Thursday, 26 November 2009

The CRU 'hack'

Last week, someone posted a great deal of data (emails and programs) from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. This has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth from within the relevant organisations. The leak has been picked up on by climate change researchers, sceptics and media organisations all over the world.

Firstly, there is the question about whether the data is really a 'hack'. Whenever confidential information gets out into the wild, organisations often respond immediately by saying that it was 'hacked' (another example was the email earlier this year that proved that people in the British Government were trying to smear members of the opposition). The reason for this is simple: a hack makes it look as though the organisation in question was a victim of a crime.

Yet in the case of the Smeargate emails, it was much more likely that someone passed them onto the person who publicised them. Likewise, it is eminently possible that the CRU data was collated and leaked (accidental or on purpose) by someone within the CRU or the University of East Anglia. Yet they automatically jump on the 'hacked' bandwagon as it makes them look like victims. This also diverts attention away from what the data leaked actually contains.

Much of the media comment has been on various small claims within the leaked data and emails - things like the hiding or deletion of data. This piecemeal information is easy to refute by claiming that the quotes were cherry-picked.

There is more important information coming out from these emails, however. Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the CRU were made by several researchers, including some from Steve McIntyre, the Canadian man who runs the now (in)famous Climate Audit website. He is one of the individuals who has been trying to reproduce the results that the researchers have published.

Now, I am not a scientist (tm), but I do know a little about the scientific process (if you want a reader-friendly description of parts of the scientific process, see Ben Goldacre's excellent book 'Bad Science'). But I do know that reproducibility of results is vitally important. Any major research should be reproducible by others - this issue killed off Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons' cold fusion research.

So far, the scientists at the CRU appear to have been saying something like: 'our research papers have been peer-reviewed, so it is okay'). Well, that shows that they do not know, or do not care, about how the peer-review process works, or it's well-known deficiencies. Basically, peer-review is done before publication, where peers check the published paper for gross inaccuracies, unjustified or contradictory findings. What it does not do is try and reproduce the results given.

After a paper has been published, you can respond with comments to the journal that published it. This process can prove to be rather exasperating for the responder.

Therefore the peer-review process is just a sticking-plaster (albeit an important one) over the scientific process. What is also needed are other, independent teams of scientists to replicate, reproduce and validate important results. There have been many papers in the past which have been peer-reviewed and published, and yet the underlying research and science has subsequently been found to be incorrect.

So Steve McIntyre and others have been trying to reproduce the results. So far, there have been some notable discoveries; for instance Steve McIntyre discovered that some NASA data was incorrect. Although the people involved deny this effects the trends, surely discovery of *any* inaccuracy in science is a good thing, and McIntyre should be congratulated.

He has also been trying to reproduce some of the CRU results. For this, he needs the data they used and, ideally, the algorithms they applied to that data. Yet the CRU have been blocking him at every turn.

The attitude of the CRU can be seen in the following snippet from Professor Phil Jones, the director of the CRU:
Even if WMO agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.
The answer is simple: because it is science, and not your own personal fiefdom.

Now, the ClimateAudit website has Willis Eschenbach's email correspondance about FoI requests, along with some of the emails that they generated within the CRU. it is not a pretty read. At best, some people at the CRU appear to have broken the laws on FoI, and at worst have not been doing science.

What is obvious is how combative the whole thing has become. There is obviously no love lost between McIntyre and the people at the CRU, yet that does not mean that the CRU can ignore him and the other researchers.

Therefore we have are some famous results, one of the cornerstones of climate change research, which are unverified. We have the organisation that made the results doing everything possible to prevent others from verifying them. Frankly, this situation makes the people within the CRU look like terrible scientists, and brings scorn down on the University of East Anglia.

What is worse, they have been trying to subvert the FoI laws to prevent the data being released, including apparent deletion of emails that have been requested under the FoI. They have cultivated the people dealing with FoI requests within the University of East Anglia to ignore requests from people who post on the Climate Audit website.

Climate change is rightly seen as being a massively important issue; for this reason the science behind it should be thoroughly open for replication and study. Personal fiefdoms of information is intellectually and morally wrong, especially when the results from that data is so important.

The people at the CRU may not like McIntyre et al; but these emails show that their behaviour has been reprehensible. It makes any reasonable person wonder if they actually have (or ever did have) the data and algorithms that can be used to replicate their findings. This could mean anything of the options below:
  1. They never had the data and/or algorithms, and they do not want to release them;
  2. They have lost the data and/or algorithms, and cannot reproduce the results they got;
  3. They realise that the information will show embarrassingly large holes in their findings;
  4. They are just being petty and small-minded.
  5. They genuinely believe they cannot release the data and/or algorithms. This does not appear to be the case from their internal (leaked) emails, which detail continued obfuscation and delay. Besides, climate change is such an important issue that such data *should* be open, especially so may years after the original studies were performed.
This is not science. It is a travesty.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Domestic abuse.

