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Climategate revisited

February 11th, 2010

Now that the main charges of scientific misconduct arising from the hacking of the University of East Anglia email system have been proven false, it’s possible to get a reasonably clear idea of what actually happened here. For once the widely used “X-gate” terminology is appropriate. As with Watergate, the central incident was a “third-rate burglary” conducted as part of a campaign of overt and covert harassment directed against political opponents and rewarded (at least in the short run) with political success.

The core of the campaign is a network of professional lobbyists, rightwing activists and politicians, tame journalists and a handful of scientists (including some at the University of East Anglia itself) who present themselves as independent seekers after truth, but are actually in regular contact to co-ordinate their actions and talking points. The main mechanism of harassment was the misuse of Freedom of Information requests in an effort to disrupt the work of scientists, trap them into failures of compliance, and extract information that could be misrepresented as evidence of scientific misconduct. This is a long-standing tactic in the rightwing War on Science, reflected in such Orwellian pieces of legislation as the US “Data Quality Act”.

The hacking was almost certainly done by someone within the campaign, but in a way that maintained (in Watergate terminology) “plausible deniability” for the principals. Regardless of what they knew (and when they knew it) about the actual theft, the leading figures in the campaign worked together to maximize the impact of the stolen emails, and to co-ordinate the bogus claims of scientific misconduct based on the sinister interpretations placed on such phrases as “trick” and “hide the decline”.

The final group of actors in all this were the mass audience of self-described “sceptics”. With few exceptions (in fact, none of whom I am aware), members of this group have lost their moral bearings sufficiently that they were not worried at all by the crime of dishonesty involved in the hacking attack. Equally importantly, they have lost their intellectual bearings to the point where they did not reflect that the kind of person who would mount such an attack, or seek to benefit from it, would not scruple to deceive a gullible audience as to the content of the material they had stolen. The members of this group swallowed and regurgitated the claims of fraud centred on words like “trick”. By the time the imposture was exposed, they had moved on to the next spurious talking point fed to them by the rightwing spin machine.

To keep all this short and comprehensible, I haven’t given lots of links. Most of the points above are have been on the public record for some time (there’s a timeline here), but a few have only come to light more recently. These Guardian story brings us up to date, and names quite a few of the key players (see also here). For the role of allegedly independent journalists in all this, see Tim Lambert’s Deltoid site (search for “Rosegate” and “Leakegate”).

Update I should have mentioned that much the same team had their first outing in the controversy over the Mann et al “hockey stick” graph. All the same elements were there – supposedly disinterested citizen researchers who were in fact paid rightwing operatives, misuse of accountability procedures, and exceptional gullibility on the part of the “sceptical” mass audience. Details are here (h/t John Mashey). Note in particular the role of Edward Wegman, who had the great appeal of being an apparent cleanskin without the kind of paper trail associated with the majority of delusionist “experts”. Here are my comments on Wegman’s silly and dishonest critique of Mann.. It was obvious at the time that Wegman had agreed in advance to do a hatchet job, a fact confirmed by his later appearance on delusionist petitions. But until now we didn’t have the details of the connection.

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  1. Tony G
    February 22nd, 2010 at 21:15 | #1

    “Unfortunately we can divide the global pie into so many small pieces that any individual can argue that their contribution is too small to be significant and therefore they should be able to free ride.”

    I disagree with that statement Nick,

    The 7 largest emitters make up for 76% of emissions, the other 24% made by 203 countries of which Australia is one ” can argue that their contribution is too small to be significant and therefore they should be able to free ride.”

    Nick, unless the 7 largest emitters cut, there is no point Australia or the other 202 minor emitting countries doing anything……

    Fran, many evidential parts of the AGW “basic science” is pretty much well in dispute. The warming part, albedo, glaciers, forcing, water vapour, fluxing, temperature readings, consensus portrayed as science, computer modelling portrayed as science, extrapolated data, hockey sticks, etc etc etc; and the list goes on.

  2. Nick R
    February 22nd, 2010 at 22:14 | #2

    Tony G-ok a fair point, but there is more to it than that. Firstly, why do the boundaries have to be drawn at national levels? In the U.K., England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have some autonomy and in the U.S. Texas and California sometimes try to behave like nation states. Regions can be divided up into tiny pieces such that your argument could be applied to a regional council with half a dozen coal burning power stations.

    Secondly I think you miss the insight that the prisoner’s dilemma brings. The value of a commitment to reducing emissions for a country like Australia is that it sends a signal to other players that we need not get caught in the trap where nobody is prepared to cut pollution. If we do it, it makes it easier for others to do it too.

    If however no serious polluters were prepared to ever cut their emissions despite positive actions from smaller countries, I think I would agree with you that it would be pointless for us to persist with some system that (slightly) damages us for no real benefit. I don’t think this is the case, but as a hypothetical I think you would be right in this instance.

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