Global Warming and the Mobs, Part 2

A follow-up guest post from Barry Bickmore.

Last week, I responded to an opinion piece in Meridian Magazine, in which the author, Gary Lawrence, used out-of-context snippets of some stolen e-mails to suggest that global warming is a big hoax, perpetrated by dishonest and greedy climate scientists to gain fame and line their pockets with grant money. My take was that Brother Lawrence hadn’t done his homework. Since he wanted to believe global warming is a hoax, he willingly accepted and passed on such charges without so much as checking the context of the quotations he used for evidence. I showed that one of his quotations was actually altered to supply a context that was contrary to the true context of the passage. My main complaint was that Latter-day Saints, of all people, ought to know better than to throw out conspiracy theories based on out-of-context quotations, because that’s exactly what anti-Mormon writers have always done to stir up people against us.

When I brought my response to his attention, Brother Lawrence griped a bit (no Mormon wants to be compared to anti-Mormons, after all,) but to his credit, he eventually accepted that he had falsely accused one scientist, at least. Here is what he wrote to me.

Here is the response I just submitted to Meridian Magazine:

Barry Bickmore is correct on one point and I apologize to Jonathan Overpeck for not checking out the quote in the Forbes column more thoroughly. It does indeed refer to a summary and not the IPCC report as a whole. Mr. Overpeck sounds like he’s concerned about the truth.

I included emails from Peter Thorne and Tom Quigley, who appear to be honest men, because they are concerned with what’s going on—deceptive figures, dishonest presentations, discounting contrary data, etc., the main point of my article.

There are “certain global warming scientists” (I did not say all of them) who are hiding data, covering up, and dissembling. If man-caused global warming were settled science, why would these people engage in such behavior?

We would be better off as a society if all of us pointed out such deceptions, regardless of whether the deceivers are Republicans or Democrats, AGW advocates or doubters, members or non-members.

So now, Barry, what’s your answer to Phil Jones’ emails?

In this follow-up response, I’ll do my best to address at least a couple of Brother Lawrence’s remaining quotations, but my hope is that after this round he’ll realize that his information sources regarding climate change conspiracies are somewhat suspect, and start checking for himself.

Let’s begin with the e-mail from Peter Thorne, in which he admonished his coworkers not to cite one study that contradicts a wealth of others, and to clearly communicate uncertainty and be honest. He also noted, “I also think the science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run.” Ok, so we know that one climate scientist thought that SOMETHING (we aren’t told what) SOMEONE (we aren’t told who) had written wasn’t fairly representing all the studies on the subject, and it seemed to him that this was being done to support a particular “political spin”. As Brother Lawrence noted in his e-mail, this actually puts Peter Thorne in a rather good light, since he appears to be concerned about honesty and objectivity. However, we’re apparently supposed to believe that Thorne’s e-mail proves the other scientists involved (whoever they were) didn’t care about honesty and objectivity.

But hold on a minute. Couldn’t someone easily parade a couple quotations from my original critique of Brother Lawrence’s piece to “prove” that Brother Lawrence doesn’t care about honesty and objectivity, since he clearly used a doctored, out-of-context quotation to slander one climate scientist, Jonathan Overpeck? But the fact is that after a little humming and hawing, he acknowledged he had made a mistake and apologized to Overpeck. In the context of the entire conversation, doesn’t this rather prove that, even if Brother Lawrence sometimes lets his biases get in the way of objectivity (just like the rest of us,) he is at least concerned enough about honesty and objectivity to be capable of acknowledging an error and trying to correct it, even when it was brought to his attention in bluntly critical language? What if it turns out (see below) that Brother Lawrence’s original argument was only mostly (not absolutely) wrong, and I end up acknowledging that. Wouldn’t that mitigate any judgment we make based on my original critique?

It turns out that, in context, Thorne’s colleagues don’t come out looking so bad, either. (The quotation Brother Lawrence provided was actually taken from two e-mails, which can be accessed here and here.) Thorne was actually e-mailing Phil Jones about a first draft of a section being written for the IPCC report to be released TWO YEARS later. “Have taken today to try to write up some more lucid notes on the zero order draft that are attached….” He said that, “I certainly would be unhappy to be associated with it if the current text remains through final draft—I’m absolutely positive it won’t.” Why was he “absolutely positive” that the final draft would be more to his liking? “I’m pretty sure we can reconcile these things relatively simply.” Thorne discussed in great detail why he thought the comments in the first draft didn’t acknowledge enough uncertainty in the particular type of data addressed, and he recommended tempering the language and citing a couple papers he had written. So what ended up happening? Thorne did not remove his name from the final draft. Jocelyn Fong of Media Matters notes that the chapter in question cites Thorne’s work at least five times and includes this paragraph about uncertainty.

