The East Anglia Environnmental Scientists: What About Their Data?

January 1, 2010 at 2:30 AM 1 comment

Written by Lewis D. Eigen


In the heated political discussions about the so called “climategate” quasi scandal of the climate scientists at East Anglia, a fundamental dilemma of science is getting overlooked. That is, what do we do when a scientist breaks the rules? There are professional potential consequences for Professor Jones and the other individual scientists, to be sure. And the scientists will do their thing upon extensive investigation and open debate. The issue however of what discipline or ostracism of the transgressing scientists–if indeed they are guilty–should be meted out, is of little consequence to the scientific issues of man induced climate change. The more critical problem is how we should treat the data and analysis that have been developed by the transgressing scientists.

Complicating the question for most of us is the approach taken in the legal system about “tainted evidence.” The general rule is that improperly obtained evidence is excluded from being considered in a legal trial. So if a police officer, lies and creates “facts” that justify a judge issuing a search warrant, and the subsequent search produces incriminating evidence, later courts will not allow the evidence discovered to be used in the trial. The phrase that attorneys use is the “fruit of the poisoned tree.” It may not be used.

However, the issue of whether the fruit of the poisoned tree is itself poisoned is very rarely ever considered. If the information is correct, should it be excluded just because there was an ethical or legal breach in how the information was gathered. While in U. S. law excludes what might be valid evidence if it was improperly obtained, other nations and cultures do not. They argue that the issue is the validity of the data, not the proprietary of how the police came by it. In general, our “exclusionary rule: is the result of a reasonable political and societal compromise. If the procedurally tainted evidence were allowed to be used, how do we inhibit the police from exceeding their authority and breaking the law themselves in order to obtain evidence? One way would be to punish the police and allow the subject of the improper search to sue the police officers personally. However, there is a fear of inhibiting police from doing anything aggressive if they might be personally sued. And there is a reticence to fire a police officer because he made the wrong legal judgment in a particular case. This left American society with the choice of using the procedurally tainted evidence or not. If it would be used, there would be no pressure brought on the authorities to follow the law–indeed there would be great temptation to violate the rules. So we exclude the evidence.

In the politically charged environment over global warming, there have been calls from some to discount all the evidence gathered by the transgressing scientists–evidence that shows that historically there has been an increasing world average temperature if averaged over time. Others see this as absurd–trying to turn scientific quest for truth into legal combat. Deal with the scientists separately, but unless there is reason to mistrust the data or the analysis, we should of course use all the data that bears on the issue.

This is not a new scientific problem. Some issues of past history have been much more stark ethically and legally. The worst of these emerged from the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi War criminals. Some were physicians who conducted some of the most inhumane experiments on unwilling victims. He medical war criminals were convicted, but the dilemma for science was what to do with the data that had been gathered–the result of murder and torture. One view was that it was the grossest kind of ethical behavior to use any of the data. That it all should be destroyed. At the other extreme was the argument that the murder and torture had been done. The scientists were punished and in some cases executed. If some scientific good could be realized from the data, it would be even more immoral to destroy the data in that the victims would have totally suffered and given their lives in vain. At least some good to humanity might come from use of the data.

The issue was never really settled in this case or the even worse situation of Japanese WWII scientists who conducted equally immoral research in Manchuria. A type of quiet compromise was reached. The data was used an available to some scientists but they had to look hard to get it. There was no publication of the data in any scientific journals or the usual vehicles for dissemination of science. So the German data was available to scientists who sought it out but was not promoted.

The Japanese case however was much more of a mess. In what may have been the most immoral decision ever made by the United States government, the Japanese scientific war criminals were not even tried or brought to justice. The decision was made that their work with biological weapons was invaluable to the U. S. biological weapons development effort, since America could never conduct those kinds of experiments by exposing human victims to the biological agents and recording the physiological data as they suffered and died. So the American intelligence establishment, not only stopped the prosecutions of the scientific war criminals but classified everything about the Japanese work so that no one could find out how horrible were their crimes, lest there would be public demands for prosecution. Worse, all the Japanese data were packaged up and shipped to Fort Dietrich in Maryland–the U. S. Center for biological weapons development and the Japanese general who was the senior officer responsible for the war crimes, was secretly brought into the United State with fabricated documentation as to “good character” and his war record. General Doctor Shiro Ishii, the man who had practiced vivisection on live humans without anesthetic after infecting them was personally given immunity by General Douglas MacArthur and spirited to Maryland to do further scientific work on biological weapons. It was years before this terrible story became public, and many of the details of the scientific Japanese work are still classified–more out of shame than any real military secrets.

