I was going to upload a new post examining some substantive issues, but there's a new story that broke which is probably going to get a bunch of attention. E-mails related to a letter calling for criminal prosecution of people (supposedly) spreading disinformation were released under a Freedom of Information (FOA) request. This is the sort of comment we can expect regarding them:
— Watts Up With That (@wattsupwiththat) May 13, 2016
Which is unfortunate because the e-mails released really don't show much of anything. It shows people organizing a group letter calling for the investigation and prosecution of a supposed disinformation campaign. Whatever one may feel about the goals of these people in trying to get this letter written, there is nothing remarkable about how they went about getting it written.
You can find the released e-mails via the link I provided above, but I'll provide a short summary. Someone came up with the idea of sending a group letter calling for the government to investigate a supposed disinformation campaign designed to prevent action from being taken to combat global warming. They contacted other people about the possibility of signing on to such a letter. Some people didn't feel comfortable with the idea, namely the Union of Concerned Scientists and said no. Other people said yes. Those who said yes talked to one another about what the letter should say and what they hoped to achieve with it. Then, one of them wrote:
Dear fellow letter signers.
Shukla and I respectfully request that you send us your private email address.
That caused Anthony Watts, proprietor of the popular site Watts Up With That, to write:
Here’s the worst part – they knowingly tried to circumvent future FOIA requests
As well as the tweet above. However, as the author of that e-mail Edward Maibach wrote in one of the released e-mails:
It is my position that the time I spent preparing out letter was not conducted in the course of public business. Rather, it was conducted in my capacity as a private citizen, on my own time. I was not paid by George Mason to create this document, nor does the document relate to the duties listed on my job description. Therefore, I do not believe we have an obligation to disclose my emails related to the RICO letter.
Nothing in any of the e-mails contradict this view. There's no indication Maibach or anyone else wrote this letter as a part of their job. They may have used e-mail accounts provided by their employers, but that's little different from a person e-mailing their spouse to ask if they should pick up anything from the store on their way home from work. Maybe it'd be best not to use a workplace e-mail account to send out e-mails not related to one's work, but it happens all the time.
I won't say that means Maibach is right about FOI law. That's not the issue here. The issue is FOI laws were written to allow public oversight of government operations. They were not written to give the public oversight of individuals' private activities. There is some overlap when private activities are caught up in government operations, such as when using a university mail server to send personal e-mails, and it might be interesting to discuss just what happens in those cases, but...
There was no conspiracy. As far as the released e-mails show, these people were engaging in private activism. There was no involvement by their employers. Nobody was paid to write this letter by any organization covered by FOI laws. None of this activity should have ever been subject to FOI requests in the first place.
But people use e-mail accounts provided by their workplaces for non-work activities sometimes. And yes, eventually people might eventually decide to stop using their work account for non-work communication. That's not surprising. It's not nefarious. These e-mails might be interesting to show the workings of how certain people think and operate, but other than that, there's no real story here. And as put it on Twitter:
Making mountains out of molehills means nobody looks at the mountains.
— Brandon S? (@Corpus_no_Logos) May 13, 2016
There are real stories. There is real wrongdoing. As long as "skeptics" choose to focus on these non-issues though, few are likely to pay attention to them. Downplaying what the Climategate e-mails show as being less serious than this, a non-story, can only hurt any genuine search for the truth.
As a final note, I can't help but notice a certain oddity in this. A few hours before I came across this story, I saw a post on Twitter linking to a new article by John Cook, proprietor of Skeptical Science in which he wrote a number of questionable things, the most interesting of which is:
Q: Does that 97% all agree to what degree humans are causing global warming?
Different studies use different definitions. Some use the phrase “humans are causing global warming” which carries the implication that humans are a dominant contributor to global warming. Others are more explicit, specifying that humans are causing most global warming.
The reason this is interesting is Cook is referring to the definition he himself used in his infamous 2013 consensus paper which wrote:
Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.
As I've pointed out before, there were two different "consensus" positions considered in Cook's 2013 paper: 1) Humans are causing warming," 2) "Humans are causing most of the warming." The initial plan was described by one of the authors:
The way I see the final paper is that we'll conclude 'There's an x% consensus supporting the AGW theory, and y% explicitly put the human contribution at >50%'.
But instead of going with this plan, the authors combined both categories into a single category and described the result as:
Okay, so we’ve ruled out a definition of AGW being “any amount of human influence” or “more than 50% human influence”. We’re basically going with Ari’s p0rno approach (I probably should stop calling it that 🙂 which is AGW = “humans are causing global warming”. Eg – no specific quantification which is the only way we can do it considering the breadth of papers we’re surveying.
So John Cook decided his group's paper would use a definition of "consensus" that was merely "humans are causing global warming" with "no specific quantification." This allowed him to take any paper which did as little as recognizing greenhouse gases exist as endorsing the "consensus." He now openly states he chose a wording to describe these results which implied humans are the dominant contributor to global warming.
I think that's pretty remarkable as it basically shows Cook knew the description he and his co-authors gave would create a misleading impression of their results (leaving aside he has actually stated that misleading impression as fact on several occasions since). I wouldn't expect people to care that much, and this one quote is not a big story by any means, but it is intriguing to me because Edward Maibach wrote this in one of the early e-mails this release contains:
Good point about starting with an affirmation of the scientific consensus (given that I have published a half dozen studies showing that it is an effective message.
I hadn't made the connection until I read this e-mail, but Edward Maibach is Ed W Maibach is the sixth listed author of the "Consensus on consensus" paper we've been examining here recently, the very paper which prompted the article John Cook just wrote.
I don't know that that means anything. It's probably just a weird coincidence. I just thought it was rather interesting as I had planned to write a post about Cook's new article. Then this "story" about the released e-mails broke, and I decided I wouldn't. Then I saw this connection and just thought it was weird.