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Muir Russell Climategate Findings: Superficial, Uncompelling

By Chip Knappenberger -- July 26, 2010

Reactions to the findings of the last of the investigations into the “meaning” of the contents of the Climategate emails—the so-called Muir Russell report—are still trickling in. And truly, there have been few surprises.

The Muir Russell panel—hired by the University of East Anglia (UEA)—concluded (some add, predictably) that the scientists from for the Climate Research Unit (CRU, which is part of the UEA) had not really done anything wrong aside from not being particularly cooperative with folks that they didn’t like.

The CRU scientists and their close colleagues who were caught up in the Climategate affair claim vindication (see RealClimate), alarmists love it (see ClimateProgress, Newsweek), those in the middle were a bit displeased (see The Atlantic, New Scientist) or wishy-washy (see DotEarth), and those feel that the Climategate emails revealed glaring problems with how climate change research is being conducted and brought to the public were crying “whitewash” (see Wall Street Journal, Watts Up with That).

It makes me wonder why Muir Russell bothered in the first place.

I find my reaction somewhere between the last two categories, which I guess would make me wishy-whitewashy. I don’t think Climategate revealed any great fractures in the general concept that human greenhouse gas emissions are leading to a warmer world, but it most definitely did confirm what I felt had been the case all along—that the Climategaters were not playing fair. And not playing fair has a lot more consequences than the Muir Russell panel cared to admit—this is where the “whitewash” comes in for me.

The lead editorial in the July 19th Wall Street Journal—which was largely reflects the op-ed by Patrick Michaels published a week prior by the WSJ—touches on some of the most glaring shortcomings of the Muir Russell panel and its findings—from non-independence, to circular logic, to evading the hard questions.

But anyone who has spent anytime with the Climategate emails, or read any of the myriad of blogs detailing their contents and adding behind the scenes insight from the folks who were actually involved in what was going on (myself included) hardly needs Muir Russell, or any of the other “independent” reviews to tell them what to think.

Aside from posing some questions directly to the CRU folks caught up in the whole Climategate affair (from scientists to administrators), there was little that Muir Russell’s group had available to them that all the rest of us didn’t already have. And just because Muir Russell queried CRU scientists Phil Jones, Keith Briffa, et al. directly about some of the allegations/implications of their emails doesn’t really give Muir Russell any special insight. I think that pretty much everyone could already anticipate the CRU response—duck, dodge, and parry. And CRU didn’t disappoint.

So Muir Russell’s “findings” shouldn’t be given any more credence than anybody else’s “findings.” It really doesn’t take any special talent to read through the Climategate emails and see that something was amiss—either in the layfolks’ opinions as to how scientists conduct themselves or as to how the scientists actually conducted themselves.

The shenanigans on display in the Climategate emails are just not right, no matter how you look at them.

The (mis)behavior revealed in the Climategate emails not only negatively impacted the work of those who it was directed towards, but also the general scientific community as well—which in turn effects each and every one of us, as the topic of anthropogenic climate change and what and whether to do anything to try to mitigate it is among the burning topics of the day. Gaming of the science has huge implications—look no further than the EPA to see this. Since the EPA relied largely on appeal to authority (largely the IPCC) to base its groundwork for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, if the “authority” has been tainted by a misapplication of basic scientific principles, then the EPA’s foundation is built on an unsure footing.

The Muir Russell findings underplays this danger in its three main conclusions, reproduced below (emphasis in original, British spelling retained).

• Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.

• In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.

But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.

Their second point is the one which rubs me completely the wrong way. It is a pretty broad statement considering that Muir Russell took a pretty narrow look at the potential abuses. Muir Russell focused specifically on the actions of only CRU scientists (the Climategate emails involved a lot of scientists other that those directly employed by the CRU) and involved only a few cases of the potential for abusing power. And even in those cases, they did not look very deeply and gave out free passes.

For instance, in shrugging off the potential influence on science by the man-handling of the peer-review process evident in the Climategate emails, the Muir Russell panel defers to the opinions of editor of the medical journal The Lancet, Dr. Richard Horton. Somehow, Horton dismisses the behavior on display as “ordinary.”

Regardless of what the Horton claims about the behind-the-scenes behavior of scientists regarding peer-review, organizing a boycott of specific journals is NOT “ordinary” behavior nor should it be condoned.

And if all of the other activities that Horton claims are “ordinary”—then no one ever told me.

For all these years I have been submitting papers to journals, respectfully arguing my case with the reviewers and editors when given the opportunity, and then waiting to see what happens.

Silly me.

I now find out that I should have been pressuring journals to remove editors who were responsible for papers that I didn’t like, organizing everyone I could convince to boycott journals that occasionally published papers that I thought were bad, sending in unsolicited comments to journals and editors about papers which I found out through the grapevine were being considered, coercing editors to fast-track my submissions and delay publication of rival papers, writing nasty emails to people who found results that were a bit different than mine (and copying journal editors on the correspondence), generally creating an intimidating atmosphere, etc.