By comparison to these WWII cases, the present spate over the use of scientific evidence seems mild indeed. Except, in the long run, the climate issue is much for important scientifically and even perhaps humanistically, than the area of biological warfare. So the question remains. How much, if any credence, should be given to the data of the East Anglia scientists?

In the political debate, the accusation is made that the scientists discussed methods of overcoming political critics who were claiming that these was no effect of humans on the climate of the earth.Among them may have been the withholding of data that might support a position contrary to theirs or data that could be abused of misunderstood by non-scientists. In essence the accusaqtion is that these scientists had taken a political position and might be “cooking the books” to support the position they had taken. Therefore, perhaps their “findings” may not be such at all but just concocted scientific findings designed to support their political views.

Many scientists did not take this criticism very seriously The East Anglia scientists data comported with much other data that had been gathered by others. Their models tended to produce similar results to others. Some scientists–especially those who had strongly supported the finding of human causes for some of the climate changes felt it necessary to point to all the other research and observe that the political positions that the East Anglia scientists had taken did not mean that they had done anything scientifically improper and that the harsh criticism was just the attacks of the same right-wing extremists who have been arguing against any human effort to try and curtain global warming.

The barks of the right wing attack dogs, confused most scientists. Their world rarely deals with ad hominum arguments. They argue data, methodology and theory–not the characteristics and possible motivations of the scientists who may differ. These are not even seen as opponents and in many cases are the closest of friends and colleagues. Disagreement is common and normative in science; being disagreeable in disagreeing is quite unusual and for most, reprehensible. The East Anglia scientists and many others, with the global warming issue, find themselves in a very unusual position. Typically, the general public pays not a whit of attention to scientific arguments and discussions. And rarely does a scientific issue enter the political maelstrom. One exception, evolution, has been argued about in public for years, but there was no public policy issue or prospective legislation that might cost trillions of dollars involved. The last scientific issue that was critical to political debate was the development of the hydrogen bomb after WWII when many of the best nuclear scientists were attacked by some government officials for influencing the public in a manner contrary to a particular political position of the time.

In the current global warming debate, most scientists just ignored the assaults. A few felt that they had to fight back. The East Anglia scientists apparently fell into this trap. The scientist who does this goes from a familiar world, where he has experience and expertise to the political domain which he rarely understands and has little skill and talent for the political process. When scientists do that, they usually do not fare very well. The personal attackers, think nothing of destroying a person’s credibility with character assassination, sometimes based on truth and sometimes not. The political attackers care little. The great physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was crucified when he tried to defend himself publicly; he just did not have the skills or training of his opponents.

When attacks are made on scientists, the wisest course for the scientist to stay in character, be a scientist, talk like a scientist, and do not respond with ad hominum attacks on the attackers or their motives. The media are always trying to report on the politics and interpersonal side of an intellectual dispute. It is a lot easier for them to write an article or do a video report that kind of an argument than to really try and understand the issue and the data supporting the different sides. But the shrewd scientist won’t be drawn into that game. The best advice is talk only about what you know: The science, your data, and its analysis and implications. Stay away from everything else.

Where the scientists are potentially concerned is whether THEY should continue to place credence in the data and the analysis of the East Anglia scientists. This decision is not easily determined in this particular case. Normally, scientists who question almost everything (often to the distress of politicians) generally accept without investigation the data and analysis of other scientists. They may argue that the methodology was flawed, that conclusions may not follow from the data as the original researchers claimed, but they almost always accept the data that is provided. There is usually no check to be sure that the researching scientist did not fabricate or falsify the data. To the lay person, this often seems naïve. However, there are several reasons why it is not.

