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23 November 2009 Blog Home : November 2009 : Permalink

The Pierrehumbert Strawman

Over at DotEarth there is an interesting" guest post by Raymond Pierrehumbert which is, in my opinion, guilty of the classic PR-spin tricks of "Supression veri" and "Suggestio falsi". There's no harm, per se, in such tricks so long as others can point out the problems. I'm not sure if my comment (or Lucia's) will be published there so I've decided to put it here too. In the process of doing so I realised that I might as well give the thing a proper fisking instead of the rather shorter response I gave in my comment at dotEarth.

So here goes:

I just read your blog and article about the CRU attack. I do entirely understand that in your role as a reporter you can’t editorialize and pass judgment about what happens in the world, but you do edge into value judgments in some of your blog pieces and so I found the general lack of indignation in your piece rather disconcerting. After all, this is a criminal act of vandalism and of harassment of a group of scientists that are only going about their business doing science. It represents a whole new escalation in the war on climate scientists who are only trying to get at the truth. Think — this was a very concerted and sophisticated hacker attack.

If you look at the emails and documents (see below) it seems quite clear that the selection is neither random nor is it a grand sweeping up of everything in a scientist's private directory - indeed there is circumstantial evidence that this is data gathered in regards of an FOIA request to the CRU that was rejected a day after the last email. Hence it seems unlikely that "this was a very concerted and sophisticated hacker attack" rather it seems far more likely that this was an internal leak by a whistleblower upset at the continued hiding of information. Given the ubiquity of flash drives I would estimate that copying this data probably took about 5 minutes from the whistleblower's desk.

This paragraph is in fact full of inflamatory, and innaccurate rhetoric. Calling this act "vandalism" is definitely hard to sustain as, so far as we know, no changes have been made by the leaker to any document in the CRU computers. You can, if you like, call it theft, but this "theft" is the sort of act performed by the Raffles level of burglar who takes the diamond without disturbing the other, less valuable, objects nearby.

Lastly for this section, the claim that it is "a whole new escalation in the war on climate scientists who are only trying to get at the truth" is richly ironic since the truth seekers would appear to be Messrs McIntyre & co who want the code and data behind the CRU's published work. It is hard to interpret statements like "[i]f they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone" as anything but attempts to hide the truth. And that is very far from the only email where FOI requests are treated with derision and evasion.

It was a far harder system to crack into than Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account that was compromised during the election campaign. Scientists don’t have much distinction between their personal life and work and it is pretty typical to have all sorts of personal emails (maybe even financially related ones, confidential medical matters, family affairs, Amazon order confirmations*, etc.) as well as frank discussions that are part of the general working out of science and not meant to be done with somebody looking over your shoulder. I don’t think Jones’ emails had any personally compromising data in them, but that was just luck; this illegal act of cyber-terrorism against a climate scientist (and I don’t think that’s too strong a word) is ominous and frightening. What next? Deliberate monkeying with data on servers? Insertion of bugs into climate models? Or at the next level, since the forces of darkness have moved to illegal operations, will we all have to get bodyguards to do climate science?

If the leaker was, as suggested above, an internal whistleblower then the comparison with the Palin hack is totally irrelevant. Actually, as Lucia points out, the emails leaked are very definitely sanitized:

A cursory examination of the emails reveals no announcements for group meetings, no invitations to the lunch room to celebrate a coworkers birthday, no email exchanges between husbands and wives discussing their shared love of Lassie DVDs, no letter from the safety training people, nothing related to performance reviews, and no pesky nag notes to update ones cyber security training. (Maybe CRU doesn’t have cyber security training?) Whoever assembled this edited, and it appears that all emails containing very highly personal information were removed from the collection.

Had the emails contained embarrassing revelations about the purchase of Lassie DVD’s, the blogosphere might be abuzz with indignation over the posting of truly personal information. In reality, no such information seems to be contained in what has come to be called the CRU Hack.

As with the "get at the truth" statement, the suggestions about "deliverate monkeying with data on the servers" and so on are ones that would seem better aimed at Messrs Jones, Santer, Mann and co, rather than whoever leaked their correspondence and code.

Cynically one may also point out that err it is the climate scientists who appear to have already done this. At the very least the code in the directory /documents/osborn-tree6/mann/oldprog is looking highly suspicious when it has comments like this in it:

; Plots 24 yearly maps of calibrated (PCR-infilled or not) MXD reconstructions
; of growing season temperatures. Uses “corrected” MXD – but shouldn’t usually
; plot past 1960 because these will be artificially adjusted to look closer to
; the real temperatures.

