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Ian Abley Black Boxes - Do Open
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1. Keith Johnson, Hacked Emails Show Climate Science Ridden with Rancor, 21 November 2009, The Wall Street Journal, posted on http://online.wsj.com

2. Ian Abley, Gummer might gloat, but he made the Building Research Establishment what it is today, 11 November 2007, posted here

3. Climate scientists accused of "manipulating global warming data", 21 November 2009, The Telegraph, posted on www.telegraph.co.uk

4. Press release, CRU key to setting environmental agenda, 11 June 2008, University of East Anglia, posted on www.uea.ac.uk

5. Global Warming With the Lid Off - The emails that reveal an effort to hide the truth about climate science, 24 November 2009, The Wall Street Journal, posted on http://online.wsj.com

Where to build?100,000 homes a year is all that will be built in Britain unless we organise against the Town and Country planning systemThe regression of Green Capitalism

Open all the publicly funded "black box" data that environmentalists guard as "evidence"

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Keith Johnson reported that researchers at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were victims of "a cyberattack by hackers" on 19 November 2009:

'A collection of emails dating back to the mid-1990s, as well as scientific documents were splashed across the Internet. University officials confirmed the hacker attack, but couldn't immediately confirm the authenticity of all the documents posted on the Internet. The publicly posted material includes years of correspondence among leading climate researchers, most of whom participate in the preparation of climate-change reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative summaries of global climate science that influence policy makers around the world.' (1)

In Britain it is commonplace for the leading environmentally minded institutions and quangos to publish their reports and recommendations without opening the “black box” of the background data to public scrutiny.

Government has seen no problem with the "black box" approach, but after this case at the CRU in the UEA, political confidence in the practice might be shaken. All other British universities will also be wondering whether their "black box" based research reportage stands scrutiny, and not just in the field of Climate Change. Many environmental claims are based on well funded but "black box" operations. Of course not all "black box" based research is concerned with the environment. It is just that a large amount of environmental research informs policymaking, often on the basis of unpublished "evidence". This happens in the widespread effort to address Climate Change through the reduction of greenhouse gases, and in particular Carbon Dioxide. Exactly the issue at the CRU.

The problem has been created by government, and accepted by all British universities. Since the late 1980s in particular successive British governments, but none more so that Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's New Labour, have required many institutions, not just universities, to bid for research grants. These research institutions include the vast number of Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations that have become a middle class job creation scheme in Britain, and particularly for environmentalists. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between a quango and a university department.

If these research institutions were required as a condition of funding to make public the entirety of their research they would be competing more openly for funds in the publicly funded market for grants. All the institutions would share the same data. There would need to be a judgement made to favour one over the other when allocating the fee stream beyond the fact that an institution had a "black box" of data established as a private resource from previous rounds of funding.

Government has allowed the "black box" operations to establish, favouring those who have a track record of winning funding. The process for awarding grants has also become at least partially staffed by leading researchers with interests in maintaining credibility amongst civil servants and elected politicians in the "black box" operations their authority depends upon. If government staff have not made sure the public know what is in the "black box" then government only has itself to blame when it is unable to do without the research institution.

In the mid 1990s the "free market" ideology of Britain's Conservative Party was that academics were less able to "innovate" on the public payroll, removed from commercial reality. Former state run research agencies were privatised, but funded in a "partnership" with government departments. Most notably the Building Research Establishment. (2) At the same time universities were encouraged to seek research funding in "partnership" with industry. Public and private sector partnerships have been taken to new lows of collusion and confusion under New Labour.

The difficulty with this flawed publicly funded privatisation of research is that it becomes impossible for the public to tell the genuine from the fraudulent. There will always be a pool of expertise and interest among the wider public capable of checking the voracity of even the most technical research. It is false to claim that "the public wouldn't understand". The public is all of us, including amateur enthusiasts alongside the peers of the professionals who were paid to undertake research on behalf of us all. It is the enquiring public who should be trusted, and no professional should mind being publicly questioned.

But "black box" professionals have a problem. To publish all the data paid for by the public, or sophisticated over time in some form of collaborative effort in "partnership" with industry, would be to share the entirety of the "black box" to their competition. Those professionals who have acted truthfully might insist that they have to be the guardian of the data for some convoluted set of reasons, but these excuses invariably amount to little more than a complicated attempt just to stay in business.

The public's valuable trust in professionals has to be relied upon, and reputations of experts matter. Yet as a strategy over time the repeatedly funded "black box" based institution avoids necessary public scrutiny.

