FOIA Eyes Only

April 20, 2010

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the broader environmental science and law community.

A leading British university has been told it must release data on tree rings dating back more than 7000 years to an amateur climate analyst and climate sceptic.

The ruling, which could have important repercussions for environmental research in the UK, comes from the government’s deputy information commissioner Graham Smith. In January he caused consternation at the height of the “climategate” affair by criticising the way that the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, handled sceptics’ requests for data from its Climatic Research Unit.

On one hand, it obviously makes sense to make one’s data as widely available as possible. Sunlight is a great disinfectant. On the other hand, this potentially creates substantial problems for researchers the world over if data and findings are to be made available to any who ask. Plainly, if this rule is universalized, there will be hell to pay from free enterprise. I’m no law scholar, but it seems to me that depending on how this is phrased, and depending on its reach — if it is like the Hyde Amendment, say — it could potentially open the door for  no private business to partner with University employed or publicly funded scientific researchers at all, ever. That would, possibly, be a terrible outcome, for many reasons, not the least of which is that Universities may cease to be engines of technological expansion. From this article, at least, it does indeed appear that the ruling has far broader reach than simply into the climate community:

The ruling sends a strong signal that scientists at public institutions such as universities cannot claim their data is their or their university’s private property.


  1. It will certainly make it much easier for the fomenting of bogus controversy over any line of research someone doesn’t like. All that this amateur has to say publicly, now, is that he’s looked at the data that these Scientists were finally forced to release and they say the exact opposite of what’s been claimed for them. The denialist bullshit relay mechanism will keep this morsel lofted into view for however long it takes for the public to forget all about anyone saying any different, no matter how well-justified the rebuttal.
    Nice bit of philosophy-of-science done by fiat there, too – we don’t test hypotheses by multiple independent tests, we audit research by poring through someone else’s hard-got data and looking for errors. Even if we don’t find any, the assumption that he’s a dishonest fool, that all scientists are dishonest fools, is subliminally propagated and reinforced. So much for those tossers, Popper, Kuhn, the like. Good of this Graham Smith character to settle that for us. And Steve McIntyre must be very proud indeed, this is exactly what he’s been working at so assiduously for all these years. Hamstringing science.

  2. Lars,

    I am an engineer and I don’t make the assumption my analysis is perfect or that I am dishonest if someone else looks at my work. It’s called standard procedure because when enginneers make mistakes, people sometimes die. Why should I or anyone else expect a scientist to have perfect analysis?

    • It’s called standard procedure in engineering, Bob. As you point out, lives can depend upon confirmation of results by replication when engineering is involved.
      The standard procedure in science is that your readers assume that you’ve done what you said that you did in the procedures as you’ve written them up (and that you’ve written them up carefully enough that anyone else can duplicate them at need, and also so that any informed reader can see that your methods are apposite to the hypothesis that you’re testing), and that you’ve reported faithfully on the results that you obtained. They assume that your report has been assessed by disinterested peers and has passed muster – while you may have berked a number or a procedure, there is no reason to reject your methodology, and your results can be provisionally accepted. Other workers will collect their own data and analyze it using their own methods if they think that you’re incorrect. If you’ve messed up, it will become evident sooner or later, depending upon how active your field is. That’s more or less the model by which science has progressed, and it works pretty well. Note that it assumes honesty and competence – maybe naively, but the constant self-correcting process of independent data collection, analysis, hypothesis formulation and testing tends strongly to filter error out and to reveal dishonesty.
      What your auditor is assuming is that the dendrochronologists from whom he is prying the data are colluding to cover up the existence of the Medieval Warm Period. That isn’t evident from the snippet Ben reproduced here. The auditor isn’t testing an hypothesis. He’s trying to trap miscreants, at best; more likely he doesn’t really care if they’ve done something wrong or not, what he is intent upon is disseminating the perception that there is something fishy going on here and that these guys have something to hide, and really, sensible people ought to get together and get to the bottom of things. He’s suggesting, no matter what he might find from the data, that the field of environmental science is full of swindlers and bunglers. Any small discrepancy in the data that he might find (and they will be small) will be trumpeted as evidence for this, and any such case that he gins up will still be being propagated by the denialist network long after it has been thoroughly discredited by real scientists. Out auditor has no time for the self-correcting process of scientific inquiry, because in his world, there is no such thing. Science is subordinated, in his world, to political, ideological or fiscal interests, and to pretend otherwise is mendacious or hopelessly, archaically idealistic. At the same time, he is able to palm himself off as a “citizen scientist”, asking honest questions, reluctantly pointing out that the emperor seems to be naked as a jaybird, picking up the dropped oriflamme of the Enlightenment – oh, he can’t lose.
      And that applies to McIntyre, RickA. But it looks like you’ve already swallowed the narrative that he wants everyone to believe.

