The Muir Russell report came out today, and I just finished reading the thing. It should be no surprise to anyone paying attention that it completely demolishes the the allegations that have been made about the supposed bad behaviour of the CRU research team. But overall, I’m extremely disappointed, because the report completely misses the wood for the trees. It devotes over 100 pages to a painstaking walk through every single allegation made against the CRU, assessing the evidence for each, and demolishing them one after another. The worst it can find to say about the CRU is that it hasn’t been out there in the lead over the last decade in responding to the new FoI laws, adapting to the rise of the blogosphere, and adapting to changing culture of openness for scientific data. The report makes a number of recommendations for improvements in processes and practices at the CRU, and so can be taken as mildly critical, especially of CRU governance. But in so doing, it never really acknowledges the problems a small research unit (varying between 3.5 to 5 FTE staff over the last decade) would have in finding the resources and funding to be an early adopter in open data and public communication, while somehow managing to do cutting edge research in its area of expertise too. Sheesh!

But my biggest beef with the report is that nowhere, in 100 pages of report plus 60 pages of appendices, does it ever piece together the pattern represented by the set of allegations it investigates. Which means it achieves nothing more than being one more exoneration in a very long list of exonerations of climate scientists. It will do nothing to stop the flood of hostile attacks on science, because it never once considers the nature of those attacks. Let’s survey some of the missed opportunities…

I’m pleased to see the report cite some of the research literature on the nature of electronic communication (e.g. the early work of Sara Kiesler et al), but it’s a really pity they didn’t read much of this literature. One problem recognized even in early studies of email communication is the requesters/informers imbalance. Electronic communication makes it much easier for large numbers of people to offload information retrieval tasks onto others, and receivers of such requests find it hard to figure out which requests they are obliged to respond to. They end up being swamped. Which is exactly what happened with that (tiny) research unit in the UK, when a bunch of self-styled auditors went after them.

And similar imbalances pervade everything. For example on p42, we have:

“There continues to be a scientific debate about the reality, causes and uncertainties of climate change that is conducted through the conventional mechanisms of peer-reviewed publication of results, but this has been paralleled by a more vociferous, more polarised debate in the blogosphere and in popular books. In this the protagonists tend to be divided between those who believe that climate is changing and that human activities are contributing strongly to it, and those that are sceptical of this view. This strand of debate has been more passionate, more rhetorical, highly political and one in which each side frequently doubts the motives and impugns the honesty of the other, a conflict that has fuelled many of the views expressed in the released CRU emails, and one that has also been dramatically fuelled by them.” (page 42, para 26)

But the imbalance is clear. This highly rhetorical debate in the blogosphere occurs between, on the one hand, a group of climate scientists with many years training, and whose expertise is considerable (and the report makes a good job of defending their expertise), and on the other hand, a bunch of amateurs, most of whom have no understanding of how science works, and who are unable to distinguish scientific arguments from ideology. And the failure to recognise this imbalance leads the report to conclude that a suitable remedy is to :

“…urge all scientists to learn to communicate their work in ways that the public can access and understand; and to be open in providing the information that will enable the debate, wherever it occurs, to be conducted objectively.” (page 42, para 28)

No, no, no. As I said very strongly earlier this year, this is naive and irresponsible. No scientist can be an effective communicator in a world where people with vested interests will do everything they can to destroy his or her reputation.

Chapter 6 of the report, on the land station temperature record ought to shut Steve McKitrick McIntyre up forever. But of course it won’t, because he’s not interested in truth, only in the dogged determination to find fault with climate scientists’ work no matter what. Here’s some beautiful quotes:

“To carry out the analysis we obtained raw primary instrumental temperature station data. This can be obtained either directly from the appropriate National Meteorological Office (NMO) or by consulting the World Weather Records (WWR) …[web links elided] … Anyone working in this area would have knowledge of the availability of data from these sources.” (Page 46, paras 13-14)

“Any independent researcher may freely obtain the primary station data. It is impossible for a third party to withhold access to the data.” (Page 48, para 20).

…well, anyone that it except McKitrickMcIntyre and followers, who continue to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that climate scientists are withholding station data.

And on sharing the code, the report is equally dismissive of the allegations:

“The computer code required to read and analyse the instrumental temperature data is straightforward to write based upon the published literature.  It amounts a few hundred lines of executable code (i.e. ignoring spaces and comments). Such code could be written by any research unit which is competent to reproduce or test the CRUTEM analysis.  For the trial analysis of the Review Team, the code was written in less than two days and produced results similar to other independent analyses. No information was required from CRU to do this.” (Page 51, para 33)

I like the “any research unit which is competent to reproduce or test the CRUTEM analysis” bit. A lovely British way of saying that  the people making allegations about lack of openness are incompetent. And here’s another wonderful British understatement, referring to ongoing criticism of Briffa’s 1992 work:

“We find it unreasonable that this issue, pertaining to a publication in 1992, should continue to be misrepresented widely to imply some sort of wrongdoing or sloppy science.” (page 62, para 32)

Unreasonable? Unreasonable? It’s an outrage, an outrage I tell you!! (translation provided for those who don’t speak British English).

