory and a real process of corroboration or refutation.