'The Inquiry Reports Are Lousy' - An Interview with Steve McIntyre

Alex Reichmuth, Die Weltwoche, 22 July 2010: In November 2009, just days before the big climate summit in Copenhagen, thousands of internal e-mails from leading climate researchers at the University of East Anglia were made public. In the e-mails, the researchers at the university's Climatic Research Unit discussed how to manipulate data series. They discussed with colleagues from other research centres how to sideline critics of mainstream climate science. And they requested each other to delete scientific data in order to protect the scientific information from the clutches of their critics. The affair - soon referred to as "Climategate" - was explosive because the IPCC, in its reports, had again and again relied substantially on the research conducted at CRU - for example, in reconstructing the climate of the last thousand years with the help of so-called proxy data, such as tree rings or ice cores. In addition, CRU researchers also play a leading role in determining the global temperatures today.

The e-mail scandal forced CRU chief Phil Jones to temporarily relinquish his post. The university commissioned several supposedly independent inquiries in order to clarify the affair. The reports of these inquiries are now available and they largely exonerate the CRU researchers. In early July, the inquiry panel under Muir Russell stated that there could be no doubt about the 'rigour and honesty' of the CRU scientists. The panel found no indications that the researchers had manipulated data. One could at most accuse them of not being transparent enough with their research methods and not to be sufficiently open to criticism.

Two other inquiries - one conducted by the University of East Anglia with support from the Royal Society and one by the Science and Technology Select Committee of the British Parliament - had previously come to similar conclusions. In the published internal e-mails the name of the Canadian mathematician Stephen McIntyre appears very often. The retired mining expert has repeatedly revealed statistical fallacies by climate scientists and has thus become one of their sharpest critics. Researchers at the University of East Anglia do not like McIntyre. In their e-mails, they often discuss how to prevent him from getting access to more scientific data. Die Weltwoche met up with Stephen McIntyre for an interview in London.

Q: Mr. McIntyre, the Russell Inquiry concluded that no data were manipulated by CRU scientists. Other inquiries have come to the same conclusion. Was the Climategate affair only a storm in a teacup?

A: The Russell inquiry had many problems. For example the inquiry team did not interview any CRU critics.

Q: They did not?

A: No. They did not interview me or any other critics.

Q: Why do you think they did not interview you?

A: It is quite difficult to say. That is a real defect of the process. The inquiry's report only says it is "natural justice" that the CRU-researchers, who are the focus of the investigation, get an opportunity to be heard - in contrast to other actors. However if they had wanted to truly [investigate] this affair, it would have been important to talk to both sides of the dispute. What they did was to give a short, two-week window for submissions. If you were busy or had other things to do in this short time, you would not be able to make a submission.


With his reserved manner and his beard, Stephen McIntyre has a grandfather's charisma. In fact, he has two grandchildren. He speaks in a low voice and often struggles to find the right words. With regards to the content, however, his answers are straightforward and without frills, as you would expect from a mathematician.


Q: What were the other problems of the inquiry?

A: For example: Phil Jones, who as former director of the CRU is at the centre of the affair, was interviewed on only one occasion about the main issues, and Muir Russell did not even attend the interview. The majority of the members of the panel did not attend the interview either. It is quite extraordinary to me that the chairman of an inquiry would not attend the only interview with the subject of the inquiry about the issue in question.

Another problem: In terms of the mandate one mission of the Muir Russell inquiry was to look at the unpublished emails on the CRU server. They were said to put things in context. But the inquiry waited four months before even approaching the University of East Anglia in order to look at the other emails. The university then placed conditions on looking at it. The university retained an analyst who did not start work until 14 May, by which time the inquiry was already supposed to have been finished. An analysis would have taken several weeks, and the university said that this would be already too late and so do not bother. So they even failed to begin doing one important aspect of the inquiry they were supposed to do.

The inquiry also contains many errors, even factual errors, about the material of their findings. There are so many errors that it reduces the weight you could place on their conclusions.

Q: Is it true that the inquiry team did not ask whether emails were erased as it was requested in one of the Climategate emails by Phil Jones?

A: At the press conference releasing the inquiry, one of the reporters questioned if they even asked Jones whether he erased emails. The answer was: They did not ask.

Here is an astonishing error. On 27 May 2008 David Holland made an attempt to obtain certain emails regarding the [IPCC's] 4th assessment report, and that triggered two days later the email of Jones asking Mann, Briffa and others to erase any emails that concerned the secret exchange between Wahl and Briffa. The inquiry said that there was no evidence of any attempt to delete information in respect of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request already made. But Jones' request to erase emails came immediately after the FOI request of Holland. Muir Russell just ignored that!