Headline news today is that the Government is setting up plans for school lessons to tackle domestic abuse. Surely this is all right and good, isn't it?

Well, no. Firstly, domestic abuse is just a small but personally significant part of a wider problem - violence in society generally, along with a disrespect for others. Cure the larger problem and you will cure much of the smaller problem.

Secondly, and in my opinion far more importantly, is the way this has been aimed. You have to dig deep in the BBC article, but the BBC Breakfast News trails it more - girls are to be taught about what to do about domestic violence, whilst boys are going to be taught not to do it.

Hang on. That presupposes one thing: That men are the abusers and girls the victims. Unfortunately that is not the case. Men get abused as well, and this whole scheme appears to ignore that fact. True, the numbers of abused men may be smaller (around a quarter - see below), and the types of abuse may differ, but it should not be ignored.

Apparently the Government's focus on helping women and children is because 'women disproportionately become the victims of crimes because they are women.' This is detailed in an article on the BBC news website. Yet look at the figures: there are 106 deaths a year caused by current or former partners, and 72 of these victims are women. There are many things wrong with drawing conclusions from such figures:
  1. The most obvious problem: How many victims were men?
  2. How many were in LGBT relationships? (i.e. people in same-sex relationships killing their partners)?
  3. It assumes you can base policy on the number of deaths. The vast majority of domestic abuse does not lead to death, and surely it would be best to focus on figures for the entire problem, not the small subset of deaths.
  4. 72 out of 106 is not an overwhelming majority.
As evidence goes, it is not strong. Besides, if the assumption can be made that 34 men were killed, 72 compared to 34 is not overwhelming. Basically, and this is sickening, the Government and the media are saying that murdered men can be ignored.

Take this quote:
Lisa King, director of communications at Refuge, welcomed the government's plans but said there was an "urgent need" for services for abused women and children.
True, she speaks for Refuge, a charity for women and children who suffer abuse. Yet is there an 'urgent need' for services for abused men? Apparently not.

Go to the Refuge website, and go to the 'Useful links' section, then click on 'support for men'. It takes you here, i.e. to links for male perpetrator programmes. Say I was a man who was being abused, and in desperation I went to Refuge's website as they are the most famous anti-abuse organisation. I see that they deal with women and children; fair enough. I then think that they *must* link to similar men's organisations, and I go to the links, and I find... that they assume I am a perpetrator. Thanks alot.

Likewise, go to the left pane and click on 'Help for men' under the 'Get Help now' menu. What happens? Two links come up, the first of which is 'I am an abuser'. Fortunately they have changed the webpage that appears so that help for abused men appears at the top. Strangely enough, there does not seem to be a link for 'I am an abuser' for women.

Additionally, they spend more time talking about pets than men. Is Refuge guilty of misandry?

And it is not just Refuge. As I have mentioned before, the Home Office's leaflet on domestic violence is written in such a way that it assumes that women are the victims. For instance:
If you think a friend or loved one is being abused, try telling her that you're concerned, say why you're worried and ask if she wants to talk to you about it. Let her know you want to help.
How can this be right?

Additionally, from the Home Office's PDF, the National Domestic Violence Helpline is run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge. How will abused men will be adequately represented by either of those organisations? There is an advice line for men (the men's advice line), but only 37% of the calls to the line get answered, as it is only open for 18 hours a week! They are going to open it 30 hours a week soon, but that is still not good enough, A National Domestic Violence Helpline should be available for both men and women. If you are going to seperate it, have a 'women's advice line' and a 'men's advice line', and call them such.

Some figures can be seen on the dewar4research website, taken from Home Office figures. According to this, around 25% of all abuse occurs to men. This means that a quarter of the crime is being ignored by the media and the Government.

And this matters; this really matters. It is symptomatic of the way that the Government and media are putting their fingers in their ears and labelling men as 'abusers' and women as 'victims'; convenient labelling that does neither side any good.

Perversely, another headline today is that Jane Andrews, a woman who killed her boyfriend because he would not marry her, has been recaptured after escaping from jail. She fatally beat and stabbed her boyfriend to death. Was that domestic abuse? Of course it was. Positive proof that women can abuse.

I am not calling for equal funds for domestic violence against men and women - that is perverse. I am not even calling for equal accessibility for men and women - although that may be nice. What I want is for the media and Government to admit and understand that both sexes can be victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Only then can we start tackling the problems.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Thoughts on the electoral system

I have just been reading Winston Graham's book 'The Four Swans', the sixth book in the excellent Poldark series.