  3. Lars:

    I disagree that Steve McIntyre has been working to hamstring science.

    He is merely questioning the conclusions scientists made in papers, which were based on data which they refused to share.

    At times their refusal to share was in violation of the policies of the journals the papers were published in.

    Steve McIntyre has advanced science, because on many occasions, he has turned out to be right, papers and/or data have been corrected, to the benefit of everybody.

    Personally, I think it is a good policy that all data underlying a published paper should be archived and publically available.

    If you don’t want it disclosed, don’t use it to support a journal paper.

    • “Many occasions”? No. What McIntyre is about, and indeed what you’re about in your own small way, is trying to impede the progress of science by tieing it up in procedural knots. This is because you are unable to bring yourself to care more about the well-being future generations than your own immediate material gratification. You’re really a quite rotten human being, although you’ve got plenty of company.

      • “Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong.”

        Rousseau, Jean Jacques

  4. Lars,

    I’ve been on both ends of a design, that is the creator of the design, and the checker (or auditor if you prefer). As the creator of the design, I know I have done a very good job to the best of my abilities with full confidence in my results. I also realize I may have overlooked something or missed a detail that could eventually turn out to be harmful. As the checker (auditor) I am not assuming the design is wrong, but without the original data I will be unable to verify it is correct. In fact, if I can match the results then I don’t need to gather additional raw data. It seems to me by collecting my own raw data and performing the analysis as specified, I might get an answer that is close but not the same. At which point the question could be asked “Who is right?” Add to that the auditor doesn’t have the time to get his own field data and you end up having to accept the design as-is. I have checked plans where there were gross errors and plans where I found few (mostly technical) errors in documentation but not in the design. Without the base data I would have not been able to assess the correctness of the design, good or bad.

    By the way, when I found gross errors, I let the design engineer know and proposed the appropriate remedy to correct the design. As a general rule, most engineers are glad the error was found and readily accept the corrections. Perhaps it is different with scientist in this regard. I can’t say, since I am just an engineer.

    • Bob, this is all well and good for engineering, and in fact I would hope that any engineering job would be carried out with at least this level of redundancy and care. What you’ve described also goes on in science – I may ask a colleague to check over my calculations – and in such a case I would of course provide them with my data. But this all comes before my reporting of my procedures and results. It would be assumed by the reviewers that this sort of double-checking, if necessary, would have been done before my manuscript arrived on their desk.
      Independent testing of my hypotheses would not involve simply passing my data around to see if anyone could get my numbers to come out differently. What is of interest is seeing if the phenomenon being examined is adequately explained by the hypotheses advanced to explain it. If they can be generalized to all instances of the phenomenon – if multiple independent tests of the hypothesis fail to falsify it – we’re getting somewhere. If one test falsifies the hypothesis, then we’re getting somewhere else; still, the program is working as it should. You’re quite right, this would be of limited use in an engineering situation, as you’ve described it. But science and engineering are different research programs and have different methodologies. Auditing, as you’ve described it, is perfectly appropriate to one, but irrelevant to the other, in fact toxic to its culture when carried out by self-appointed “auditors” like the fellow described above, who is really more interested in derailing climatological research than he is in clarifying matters.

    • Right, and some guy wanders in from the street, demands your designs, notebooks, and oh yeah show me your Emails. Today man.

      • This would not be a problem. If the design wasn’t complete, it would be marked preliminary. If it was complete and awarded for construction, it would have my PE stamp on it. As for the emails (and supporting data), it would need to go through an open records request and would be provided within 3 days.

  5. As Stuart Brand said
    On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

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