Illegally obtained messages suggest research is tainted
December 3, 2009 5:00 AM
Greg Grieco, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann
By David Templeton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A Penn State University climatologist sits at the center of the international scandal spawned by hacked e-mails from a British university that have stirred controversy over global-warming research.
Hundreds of e-mails illegally obtained from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit included messages to and from Michael E. Mann, director of Penn State's Earth System Science Center, among other prominent researchers.
Those e-mails included calls for information to be deleted or hidden, references to research "tricks," and derogatory statements about researchers and journals offering contrary evidence to human-induced climate change.
Opponents to climate legislation have used the e-mails to foster debate in advance of a climate conference in Copenhagen, with claims they show how politics has tainted research.
The most controversial e-mails seem to recommend that data unflattering to global-warming theories be hidden or deleted, with researchers bemoaning the fact they cannot show warming trends at the moment. In the e-mails there's also discussion about whether temperatures actually have declined in recent decades.
But in an e-mail response yesterday to the controversy, Dr. Mann said some private e-mails between fellow researchers included poor word choices, while the most controversial terms are taken out of context. The e-mails, he said, reflect no violation of research ethics.
"I believe what we have here is a smear campaign attempted to distract the public and policy-makers from the reality of climate change, and the need to do something about it on the eve of the historic upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen," he stated in an e-mail to the Post-Gazette.
Penn State officials are gathering information about Dr. Mann's involvement, which, he said, "is precisely what I think they should be doing.
"I am happily working with them, as I have done nothing inappropriate here, nor do I have anything to hide," he said.
Penn State spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said the university is following specific guidelines based on its policy to handle inquiries or investigations into questions of ethics in research. Dr. Mann continues his duties as a professor in the Department of Meteorology and Geosciences, she said.
"There are 100 e-mails so it probably will take a while," Ms. Mountz said of the inquiry.
The situation arose last month when University of East Anglia e-mails began appearing on blogs and Web sites, especially ones that attempt to counter claims of climate change caused by humans.
The e-mails now are stoking controversy in Congress from politicians opposed to climate legislation.
Yesterday, e-mails were forwarded to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, prompting scientists to describe those using the e-mails to foster debate as being "erroneous and misleading."
"Our understanding of climate science is based on decades of research from thousands of scientists," says a news release from Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists Climate and Energy Program. "These e-mails don't affect what we know about human activity driving dangerous levels of global warming or the measures we must take to address it.
"Senators and members of Congress should stop spreading conspiracy theories."
In a point-by-point explanation of the e-mails, Dr. Mann worked to place each e-mail in context.
One such e-mail from another researcher states, "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years and from 1961 ... to hide the decline" in temperatures since that date.
Dr. Mann said that researcher has publicly gone on record to indicate he was using the term "trick" in the sense of "bag of tricks," or "trick to solving this problem," or "a trick of the trade."
The e-mail described how different data bases were used to fill research gaps, he said, and does not indicate that data was fabricated.
Opponents say the phrase "hide the decline" is proof that scientists have been hiding evidence of temperature declines in recent decades. Dr. Mann said that e-mail involved research he's not directly associated with.
"The decline," he said, "refers only to the well-known decline in the response of only a certain type of tree-ring data to temperatures after about 1960." That limited data does not dispute global warming, he said.
Others, including an editorial today in Nature, have concluded that no manipulation of data or research has been discovered. It also says the controversy shows what harassment climate-change researchers are facing.
"This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the U.S. Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill," the editorial states. "Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real -- or that human activities are almost certainly the cause."
M. Granger Morgan, head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, where he directs the Center for Climate Decision Making, called the controversy "a tempest in a teapot."
"The fundamental science, that more carbon dioxide in the climate warms up the atmosphere, is not subject to any significant academic debate," he said.
The only debate, he said, is over how fast global warming is occurring and what the consequences will be. "A lot of folks play pretty dirty pool to generate uncertainty in the mind of the public," he said.