Tom Wigley: The skepticism and loyalty of CRU’s second director

Following my GWPF report on Hubert Lamb, there was some criticism (in comments and by email) that I was too soft on Lamb’s successor at CRU, Tom Wigley. These critiques fit the common portrayal of Wigley as an eminence gris, a shadowy figure scheming in the background, putting forward the more reckless younger scientists, while carefully maintaining plausible deniability.

Perhaps. And I can certainly see how this view has developed during the second wave of scepticism that arose with the Hockey Stick Controversy. However, this view tends to distort, if not Wigley’s personal intent, then his rôle in the whole saga.

Wigley is surely one of the most important and curious characters in our whole story. Therefore we should be especially careful not to let accusations of malevolence distract from the problem of his enigmatic rôle.  Some may well wish to lay accusations as though of a crime, where intent is crucial to conviction and sentencing. However, this is not our problem. Our problem is the historical problem: the hows and whys of this monumental corruption of our scientific institutions. In this, Wigley’s rôle, rather than his intent, is of primary importance.

For a social phenomenon, a social explanation is the most satisfying. The transformation of the science is easily explained sociologically, where psychology need only come in with its gross emergent social expression—we may call this human nature. If Wigley did not exist, then social forces would have invented him, maybe not at CRU, but somewhere.

Wigley in the economics history of CRU

Tom Wigley

Tom Wigley (Source NCAR)

There are a set of social factors that go a long way towards explaining the successful transformation effected by Wigley at CRU. Indeed, these are of sufficient force that the attribution of a sinister motive or stratagem is hardly required. Consider firstly that many competent and distinguished scientists, however so much they strive, never achieve even one first-author publication in Nature. Such publications are benchmarks of scientific advancement. As far as we know, no historical climatology paper from CRU ever made the grade. Indeed, Astrid Ogilvie (an historical climatologist at CRU from the 1970s) explained by email that it was hard to get their research published in any peer review journals until the specialist journal Climatic Change arrived in 1977. Yet, in 1981, on the CO2 question, Wigley had his name up on top, in Nature, three times in just two months!
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The Blog: a new mechanism of scientific review?

If Climategate, and the ensuing controversy, has given us nothing else, it have exposed shocking examples of how scientific processes of review can become so corrupted that bad science survives and thrives in the suppression or diversion of sound criticism. There is evidence of corruption at every turn of the process: from the apparent neglect of the proper checks of facts and data behind articles subject to peer review, to the obstruction of the normal critical processing of published papers – and this occurring in journals of the highest impact, and including the refusal to release the primary data upon which the published findings could be tested.

Climate science insiders (and outsiders) could see what was going on all along. And certainly anyone who cared to follow the controversy over the Hockey Stick graph after its publication in Nature in 1998 – and then prominently in the IPCC report of 2001 – they could detect dysfunction in these critical processes. But it would take the leaking of the Climategate emails to release more than a decade of pent-up protest breaking though the official silence, deflection and obfuscation.

Steve McIntyre

Climate Audit blogger Steve McIntyre as he emerged in a profile in The Guardian, 9 Feb 2010

The momentum of Climategate permitted at last a critical reading of the IPCC 4th assessment report. Until this time any questioning, any challenge to the reports from outsiders, had been shouted down with the mantra that we should ignore anything but the proper peer-reviewed sources, and we should allay any doubts by trusting the assessment of these sources in the ‘gold standard’ of such authority, the IPCC reports. And throughout the heat of the emails scandal this mantra was shouted all the louder. Closer scrutiny of the 2007 report put the lie to this claim, revealing that in fact some of its most alarmist and controversial claims about the impacts of the predicted warming ran roughshod over peer-review science to establish an obscured authority via reference to ‘grey literature.’

As I write, we are now passing the point where the more this ‘gold standard’ mantra is chanted, the more foolish its choir appears, and the more legitimacy is awarded its critics. Blocked for so long, the pipes are clearing, and the normal critical processes of science look likely to start flow again – criticism will be permitted, primary data will be released and the claims of ‘certain’ and ‘settled’ science will recede. In the meantime, while waiting for this to unfold, we can pause to reflect on how the breakthrough was achieved, and consider in particular the appearance of a new mechanism of review that emerged heroic during this brief episode of scientific corruption. I refer to the extraordinary corrective role played by the blog. Continue reading