(maps24.pro similar comments in maps15, maps12, maps1 etc. )

The same goes for the bodyguards bit - "Next time I see Pat Michaels at a scientific meeting, I'll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted." from Ben Santer sounds distinctly threatening to me.

Maybe reporters just like information to be out, even if it is illegally obtained. Certainly, I thought it was right to publish the Pentagon Papers. But when the attack is on an individual scientist rather than a government entity, and when the perpetrator is unknown and part of some shadowy anonymous network, it raises a lot of new concerns.

"Shadowy anonymous network" is rather rich. Unlike journal referees, bloggers are distinctly lacking in anonymity. True we (or at least I) don't know the identity of all the bloggers and blog commenters but I know do who many of the main ones are, and I'm sure I could figure out the others if I spent a few minutes checking things.

The "attack on an individual scientist" thesis only holds true if Santer, Mann, Jones & Briffa etc. are in fact a single person. True the majority of the emails appear to originate as to/from Jones but there are plenty from Osborn and Briffa as well as other members of the CRU so its only an "attack" on one person if you consider Jones, as head of the CRU, to be the only important person there. On the other hand the emails do show that the Climate Science Establishment has made repeated attempts to block the researches of Steve McIntyre. Now Steve is not a "scientist" according to many and he does tend to work with others, but overall it looks like he's been attacked repeatedly behind both in public and behind closed "anonymous" doors

The real story here, though, is that the tactics the inactivists have been using in the run-up to Copenhagen have been all outside the sphere of legitimate scientific discourse. Bogus petitions, sham attempts to gut the A.P.S. climate statement, and now cowardly illegal outings of private emails from an individual scientist. If this is what they have to stoop to, then it is clear that they must really not think they have a leg to stand on scientifically.

Well actually one can interpret things rather differently if one considers that the evidence suggests that Messrs Jones, Santer, Mann and co, have indeed been deilberately obfuscating and blocking research results that don't conform to their view of the world. If this release of data does derail Copenhagen then that can only be a good thing since it seems very clear that the politicians have not had the impartial scientific advice they should have had. One also can't help but note that the "inactivists" have not been the only people to try and get their message across "outside the sphere of legitimate scientific discourse". At least that's how I interpret attempts to nobble/blackmail journals and editors.



[*For example, anybody who hacked into my email would find the highly embarrassing fact that I once ordered a compilation of Lassie Christmas Stories on DVD :)]

And I agree that comments like "Mr I'm not right in the head" or "Pielke is a prat" are embarrassing but not, in themselves, malign. However, the main thrust of the leak is regarding the "Hockey stick" papers and the CRU temperature code. The fact that there are embarrassing comments like the following in the (soon to be infamous) HARRY_READ_ME.txt file is much much more important and, going back to the the Copenhagen point above, since it shows just what a shoddy base the climate warming papers seem ot have.
20. Secondary Variables - Eeeeeek!! Yes the time has come to attack what even
Tim seems to have been unhappy about (reading between the lines). To assist
me I have 12 lines in the gridding ReadMe file.. so par for the course.
Almost immediately I hit that familiar feeling of ambiguity: the text
suggests using the following three IDL programs:

So.. when I look in the code/idl/pro/ folder, what do I find? Well:
3447 Jan 22 2004 fromdpe1a/code/idl/pro/frs_gts_anom.pro
2774 Jun 12 2002 fromdpe1a/code/idl/pro/frs_gts_tdm.pro
2917 Jan 8 2004 fromdpe1a/code/idl/pro/rd0_gts_anom.pro
2355 Jun 12 2002 fromdpe1a/code/idl/pro/rd0_gts_tdm.pro
5880 Jan 8 2004 fromdpe1a/code/idl/pro/vap_gts_anom.pro

In other words, the *anom.pro scripts are much more recent than the *tdm
scripts. There is no way of knowing which Tim used to produce the current
public files. The scripts differ internally but - you guessed it! - the
descriptions at the start are identical. WHAT IS GOING ON? Given that the
'README_GRIDDING.txt' file is dated 'Mar 30 2004' we will have to assume
that the originally-stated scripts must be used.