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Scientists Speak Out


A week ago Jonathan Jones, a physics professor at Oxford University, submitted a remarkable comment over at the Bishop Hill blog. He’s hero #1 of this post, and I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting the bulk of his remarks further down.

But first, a bit of background. Over the past week there has been a great deal of discussion in the climate blogosphere about the “hide the decline” controversy (see Judith Curry’s blog, which started it all, beginning here).

Hide the decline is a phrase that surfaced in one of the better known Climategate e-mails. It refers to the decision by prominent climate scientists to slice off the final section of a temperature graph that had been constructed from tree ring proxy data and to paste in thermometer readings instead.

The tree ring data showed the line on the graph pointing downward. The pasted-in thermometer readings showed the line on the graph pointing upward (hence hide the decline). Even though this substitution altered the graph significantly, the scientists who implemented the cut-and-paste didn’t alert people to the fact that they had done so. Readers of the 2001 and 2007 editions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, for example, were not advised that this change had been made.

In the words of Steven Mosher and Thomas Fuller in Climategate: The CRUtape Letters:

A picture is worth a thousand words. And in their publications to policy makers [the climate scientists] published a misleading graphic and excused this by providing references to papers that tried to explain the issue. No one but the most careful readers.would catch this trick, for it would require the kind of familiarity with the underlying data that only a scientist current in the field would catch. (pp. 153-154)

Physics professor Richard Muller of the University of California Berkeley is hero #2 of this blog post. He explains these matters in the excellent 5-minute YouTube clip that appears above. (It’s excerpted from a 52-minute presentation here). Muller show us what the two graphs, based on the two different data sources, look like. They are dramatically different.

In Muller’s words, the cut-and-paste scientists deceived the public – and other scientists. Adding insult to injury, when outsiders asked to see the data that had been sliced off, these scientists refused to disclose it. Eventually, however, it did become available. Muller is adamant that the cut-and-paste maneuver was inappropriate. As he says in the video:

The justification would not have survived peer review in any journal that I’m willing to publish in. But they had it well hidden.And what is the result in my mind? Quite frankly, as a scientist, I now have a list of people whose papers I won’t read anymore. You’re not allowed to do this in science. This is not up to our standards. I get infuriated with colleagues of mine who say, “Well, you know, it’s a human field. You make mistakes.” And then I show them this and they say “Ah, no, that’s not acceptable.”

Below, hero #1 Jonathan Jones does a decent job of explaining why other scientists have been so hesitant to condemn these climate scientists. His second and third paragraphs also go some way to restoring my faith, since I am one individual who presently feels horribly let down by the scientific community:

People have asked why mainstream scientists are keeping silent on these issues. As a scientist who has largely kept silent, at least in public, I have more sympathy for silence than most people here.most scientists are reluctant to speak out on topics which are not their field. We tend to trust our colleagues, perhaps unreasonably so, and are also well aware that most scientific questions are considerably more complex than outsiders think, and that it is entirely possible that we have missed some subtle but critical point.

However, “hide the decline” is an entirely different matter. This is not a complicated technical matter on which reasonable people can disagree: it is a straightforward and blatant breach of the fundamental principles of honesty and self-criticism that lie at the heart of all true science.The recent public statements by supposed leaders of UK science, declaring that hiding the decline is standard scientific practice are on a par with declarations that black is white and up is down. I don’t know who they think they are speaking for, but they certainly aren’t speaking for me.

I have watched Judy Curry with considerable interest since she first went public on her doubts about some aspects of climate science, an area where she is far more qualified than I am to have an opinion. Her latest post has clearly kicked up a remarkable furore, but she was right to make it. The decision to hide the decline, and the dogged refusal to admit that this was an error, has endangered the credibility of the whole of climate science. If the rot is not stopped then the credibility of the whole of science will eventually come into question.

If you’re wondering who I am, then you can find me at the Physics Department at Oxford University.

Evidently, everyone has not lost their minds – as well as their moral compass.

The entire, unedited version of Jones’ comment appearshere – toward the bottom of the page. The links embedded above were inserted by me to provide additional info and context.


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