And there’s that failure to address the imbalance again. In examining the allegations from Boehmer-Christiansen, editor of the notoriously low-quality journal Energy and Environment, that the CRU researchers tried to interfer with the peer-review process, we get the following bits of evidence: An email sent by Boehmer-Christiansen to a variety of people with the subject line Please take note of potetially [sic] serious scientific fraud by CRU and Met Office.“, and Jones’ eventual reply to her head of department: “I don‟t think there is anything more you can do. I have vented my frustration and have had a considered reply from you“, which leads to the finding:

“We see nothing in these exchanges or in Boehmer-Christiansen’s evidence that supports any allegation that CRU has directly and improperly attempted to influence the journal that she edits. Jones’ response to her accusation of scientific fraud was appropriate, measured and restrained.” (page 66, para 14).

Again, a missed opportunity to comment on the imbalance here. Boehmer-Christiansen is able to make wild and completely unfounded accusations of fraud, and nobody investigates her, while Jones’ reactions to the allegations are endlessly dissected, and in the end everything’s okay, because his response was “appropriate, measured and restained”. No, that doesn’t make it okay. It means someone failed to ask some serious questions how and why people like Boehmer-Christiansen can be allowed to get away with continual smearing of respected climate scientists.

So, an entire 160 pages, in which the imbalance is never once questioned – the imbalance between the behaviour that’s expected of climate scientists, and the crap that the denialists are allowed to get away with. Someone has to put a stop to their nonsense, but unfortunately, Muir Russell ducked the responsibility.

Postscript: my interest in software engineering issues makes me unable to let this one pass without comment. The final few pages of the report criticize the CRU for poor software development standards:

“We found that, in common with many other small units across a range of universities and disciplines, CRU saw software development as a necessary part of a researcher‘s role, but not resourced in any professional sense.  Small pieces of software were written as required, with whatever level of skill the specific researcher happened to possess.  No formal standards were in place for: Software specification and implementation; Code reviews; and Software testing” (page 103, para 30).

I don’t dispute this – it is common across small units, and it ought to be fixed. However, it’s a real shame the report doesn’t address the lack of resources and funding for this. But wait. Scroll back a few pages…

“The computer code required to read and analyse the instrumental temperature data is straightforward to write […] It amounts a few hundred lines of executable code […]  For the trial analysis of the Review Team, the code was written in less than two days and produced results similar to other independent analyses.” (page 51, para 33)

Er, several hundred lines of code written in less than 2 days? What, with full software specification, code review, and good quality testing standards? I don’t think so. Ironic that the review team can criticize the CRU software practices, while taking the same approach themselves. Surely they must have spotted the irony?? But, apparently not. The hypocrisy that’s endemic across the software industry strikes again: everyone has strong opinions about what other groups ought to be doing, but nobody practices what they preach.

12 Comments

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  2. Excellent and insightful piece. I especially enjoyed the postscript.

    To my mind the behavior of the press is the mystery, and the UK press the more so. The press would seem to have the skills and resources to get to the bottom of this, yet they seem completely determined to stick to this idea of some vague scandal among the climatologists
    instead. None of this would have been possible without the complicity of the press. Resolution would be possible if the press re-examined their own role. There certainly have been people asking for it, notably Gavin Schmidt, Steve Schneider, Jeff Huggins persistently at Dot Earth, myself, and several others. It can’t be that the press haven’t noticed.

  3. You are quite right, climate scientists have no place in that fight. Psychologists or social scientists certainly – and maybe ethicists and the courts.

    The excessively strong reaction from skeptics really only proves that they fully accept the science. If they really and truly doubted global warming, then so what? What would they care if they really believed in global cooling or the rapture? It would matter little what scientists thought. They would be calm in their belief. It is not a belief, it is a passionate campaign. Such strident and convoluted denialism suggests a blind adherence to high carbon capitalism as a plausible root explanation for such behavior. The clear PR engineering of this kerfuffle follows a long history of managing public opinion on the subject. This kind of “shoot-the-messenger” attitude is quintessentially human. And the blundering stupidity of ignoring such a colossal danger will be a painful lesson.

    The greatest pain I feel is something like species shame. How can so many humans be so anti-science? How did we even make it this far?