Within the community that constructs and actively analyses satellite- and radiosonde-based temperature records there is agreement that the uncertainties about long-term change are substantial. Changes in instrumentation and protocols pervade both sonde and satellite records, obfuscating the modest long-term trends. Historically there is no reference network to anchor the record and establish the uncertainties arising from these changes – many of which are both barely documented and poorly understood. Therefore, investigators have to make seemingly reasonable choices of how to handle these sometimes known but often unknown influences. It is difficult to make quantitatively defensible judgments as to which, if any, of the multiple, independently derived estimates is closer to the true climate evolution. This reflects almost entirely upon the inadequacies of the historical observing network and points to the need for future network design that provides the reference sonde-based ground truth.

So contra Brother Lawrence, I think these e-mails (at least when discussed in context) end up making Phil Jones and company look pretty good. They were able to accept criticism of something they had written and correct it, even when the criticism was delivered in very blunt language. What’s more, I’ve been told by one of the scientists involved that Peter Thorne’s views evolved somewhat over the course of their work on that chapter, as well. Sound familiar? The fact is that scientists are people, and as such come with a lot of biases and other baggage. We rely on each other to give blunt criticism so that we can discern those biases and try to correct them. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a critical part of the machinery of modern science.

Another one of Brother Lawrence’s out-of-context snippets came from Phil Jones, who wrote, “I’ve been told that IPCC is above national FOI [Freedom of Information] Acts. One way to cover yourself and all those working in AR5 [Assessment Report 5] would be to delete all emails at the end of the process.” Did Phil Jones really advocate deleting e-mails to dodge FOI requests? Yes, he did. In fact, after the original batch of stolen e-mails was released two years ago, a number of official inquiries were launched to investigate whether the scientists involved had done anything wrong. All of them found that there had been no scientific misconduct, but some did find that Jones might have done some suspect things regarding dodging FOI. Some of the panels doing these inquiries also concluded that Jones and other climate scientists were sometimes too unwilling to share their data, computer code, and so on. (All of this is on the Wikipedia page about the “Climate Research Unit email eontroversy,” if you want to start checking sources.)

Are there any mitigating factors we should know about before we start judging Phil Jones, or worse, judge an entire field of science based on Jones’s actions? Regarding Jones’s unwillingness to share some of his raw data, at the time some of the data was proprietary, and “on loan” to the Climate Research Unit with the understanding that it would not be shared with third parties. Regarding the FOI requests, Jones (and a lot of other scientists) were concerned that the avalanche of FOI requests they were getting were getting in the way of them actually doing their jobs, and some were probably designed for that purpose. And no, these aren’t excuses made after the fact. Jones talked about this before the scandal broke… in some of the stolen e-mails Brother Lawrence hasn’t read. For instance, consider this one.

The agreements Dave is talking about are ones that relate to us not making climate data available to third parties, which we have got from a National Met Service. FOI is causing us a lot of problems in CRU and even more for Dave, as he has to respond to them all. It would be good if UEA went along with any other Universities who might be lobbying to remove academic research activities from FOI. FOI is having an impact on my research productivity. I also write references for people leaving CRU, students and others. If I have to write a poor one, I make sure I get the truth to the recipient in a phone call. I’m also much less helpful responding to members of the public who email CRU regularly than I was 2-3 years ago. I’ve seen some of what I considered private and frank emails appear on websites. Issue here is blogsites have allowed these climate change deniers to find one another around the world.

In fact, let’s look in the e-mail Brother Lawrence’s quotation actually comes from.

I’m sending it only for background. I wouldn’t want this issue to be raised at the Venice meeting, but I think you’ll likely to become more aware these people as AR5 advances. I was in Boulder last week and I spoke to Susan. We agreed that the only way IPCC can work is the collegiate way it did with AR4. These people know they are losing (or have lost) on the science. They are now going for the process. All you need to do is to make sure all in AR5 are aware of the process and that they adhere to it. We all did with AR4, but these people read much more into the IPCC procedures….

Below there is a link to Climate Audit and their new thread with another attempt to gain access to the CRU station temperature data. I wouldn’t normally bother about this—but will deal with the FOI requests when they come. Despite WMO Resolution 40, I’ve signed agreements not to pass on some parts of the CRU land station data to third parties….

