Last Friday, I traveled to the University of East Anglia in Norwich to meet with Phil Jones, the climatologist at the centre of the ‘climategate’ scandal.
Jones was the director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, when, last November, more than 1,000 e-mails and documents were illegally obtained from the university and posted on the Internet. Their contents quickly embroiled him in a controversy that has shaken the climate community and threatened his career.
Jones has stood down from his post while several independent investigations look into the affair, including one headed by Muir Russell, former vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, UK, which will assess allegations that the e-mails contain evidence of poor scientific practice at the CRU.
I had an hour to speak with Jones about the allegations that pertain specifically to his conduct as a scientist. Jones seemed rattled by the events of the past few months, and was reluctant to revisit the details of how it has affected him personally. He was also unable to comment on allegations that he withheld or destroyed data from his critics, as this is currently under investigation by the Muir enquiry.
But he was eager to set the record straight on the science.
Central to the Russell investigation is the issue of whether he or his CRU colleagues ever published data that they knew was potentially flawed, in order to bolster the evidence for man-made global warming. The claim specifically relates to one of Jones’s research papers on whether the urban heat island effect — in which cities tend to be warmer than the surrounding countryside — could be responsible for the apparent rise in temperature readings from thermometers in the late twentieth century. Jones’s paper found that the local effect was negligible, and that the dominant effect was global climate change.
But in 2007, amateur climate-data analyst Doug Keenan alleged that the results could be biased by the fact that the weather stations used in the analysis had been moved during the period of the study. As Jones’s co-author Wei-Chyung Wang of the University at Albany in New York had subsequently lost records of where the stations were located, there was no way of verifying or refuting Keenan’s claim.
The authors had claimed in the paper, published in Nature in 1990, that the Chinese data were selected on the basis of station history. “We chose those with few, if any, changes in instrumentation, location or observation times", wrote Jones and colleagues.
Jones now admits that the stations probably did move during the period of analysis, and as such, the paper may in fact need a correction. “I will give that some thought. It’s worthy of consideration,” says Jones.
But Jones is adamant that this doesn’t actually change the conclusion of the analysis. In a subsequent paper, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in 2008, Jones verified the original conclusions for the Chinese data for the period 1954–1983, showing that the precise location of weather stations was unimportant to the outcome.
So what does all of this mean? Well, for the sake of clarity, it would seem that the 1990 paper should be corrected to clear up the claim about the station positions, in light of the fact that it can no longer be verified. A correction could also point readers to the subsequent paper that is based on a more substantive analysis.
This error isn’t evidence of research misconduct or fraud, however, as has been suggested elsewhere. As lead author on the paper, Jones should have been confident of the quality of the data sets. But twenty years ago, standards for collecting and archiving data simply weren’t what they are now and these sorts of data were hard to come by. At worst, the current evidence seems to point to sloppy record-keeping, something that I suspect more than a handful of scientists are guilty of.
But this just one of the allegations against Jones. In the interview, he also defends himself against accusations that he – together with collaborators – has tried to underplay the importance of the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), and that he has tried to interfere with the peer review process.
If the MWP, a warm phase roughly around AD 1000, was greater in severity and extent than current evidence suggests it could undermine the claim that current warming is unprecedented in the past 1,000 years. The full story is here [subscription].