  4. Michael Tobis – I agree that the press is shamefully at fault for actively ignoring this issue for decades.

    Let not forget that most all the Western press is advertiser supported. This means the real controllers are the advertisers, not the audience or reader. Television news directors ask their news workers to make a news show that will deliver the most audience eyeballs to the paid advertisements. Notice how the BBC – state sponsored – has a different flavor to the news. Note too that the Associated Press may report on many stories, but the member news organizations will selectively choose the news to present. I happen to see that the Sunday news pundit show of “Meet the Press” has been sponsored for years mostly by Exxon-Mobil. Any news producer will be very careful in selecting a topic so challenging to their primary revenue source… they need not be told to do so. they know.

    But just in case – Ross Gelbspan tells an excellent story of a CNN producer who mistakenly called a weather event an example of global warming… he was severely warned by oil and automotive advertisers that they would remove all their advertisement budget if they did that again. http://www.heatisonline.org/contentserver/objecthandlers/index.cfm?id=7743&method=full I once asked a TV weather person about that, they said they would never touch the subject of global warming (KIRO-TV 1987) I suspect that most all news media has been warned to separate discrete events from climate trends.

    It will be quite interesting to see how our current heat wave is reported. i.e. Just when does weather become climate? The pileup of records are getting high. The pain is palpable. Is there an interim state between weather and climate?

    Interesting times, thanks Michael and Steve for all that you do.

  5. “Er, several hundred lines of code written in less than 2 days? What, with full software specification, code review, and good quality testing standards? I don’t think so.”

    Which would have been really useful: the report website could have had a “how we did it and here’s the code” page to allow anyone to replicate it and follow their methods closely.

  6. “Er, several hundred lines of code written in less than 2 days? What, with full software specification, code review, and good quality testing standards? I don’t think so. Ironic that the review team can criticize the CRU software practices, while taking the same approach themselves. Surely they must have spotted the irony??”

    I understand that software engineering is your area of expertise. However, what the Review have done is to establish what is possible in a short space of time. The results concur with other findings but I would expect that much more rigour would be applied if for a journal publication and for future research work.

    [Yes, I thought of that response. But the thing is, that’s what everyone says – “well, I just needed to check out this idea quickly, to see if it was possible…”. The Russell report is certainly more central to the public debate than any individual published paper. If good standards don’t apply to software developed for a major public inquiry, why would we expect them to apply to scientists toiling away in relative obscurity on their next paper? – Steve]

  7. The review has very little to say about CRU development practices.

  8. Regarding the availability of the Review’s own code, I have contacted them regarding this, and saying that I hope they will publish it, along with other supporting materials, on their website. In the course of the review, they have not been very quick to publish evidence (such as submissions), but on the other hand they have published everything in due course. So I expect the code to follow likewise.

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  10. I’m pleased that the Muir Russell committee did not extend their remit to examine the tone or speculate on the motivations of the sceptic’s criticisms and FOIA requests. It was sufficient, I think, for the inquiry to have rubbished the content of the claims that there was any lack or rigour or honesty on the part of Jones et al. Extending the remit to include the bad manners and bad faith of the sceptics would have been a distraction from the main message. If they are wrong, why bother to show that they are also rude?

    Implicitly holding the scientists to higher standards is OK, I think; authority figures are usually expected to show more restraint. The problem in the press is that all too frequently sceptical pundits are deemed to have equal authority with real scientists like Jones and Mann.

    BTW When you referred to Steve McKitrick in the post, surely you meant Ross McIntyre?
    ;-)

  11. It’s a fair argument that the Muir Russell panel should not have looked into the motives of CRU critics (as it in fact did not.)

    However, I think there is enough evidence of a pattern to warrant somebody looking into the actions and motives of those critics. Consider: The e-mails were obtained from an organization that was not neglecting information security. The identity of whoever broke that security is still AFAIK unknown. The timing of the break-in, shortly before COP15 in Copenhagen, and the fact that the file was transmitted to various “skeptic” organizations suggest an organized attempt to derail climate-change negotiations.

  12. This was a great piece, and really made me think differently about the report. Your insights on what the E&E editor can get away with vs what Jones et al can get away with are fantastic. I will have to quote you in an upcoming post.

    Kate
    http://climatesight.org

  13. It’s Steve McIntyre (not steve McKitrick (borged together ~> Ross McKitrick?))

    [fixed, thanks – Steve]

  14. Martin Vermeer

    Steve, you put words to the vague discomfort I also felt about this pervasive leaning-over-backward quality of the Muir Russell -report. Yes, perhaps it wasn’t exactly their remit to look into this; but it should be somebody’s remit, and it would have been minimally honest for them to at least be explicit about this problem.

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