2010-11-16 05:56:10The question that skeptics don't want to ask about 'Climategate'
John Cook


This is the post I was planning to post on Wednesday (specifically, Steve Lewandowsky's podcast at midday and this post late Wednesday followed by a series of James' Climategate posts in the days afterwards). I'm also mulling pitching this article to UK Guardian later today. So feedback very welcome!

The question that skeptics don't want to ask about 'Climategate'

A year ago, the climate debate was rocked by 'Climategate'. Email servers at the University of East Anglia were hacked, emails were stolen and distributed on the Internet. Out-of-context quotes were cited as evidence that the entire scientific case for global warming was all just a conspiracy. Even now, 12 months later, 'Climategate' is the most popular skeptic argument. But there is one question that skeptics seem to avoid at all costs:

Has 'Climategate' changed our scientific understanding of global warming?

Has the science changed? Is there any change to the many independent lines of evidence for human-caused global warming? This question is never asked because of the answer:

During the past year the evidence for human caused global warming has gotten even stronger.

There are many lines of evidence that humans are causing global warming. Independent measurements of different aspects of the climate using a range of techniques by scientists all over the world all point to the same answer - a distinct, discernable human fingerprint.


Global warming skeptics invoke conspiracy theories or cherry pick select pieces of data to bolster their position. None consider the full body of evidence as a collective whole.

The 'Climategate' controversy is an attempt to divert attention away from the science. This is a common tactic in movements that seek to deny a scientific consensus - assume a conspiracy theory. But there is no evidence of any conspiracy. A number of independent enquiries have investigated the conduct of the scientists involved in the emails. All have cleared the scientists of any wrong doing:

  1. In February 2010, the Pennsylvania State University released an Inquiry Report that investigated any 'Climategate' emails involving Dr Michael Mann, a Professor of Penn State's Department of Meteorology. They found that "there exists no credible evidence that Dr. Mann had or has ever engaged in, or participated in, directly or indirectly, any actions with an intent to suppress or to falsify data". On "Mike's Nature trick", they concluded "The so-called “trick”1 was nothing more than a statistical method used to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion by a technique that has been reviewed by a broad array of peers in the field."
  2. In March 2010, the UK government's House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report finding that the criticisms of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) were misplaced and that CRU’s "Professor Jones’s actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community".
  3. In April 2010, the University of East Anglia set up an international Scientific Assessment Panel, in consultation with the Royal Society and chaired by Professor Ron Oxburgh. The Report of the International Panel assessed the integrity of the research published by the CRU and found "no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit".
  4. In June 2010, the Pennsylvania State University published their Final Investigation Report, determining "there is no substance to the allegation against Dr. Michael E. Mann".
  5. In July 2010, the University of East Anglia published the Independent Climate Change Email Review report. They examined the emails to assess whether manipulation or suppression of data occurred and concluded that "The scientists’ rigor and honesty are not in doubt".
  6. In September 2010, the UK Government responded to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, chaired by Sir Muir Russell. On the issue of releasing data, they found "In the instance of the CRU, the scientists were not legally allowed to give out the data". On the issue of attempting to corrupt the peer-review process, they found "The evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers".

Just as there are many independent lines of evidence that humans are causing global warming, similarly a number of independent investigations have found no evidence of falsification or conspiracy by climate scientists. However, there is an important lesson to be learnt from 'Climategate'

The real scandal of 'Climategate'

A year since 'Climategate', we can look back retrospectively and understand what happened. Anonymous hackers illegally stole emails from climate scientists in a deliberate campaign to sow doubt about climate science and discredit climate scientists. Quotes were taken out of context in an effort to mislead the public about what's happening to our climate. In the last 12 months, the scientific evidence of the negative impacts of global warming has gotten even stronger. The real scandal of 'Climategate' is the campaign to distract people from the scientific reality of global warming.
2010-11-16 16:15:39nice job
Dana Nuccitelli
A minor quibble - the quote in investigation #4 should be italicized for consistency.  But it's a really good article, I don't have any other comments on it.
2010-11-16 17:16:35
Ari Jokimäki


John: "Global warming skeptics invoke conspiracy theories or cherry pick select pieces of data to bolster their position. None consider the full body of evidence as a collective whole."

I think the last sentence should be toned down. At least get rid of the "none". There are such people who are global warming skeptics and consider the body of evidence as a whole, but you just don't see them much in the public - they are the kind of skeptics you actually want to reach because they might change their mind. Statement like that insults them and pushes them further to the denial corner.

2010-11-16 22:07:21Skeptics who consider the full body of evidence
John Cook

Fair comment. But can you think of a skeptic who does consider the full body of evidence? I'm racking my brain and coming up empty.
2010-11-17 03:23:19Comment
Robert Way

I don't know if I fully agree with your statement.
I can be pretty skeptical of a lot of things. I think that I don't know the full body of evidence but I have an ok grasp. I'm not saying i'm skeptical of the assertion that CO2 will cause future warming or is contributing now because i'm not, but I tend to be skeptical of how much CO2 has contributed to warming over the last 50 years based purely on the considerable uncertainties with oceanic processes and natural climate oscillations. Some individuals claim that climate cannot change without a forcing but some modellers have shown that without changing forcings they can still get climatic oscillations similar to MWP and LIA... it is a very complicated subject really...

Nevertheless, I think the word "none" is pretty strong because I know profs who are leaders in their field who are still on the fence about a lot of climate change science. That being said I would say that most or nearly all skeptics don't consider the full body of evidence...

It doesn't matter regardless. Just my two cents.
2010-11-17 04:04:31

True or not, it sounds a bit aggressive. But maybe this is exactly what you want.
2010-11-17 05:35:24
Ari Jokimäki


John: "But can you think of a skeptic who does consider the full body of evidence? I'm racking my brain and coming up empty."

I think almost all "skeptics" participating online discussions or authoring blogs are not such people, but I think there's some people who are truely skeptical but are so quietly and don't go around discussing these things in the public much. Many people have not seen the evidence yet, so they doubt it (it seems to be quite common to doubt something if you haven't seen it with your own eyes). These people are likely to switch their mind if you show them the evidence (they just might not have seen it before), but your message is weakened if you question their objectivity while giving the message. If you want to use the "none" -line, I suggest you use something else instead of "skeptic" - perhaps "denier" for example. That way your comment won't be targeted to everyone who happens to think global warming might not be real.

2010-11-17 09:42:07Just some info about Climategate I'd like to record for future reference
John Cook


Just to debunk the myth that climategate was leaked by a whistleblower:

"A source close to the CRU says it is almost impossible to determine who deleted what and when — much less why. More certain is the conclusion that the hack of the server was a sophisticated attack. Although the police and the university say only that the investigation is continuing, Nature understands that evidence has emerged effectively ruling out a leak from inside the CRU, as some have claimed. And other climate-research organizations are believed to have told police that their systems survived hack attempts at the same time."


Corroborating evidence that it was an external hacker:

Real Climate was hacked.  Gavin Schmidt was looking at the system and noticed that it had been messed with.  Someone had hacked into their server.  They had uploaded a zip containing all of the emails.  Then he noticed someone was trying to create a post that linked to the zipped file.  At that point he shut down the system and they didn't bring it back up until the next day.  This was about three days before things hit the newspapers.

Here's one example of another facility under attack.

Weaver's office was broken into twice and I believe they stole one of his computers.

Separately, two men, impersonating computer technicians, attempted to gain access to the building that houses the data and computers where the climate data is stored.