First is the fact that honesty and integrity of data is a scientific norm that is so strong that those who transgress that norm pay a penalty that is extremely harsh by the standards of most professions. Fleishman and Pons, who a number of years ago claimed to have achieved cold fusion and their data did not hold up, Today they cannot get a job in most scientific establishments; they cannot deliver papers at most scientific meetings, they will not be published by most journals, and many scientists will shun them if they ever accidently meet. The Nobel prize winner, David Baltimore, who after his prize-winning work, had a graduate student who had fabricated data, to this day, Baltimore is commonly castigated by other scientists who believe that he should have known as he supervised the Doctoral study. Even to be associated with a scientists who fabricates data has a cost scientifically.

Second, there has been very little cheating in the sciences. The few cases that there have been have really become notorious. In most of the scientific scandals, governments have been involved. In America this has been rare except for the George W. Bush Administration. Even there, the scientific transgressions usually were made by suppressing data and/or studies that did not support their preferred policy. In Stalinist Russia there was a scientist who fabricated his data to hue to the Communist philosophical world. Suppression of politically unacceptable scientific work was much more efficient than the Bush administrations. Stalin actually arrested and killed prominent scientists who did not comply with the party line. And his favorite scientist actually made up data to “prove” many of their absurd contentions. In America and most of the rest of the world, scientific fabricators of data are almost always motivated by their desire to be recognized as notable scientists and obtain posisitions, grant money and respect. For every case of scientific cheating there are tens of thousands of other scientists who at least with respect to data integrity are completely honest.

Third, and most important is the concept of replicability. The scientific norm is for the researcher to document all his/her procedures and make them and the data collected to other scientists to study, and in the case of an important finding REPEAT the experiment. When they get the same results, they have replicated the experiment. Experiments that cannot be replicated case serious doubts on the integrity of the data and the originating scientists. That is how Fleishman and Pons were caught. No one else could follow their procedures and get the same data or even closely similar. In a sense the concept of replicability is the gold standard of science. But that is the ONLY standard in science that in the long run counts. It is much more reliable than investigating committees or inspectors.

The thing that made Professor Jones and the East Anglia scientists slightly suspect in some scientific circles is not the fact that they were taking political stances. Nor is it the fact that they are passionate advocates for one side of the issue. The great bioscientist Edward O. Wilson is passionate and public about his concern about man-made climate change. However, no one scientifically suspect him of rigging data or cooking the scientific books. The East Anglia suspicion stems from the fact that about a thousand e-mails were purloined and one or more allegedly argues that perhaps some data should be kept under wraps lest the “opponents” seize on them, misinterpret (or perhaps intentionally distort) them and “mislead” the politicians and public. The mere discussion of such a possibility is large transgression of scientific norms. No one knew that the East Anglia scientists did indeed suppress any of the data, but the discussion of the possibility is itself so serious that many scientists were concerned enough to review the degree of influence that any positions they may have taken may have been influenced by faulty data. (Hiding data is as much of a scientific sin as making up data. Both are designed to mislead–the ultimate degredation of science.)

A second wave of suspicion of the East Anglia scientists came when it was discovered that they had not kept all of their data. For years they have gathered specimens of tree ring sections and other evidence of climate back to the middle of the nineteenth century. They had showed that there has been a steady increase in average temperature every decade. There are natural fluctuations from year to year so to factor out the individual fluctuations the data could be averaged by decades and even statistically smoothed by using moving average techniques and other analyses. Theoretically, any scientist could obtain the East Anglia measures and repeat the analysis using the original methods or possibly others, This is quite common as new and more precise techniques are developed all the time, and these can be applied to older data. However, someone had to count the tree rings and measure the thickness between them as well as other observations from samples. However, what if the original measurers had made errors, used instruments too crude or even fabricated the measurements. Going to the original samples and remeasuring is the ultimate replication. But it seems that some of the East Anglia original data is missing–discarded. That also is not consistent with the best of scientific practice which requires a research to save and make available for replication and/or further study after some years. (The past norms generally give the original investigators a few years of exclusive rights to do the analysis and get the credit before making data available to others who otherwise might “scoop” them.) Most scientists save notebooks and notebooks of documented observations or their original work. Boxes of specimens–insects, bones, microscopic slides, rocks, tree cross sections or whatever. In modern times, much data is observed by using analog or digital photos of samples where the measurements are made on the photos themselves rather than the original objects. (In astronomy, that is all we measure as the objects of study are too large and distant for us to store.)

