So, how have the UK media reported the second batch of Climategate emails?
- 23 Nov 2011, 17:41
- Christian Hunt
The fresh batch of UEA emails released yesterday have made their
way into some of the papers today, with some familiar emphases and
angles being adopted. But to what extent has the coverage been
based on a reading of the emails themselves, and to what extent
have quotes from the emails - suggested apparently by the hacker
and presented in a short 'Readme' file - been used as the basis for
The phrases from the file certainly seem to feature prominently.
We looked at the quotes featured in selected UK coverage so far,
and read them in context to see if journalists are bothering to do
their homework. Click here for Media Matters's look at coverage in
Is the government strong-arming scientists?
The Daily Mail covers the story in a brief article today. The only piece of
evidence from within the emails they pull out is a passage that, on
the face of it, seems to suggest government pressure on scientists
to massage or manipulate their data for use by government in its
public messaging. As the Mail reports it, the email
"appeared to implicate a government official in the furore over
global warming data."
The email, from an insider at the Department for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs (Defra), reads:
"I can't overstate the HUGE amount of
political interest in the project as a message that the government
can give on climate change to help them tell their story. They want
the story to be a very strong one and don't want to be made to look
Read in context, the correspondence is about criticisms the
government is receiving for its public messaging and use of
science. The civil servant writes asking for extra information on
weather generator - a statistical method intended to predict
future climate - that would help her superiors field criticisms.
When Phil Jones responds in frustruation, defending his work, the
civil servant responds with an attempt to placate Jones:
"This is a political reaction, not one
based on any scientific analysis of the weather generator. We
did the peer review to take care of that. I can't overstate
the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message
that the Government can give on climate change to help them tell
their story. They want the story to be a very strong one and
don't want to be made to look foolish. Therefore, every time
they hear about any criticisms from anyone, they jump...
I know this is extremely frustrating for
you and completely understand where you are coming from."
This doesn't appear to be an example of government pressure to
get the message it wants. If anything, the emails suggest that the
UK government has been keen to get its message right and ensure
it's backed up by robust evidence.
"Manipulation" and removal of "optimistic
The middle of Louise Gray's piece for the Telegraph includes this
"Phrases have been picked out that
discuss not putting in too much 'optimistic stuff'. One email
allegedly states: 'I also think the science is being manipulated to
put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too
clever in the long run.'"
This is an accurate quote but again, taken out of context,
potentially misleading. It's worth noting the reference to
"optimistic stuff" in context. Phil Jones writes:
"We don't really want the bullshit and
optimistic stuff that Michael has written that sounds as though it
could have been written by a coral person 25 years ago. We'll have
to cut out some of his stuff. What we want is good honest stuff,
warts and all, dubious dating, interpretation marginally better
Jones appears concerned about including scientific information
that is no good ("bullshit"), and that appears to have been
superseded by more recent work ("could have been written by a coral
person 25 years ago").
His request to include the research "warts and all" suggests the
word "optimistic" may well refer to a piece of work expressing too
much confidence in the certainty of its assessment. He clearly
wants to re-introduce all the appropriate uncertainties. In fact
read in context, the passage probably reflects well on the
scientists and the scientific process.
This casts doubt on Michael McCarthy's comments in the Independent that:
"Some of the messages show climate
scientists ... in effect, plotting how to present their information
in the best possible light."
Reserving judgement on the whole 5000+ emails, in this case at
least, this is the opposite of what the email shows. Far from
evidencing "plotting", the emails so far have generally been
characterised by fierce, sometimes acrimonious mutual criticism and
debate on the part of the climate scientists involved, which based
on this snapshot seems to be the norm for the field.
The passage about the science being "manipulated" does appear to
be potentially damaging, however. The scientist seems to be
referring to the preparation of part of the IPCC report, although
this is slightly ambiguous. He is referring a request he had made
for a redaction, which was not made. He also refers to a previous
response of his along the same lines being received as a
"diatribe". Other scientists clearly regarded his remarks as
intemperate and excessive.
However, without further (external) context it is unclear whether
this email reflects well or badly on the scientists. We just don't
know enough at the moment.
The tropical troposphere and the Kilimanjaro
In two emails, scientists criticise two areas that others have
used as evidence for warming. Michael McCarthy flags them up. One
email from Peter Thorne states:
"Observations do not show rising
temperatures throughout the tropical troposphere unless you accept
one single study and approach and discount a wealth of others. This
is just downright dangerous. We need to communicate the uncertainty
and be honest."
In another, Geoff Jenkins writes:
"Would you agree that there is no
convincing evidence for Kilimanjaro glacier melt being due to
recent warming (let alone man-made warming)?"
The context (excluded by the hacker and in the article) shows
what the conversation was about:
"We have been concerned that people
often use the melting glacier on kilimanjaro as an example of
impacts of man-made warming. you may have seen some stories
countering this on the sceptics websites. I got philip brohan to
look at temps there (see attached) and there isnt any convincing
consistent recent warming in the station data."
The charge often levelled against scientists by skeptic
campaigners is that they overplay confidence, and have become
'activists'. Yet here are two examples showing the critical
scrutiny on scientific claims from scientists themselves, and it
seems clear from the emails that they contain numerous other
examples, although selective editing does obscure this