Friday, December 04, 2009

My Freedom of Information-type work and relation to the hacked emails

My legal work in the past has included a fair amount of activity regarding the California state equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, called the Public Records Act. The PRA borrows heavily from FOIA, so I knew FOIA pretty well (I'm not current on latest developments). I know squat about the British version of FOI, other than it's relatively new, so many vague aspects may not have been resolved yet through legal interpretations.

I've both filed PRA requests and responded to them, working on behalf of government agencies. The two worst weeks I had in the law were spent responding to a single, huge PRA request by a litigious millionaire, paging through thousands of documents to figure out which he could see and which he couldn't. A huge waste of my time and of the taxpayer dollars that were paying for my time.

In the case of the CRU emails, I doubt the climate researchers had included this line item in their grant requests: "80 hours to respond to ridiculous, repeated, massive data requests from people who don't understand the information and will lie about it in order to cause harm to the scientific process and to society as a whole." So the researchers probably had to eat the time spent responding.

They've got my sympathy, but still. If email records were deleted, if the responder knew for certain that the records were required to be given, and if, contrary to reality, the responder had been a lawyer and not a scientist, I would consider that a firing offense. A scientist might not understand the gravity of his violation, and his knowledge is less certain than a lawyer's over whether the record he's destroying is responsive to the request. I'd hope a scientist would understand that destroying information is not a legal way to avoid turning it over, but who knows. (If you have grounds for refusing to turn over information, in the US you create a privilege log that describes the documents you're not going to turn over, and you give that log together with all the responsive info.)

The other "ifs" in the paragraph above still apply: whether emails were destroyed, whether they were responsive to the requests, whether any exemptions apply to the legal responsibility to turn them over, and what the researchers knew about their obligations.

All this is a long way of saying the email thing may be more than nothing regarding Phil Jones, and may require some response or reprimand, probably short of permanent dismissal. I don't know if it's more than nothing about anyone else. Most of the rest of the allegations are unimportant: the "trick" is minor, attempts to fire incompetent editors and disregard bad science are justifiable, the 1980s climate data is still available in its original form from national agencies. I don't know about database quality, but I doubt there's enough there to really say the instrumental record for every database is meaningless.

But as Jon Stewart said, the moral here is don't cut corners. On the PR side, this might be a good time to point out on the Sadly Wish It Was A Longer List Of Things I Admire In Roger Pielke Jr.'s Work, is his unflappable demeanor (Eli Rabett gets the same kudos on a longer list). Keeping that demeanor might make it easier to deal with the nonsense.

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