Clear Thinking - The Business Experience

Thinking

Intelligence™

The Business Experience
Business Performance Improvement Services
for individuals, teams, and organisations

Clear Thinking Case Study of the Month

The Story

Jan 2010

“ClimateGate – credibility lost by simple errors”

Do we have a Global Warming problem or not? Is it man-made or natural?
Suddenly we have doubts These questions seemed to have fairly clear answers in most people’s minds until the scientists and bodies in charge of the message failed to quell concerns about ‘stolen’ emails and failed to check key details in their report to the United Nations.
ClimateGate

Are £billions needed to save the planet?

Or is it all made up?
ClimateGate refers to the controversy of emails allegedly written by scientists at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA) that were hacked by climate change sceptics. The hackers claim that these emails show that climate data was rigged to indicate evidence of man-made global warming.

Prof Phil Jones, the CRU Director, has stood down while an enquiry takes place. The CRU claims that the hackers have taken these emails out of context.
Himalayan Glaciers
gone by 2035?
But the story certainly hotted up when it was noticed that a key report by a United Nations body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), contained a statement that the Himalayan glaciers might disappear by 2035.

This claim was quickly retracted by the IPCC but the damage was done. Public belief in the notion of global warming was shattered, and, if it was happening, that it was man-made (as opposed to natural causes). Even some prospective MP’s now have doubts (according to a recent survey by the FT).
Story update 14th April 2010

CRU cleared, but was the enquiry a fudge?
An enquiry into ClimateGate has cleared the CRU scientists of deliberately rigging data and said they were acting in good faith. However there was some concern over the statistical techniques used by the team and the access to data by others.

Unfortunately, sceptics have not been mollified. They say that the chairman of the enquiry has a vested interest – Lord Oxburgh has close links to companies that stand to profit from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
 

Analysis and Lessons

Data Management ... Communications Pre-Testing ... Data Veracity

Data management errors Whatever the true story is of those emails, the CRU, and hence the IPCC which uses its findings, have been made to look careless in the way they record, analyse, and disseminate sensitive data. If the hacked data had been ‘taken out of context’ it should have been relatively easy to show the world a relevant set of data to place everything ‘in context’. This presumably has not been possible, and the controversy (and doubts) will continue until this is achieved.

It now seems that the CRU data had ‘uncertainties’ that were (apparently) conveyed to the IPCC but were not mentioned as such in the IPCC report.

Data veracity errors

Did the editors read the words without thinking?

Classic example of the need for objective Communications Pre-Testing

The IPCC claim, later retracted, that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 seems to have been based on an article published in the New Scientist magazine in 1999. This article originated from a telephoned interview by the magazine with an eminent glaciologist Syad Iqbal Hasnain. Mr Hasnain now denies ever giving any date for total melt of these glaciers.

The editors of the IPCC report somehow either missed this claim or failed to check its validity. In a long, complex communication it is very easy to miss a 'glaring' error when you are deeply involved with the communication. Important communications should always be pre-tested in advance of publication by someone who is totally objective and has had no involvement in producing that communication.

They missed an ‘obvious’ dubious claim that ruined their credibility It seems that collecting and collating scientific evidence on glacial retreat in the Himalayas has been both physically near impossible and technically difficult. There is anecdotal evidence of significant retreat by local glacier-watchers but no systematic method of measurement has been devised. Most experts believe these glaciers would take at least 100 years to totally melt.
‘I told them they wouldn’t believe me’ Apparently the chairman of the ClimateGate enquiry had warned the CRU that there could be accusations of vested interest. But they carried on regardless.
Click to go back to the top of the page.