Monday, November 23, 2009

The "CRU hack" and the deplorable state of reporting and blogging

This episode is a sad sad sad comment on the state of blogging and news reporting. Three reasons.

First, for legal reasons, I'd like to think that no news organization should be allowed to report on the content of that mail. This is the equivalent of someone breaking into your mailbox in front of your house, opening your mail, then publishing it. Seriously, how would you feel if the NY Times wrote about a private letter you mailed to a colleague or friend being stolen and tacked to lampposts all over town? Would you sue? Do you think it should be admissible in court? Is the lesson here that we can never consider e-mail or any communication to be private so we should go back to using the postal service?

Second, even if you ignore the legality, there's ample reason to consider the contents of the mail with caution. It is private communication so people for whom that communication were not intended are not qualified to interpret that communication. I barely am able to follow some messages that I receive without looking over past correspondence for context. So, no, I will not defend anything that the scientists wrote. Nor will I condemn any of it either. For one reason: I have no idea what exactly those words meant. Neither do you. Every single thing in those messages could be misinterpreted because we are missing the context.

Finally, even if you ignore the legality, and ignore the lack of context, this episode is full of the same "post first, ask questions later" approach that usually destroys whatever good the blogosphere might accomplish. The vast majority of the bloggers, reporters and comment-ers are reacting to snippets pulled out private conversations, and done so by people whose objective is to question climate science. Stop it.

This episode is not a window into how climate science works. It's a window into how electronic communication has altered our standards and the way we work. Nobody looks good here. We should all be embarrassed.

This is the last you'll hear of it on Maribo.


Atmoz said...

Good post. Couldn't agree more.

Simon D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon D said...

This is all more of the filibuster, the grand distraction from important issues.

Sure, there is cause to think about scientific cliques and reform peer review. That's hardly new, or unique to climate science.

The timing of this "scandal", however, is no fluke. Now everyone is arguing about e-mails rather than what should happen at Copenhagen [and follow-up meetings].

Simon D said...

An addition to my cross post at the Energy Collective:

"Just to be clear, I'm not involved in any paleoclimate reconstruction research. I don't think I've even met any of the scientists in question. And as I wrote in the post, I'm not defending them or their practices. I'm merely saying that this entire thing is a distraction from what we should be discussing 13 days before Copenhagen [especially since none of this changes the key facts about the ongoing effect of human activity on the climate system]"

Bishop Hill said...

Your posting would be more convincing if you presented some examples of "post first, ask questions later".

Simon D said...

BH - Follow the link... that's an example.

Bishop Hill said...

Sorry, I meant with respect to the CRU emails.

Simon D said...

Where to start? From the beginning, influential bloggers and reporters were writing about vague statements taken from stolen e-mails without asking the authors what that statements actually meant. The consequence is the spread of these incorrect memes (like using a "trick" implying a deception).

Bishop Hill said...

Why is it necessary to ask them what the words meant? The words have a plain meaning. Isn't that the point of writing something down? Sure they might argue that "trick" has more than one meaning, but "hide the decline" doesn't, especially when you apply it to the particular situation that was being discussed.

Likewise, I find it hard to think of an effective way to spin "oust" in relation to a journal editor.

Simon D said...

Context. Context. Context. These are e-mails sent to colleagues. Any outsider reading them is missing the context. It's like jumping into a movie halfway, and assuming you know exactly what the first line means. Even with the example of the journal editor -- a minute's research will uncover the fact there were widely known to be serious problems at that journal.

As I've said above, I'm not defending anyone here. My beef is with the initial rush to judgment.