December 3, 2009

Weathermen's Feelings

Phil Jones offers myriad reasons for not sharing data

Three months before “stepping aside” from his position atop the most prestigious climate change institute in the world earlier this week, Phil Jones made a number of interesting comments. The first was this: “In the UK I am not considered a public servant.”

It was August, months before the explosion of Climategate, and I was drawing to a close the research for my forthcoming book on climate, Don’t Sell Your Coat. Jones was good enough to respond to questions I had then about data sharing, transparency, and United States Department of Energy funding. For, although an English researcher, Jones counted on the United States Department of Energy for substantial sums of money – millions of dollars.

Public servant or no, Jones was evidently bound by the Department of Energy’s data-sharing protocols, which were stringent: “Open sharing of all program data among researchers (and with the interested public) is critical to advancing the program’s mission … a copy of underlying data and a clear description of the method(s) of data analysis must be provided to any requester in a timely way.”

As Jones dealt with several such requests, but principally from his arch-nemesis, the Canadian amateur climatologist Steven McIntyre, he found it distasteful in the extreme to share raw temperature data that would allow McIntyre to look for problems in his data and work. As the world recently learned reading the e-mails among Jones and fellow-scientists, Jones threatened to delete data if McIntyre ever learned of the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act.

But as the Department of Energy policy from this side of the Atlantic makes clear, no Freedom of Information request is even necessary in order to compel Jones, or any other DOE-funded scientist, to share all data as well as all code that is used in grooming the data for publication (in such documents as the IPCC 4th Assessment published in 2007). What Freedom of Information policy in the United Kingdom does require, however, is preserving any documents that are known to be sought via Freedom of Information request. Jones, in the trove of released e-mails, asks his peers to delete precisely these e-mails. Whether the internal investigation being conducted by the University of East Anglia determines that this was ethical remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether parliamentary investigations will be launched into the matter, as well as any inquiry by Scotland Yard.

As I said, Jones made several bizarre comments in August regarding unavailable data. Another regarded the meteorology agencies from which his Climatic Research Unit obtained data in the first place. “It is the Met services that you should be lambasting,” Jones wrote. “I have been for years, but have not gotten very far.” Two quick points: First, I never lambasted Jones but merely asked if he thought that greater transparency might better serve science, and himself, in the long run. Second, Jones, at least until today, could not verify his claim to have fought with European meteorological agencies himself. He had, however, alluded in one of the recently released e-mails to just such a gambit involving the agencies: “Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people,
so I will be hiding behind them.”

Just to be safe, however, Jones did have data removed from a University of East Anglia server during the summer of 2009. When pressed by me in our e-mail exchange in August, his reasons for making the data disappear seemed disingenuous, at best:

Our ftp site has had some data deleted from it. It is a site we use when working with other scientists around the world. The datasets were not explained. It seemed easier to stop people wasting their time trying to determine what it was.

The words “other scientists” here are code for “people other than the Canadian amateur climatologist Steve McIntyre.” While McIntyre is a statistician without a Ph.D. in a climate-related field, he has nonetheless proved himself to be a capable intellectual adversary of Jones. Jones’s e-mails allude, more or less obsessively, to the Canadian, as do those of many of Jones’s closest colleagues. Far from being at risk of wasting time deciphering what he had in front of him, McIntyre had by that point been veritably begging for Jones’s data and computer code for years. He had been joined in his pursuit of data, by the way, by Ross McKitrick, with whom he had also authored a peer-reviewed paper successfully dressing down American climatologist Michael Mann.

It was Jones’s 2009 summertime deletion of data that prompted me to ask him about transparency in the first place. One other reason Jones offered for refusing to share data appeared bizarre, to say the least:......

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