However for reasons which have not been made clear, not all the East Anglia original data is available. In the debate that followed this disclosure, one engineer wrote that he say nothing unusual in disgarding old data. “I have worked in construction projects 30 years ago where we had all the core soil samples from the foundation excavation in little plastic bags–thousand of them. We might need them when the building was going up, but afterwards they are of no use, so we throw them away. This is done all the time.” Unfortunately, this particular was not doing science when he was constructing a building. He had used science but was not doing any. He reached no scientific conclusions and published no results. He was not doing science. While some engineers are scientists, most are not. They are consumers of science. Few scientists would EVER discard their original data. Certainly while the science is still at the edge of scientific inquiry, the trashing of data is almost inexplicable. However there might be relatively benign explanations. The budget was cut, and they needed the space to store newer specimens. Perhaps actual tree cross section samples had become insect infested and had to be discarded to protect the rest. None of these facts are out yet regarding East Anglia. However, regardless of the bias suspicions of the attack dogs, and the media, and part of the general public, the scientists are much more concerned with the missing original data. The East Anglia scientists exacerbated they were accused of not making the data they had available to others. Initially these “others” were the attack dogs themselves and some sympathetic scientists “on the other side.” None the less, it is customary for scientists to share data with others regardless of the others agreeing or not with the original findings.

Most scientists would rather have skeptical colleagues replicate their work than friendly ones.

The political nature of this global warming however puts some scientists in a different world and scientists are unsure of the proper course of action when there are requests for data. The political issue of evolution is a good example which gives us a little distance for objective discussion about the problem. Evolution is one of the most contentious areas of all science. Scientists of many different fields have all seen ther work and filed affected by evolution and there is so much work ongoing that there are many contentious issues. The one that is not at all contentious is whether or not evolution and natural selection is the means by which all animal and plant species have formed into what we observe today–including man. There is no real argument here. Some scientists believe that the evolutionary process has nothing to do with God or a supreme being; others, believe that evolution is the means that God has selected to bring about the forms of life. But they both know that all the species on earth have evolved and are even today continuing to evolve.

The reader may wonder, how such a point can be made, with the nation constantly at odds over believing in evolution or not. While there is extensive debate amongst the general public which embroil politicians over what is taught in public schools, there is no debate about the validity of evolution and natural selection in scientific meetings or circles. Public opponents of evolution as a concept often point to scientists whose writings attack or question evolution and natural selection. If there is no scientific debate, who are these people?

Anyone can be a scientist. There is no body that anoints scientists. There is no certification one needs to be a scientist. While most go to college and study science, and a large part of them go on to study more science in graduate school and then earn degrees, there are scientists who have made major contributions to science who have never formally studied science. In some fields they are called amateur scientists. And there are so many people who study science of some kind in college that there are many outliers. In general, scientists do not care for ad hominum arguments and discussions. One science does not say, “I am right because I have had 30 years of experience and am the Chairman of the department. The youngest assistant professor may be right and the chairman wrong. The graduate often makes the breakthrough that eluded the more experienced scientists in the filed. The great mathematician, Galois, made his great contributions before he was 20. He had to because he was killed in a duel over a woman at that tender age. So scientists are reluctant to place value on experience, age, titles, or even past accomplishment. Einstein had great trouble with quantum mechanics and the Big Bang concept. He finally came around, but for some time he, the greatest physicist who had ever lived, was wrong and younger scientists, including some his own students, were right. The Big Bang theoretical physcist who established the mathematical foundation for the Big Bang was a relatively unknown Catholic Priest. There have been high school students who have made great breakthroughs. Scientists tend to look at the data, the analysis, the mathematic and the corroboration and not at the person who asserts or discovers. So who are these anti-evolutionists?

First there are not many. Today there are probably almost a million people who think of themselves as scientists who are working with and thinking about concepts of evolution and its nuances and extensions. There may be a few hundred–perhaps less than 100. Who today are thinking about the anti-evolutionist positions. There are a few.