If not everyone knows that this is how it it done, it is little wonder that the literature—and the assessment reports thereof—is dominated by those who do.

In the closing thoughts of its editorial, the Wall Street Journal presages how the Muir Russell report may be used:

We realize that, for climate change true believers, last week’s report will be waved about as proof that the science of climate change is as “settled” as the case for action. It’s never hard to convince yourself of what you’re already disposed to believe.

In a follow-up to this post, I’ll look at an example of how the Muir Russell report may be “waved around”—in this case by the EPA in defending itself from myriad of challenges to its “Endangerment Finding”—that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions endanger the public health and welfare—a finding which paves the way for EPA to issue regulations of the GHG emissions. A string of recent petitions have implored the EPA to consider how the Climategate emails cloud the EPA’s vision of the state of climate science and to look into the matter for itself. However, if the past is any indication of the future, the EPA will quite likely “wave around” the findings of the Muir Russell panel—as incomplete, superficial, and uncompelling as they are—and in one fell swoop, dismiss all the challenges. I’ll discuss why this is both inappropriate and unsatisfying.


  1. Andrew  

    The “usual suspects” have been looking for an excuse to put the embarassing episode of climategate behind them for some time. In their desperation, they were bound to leap on anything that might work, and that is what reports like this are designed for really.

    By the way, have you noticed the striking similarities between climategate and the Journolist scandal? I wonder if they will be “exonerated” in the same way…


  2. Steve C.  

    Is there a message for us in this whole mess? Two disciplines, Climate Science and Keynesian Economics have failed to translate from theory to reality. As a layman, I’ve learned that alarmism, multiple degrees, academic sinecures and Nobel prizes are no match for HUBRIS. Most of us inhabit a messy world where choices are defined by trade offs and the need to balance the books at the end of the month. During the campaign in North Africa, the British described the Italian forces as, “Lions led by donkeys.” I’ve never been much of a populist, but the further we go down the current path, the more sympathetic I become to the idea that our elites have failed us.


  3. stan  

    I wish more pundits made the point that we don’t need a panel to tell us what to think about the e-mails. Conspiring to ignore legal obligations is pretty easy to understand.

    I’d like to stress that it is irrelevant whether the hockey team scientists behaved in a way that fits within the bounds of normal science. That’s just a question for scientists to wrestle with. What is clear is that their behavior absolutely cannot be considered acceptable for work which informs public policy.

    Perhaps science as currently practiced fails to meet the standards of ethics and morality necessary for good public policy. I don’t know. But I do know that, Mikey Mann and the boys have fallen far short of the standard that we should expect when we make policy decisions. And we don’t need a panel to tell us that.


  4. Charles Battig, M.D.  

    If the EPA is understood to be populated by eco-activists with a Rachel Carlson mindset, then the findings of a Muir-Russell panel, or any other panel, can be seen to be irrelevant to the EPA’s preconceived vision and mission. Do not bother them with the “facts.”


  5. JeffT  

    The real problem is these climate scientists believe no one should be allowed to examine their data. This is ridiculous. Data should be shared. The idea is to replicate the results and prove the point. The FDA looks for multiple studies to determine the efficacy of medications. One study is not going to get any drug approved. If results can’t be duplicated in another trial, then the data must be suspect. Real scientists, wanting to learn the truth, would welcome rigorous study of their data. If they don’t, I smell a rat.


  6. Ed Reid  

    Even if the DATA were complete and were collected from properly calibrated sensors, they would largely be reflective of UHI impacts caused by locational factors. While it is interesting that the temperatures at airports, at sewage treatment facilities, on building roofs and parking structures might have increased, this knowledge is hardly relevant to (or indicative of) generalized climate change.

    However, the DATA are not complete. The DATA are “adjusted” and “in-filled”, thus creating a “global surface temperature record” from what used to be DATA plus what some group believes the DATA should/would have been had the measuring stations been sited properly, or at all.

    Siting measuring stations for convenience, rather than for accuracy and completeness, should be inexcusable. If the DATA are important, they are worth measuring accurately and completely. If the DATA are not important, then why bother collecting them? Enquiring minds want to know.


  7. Alan F  

    Best yet when asked about access to the recorded questioning we’re told they didn’t bother to do such in ANY of the investigations in both the United States of America and The United Kingdom. I’m absolutely gobsmacked! Lord Conrad Black should have played out his jiggery pokery within the theatre of Climate Science.


  8. peter oneil  

    The results of the Miur-Russell enquiry were designed purely and simply to ensure that the funding returns as soon as possible. This is why Phil Jones had to be reinstated and the honesty and integrity of the scientists had to be confirmed.
    Anyone who has read the e-mails, knows that nothing could be further than the truth.
    We know that they know and they know that we know that they know, but they also know that we are powerless to oppose them.


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