SoftestPawn’s Weblog

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Hacking: It’s Good for Science

Posted by softestpawn on November 21, 2009

Over the last few days the global warming communities – those ‘for’ and ‘against’ – have been deluged by the news that the computer systems at Hadley’s Climate Research Unit (part of the British Met Office*) have been hacked and the data posted on t’interwebs:

The alleged docs are here (along with on-line searchable access to the emails) but of course, this is the internet, and you can make up anything you like and post it. (Update: Downloading and expanding it, it appears to include 100mb of uncompressed code and data, mostly tree-ring/bristlecone proxy rather than weather station measurements. If this is made up, then someone’s been very busy; but there is also a danger that it is ‘mostly real’ with some key edits)

Assuming for the moment that these are real, and that Phil Jones does in fact admit it, then this is not good for the reputation of Science-The-Human-Endeavour. The tone and contents of the emails squash any claim that ‘you can trust us, we’re scientists, we’re objective and only interested in the facts’ (but then, we know that humans don’t do science)

It doesn’t even help, much, the scientific debate on global warming. As the above discussions show, the main responses are around dishonesty and legality (which are somewhat open to interpretation), rather than analysing the facts and the data. But then the scientific debate has always been very sparse across this general debate; everyone claims to have science on their side and will point to authority, to motivations, to allegiance, to politics, to vested interests, to the number of people working on it, even to assumed ideologies, in order to bolster that claim, but few will actually discuss the science. Well, the science is difficult OK?

But that will come. After the quote mining and short-term tribalist gloating is over, the Big Win for science is the simple straightforward forced releases of data that so far has been kept hidden, for possibly good but still also hidden commercial reasons (That is, CRU wouldn’t show any evidence for why it should be kept hidden, because they claimed to have lost that evidence).

Real Science – that is, the accumulation of a systematic body of knowledge, rather than the insular world of messy so-called-iterative academic research – requires rigour. It requires openness. It requires criticism, whether deserved or not, to tighten arguments and improve evidence quality, and expose gaps and risks. In other words, it requires independent review, or at the very least the threat of it.

Openness is forced internally in any organisation or project that practices ‘due diligence’. We have seen it introduced to medicine in only the last generation or so; many academic organisations** have been reluctant, slow and late to that particular party, for all kinds of ordinary people and practical reasons.

This hack – an externally forced openness – will not do much good in the short term, especially to those involved. But in the long term, we can hope to see researchers who inform public policy become openly professional – and scientific – throughout their work, because now they know that someone, internal or external, may come along one day soon and let unfriendly people examine it. All of it.

Update:Judith Curry (I think this climate researcher), talks about tribalism and the duty of public release here

* I’m not actually clear on the differences in responsibilities and allegiances of the Hadley center, The British Met Office, and East Anglia University’s Climate Research Unit. I don’t think they are either.

** And plenty of private organisations too. I’m just picking on researchers whose work is used to drive public policy (and I’ve made some changes to the text to make this clear)

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