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 stories?

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 the US.

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 foolish."

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 the 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 stuff"?

The middle of Louise Gray's piece for the Telegraph includes this passage:

"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 etc."

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 glacier

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 somewhat.

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