Many professional researchers would much rather their work was publicly scrutinised, but know that their institution would lose commercial advantage in the next round of government grant applications. They will feel vulnerable. The valuable trust based on good reputations can be exploded by any fraudsters. The temptation, built into the funding system by the British government, is for the research team leaders to fabricate background data to secure funding. In most cases this temptation is resisted by professionals, who might prefer not to be operating a "black box" at all. But they feel they must keep a "black box" operation going.

The "black box" system relies on the public's trust of professionals, rather than on the trust of the public by government. Yet government at least implicitly suspects that the public is not able to handle the research contents of the "black box" behind the executive summary of a carefully presented report. The established suspicion of public scrutiny easily becomes explicit, allowing researchers to claim they guard important data from the self-interested public, and leaving the research grant system open to fraudsters.

The threat in this suspicious system, and the threat to the majority of reputable professionals, is not from a minority of fraudsters looking to get rich off government grant money. The biggest threat comes from researchers who are primarily morally driven, as are most environmentalists. They may choose to pursue an environmental agenda on the basis of a fabrication, perhaps even convinced that the proof will be forthcoming to justify their original claims. Morally justified fraud is most likely abuse of the "black box" approach.

What the CRU@UEA case makes everyone wonder is whether all the other "black box" operations can be trusted. The public's valuable trust in professionals is too easily exploded. If the CRU researchers have fabricated "evidence" of anthropogenic climate change, many other professionals will feel, rightly, betrayed. That however will be insufficient to convince all professionals to open their "black box". Only a political decision that publicly funded research should be published for public access will end the "black box" system so easily abused by moralists.

For anyone like me, with a sufficiently low enough opinion of the ability of environmentalists to professionally overcome their morality, it is easy to imagine there is an explosive story here. I think in many instances the various “black box” research projects in Britain have inconclusive content, assuming there is any content at all. To discover that the "evidence" in some critically important areas of environmental research is fabricated would be really good news. The problem is that no-one knows the truth about "black box" research operations. The data is paid for publicly. The pursuit of the truth requires any "black box" to be opened.

Scientific research should never be based on a blind trust in claims of expertise, or on reputation, but on public scrutiny and proof. Researchers may be telling the truth about what they know and don't know, but they should not have to hide the facts in a "black box" simply to stay in the burgeoning business of greening capitalism.

The CRU@UEA case, whether Climate Change data is being fabricated or not, should be the beginning of a serious questioning of the legitimacy of any “black box” backed research activity dressed up by politicians as “evidence based policy making”. Scientific research should be public if political decisions depend upon the data, as is the case with Climate Change. That is the only way to protect ourselves from eco-fraud.

Luboš Motl

Lubos MotlThe hacker Luboš Motl is from the Czech Republic. He has a PhD in theoretical physics, having worked on string theory and conceptual problems of quantum gravity until 2006. He appears to be an abrasive character, disliked by colleagues in public on some blog sites. That hardly matters. He may well be a rather odd and clever individual. It is what he has done that matters. He should be thanked for opening this "black box" regardless of the outcome.

The CRU scientists alleged to have manipulated data on Climate Change initially declined to comment on the hacked material posted online. (3) If the CRU case proves that Climate Change "evidence" was fabricated that will be explosive. (4) There is a possibility that this is a hoax by Motl, but if genuinely from the CRU there is an important issue to settle:

How does the hacked CRU data refute any of the science?

Answering that may take some time. It may be that no science of any significance is refuted. Perhaps this is little more than a volume of embarassing email correspondence. Not "data" at all. Or, it may be that some very basic claims are called into question. Then politicians will seek to blame the morally motivated researchers at the UEA, while trying to avoid their own responsibilities. Many greens will no doubt call for punishments for "cyberattacks" by hackers anyway. Some scientists will harden their public distrust. The WSJ made the clear observation that:

'These scientists feel the public doesn't have a right to know the basis for their climate-change predictions, even as their governments prepare staggeringly expensive legislation in response to them... In the department of inconvenient truths, this one surely deserves a closer look by the media, the U.S. Congress and other investigative bodies.' (5)

As the WSJ knows scientists have the right to remain silent. That is completely compatible with the public demand to open all of the publicly funded "black box" data environmentalists guard as "evidence". There are several "black box" operations in the British construction industry to be fully investigated. We need to know if they are empty, partially full of contradictions, or contain the conclusive data they are supposed to.

Ian Abley 22.11.2009, updated on 24.11.2009

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