As Climategate Becomes Pressgate, Questions for the Media

Trillions of dollars are at stake in the man-made global warming debate. The Climategate scandal – where leaked emails and computer programs involve dozens of prominent scientists worldwide – has almost everything one would want in a good scandal: conspiracies, fraud, possible destruction of documents, and lots of heated exchanges. But the media has been reluctant to look into the problems and even when the controversy has been acknowledged it has been quickly dismissed as unimportant.

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Newsweek poo-poohed Climategate as just showing "a few scientists in a bad light" and that "there's still plenty of evidence that the earth is getting warmer and that humans are largely responsible." The New York Times editorialized that "no one should be misled by all the noise" and that global warming was just too important "to let one set of purloined e-mail messages undermine the science and the clear case for action." Former Vice President Al Gore has been in full swing doing interviews the last few weeks, and the media has rarely challenged any of his claims. Gore told Slate: "What we're seeing is a set of changes worldwide that just make this discussion over 10-year-old e-mails kind of silly." He made the same comment unchallenged on MSNBC. Yet, the thousand emails were written over thirteen years, and went right up through this year.

Take an in-depth analysis of Climategate provided by the Associated Press. The piece appeared in hundreds of publications, with many newspapers carrying it on the front page of their Sunday December 13th edition under the headline, “Science not faked, but not pretty.” The five AP-reporters interviewed three scientists about the emails, and concluded: "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data, although concerns could be raised about some instances of very 'generous interpretations,'" as the AP quoted Dr. Mark Frankel, director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AP had provided him a copy of the emails, without any other important documents.

But we spoke with Dr. Frankel about his interview with the AP, and it appears that AP portrayed him as not too concerned about Climategate. Asked whether it was possible for him to conclude from the emails whether there was "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data" based on the emails, Dr. Frankel replied:
No, you can’t do that on the emails alone, you can’t do it on the emails or the program. You know, you owe it to people to interview and get their responses, and you owe it to people to ask people within the discipline, other scientists within that discipline, you know what are the expected practices, forms, etcetera in your field. And that takes a little bit of time, I mean that’s why these investigations often take a long time and that you involve experts who know that scientific field.

When pushed further, "Just trying to clarify that you couldn't make an answer as to whether there was evidence of falsification or fabrication of data," Dr. Frankel said:
No, I couldn’t make it on the basis of what I’ve seen, and I consider myself to pretty much be an expert in areas of research misconduct. However, I’m not in the area of climate change, so clearly whoever was doing the investigation would have to be sufficiently… have sufficient expertise as resources in order to carry out this investigation.

He also supported the investigations that had been started at Penn State University and the University of East Anglia, though he suggested that those outside the universities should themselves closely study the investigations:
And that you should be willing and open to going to outside people to be part of your inquiry. I mean, Penn state needs to be aware of that–I’m sure they are. If I were Penn State I would certainly be advising them to be very open to the possibility of bringing in one or two people who have impeccable credentials, well respected, to join in . . .

There is a big difference between saying that there isn’t sufficient evidence to determine if falsification of data occurred, and that there should be an investigation, and concluding, as the AP did: “Science not faked.”

The AP also interviewed another academic, Professor Dan Sarewitz, at Arizona State University. He told us that he also supported the investigations Penn State University and the University of East Anglia:
Yeah, I think they should have external people [to the university doing the investigation]. Certainly. . . . The challenge here might be, can you find people who are independent but also understand the science well enough to really tell [if there was wrongdoing]?

The AP quotes him as saying: "This is normal science politics, but on the extreme end, though still within bounds." It uses the quote to minimize worries. But our interview suggests his quote was hardly a defense of what transpired, but rather a warning that politics infecting science is all too common and that non-scientists have a too idealized a view of science. "All I’ll say is that you know based on what I’ve seen of the emails it sounds like nasty science politics. And it’s not uncommon in science," he said. Dr. Sarewitz indicated that these biases undoubtedly affected both sides of the debate and that it is proper for reporters to ask scientists in these controversial areas about their political affiliations, and noted for the record that he is a liberal Democrat.

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The third professor quoted in the Associated Press article, Dr. Gerald North joined with Drs. Frankel and Sarewitz in indicating to us that they hoped for more open sharing of climate data, computer programs, and other documents by all the parties involved in climate research -- the University of East Anglia, NASA, the British Met Office, and any other organizations that have been unwilling to share their raw data. "I’m certainly not an expert in computer programming. I do however know enough that it’s very important for people in many areas of society to know what’s going into that little black box. It’s very important to have experts who can evaluate those kinds of things," Frankel said. Sarewitz hoped for more transparency, but he argued that it wouldn't be a magic cure for the rancor in the debate, which he claimed were ultimately based on political differences. While acknowledging that anyone “can be sloppy and crappy record keepers," he noted: “It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that [Professor Phil Jones at the University of East Anglia] could go back and figure out” some of this information.

We tried numerous times to get a response from either reporters or editors at the Associated Press, but was told that none of the five reporters who worked on the article nor their editors had time to answer any questions. "Well, that won't happen at this time anyway," Jack Stokes, Manager of Media Relations with the Associated Press, said when asked if any of those involved with the story could comment even briefly.

Another bias appears in the article. No academics in the article were identified as being on the other side of the debate. The only identified critic was Steve McIntyre, who maintains Climate Audit. The AP described him as someone without expertise in the area, merely "trained in math and economics," who had worked in "the mineral exploration industry, which produces greenhouse gases." The obvious implication is that McIntyre's analysis is biased and should be discounted. Not even the academics attacked in the University of East Anglia emails were interviewed: "Just the fact that I was mentioned in 38 of the emails, it would have been appropriate for him to give me a call," Patrick Michaels, Senior Fellow in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, told us. He also listed the names of four other academics criticized in emails who could have provided a critical perspective on the revelations in Climategate.

There were other concerns with the piece. As for Professor Mann's and others' attempts to punish academic journals that published skeptical research seems defended by the AP: "That skeptical study turned out to be partly funded by the American Petroleum Institute." However, the AP fails to bring up that Mann and others who were pushing global warming similarly received funding from organizations that support claims about man-made global warming.

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Finally, one of the reporters, Seth Borenstein, the AP science reporter who writes on global warming and the lead author on the piece being discussed here, is part of the Climategate story itself. There is a question about whether he should have recused himself from investigating the story. The last sentence of the 1,800 word AP piece acknowledges: "The archive also includes a request from an AP reporter, one of the writers of this story, for reaction to a study, a standard step for journalists seeking quotes for their stories." But Borenstein’s email is hardly a neutral “standard step for journalists." Borenstein criticizes Marc Morano, a critic of man-made global warming claims, of "hyping wildly" the study that Borenstein was asking for comments on. The email looks as if Borenstein was working with others involved in Climategate to discredit critics of man-made global warming.

Science and voters both depend on accurate information. Research can’t be checked when organizations University of East Anglia, NASA, the British Met Office, and others are unwilling to share their data or computer programs. Unfortunately, scientists aren’t the only ones who face tough questions.

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