‘Sorry’ State of Affairs: Climate Scientists Collecting Official Apologies from Attackers

Demanding retractions for defamation or wrong accusations, scientists finding vindication

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WASHINGTON—If environmental scientists were as vindictive as their fiercest foes, they might refer to this week as “Oops-gate.”

But, alas, they are not. Scientists worldwide have adopted a diplomatic tone in response to the recent series of “sorries” coming from those accusing them of professional malfeasance. And, while two or three apologies don’t necessarily make for a sweeping trend, these cases indicate that scientists seem more willing to challenge the vitriol flung by their harshest adversaries.

Granted, the separate mea culpas issued recently by a Canadian senior government official and a British newspaper didn’t garner much attention in the U.S. press, but they are resonating in the scientific community because they come on the heels of a string of inquiries that cleared the supposed “Climategate” researchers this spring.

Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the nonprofit advocacy organization Union of Concerned Scientists, said she is encouraged that bold colleagues are no longer sitting silently by the sidelines when they see mistakes or experience them firsthand.

“They are stepping forward and saying, ‘Hey, get your facts right,’” she told Solve Climate in an interview from her Washington office. “The scientists who speak up … are brave souls. The ones who are asking for this to be retracted and that to be fixed are courageous because society will benefit when scientists stand up for the truth.”

Attack on Tar Sands Researchers Retracted

The Canadian confrontation stemmed from a 2009 study titled “Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute? The Scientific Evidence” that researchers Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee published in The Open Conservation Biology Journal.

Earlier this year, Peter McEachern, head of science, research and innovation with Alberta Environment, a part of the provincial government, accused the two of lying about the environmental impacts of the oil sands industry.  During a presentation at the University of Alberta, he claimed the researchers chose to leave out data from 1985, 2003 and 2004 when examining mercury concentrations in Athabasca River fish. Properly analyzed data, he said, would not have shown such a trend in the contaminant concentrations of the fish.

However, Timoney, a researcher with Treeline Ecological Research who has a doctorate in ecology, and Lee, the executive director of Global Forest Watch Canada, said they didn’t have access to those three years of data and that suppressing such information is strictly forbidden in any line of scientific research.

In May, Timoney and Lee hired an attorney and threatened to sue for defamation if McEachern didn’t retract his statements.

“I apologize for the statements made about you in and during my PowerPoint presentations,” McEachern responded June 11 via his attorney, according to a June 22 account in the Edmonton Journal. “Referring to your 2009 study… let me say that i) you did not lie, ii) you did not choose to remove data from your study, iii) you did not actually remove data from 1985, 2003 and 2004.”

“The statements in my presentations that you did these things were false and I regret very much that I made these statements,” wrote McEachern, who has a doctorate in ecology and environmental biology.

Apology for Attack on IPCC

Across the Atlantic, The Sunday Times published a correction last weekend for a series of mistakes evidently edited into a January article in the London newspaper about climate change. For instance, the article claimed that the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, the climate body of the UN, was wrong to cite a World Wildlife Fund study about the potentially devastating effects of drought caused by global warming on the Amazon rain forest because the report wasn’t based on scientific reviews.

The correction not only admitted that the Amazon study was backed by peer-reviewed evidence but also issued an apology to Simon Lewis, who is affiliated with the University of Leeds in Britain.

Lewis, a rain forest specialist, had filed a March complaint with his country’s Press Complaints Commission that accused The Sunday Times of publishing inaccurate, misleading or distorted information about global warming, according to The New York Times.

He and other climate change scientists have gone head-to-head with the newspaper’s editors about the misunderstandings the article has caused. The correction admitted that the originally reported article was rewritten significantly before the final version was printed.

Scientists Live for a Challenge

One of the earliest lessons for any scientist worth his or her salt, Ekwurzel said, is learning how to engage in the vigorous exchanges with peers. Science, after all, is all about trying to poke holes in existing research to see which methods and findings withstand such scrutiny.

“Scientists ultimately care about the truth,” she said. “And they want to take a rigorous path to get there.”

She was put through those demanding paces during doctorate studies at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and post-doctoral research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

It’s one thing to disagree in the context of a respectful debate, however, and quite another to launch brutal assaults that misconstrue scientists’ statements or claim they have lied or suppressed information.

“When it’s legitimate criticism, the science that comes out in the end is better,” Ekwurzel said. “What is troubling is when people are hurling unsubstantiated claims. Then, there’s no dialog. You can’t have an exchange when you’re no longer talking about truth or evidence.”

It’s the public who loses out when shouting matches and misinformation is highlighted in the press, Ekwurzel and Lewis agree.

“The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said,” Lewis wrote in a statement to The New York Times. “If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments.”

Corrections, Follow-ups Often Don’t Resonate With Public

Even though researchers involved in last year’s trumped up “Climategate” scandal have been proven innocent over and over again, Ekwurzel points out, the public’s grasp of situations like that is somewhat hazy because so few people read or even notice follow-ups and corrections.

They are more likely to remember the brouhaha that erupted over scientific jargon that sounded suspect and nefarious when the initial investigation of the leaked e-mails was first announced, she added.

“But what is it they say about a lie?” she said about how difficult it is to repair unsubstantiated damage to a scientist’s work. “A lie will get halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get up and put on its pants.”

It turns out the researchers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit were having a normal scientific exchange and nobody was trying to hide anything, she said.

Climate deniers and skeptics accused researchers at the English school of manipulating and suppressing global warming data eventually used in IPCC reports after hackers released thousands of e-mail exchanges and other climate data.

“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 is likely we would have detected it,” the six-member review team led by Lord Ronald Oxburgh, the former chairman of House of Lords’ science and technology committee, wrote in their April findings. “Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganized researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention.”

U.S.-based climatologist Michael Mann was also embroiled in the controversy because his name appeared in the suspect e-mails. However, a Pennsylvania State University panel cleared him of misconduct, finding no evidence that he falsified data, destroyed data related to the 2007 IPPC report or misused privileged or confidential information available to him in his capacity as a scholar.

Nature of the Climate Beast

Global warming has become such a contentious issue that climate scientists are fully aware of their lightning rod status.

“That is absolutely the case with global warming,” Ekwurzel said. “If you’re a scientist talking about the killifish being affected by oxygen depletion, not many people are listening. People just don’t care as much about that fish.”

Ekwurzel said she and her fellow scientists have anecdotal evidence of colleagues who are reluctant to step forward or participate in high-profile panels for fear of being pummeled. The scientific journals are aware of this issue, she said, and are tracking it.

Scientists involved in such high-profile, publicly relevant research fully expect to draw criticism and feedback, she said. However, those challenges become dangerous and inflammatory when the facts are put through filters and politicized.

Her fear is that the facts will become so diluted and the discussions so discombobulated that business leaders, policy makers and citizens will be too confused to act.

Although extended under duress, the recent round of apologies offers at the very least vindication for researchers trying to advance science.

“Scientists are trying to tell the world about the impact we’re having on the planet,” Ekwurzel concluded. “And we haven’t always been very successful telling this story. People see us as bearers of gloom and doom.

“In fact, we are trying to sound the warning bells so the gloom and doom scenarios don’t happen.”