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.