Q: Why did the inquiry team not do all those things it certainly had to do?

A: I have no idea.

Q: Was this just a whitewash?

A: Obviously they were not interested in finding problems. Their primary concern seemed to be to clear the university. They certainly were more interested having a whitewash result. At some point the whole affair has to move on. But if inquiries do not do their job, I think that does not do anybody any good. If you want to say, this was years ago and time moved on, that is one thing. But do not say untrue things. The Climategate affair is a very contentious issue, not a small one. And for them to make a statement that is black-and-white incorrect on things that we know does not help much with credibility of things that one does not know.

Q: Do you have the impression that this inquiry was not independent?

A: In some respects it was not. For example: The university delayed the process to obtain access to other emails. Their legal advisers said that it would raise potential privacy and data protection issues. Thus the university delayed the analysis process by another six weeks.

The inquiry should have had its own legal advisers to see if that excuse was just obstruction by the university and to take legal action if necessary - but they only listened to the university's advisers.

Q: You said before that the inquiry team did not talk to you. Did they talk with other sceptics?

A: No. In the report they purport to justify this by saying: "We recognise that natural justice required that those in respect of whom findings will be made should have an opportunity to be heard: this does not apply to the authors of submissions and other parties..." But the idea of having an inquiry to resolve things should have the issue to deal equally with both sides of a dispute. If they were interviewing Jones and Briffa to get the evidence from them, they should have provided an opportunity to rebut.

This kind of truncated process is one that is not characteristic of normal inquiries. Nor did they question the CRU scientists that correctly represented the submissions. The interviews did not get to the bottom of things.

Q: There were other inquiries before with more or less the same conclusions: No data was manipulated. Did those inquiries also not go to the bottom of the problem?

A: No. The Russell inquiry was said to appraise the conduct of the scientists. The Oxburgh inquiry was said to appraise the scientific details. This was said by the university and the Royal Society too. But in the end the Oxburgh inquiry merely appraised the conduct as well.

I heard from reliable sources that Jones said in an Oxburgh inquiry interview it would be probably impossible to make the temperature reconstructions with any degree of accuracy. That is a very fundamental admission to the Science Appraisal Panel that the panel should have reported. So I wrote to Oxburgh and said that I have heard this and the report should have mentioned this. He refused and said that "science was not the subject of the inquiry".

When this came out, the former chairman of the Parliamentary science committee that had carried out a hearing was extremely angry with the university about changing the terms of reference. He could hardly believe it when he saw this. He said that this conduct of the university was 'sleight of hand'.

Q: So, is it necessary to have another inquiry?

A: I am a bit frustrated now. I do not know what will happen. For example, the famous "trick" to "hide the decline": I think there needed to be some statement in the reports that this is not an acceptable way of doing things, but there was none. From their point of view, they could perhaps have resolved the problem by acknowledging the real issue, without necessarily severely punishing the scientists involved. It needed to be said that such statistical methods should not be done anymore. When I talk to people in business and legal communities used to reporting financial statements, they are in disbelief that such statistical methods are accepted in the climate science community. Because, in their jobs, it would be an offence to do such things.

If the inquiries want to convince people from professional communities that the "trick to hide the decline" was an acceptable method, it needed to do a really thorough analysis of what the "trick" was and under what circumstances that sort of procedure was justified and whether the scientists in question had or had not met those standards. But they did not address this problem. The Oxburgh inquiry said that it was regrettable that it happened. The Penn State inquiry said that the "trick" was an acceptable statistical method. But it is not an acceptable statistic method. You cannot simply say in an inquiry that this is okay!


For decades, Stephen McIntyre prepared feasibility studies and economic predictions for the extraction of ore. He began to review temperature and climate calculations with his knowledge of statistics just a few years ago - purely as a hobby on his own computer. Since then his recalculations, which he publishes in scientific journals or on his blog "Climate Audit", are feared by many established climate scientists. The now retired self-made man is not paid by the oil lobby or large corporations - he lives solely from his pension and his savings.

