Climate sceptics and the manipulation of scientific data

Article by Stuart Parkinson, SGR, orignally published as a blog entry on the website of The Times newspaper, 25 November 2009

Much is being made by climate sceptics of the emails revealed by the hacking of a computer system at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The emails, the sceptics claim, are the ‘smoking gun’ that data is being systematically manipulated to create the myth of a changing climate. So do the hacked emails really provide the compelling evidence that the sceptics claim?

An instructive place to start would be to consider the case of the tobacco industry and its attempts over several decades to obscure and manipulate the scientific evidence that smoking causes major health problems. In the late 1990s, the US courts forced the industry to release internal documents demonstrating that they had been aware of the potential health problems created by smoking for decades, but nevertheless deliberately sought to undermine the credibility of academic evidence which demonstrated a link. The documents revealed a number of tactics, not least the industry funding of a series of high-profile media campaigns to get their view across to the policy-makers and the public.

It is also useful to look at the activities of parts of the fossil fuel industry and their response to the scientific evidence for climate change. While the level of disclosure has not been on the same scale as the tobacco industry, nevertheless, the internal documents that are available are also damning. They reveal industry funding of a network of lobby groups engaged in a systematic campaign to deny that the overwhelming perspective of climate scientists is that humans are the main cause. This is despite evidence such as that provided by Prof Naomi Oreskes whose assessment of the peer-reviewed literature on climate science highlighted virtually no dissent from this view.

Both these cases – along with others – are documented in more detail in the latest report from Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). These cases show just how co-ordinated and comprehensive the level of activity needs to be to truly manipulate the public viewpoint in the face of strong scientific evidence.

So is this the picture shown by the hacked emails? There’s some ill-considered and poorly-worded correspondence to be sure, but explanations – for example, from the University of East Anglia and RealClimate – do highlight just how limited this email evidence is. And it’s also worth remembering that a certain proportion of the private emails of any organisation are likely to contain embarrassing material that will not reflect well. But what these emails clearly do not show is any sort of systematic campaign across the environmental sciences to create evidence for climate change. It would need considerably more material than this to negate decades of publicly-funded academic research.