At a Danish climate summit this week, one subject will certainly be raised: The theft of thousands of private e-mails and files recently hacked from computers at East Anglia university, a leading climate research center. The e-mails, which were made public and appear to show scientific misconduct, have fueled a firestorm among those who believe that global warming is not chiefly driven by human influences.
The case is still unfolding, and East Anglia has launched an investigation "to determine whether there is any evidence of the manipulation or suppression of data which is at odds with acceptable scientific practice."
On the surface, it seems that there was in fact misconduct of some sort. In some cases, words and phrases (such as "trick") were used out of their academic context to make them seem duplicitous. Other cases are more serious: Scientist Phil Jones was quoted as stating that he would attempt to keep papers whose conclusions argued against a connection between warming and human activity out of an important climate panel report. Researcher Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University was portrayed as discussing the boycott of an academic journal that had published what he and others felt was an inadequate study.
These actions certainly seem improper, and in one case may have been illegal. The question is not whether at least some of the scientists quoted in the private e-mails exhibited poor judgment or even scientific misbehavior. The real question is whether that misconduct is relevant to the larger issue of whether there is solid evidence for global warming.
For all the furor and controversy, what has not been found among the decade's worth of stolen e-mails is revealing.
If the e-mails truly are the "smoking gun" that the critics of global warming claim them to be — revealing the tip of the melting iceberg of scientific fraud regarding climate change data — then it is puzzling that no one has yet identified the numerous faked studies.
For all the innuendo and accusations, the scientists' critics have yet to locate a single instance of fraudulent research exposed in the e-mails. Personal e-mails between climate scientists may be ill-advised and embarrassing, but by themselves do not provide hard evidence of scientific fraud.
The fact is that the evidence for climate change does not hinge upon data from the East Anglia University researchers whose e-mails were exposed. Data supporting the global warming hypothesis has been collected over decades from a wide variety of independent organizations around the world, including NASA, the Met Office Hadley Centre in England, the Meteorological Office in Germany, and many others.
To use an analogy, it would be like if, during a worldwide eclipse of the sun, one observatory was accused of faking the telescopic images it showed visitors during the event. Even if that were true, it wouldn't change the fact that the eclipse happened, nor that dozens of other observatories recorded the same thing. Many of the claims made by the so-called global warming skeptics have been raised and addressed (see, for example, http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php).
None of this excuses the scientist's alleged behavior. They should not suppress nor delete data they disagree with. Scientists, like people in every other profession, sometimes act unprofessionally and maliciously. Fortunately the data they produce stands or falls on its own merits.
If the scientists' data is revealed to have been faked, they will undoubtedly be charged with scientific misconduct, their papers recalled, and their careers ruined. So far, however, the only crime known to have been committed is the original hacking of the university's private e-mails.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.