The theft of 1,000 private e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) shows that deniers have learned lessons from dirty politics and are running a new campaign to undermine public trust in climate scientists. The feeble response from the UEA and the climate science community shows that scientists are still totally underestimating the fragility of that trust and the crucial role it plays in building public belief.
The Importance and fragility of Trust
The lay public, when presented with confusing data and competing arguments about climate change deploy the heuristic (a fancy word for a mentalof short cut) of believing the people they most trust. Trust in the communicator is therefore a crucial precondition for belief in climate change.
Unfortunately the three main climate change communicators: politicians, journalists and environmental campaigners, are among the least trusted people in society- fighting it out for bottom place in the ranking with lawyers and car salesmen. No one would pay any attention to them at all if they were not drawing on the aquifer of public trust in scientists.
Climate scientists have always misunderstood the dynamic of public belief and trust. They assume that belief will be built on their data and that public trust is merited by their authority. With the exception of a few outstanding communicators, they often make no attempt to speak to deeper values or make an emotional connection with the public – indeed they see that as contrary to their professional independence.
However, whilst it is true that there is an underlying respect for scientific expertise, there are many other more emotional and contextual components to real trust. We tend to trust people we know, who seem to be like us, who speak to our values and life experience, who appear to have integrity or- that most intangible quality- people whom we seem to like.
The Deniers have always understood this. They use language that is designed to appeal to deeper values (such as freedom, independence, progress). The narrative they tell of being determined (and even persecuted) free thinkers standing against the tide of oppressive and self-interested conformity is designed to create an aura of integrity and trustworthiness.
Scientists often seek public anonymity. The only person portrayed the front page of the IPCC’s website is the long dead Alfred Nobel on the side of a gold medal. Deniers by comparison realise that trust (and distrust) is all about personalities. They promote themselves (and their personal backstories) constantly. They are not a pleasant bunch, but they get lots of practice in creating a good impression and some (such as Lomborg and Stott) can be charming in person.
And they seek to demonise real science by picking out individuals to abuse. None more so that Dr. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, a paleoclimatologist who prepared the famous hockey-stick graph. Dr. Mann has had the bravery to stand publicly by his findings and has been subjected to an extraordinary campaign of vilification and accusations of distortion and falsification (there are 20,000 responses to a search for “’Michael Mann’ climate fraud”). Mann seeks to keep above the fray but he has plentiful grounds for a string of libel actions.
Hacking into UEA
The recent hacking of the servers of the University of East Anglia can only be understood within this landscape of competing appeals to public trust. The strategy is this: the source of belief in climate change is the trust in the scientists as open, accountable, honest and independent. If you can challenge those qualities you can undermine the public trust. Just by revealing the things that people say to their peers in private, you can suggest that they are closed, secretive and conspiring to their own ends. The further you have gone to uncover those documents- in this case hacking into a secure server- the more you imply that they were buried and hidden from view. even the New York Times and Washington Post can portray a crime as an act of public disclosure.
The denial industry (and hordes of climate nerds) has trawled through these e-mails and found sentences which, when removed from context, support their storyline that climate science is being deliberately distorted and exaggerated for a mixed bag of self interested and politicized ends. Even better for them, some of these quotations come from Michael Mann.
But you could find anything in here. I looked and found lots of references to lunch and fun, 94 to hate, 31 to love. Generally, though, the e-mails are extremely focused, technical, and, dare I say it, really dull. As noted on Realclimate.org, the website that Mann helped found, the e-mails contain “no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords”.
But this is hardly the point. This is an orchestrated smear campaign and does not require balance or context. The speed with which the emails have been cut apart and fed into existing storylines is remarkable. The story has been led from the beginning by the denial site climatedepot.com (I absolutely refuse to provide a hyperlink) where you find the entire page given to ‘Climategate’, ‘smoking guns’, ‘blood in the water’ – lines that have all been fed to and doltishly repeated in the mainstream media.
Swift Boating the Climate Scientists
The coordinator of climatedepot.com is Marc Morano, a libertarian right self publicist and former aid to the outspoken denier Senator Inhofe, who has been seeking to become a kingpin in the climate denial industry. Marc Morano is not new to this kind of dirty fighting. According to the investigative site Source Watch, Morano, whilst working as a journalist for the right wing Cybercast News Service, was the first source in May 2004 of the smear campaign against John Kerry that later became known the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Although different in context and content, there are marked similarities between the Swift Boat campaign and the hacking of the UEA e-mails. Both were sophisticated strategies to undermine trust. Both identified trust and integrity as a major strength of the opponent and then played carefully chosen story lines to undermine them. At the very least the UEA e-mail campaign is an application of dirty political tactics to climate change campaigning.
Personally I suspect it goes further than that. The storyline is too clever, the timing on the brink of Copenhagen and the US climate bill too convenient. Obtaining compromising internal documents is the holy grail of presidential campaigns, so why would not campaigners who cut their teeth in US politics not seek to apply the same tactics against the poorly defended servers of a provincial university. I wait with interest to find out how these e-mails were obtained.
Call me a bastard and I’ll show you my birth certificate
And, the most disturbing similarity between the UEA hacking and the Swiftboat campaign, is that both rely for their success on the unwillingness of the opponent to rise to the debate and defend themselves. It is a generally accepted analysis that Kerry’s slow response was a huge strategic mistake which strengthened the smear. A weak response to an attack on your integrity, however ill founded, is read as guilt.
The UEA response has been frankly pathetic. It was informed by Real Climate of the hack on Tuesday 17th but only responded reactively two days later when journalists caught onto the story. It refused to confirm whether the e-mails were accurate or not and, for a long time, refused to comment at all.
Now, in typical scientist fashion, it seeks to argue the data rationally. The UEA website states that “the selective publication of some stolen emails and other papers taken out of context is mischievous and cannot be considered a genuine attempt to engage with this issue in a responsible way”. Mischievous? Irresponsible? What naughty pixies.
Then the CRU director, Professor Phil Jones focuses on one of quotes: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline” For the smear campaign it is only those key words trick and hide that count- the rest can be made into anything it wants. Jones ignores this and responds with a detailed technical explanation of the passage with reference to the original graphs. It’s like responding to someone calling you a bastard by showing them your birth certificate.
One can only conclude that the UEA’s communications team is totally out of its depth. A less charitable conclusion is that they are defending the interests of UEA and are not concerned about (or have not understood) the damage to climate science.
An appropriate response
So might I suggest this would have been the appropriate response for Professor Jones: speak to every journalist who calls, go on the offensive and defend your science. Clearly state that you are not prepared to have your hard working and committed colleagues around the world defamed or slandered by the kinds of people who illegally hack into computers. State that this is a desperate last ditch tactic by fanatics who have lost the rational debate.
And how about taking action against the criminals who hacked in? The stolen emails are currently on a website called www.anelegantchaos.org that has been set up for the purpose and is linked from all the denial websites. The owner of the site has written a self important introduction about the public interest of the site and the “disappointing insights” it provides. He has also put in a function to search the stolen property.
He is probably an egotist who enjoys the attention, so I am not going to name him. However his name, address and telephone number are all on the site registration. If he had my private emails splattered all over his site he would be hearing from my lawyers – if he was lucky. The fact that there appears to have been no attempt to prevent this site is yet further evidence of the half hearted response of UEA.
Sadly, due in part to the lackluster response, I am sure that these wretched e-mails have now entered permanently into the mythology of climate denial. Scientists are going to have to be a lot more savvy and on the ball in future.