Part of this book plumbs the depths of the political scene in the mid 1790's, and it makes for fascinating reading. The utter corruption in having a few men sitting in a room to decide an election seems perverse from a modern perspective (although the selection of candidates for safe seats sometimes approaches this). Also abhorrent was the way that rich men (usually Lords) bribed and intimidated the small electorate to get their chosen men in. Rotten boroughs, a tiny electorate and the concept of selling seats to the highest bidder were all common. Such corruption makes the current expenses scandal seem almost irrelevant.

Reading this book has reminded me that, electorally, we have an incomparably better system than 200 years ago; the advantages of the current system are manifest and obvious. Good men and women have fought for change, and they are to be thanked. Enfranchisement has increased; not just to women, but to nearly everyone over 18. A vote from a poor unemployed woman counts for as much as that of a twelfth-generation lord (the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system aside).

So, although I am by nature hesitant about change, I would like to say this: the change to our electoral systems have probably been the biggest structural improvement to our country over the last two centuries. Yet I will still be cautious about other changes: some, like enfranchising prisoners, are probably right and should be done. I am more cautious about extending the vote to 16-year olds. Given the frauds that have occurred, I am downright nervous about postal voting and I am rabidly anti electronic voting. I am generally pro-FPTP and anti-PR (mainly because I believe in electing an individual and not from party lists).

On another note, the current situation in the House of Lords is abhorrent. There was an argument for removal of the hereditary peers, but the Government did not - and criminally has not in the last ten years - replaced it with a solid system. Instead, we have people being appointed into the Lords on what appears to be a free-for-all basis. At least the old hereditary system allowed for some true independents instead of yes-men who are beholden to vote for their appointees. This is where caution with change is needed - we abolished the hereditary peers with little idea of whether the replacement was going to be better. That was wrong; it was change for changes sake.

But generally, massive progress has been made, if slowly. So may I thank all the people who have fought for these changes, and I hope that future change - as there must be - are well thought out and not reactionary.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

I was just thinking of something that happened when I was on my coastal walk. It was near the beginning of my second month walking; I was in East Anglia, following a lane beside the Alde estuary towards the sea. It was a dry morning after heavy overnight rain, and the sun was shining down onto the wet tarmac through gaps in the large trees that bordered the lane. It was the sort of lane which cars pass along once in a blue moon. I was toiling along with my mind firmly entrenched on various topics. As I passed a farm I heard a quiet voice calling to me.

The voice was coming from my behind and to my left; I turned around and there was no-one there. I glanced through a gap in the hedge; there was no-one in the field. Then I heard the voice again. Only then did I see her.

A girl, scarcely over ten, was firmly embedded within the branches of a bald, autumnal tree. She asked me what I was doing, and we chatted for a few minutes. She was so high up that I had to crane my neck to see her, but at no time did I ask if she was okay, if she needed any help; her carefree tone showed that she was in no trouble. It was as if she had been up there for years, looking out over the flat land towards the estuary. The sun backlit her, giving her an aetherial, unearthly quality.

It is an image that has stuck in my mind ever since; a young girl, her back resting gently against the trunk of a tree. It was the very image of carefree childhood.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Brown's problem in a nutshell.

A story on the BBC News website really sums up the Prime Minister's problems. He handwrites person letters of condolence to relatives of servicemen and women who had died in Afghanistan or Iraq. This is undoubtedly a good thing for a PM to be doing in a limited war. Yet in the case of Jamie Janes, from the Grenadier Guards, the 'scrawled' letter misspelled many words including, unbelievably, the serviceman's name.

The original Sun article has more information, including the spelling mistakes that the PM made, and the poor quality of the handwriting. Misspelling 'colleagues' and 'condolences' in such a letter is not helpful.

This is, of course, a total non-story. The PM having poor handwriting is no problem - I can guarantee that it is not as bad as mine, and he is blind in one eye. Deliberately spelling a serviceman's name incorrectly would be political suicide. In short, I have no doubt that the spelling mistakes were just that - mistakes.

Yet these mistakes have become the number-three story on the BBC news website. If this had happened to Blair, or even Brown two years ago, it would scarcely have registered. Brown has lost all of his political capital. Like sharks circling an injured swimmer, the media sense blood. The story fits in with people's perception of our PM; uncaring (especially about our forces), messy, troubled, and mistake-ridden.

Jamie Jane's mother has a reason to feel aggrieved; she has just lost a son. But this is really a non-story. As much as I dislike Brown (and believe me, I do), I do not think that this was in any way deliberate. It does, however, detail the largest political problem that faces both him and his party. People are ready to jump on any mistake he makes, whether large or small.

My wife came up with an interesting (and, with hindsight, obvious) point that is more worrying: why is no-one in Number 10 checking these letters before they are sent out? Jamie's mother has evidently been upset by the letter; why was it not checked? All of this could have been avoided by just a few minutes work.