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MYTH #98: Scientists withheld data


Scientists at East Anglia wanted to prevent their data from being made available to the public.


Several impartial reviews found the East Anglia scientists did nothing wrong.

In late 2009, private emails were stolen from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia. Deniers pounced on a few remarks in the emails that appeared to suggest scientists had withheld documents the public had sought under a freedom of information request. So what really happened? It’s true that the scientists at times denied these requests for documents. However, an independent review of the stolen emails found that a flurry of requests were made in just a matter of days — a sign that the requests were made in an orchestrated attempt to overwhelm small research units with limited resources like East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. Believing the requesters were not acting in good faith, researchers were wary about sharing their data with people they didn’t trust. The important thing is that their data held up. The facts remain the same. And those facts support the scientific conclusion that climate change is happening and human beings are to blame.

Additional info from The Climate Reality Project

In late 2009, private emails were stolen from climate scientists in the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The Internet exploded with accusations that the East Anglia scientists had dishonestly manipulated data. Worse, claimed accusers, the scientists were trying to hide their tracks by failing to meet public requests for records under a U.K. law called the Freedom of Information Act (which is similar to a U.S. law with the same name). 

But investigations by the U.K.’s House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee, an Independent Science Assessment Panel (PDF), the U.S. National Science Foundation (PDF), the Independent Climate Change E-Mail Review team and other groups have cleared the scientists of any such charge. Across the board, the investigators came to the same conclusion: Climate scientists at East Anglia performed their research honestly and rigorously. 

The investigations also found, however, that the scientists could have been more transparent with their data and compliant with Freedom of Information Act requests. So what might have motivated their reluctance to share data and respond to these requests? 

Evidence suggests that the Freedom of Information Act requests were made in a deliberate attempt to overwhelm the small Climatic Research Unit at the university. In first four years of the Freedom of Information Act’s existence in the U.K. (2005-2009), the unit received a total of only seven requests. But then, in the summer of 2009, in a matter of only four days, it received 60, plus 10 more in the weeks that followed. With limited resources, a flood of requests for information like this could have easily consumed the research unit’s entire staff. 

One of the investigations found that the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit were generally unhelpful when it came to Freedom of Information Act requests. They gave partial answers to some requestors and discussed deleting email correspondence that would be relevant to others. Importantly, though, the Independent Science Assessment Panel reported (PDF)

“We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it. Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention.” 

To sum up, the climate scientists acted lawfully and ethically and their conduct was held up by several independent reviews. Most importantly, we shouldn't let this procedural dispute distract us from what the science tells us. The world is warming because of carbon pollution. And the more we pollute, the worse things will get.