Freedom of obfuscation

I have regrettably discovered that my old faithful source of technology news (which I haven’t paid much attention to in recent years) is engaging in one of those enlightening let’s-all-laugh-at-the-scientists climate change denialism campaigns.

This article in The Register caught my attention today, and made me despair a little. Andrew Orlowski reports light-heartedly on a freedom of information (FoI) crusade by Steve McIntyre, who runs the Climate Audit website and who is frequently cited, quite falsely, as having discredited the hockey stick graph (the one showing global temperatures over the last 1000 years with a dramatic spike at the end). McIntyre is actually an academic, which at least sets him aside from the likes of Viscount Monckton and other more political protagonists, but he certainly isn’t a climate scientist.

The issue at stake is the availability of raw temperature data, as opposed to the aggregated, processed datasets put together by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), of which Phil Jones is the director. This Nature blog post sheds more light on the nature of the dispute between McIntyre and Jones; more than you will be exposed to by reading The Register’s article at any rate.

McIntyre, unlike his hangers-on, seems to define his objective very precisely: the free availability of the raw temperature data. To this end, McIntyre appears to have encouraged (or possibly orchestrated) a barrage of FoI requests to Jones, who Orlowski describes as an “activist-scientist” (a term I would consider quite an insult).

Orlowski’s article appears to have been informed by little more than a perusal of McIntyre’s blog. He must have left his journalistic scepticism in his other trousers.

First, Orlowski claims that the CRU has “lost or destroyed all the original data”. This is both factually incorrect and highly misleading, even if you accept McIntyre’s version of events. The CRU says it faced storage constraints in the 1980s, meaning that some of the older original data could not be preserved. This is hardly implausible – scientists still face storage issues today, and will still face them decades from now, McIntyre’s personal incredulity notwithstanding. Furthermore, the CRU doesn’t own the original data, and says that due to agreements with those who do, it cannot release what raw data it does have.

Besides – and this is what I find most astonishing – Orlowski himself notes two things:

  1. McIntyre already has the raw data. This apparently occurred through some sort of FTP security lapse at the CRU, which was then fixed in what McIntyre describes – in excruciating detail, as if the tanks were rolling into Washington DC – as an “unprecedented data purge”.
  2. McIntyre “doesn’t expect any significant surprises after analysing” it.

That would seem to indicate that, through all the bluster, there is actually not even the pretence here that anything is wrong with the IPCC’s climate projections. It’s presented (by both Orlowski and McIntyre) in a fashion that suggests some sort of cover-up or conspiracy, and so that’s what some readers will doubtless believe. In fact, such an allegation has been downplayed by the one person apparently best placed to make it.

The free availability of data is, I believe, a worthy cause – let’s not make light of that. According to the Nature blog post, Jones wants this as well. However, McIntyre’s own blog makes his FoI campaign look more like a vindictive assault than a fight for principles. Orlowski’s article looks more like an Andrew Bolt post than an attempt at journalism.