If one examines the credentials and backgrounds of the anti evolutionary scientists, they are not the cream of the crop. They tend not to have the same level of degrees and experiences. They have far fewer publications in scientific journals and almost none on the subject of evolution. The few writings that there are from this group are almost all publications of religious or quasi-religious organizations. If they are teaching at universities, the tend to be at the scientifically weaker universities or even Bible Colleges or other religious schools. When they give speeches or colloquia, they are almost always sponsored by religious or affiliated organizations. The very few who are conducting any contemporary research are almost always funded by religious organizations or wealth religious individuals. For most layman, and non-scientists they are not the cream of the crop, but are “not even the cream of the crap” as some unkind critics allege. Scientists however do not disqualify them for this reason. They tend to get frozen out of the scientific debates because their methodology, approach and methods of analysis are not scientific–do not comport with the type of logical and emperical or theoretical analysis that scientists so on every other field.

Global warming is not as stark or unequivocal as evolution is. The scientists who tend to support the global warming human intervention side of the argument are in the majority, tend to be the more published, at the better schools and laboratories. A few of these scientists are “bought and paid for” by enterprises who have a large economic stake in preventing any significant changes in human use of fossil fuels. Many of the anti global worming politicians have deliberately lied or misunderstood the science in their public comments, and the attack dogs have in addition chewed on the limbs or many legitimate scientists including the East Anglia group. So some of the climate scientists are reluctant to give the attack dogs more ammunition which they can oversimplify and lie about. Their usual norm of sharing their data with any interested scientist has been blunted by their observation of recent history of the anti global warming. So while their reasons may be understandable, the reality is that science has always been a risky business intellectually. Give someone else your data and three things can happen:

  1. He she can replicate and corroborate your findings.
  2. He/she can find a mistake you made.
  3. He/she can prove your were right but show that you missed something that was equally or more important.

2 and 3 are embarrassing for the original scientist, but they are terrific for the field of science itself and all the scientists as a group. And that is just what happens in most cases. However what do do when you have good reason to believe that the person who you give the data to will trash your work even if they have to make up lies to do it. It is not personal for them. It is simply that you are on the wrong side of an issue and will be collateral damage.

However, by protecting yourself from the attack dogs, you compromise the integrity of opening all science to the three possibilities of attempted replication. Some of your scientific colleagues will also begin to suspect that you might have another motive–covering up falsification of data.

And that is what has happened in the East Anglia case. Some scientists are deeply suspicious, not for the reasons that the attack dogs give for suspicion, but because the selected defense compromises the scientific norms, the choice was a poor one. The norm of the scientific world is to be intellectually at risk at all times. When it comes to data and experimental methodology, “let it all hang out!”

For the scientists who are perturbed by the possible behavior of Professor Jones and the East Anglia group. They would seem to have the following choices with respect to the East Anglia research:

  • Accept the data and findings like any other research published in a reputable journal
  • Reject the data and ignore the findings as they are tainted

The first is impossible. The second, unwise. All the facts are not in, but even if Jones and his colleagues have transgressed the norms of science, it does not necessarily mean that the data has been falsified. The data might be right even if the scientists who gathered and analyzed it were wrong, and that has not yet even been established.

Fortunately in this case, there is an extensive amount of corroborating evidence that leads to the same conclusion about global warming. If the East Anglia study were the only one that demonstrated global warming, the behavior of the scientists could have jeopardized our entire species. The warning signs and evidence would be there but few would accept it. This is why there is a great lesson in this incident–a lesson for scientists. Once scientists deviate from the norms and procedures of science, they weaken themselves and their knowledge and skill becomes less useful to mankind.

Putting aside the behavior of the scientists, the attack dogs, the naysayers, the alarmists, mankind faces a serious problem with the potential of global warming. Like anything else in science, all we know about global warming is but a small fraction of what is to be known. Our current understandings are primitive, not unlike our knowledge of the composition of the atom 100 years ago. It appears that average temperature is rising but we do not yet have the understanding and tools to predict with any degree of certainty the rate of increase. Glacial melting, rising sea levels, and other phenomena are all reasonably predictable but at what rate we do not know. Nor is the consequence for people. There are some educated guesses that scientists can be made. Southern Florida and New Orleans will be under water at some point. Most of Canada will be fine, likely improved as areas of that country will possibly become very habitable land which are not so now.