Having been through numerous of these as a result of AR4, I suspect that someone will have a go at you at some point. What I think they might try later is the same issue: Who changed what and why in various chapters of AR5? and When drafts of chapters come for AR5, we can’t review the chapter as we can’t get access to the data, or, the authors can’t refer to these papers as the data haven’t been made available for audit. Neither of these is what I would call Environmental Information, as defined by the Aarhus Convention. You might want to check with the IPCC Bureau. I’ve been told that IPCC is above national FOI Acts. One way to cover yourself and all those working in AR5 would be to delete all emails at the end of the process. Hard to do, as not everybody will remember to do it. I also suspect that as national measures to reduce emissions begin to affect people’s lives, we are all going to get more of this. We can cope with op-ed pieces, but these FOI requests take time, as the whole process of how we all work has to be explained to FOI-responsible people at each institution.

Did you get all that? Before the scandal broke, Phil Jones was talking about onerous FOI requests that he didn’t have time to address, confidentiality agreements regarding some of his data, worries about people putting private, frank e-mails up on the web, worries about people trying to obstruct the IPCC process via nitpicking every detail without cause.

So whether Phil’s proposed solutions to these problems were the right ones, he had legitimate concerns. Just think about what happened when the first batch of e-mails was released in 2009. A number of Jones’s e-mails were taken badly out of context, and he was accused of falsifying his temperature records to hide the fact that the Earth has really been cooling. I’m referring to the famous “hide the decline” e-mail, of course. I have actually gone to the trouble of reading the e-mails in question, and also the scientific papers referred to—here is something I wrote about it a while ago. What I found was that Jones was talking about a completely legitimate scientific issue in a completely legitimate way, and this issue had been discussed in the literature any number of times. The suggestion that they had falsified the temperature record was absolutely idiotic, since several other groups had used different data sets of different types to obtain about the same temperature trends. And some of those other data sets and associated analysis codes WERE publicly available.

Writing these responses has been a lot of work, so I hope Brother Lawrence doesn’t come back with a demand that I explain the two remaining out-of-context quotations he cited, or all the out-of-context quotations in some larger list. My point all along has been that he needs to start checking these things himself before joining the mob of stone-throwing accusers.


  1. Thanks for the explication. These posts will do a lot of good for confused people who are willing to dig a little deeper into the evidence behind their biases / the media. It’s been nice to have these links to share on facebook!

  2. Barry, once again, many thanks. Very clear.

  3. Barry, these responses to a lazy, sensation-driven article are terrific. Many of us didn’t take the time that you have to actually dig through the emails and everything written about them. We did know enough, however, to recognize that the criticism was an exercise in dangerous silliness. Thank you!

  4. My hat is off to anyone who can keep his cool and continue to try to reason with these people. My personal threshold is that if the speaker owns any of McNaughton’s recent “artwork”, I just don’t bother. Or wears healing magnets. Why the three seem to go together so often I do not know.

  5. My group (noncontroversial field) recently had a FOIA request. One was a real stress and a lot of work. I can’t imagine getting the dozens and dozens their CRU got. In my mind it must’ve been intentional harrassment.

  6. From:

    “Con­sider it a taste of the fu­ture: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life un­pleas­ant, if not dan­ger­ous, from Louisiana to Los An­ge­les. New records tell the tale: biggest wild­fire ever recorded in Ari­zona (538,049 acres), biggest fire ever in New Mex­ico (156,600 acres), all-time worst fire year in Texas his­tory (3,697,000 acres).

    The fires were a func­tion of drought. As of sum­mer’s end, 2011 was the dri­est year in 117 years of record keep­ing for New Mex­ico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the sec­ond dri­est for Ok­la­homa. Those fires also re­sulted from record heat. It was the hottest sum­mer ever recorded for New Mex­ico, Texas, Ok­la­homa, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest Au­gust ever for those states, plus Ari­zona and Col­orado.

    Vir­tu­ally every city in the re­gion ex­pe­ri­enced un­prece­dented tem­per­a­tures, with Phoenix, as usual, lead­ing the march to­ward un­liv­abil­ity. This past sum­mer, the so-called Val­ley of the Sun set a new record of 33 days when the mer­cury reached a shoe-melt­ing 110º F or higher. (The pre­vi­ous record of 32 days was set in 2007).”

    All is well in Zion with the weather?