McIntyre has become known primarily as a critic of the so-called hockey stick curve. This curve, which was developed by the American researcher Michael Mann based on proxy data, shows temperatures that drop slightly and continuously from the year 1000 throughout centuries to rise rapidly in the 20th Century - like the shape of a hockey stick. The curve was long seen as an impressive illustration of man-made climate change. The IPCC published it in its 2001 report. McIntyre, however, showed that the statistical methods used by Michael Mann were inappropriate and that they lead - independently of the underlying data - inevitably to the hockey stick shape. Apparently no independent researchers had previously reviewed this curve. The IPCC had to admit the limited significance of the curve because of McIntyre's critique. It is debatable whether it still has any meaning. The IPCC, however, argues that man-made climate change is well documented, even without the curve. Michael Mann, the author of the hockey stick curve, was criticised again in the context of the Climategate affair. The published e-mails - many from or to him - showed that he has been in close scientific exchanges with Phil Jones and other CRU researchers. The emails give the impression that Mann together with the CRU scientists bullied scientific critics.


Q: After the release of the Climategate emails last November a lot of people thought that there were "dark powers" behind it in order to shoot down urgent political measures against climate change. What do you think about this claim?

A: I have no idea who is responsible for the release. But I do not think that it has much to do with the Copenhagen Conference. I think it came out after my FOI request at the UEA to have access to temperature data last summer. The university refused to provide this data, making some excuses that were not true. I found out that they had sent the data to another scientist. But they refused to send it to me saying I'm a "non-academic".

My guess is that the collection of emails was prepared in the aftermath of that publicity. Just as a strange coincidence: My FOI request was turned down on November 13th, and the last email in the list was from November 12th. And the document with the released emails was named FOIA.Zip.

Q: Who could be behind the release of the emails?

A: I do not know, but my guess is that it was somebody working for the university. In the documents of the Russell report, there is also a suggestion that it was somebody from the university. It could be somebody who acted because of personal reasons, for example he or she did not got a promotion.

Q: In general, what is your motivation to be a sceptic?

A: I'm not taking any position on the "big picture". Sometimes scientists say to me that the hockey stick is wrong and that the climate situation is even worse. I do not know if that is true, but if it is true, we should find out whether the hockey stick is right or wrong. I should not be the only person looking at this carefully. I have some academic interest in the statistical problems of making a reconstruction of temperature with proxy data.

The main point concerning the hockey stick is just: With the data and the methods that they use, I do not believe they are able to say anything about temperatures 1,000 years ago with the claimed statistical confidence. That does not mean that you should not have a climate policy and you should not worry about CO2.

Some scientists now say that the hockey stick is not important. But if so, it should be excluded from the IPCC reports. Why confuse policymakers with something that scientists now say does not matter? But they decided to keep it in - I say, unwisely.

Q: Why do you think have some climate scientists such a big fear to share data with critics?

A: There are differences amongst them. Michael Mann is actually pretty good in giving out data. Even in the past he was far from being the worst. Others were worse. Because they do not give out data, it makes it difficult to critisize them.

Q: Some of them say they fear an abuse of data by sceptics.

A: If you go through the analyses that I have published, I challenge people to identify any abuse. I sometimes ask people: If I have made an error, tell me and I will change it. When I ask, people generally do not have any more to say. I write carefully and I am very familiar with the data. Some scientists confuse criticism with abuse.

Q: In Switzerland most people think that all critics and sceptics have bad motivation and are all paid by the oil industry. In contrast, they also think that all the science about manmade climate change has a very stable foundation.

A: I am only talking about one narrow topic that I do not think favours either side of the climate debate. The moral that I put on the things that I say is: If scientists are concerned about climate change, they should do what they think is the best evidence to talk to the public.

If things like these tree rings were not a statistically sound approach addressing the public, then that type of analysis should not be used. The job of the scientists is to work with their best evidence, and use that to talk to the public. And not to use questionable arguments.

The problem is: If they do not exclude questionable evidence by themselves, then the public questions other parts of their evidence. The failure of the climate science community to properly address problems in the proxy reconstructions is a mistake on their part. They should be the ones closely examining these things. They should not simply rely on assurances from Mann and Briffa that everything is okay. But the IPCC relies on a small group of scientists having control of their own important section without outside supervision. If I had been in a responsible position I would wish to have somebody really independent going through these analyses and give me a scientific answer. But what we see after all these inquiries: Nobody has done it!

Q: Do we have the time for all these scientific debates? Climate change, it is said, needs to be tackled very swiftly.

A: I think it does not cost very much to discuss the details. If people think that it is urgent to act they should say: Okay, we should not let disputes about the hockey stick linger on for the public by having unsatisfactory inquiries. If I were a climate scientist worried about these things, I would be angry about those lousy inquiries.

Q: Do you personally think that climate change is a big problem for the world?

A: I do not know if it is a big problem, a medium-sized problem or no problem. I just do not know.

Copyright 2010, Die Weltwoche, 22 July 2010

Translation Philipp Mueller