Change is a sound prediction if the average temperature keeps rising. However, that dislocation that could result may have very serious consequences other than the economic. No one is or can be sure what will or will not occur if we have these climate changes. Severe climate changes have caused the extinction of many species in the past, and even small climate changes have caused the extinction of others. The stakes are very high, and it just because the risk is so potentially great that we should choose to act quickly to do what we can to stop the warming trend even if we are not absolutely certain what are optimum steps should be. Ideally, we would take much more time to make sure the science is right and certainly to be able to make more accurate predictions. But we are not in an ideal global situation. No one knows whether or not there is a tipping point beyond which it will be too late for man to reverse the actions he has set in motion. And if there is such a critical point, we do not yet know what it will be. So the issue of data and using that which is sound is more important than ever, even if the scientists have acted improperly, foolishly, or unwisely. The effort should not go into the fate of the scientists at East Anglia, but by determining exactly what they did and did not do. What data was discarded and why. We may need that data in coming years to piece together a solution if it has been tainted in image only but not substance.

There are some who believe that the life of our planet is at stake. That is surly an exaggeration. The planet will be fine even if average temperature climbs 30 degrees. Billions of years ago it was hotter than that. The planet will survive. It is unfortunate that scientists nor any others cannot assure our species of the same survival.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. R.G. Frano, A-EMT-P, (Ret.)  |  January 18, 2010 at 3:03 AM

    Re: ‘Climategate’…
    I think it’s wishful thinking, (of the ‘$$-corrupted, U.S Republican Senator Imhoff’ variety!), to pretend ‘Anthropogenic
    Global Weather Instability’, a better label then that trivially idiotic ‘global warming’, is as real & threatening to human civilization as the nuclear war dramatized, (thus far), only in sci-fi movies.
    When I was a child, there was snow on a regular basis; Now, I might see, in a whole month+, what I saw in childhood, over a few days…
    I live within 1 hour, by car, from my birth area & home range, so it isn’t like I moved to a different portion of the earth.
    While I agree that weather, over the billions of years, varies considerably, I’d note that humanity has a reletivly narrow range in which to exist.
    I’m reminded of an experiment: school children were given a fertilized (chicken?) egg, an incubator & instructions: “Here’s how this egg becomes a chicken – mess it up & you won’t hatch the chick” by the instructor.
    It was ‘pass/fail’.
    Live chick=’pass’; non-hatching egg=’fail’.
    I DON’T have the hatching statistics, but the point was to learn that growing animals need to recieve ‘X’ to thrive, and must avoid ‘Y’, or the result is: ‘OooPs’, (…DEATH)!
    Having noted that the supposedly ‘faked data’ scandal in Britain concerns both an outdated AND very tiny portion of the whole of available climate science data, I must ask:
    What if it IS faked?
    So What?
    Like the school children, some of whom learned the ‘hard way’ that eggs require just the right conditions, do ‘WE’, (all 6.something billion of us) want to find out the ‘hard way’?
    Are we not called by our creator(s), regardless of specific religious affiliation, to refrain from arrogantly treating the earth like a toilet?
    Wouldn’t it be safer NOT to engage in an ‘experiment’, (as superficially alluded to above), if the result might be ‘OooPs’!?
    As to ‘poisoned fruit’, I am reminded of the south korean scientist who faked his data – I think he is now professional speaking, the scientific career equivelent of a…
    Well, I WON’T use ‘profanity’, I’ll just note his funding dryed up faster then a drop of ‘H2o’ on Venus, one might say…
    That is a very strong lesson to scientists who are tempted to fake data…
    I can ONLY wish the Republican Senator I referred to, who likes to talk ‘family values’, could rediscover the moral – ethical backbone he was born with, rather then ‘bow & scrape’ to the ‘Almighty Dollar’, as he (allegedly) currently does…


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