Blog 91. Can just anyone open a scientist’s email?

The 1/10/2016 New York Times (1/9/2016 web edition) offered an op-ed entitled, “Scientists, Give Up Your Emails.”  The author, a journalist named Paul Thacker, asserted that agencies (including universities) should not keep secret the personal communications of scientists who work for the government.  In turn, this generated an op-ed response in Physics Today, the trade news magazine of physicists.  The underlying question relates to the controversial science of climate change, but the potential impact of Thacker’s assertion of guaranteed access to scientists’ notebooks and correspondence is profound.

Is this just another battle in the war on science, the widespread attempts to suppress investigations or facts that conflict with political or religious beliefs?

No.  There is a deeper threat lurking beneath this argument.


A few of the facts behind the fight.
Since 1998, the upward trend of measured global surface temperature appeared to be less than the previous rate.  This was called the global warming “hiatus.”  Last June, eight scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and one contractor published a revised analysis in Science magazine, claiming that the “hiatus” did not, in fact, exist.  By the new analysis, warming did not slacken during the recent 15 years.  (I argue that temperature measurements provide a poor indicator of climate change anyway, but that’s a subject for another blog post.)

And the fight.
Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, subpoenaed emails of the NOAA scientists, and NOAA denied the request.  According to Thacker’s NYT op-ed, that denial sets a dangerous precedent because “Some of what we know about abusive practices in science — whether it concerns tobacco, pharmaceuticals, chemicals or even climate change — has come from reading scientists’ emails.”

Thacker supports his argument with case studies, particularly when corporate interests paid for the science.  Furthermore, Thacker acknowledges that groups on both the right and the left politicize the scientific process by misuse of the Freedom of Information laws.  However, the cases documented in Thacker’s op-ed all show positive outcomes, such as uncovering corruption or deliberate misinformation.  Thacker doesn’t offer the stories of careers and research interrupted or terminated by the harassment.  Rather, he says, “scientists are free to fight these information requests … the harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research that the public is paying for … .”  Thacker ignores the fact that a scientist’s research is stopped and his career threatened while the scientist is fighting freedom-of-information-act (FOIA) demands.

Freedom of information or freedom to suppress?
FOIA demands should be confined to the facts: the instruments, the measurements, the data, the calculations, the results, and wrongdoing, if any.  Usually, scientific facts are published—no need for FOIA.  Unless the published data are falsified, the motivations of the scientists are irrelevant.  You might argue that the so-called “climategate” incident of 2009 demonstrates the need for FOIA examination of private correspondence.  However, climategate was the surreptitious release of hacked emails of three U.K. climate scientists, correspondence showing disrespect for other scientists and talk of excluding data of disliked investigators.  That’s unprofessional behavior, but it doesn’t prove that the miscreants’ technical work was wrong.  Questions of motivation can confuse the technical issues when scientists become advocates.  Climategate was handled by the scientists’ university, but the scandal set off repeated hunts for witchcraft within the emails and notebooks of other scientists.

There IS a dangerous precedent.

The repeated use of FOIA for political purposes, by either the left or the right, is much more dangerous than the possibility of tainted data, which a free scientific process usually corrects.  Oppressive governmental regimes from either the far left or the far right, whether Communist or Nazi, regard a politically incorrect utterance, including a scientific statement, as a crime.  Thought police can ruin science.  And a society.