by Erica Rex

No matter how much data there are to substantiate climate change, there always seems to be some scrap somewhere which, when taken out of context can be blown out of proportion and used to change the subject.

This happened again last week.  And once again, propaganda trumped science.

On November 20, a set of email messages sent by the Director of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, Dr. Philip Jones to colleagues in the US were uploaded to a public Web site.

In one of the now infamous emails, Dr. Jones seemed to be suggesting that climate data should be manipulated.

Here, for the record, is the text of the email:

Dear Ray, Mike and Malcolm,
Once Tim’s got a diagram here we’ll send that either later today or
first thing tomorrow. I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from
1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. Mike’s series got the annual
land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land
N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999
for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with
data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.
Thanks for the comments, Ray.


The rest of these pirated emails can be found here, if you’d like to read them.

Of course, Dr. Jones did not mean the message the way it came out in the email.  Out of context, though, the words sure seem damning.  Of course there is a very plausible explanation for why he wrote what he wrote.  The devil is always in the details.  But people who are in the business of distorting communication are generally not interested in the details.  Or else, they want to create some that weren’t there in the first place.

Stephen H. Schneider, Professor, Department of Biology and Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University elucidates the problem extremely well.

That said, I do know from experience that ten straight days of copious elucidation of detail will never make up for one single ounce of faux pas on a public stage.  In other words, once the barn door was opened, the horses were definitely off and running.

Dr. Jones lack of forethought in his written communication underscores a larger problem with how scientists communicate.  Yes, we all get tired and annoyed. And we use various kinds of semantic shorthand when we communicate with people we know well, or work closely with.  And some of us are just not born with the gift of either foresight or communication.

But like it or not, email is a written record.  And if you work for a publicly-funded agency, the record – all of it – technically belongs to the public.  Anyone who does publicly-funded research can pretty much rely on one day having to cough up his or her files at the request of the public, whose tax dollars, by the way, paid for it.  There’s a serious move on in the UK to make publicly funded research data both available and accessible to a broad public audience – ie the taxpayer, in all the flavors.

In the US, most climate data are publicly available.  Just about everything ever counted or measured by NASA or NOAA is available to anyone who cares to wade through it.

But for me, these emails raise a question that has haunted me since I started writing this blog.  Why is it that the weapon in this jousting match keeps ending up in the hands of the enemy?

I’ll answer my own question by quoting a sentence from a speech Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) gave on November 18:  “Control the language, politicians know, and you stand a better chance of controlling the debate.”

Climate change skeptics are eerily adept at controlling language.  Scientists need to be the ones in charge of this discussion.  Miscalculating the wiliness of the enemy, or condemning his ignorance doesn’t do it.  And a few too many ill-thought out communications will sabotage even the best laid plans.