This is a guest post by David Holland
Quite often things are mischievously quoted out of context by one’s critics and the press and, when faced with an embarrassing but partial release of what they had said, or written, the first response of many people is to dismiss it as being out of context. This was the claim made by innumerable supporters of the orthodox IPCC view of climate change science when, in November 2009, over 1000 emails were released in 2009 from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia. It was suggested that the release was highly selective, cherry picking only the apparently discreditable emails and omitting their proper context. For many making it, however, it was a claim based on heartfelt hope and belief rather than on any knowledge of the rest of the emails or even those that had been released.
On 1 March 2010 the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons heard from the University, Sir Muir Russell and the UK’s Chief Scientist, Professor John Beddington, who said:
There is cause for concern, but I think the key about this is that Muir Russell is going to be doing a detailed and comprehensive study, he is going to look at emails in context—and we all know how things can be taken out of context—and I would like to be able to have a judgment made by Muir Russell and his team, who I have complete trust in.
The Russell Report, when eventually published, exculpated the members of the Climatic Research Unit stating, “we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.” There was, however, much criticism of the Review, which one MP member of the Select Committee described as beyond parody. The Review had not conducted any of its interviews in public nor interviewed any critics of the university. Within days of publishing its Report together with some obscure but critical evidence, the Review team endeavoured to block freedom of information requests to all its working documents by deleting its emails from the server at the University of Edinburgh, which was subject to the Environmental Information Regulations.
In this electronic age, with emails widely copied, it is not always easy to entirely block freedom of information requests and, in the months that followed, evidence has trickled out to show that the Russell Review was even less independent and objective than its worst critics suspected. In reality, it was undertaken by academic friends of the university, at its expense and under its close supervision. It had seriously tampered with at least one public evidence submission. It became known that among the almost £300,000 that the university spent on the Review, almost £9,000 was paid to the Norfolk Police.
It is not usual for the police to charge victims for investigating alleged crimes and it has recently emerged that the payment was for subcontractors employed by the police to extract all of the emails of the three most important scientists from the back-up server that had been seized by the police after the university had reported the unauthorised release of some of them. The reason for this was as Professor Beddington told MPs to allow the Review “to look at emails in context”. This is confirmed in the Review Report which states,
Recognising that the e-mails improperly released into the public domain represent only a tiny fraction (less than 0.3%) of the e-mails archived by the key individuals in the CRU, the Review team sought to set these in context. The backup server (CRUBACK3) had been taken as evidence by the police as part of their own investigation and was held by police contracted forensic investigators. A full context could only be established by some form of access to the information held on this server.
For this access the university agreed to pay £8,910 plus VAT. For this sum another expert, retained by the Review at the University’s expense, received all the emails of the key scientists on three so-called “thumb drives” or “memory sticks”. The expert, Professor Peter Sommer, reported “The emails as provided to me are in the format of an email programme called “Thunderbird”. This is a comparatively well known programme at least among computer specialists.
Now one would imagine that the Review could easily prove that the most damaging of the leaked Climategate emails were indeed taken out of context. In the case of the infamous “hide the decline” they could show the other emails traffic of the same time period and put it into its proper context. In the case of the email asking a colleague to delete emails that were subject to a freedom of information request the Review team could now do the same.
If it was true that emails were taken out of context the Review team could make a strong case with just a couple of examples, but they did not because, as Review Report states,
“It would introduce significant delay to the publication of the Review‘s report.”
To be fair, Professor Sommer does say in his report,
The processes of analysis to identify (and then review) additional email traffic which might be associated with the issues which are the subject of the allegations which have been levelled against CRU, is likely to take at least several weeks. It would be for the Review Team and the University to determine whether the cost, inevitable time delays and (at this time) uncertain outcomes could be justified
There were, before this week and Climategate 2, good reasons to take both what the Review and the Professor wrote with a large pinch of salt. The Review Report had been promised for early spring 2010 and the Professor only received the thumb drives on 14 May 2010, but after spending £9000 to get all of them, surely putting one or two of them into their context could have been done in plenty of time to finish the report by the end of June 2010.
Today there is compelling reason to suspect that the Review team and Professor could have been economic with the actualité. Just a couple of days after the release of Climategate 2, anyone can access a database with keywords and find all the relevant emails on any topic. Whereas, on the matter of deleting information that was requested under FOIA, about 20 or so emails were released in November 2009, this year there are over 100 and few if any show the scientists in a better light.
With the Review team’s indecent haste to delete their emails from a public authority’s server and the apparent speed and ease with which amateur internet sleuths dissected this Climategate 2 release, it is at least plausible to suggest a different conversation may have taken place between the Professor and the Review team.
I have the emails and a quick look at them tells me that they will not tell you the story you want to hear
Of course if we only had 0.3% of the emails before, we still only have less than 2% Now. However, this time the benefactor has not claimed the new release is a random selection (and he/she/they may have been kidding then), but that they were selected on keywords, as our expert Professor could as easily have done for quick rough check to see what a careful review might bring forth. Who knows? Maybe one of those emails that the Review team were so quick to delete would tell us.