The curious case of the leaked emails and climate change research
Perhaps you have never heard of Professor Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia. However, he has become quite a celebrity, though in an unusual way. Depending on what you read, and depending on whom you believe, he is either an academic villain who has willingly been a participant in the falsification of research data on climate change; or he is a victim in a tale of conspiracy and theft, the kind of tale you’ll shortly see recounted in a Hollywood blockbuster with Tom Hanks in the starring role.
Let’s take these aspects separately. Phil Jones is Director of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia; or at least he sort of is, having just temporarily stepped down from this role for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. This unit has a world class reputation, and its work has been used by governments and others in the development of a global policy on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. But we know even more than that about him. Recently emails written and received by him over a period of several years appear to have been hacked, and some of them have been published by a blog specialising in arguments that question the validity of assumptions on man-made climate change, the Air Vent. The leaked emails appear to show – or at least that’s the construction put on them by the blog in question – that Professor Jones and his global academic collaborators have edited or manipulated data and information in order to avoid subjecting received wisdom on climate change to critical scrutiny. Now an inquiry has been set up by the university to investigate all this, and pending the outcome Professor Jones has stepped down from the post of Director of the unit.
So what about the mystery story? Well, it contains a number of dramatic elements: the theft of email; their appearance on a climate-change-sceptical website; sudden howls of indignation from those who feel that Professor Jones and his colleagues are academic vagabonds and knaves (including this editorial in the Times newspaper); the impact of all this on the Copenhagen Climate Summit, which is about to open and which will be held in the presence of world leaders, including President Obama. No doubt there are also secret agents and spies and femmes fatales somewhere or other in this story, if only we could see into the shadowy corners.
What are we to make of it all? Some are suggesting these emails demonstrate that the whole body of wisdom on what we must learn to call anthropogenic climate change (i.e. man-made – at least we’ve all been able to learn a new word from this saga) is just a lot of falsified data and uncorroborated assumptions. Others are saying that the way in which the emails were stolen and then selectively (and with tendentious editing) released shows that dark forces were at work, and that therefore they demonstrate that all of this body of work is true. Others again are saying that all this is a sideshow and an unwelcome distraction.
I confess that I do find it all very suspicious, and that when information is released based on stolen documents I tend to smell a rat. Nevertheless, all of this has had the impact of a squid spraying ink into our faces, and it will be important for the academic community working on climate change to communicate with the wider world of decision and policy-makers to reassure them of the integrity of the body of work on which the global community has been relying. The initial response of those whose emails had been released to refuse to comment was perhaps not the wisest course of action.
In the meantime, and unrelated to the specific academic area, we are reminded again that emails are not secure communications. I was once advised never to put in an email what I did not want my mother to read or what I did not want to see reproduced on the front page of a national newspaper. Good advice.Explore posts in the same categories: science, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.