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John Cook’s consensus data is so good his Uni will sue you if you discuss it

UPDATE: After I wrote this Brandon published the letter in full and raised some provocative questions. (See below)


What bad news for The University of Queensland. Their entire legal staff were on holiday at the same time and this eminent university was protected only by a Law & Society 101 student who staffed the overnight service of FreeLegalAidOnline. A mockfest is ensuing across the Internet. It is so unfair.

A year ago John Cook published another 97% study (the magic number that all consensuses must find). It was published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license (see Anthony Watts view). Cook’s work is obviously impeccable (except for the part about 97% being really 0.3%), but evidently it uses a special new kind of “open data”. The exact date and time each anonymized reviewer reviewed a sacred scientific abstract is commercial and must be kept secret. These volunteer reviewers allegedly stand to, er … lose a lot of money if that data is revealed (they won’t be employed again for no money?). Such is the importance of this that the University of Queensland left the data on secret-secret forum protected by no passwords and then put urls to it on secret forums that were publicly accessible. Brandon Shollenberger had the genius idea of changing the numbers in the url +1, +1, and +1, and voila!  For the crime of finding unhidden non-secret data Brandon received a threatening legal letter, and expects the Feds to arrive any minute. You can’t just type any old numbers into a url.


Doing the right thing, Brandon contacted John Cook and UQ to give them a chance to tell him any good reason why he should not draw people’s attention to this unhidden, non-secret data (which may possibly save the world by convincing everyone that 97% of  honest scientists are believers in a climate catastrophe). Unfortunately the lawyer writing the letter to Brandon was obviously a skeptic plant, cleverly seeded with big-oil funds. It’s the only way anyone can explain why a letter so abjectly clumsy, improbable and ridiculous could come from a university which prides itself on its reputation. Not only could Brandon not reveal the details of how the abstracts were reviewed because they would sue him, but he could not even reveal the letter threatening to sue him, or they would sue him for that too — he would be double-sued.

Apparently the threatening letter was copyright.  On that point, Steve McIntyre,wonders about a strange contradiction: “the premise of copyright is the protection of commercial interests. Obviously, the letter from the University of Queensland has no commercial value. 

I would counter that letter from The University of Queensland does have commercial value (just not the way you might think). They could sell threatening letters to other universities who are trying to hide data and can’t afford real lawyers. Perhaps it has value in comedic theatre? What this is not though (because I’d never suggest such a defamatory thing) is abject panic about potential losses from the grand cash cow that is the climate grants gravy train. UQ are honest, upstanding researchers, who always supply all the data necessary to replicate and analyze work, especially when the health of Planet Earth depends upon the results. Right?

Steve McIntyre points out that The UQ letter raises a variety of interesting issues:

  • The original Consensus rating project was carried out by SKS volunteers. How did title migrate from SKS to the University of Queensland?
  •  If the ratings data has been owned by UQ all along and the UQ had confidentiality obligations, why did they leave it lying around the internet (apparently) without password protection?
  • Are there any documents that actually demonstrate the existence of “contractual obligations to third parties”? This is eerily reminiscent of the U of East Anglia.
  • On what conceivable basis can the University justify its refusal to provide anonymized rater information and datestamps?

John Robertson, May 15, 2014 at 5:03 pm, adds that  The University of Queesnland appears to be partaking in OPEN DATA STRATEGY 2013 that states:

In response to the Queensland Government’s request, Queensland’s universities have developed an Open Data Strategy to guide the availability of data for other individuals and organisations.

At this point the only rational hypothesis for the UQ threatening letter is that malicious skeptics have gained control of the legal department, probably through force or subterfuge.

For UQ the only sensible action is to immediately release all the data on Monday morning (before Brandon does, and before any more blogs get in on the Mockfest). UQ could tell everyone that the letter was a spoof…

There is already a downfall spoof

H/t Steve McIntyre. Be aware though, the point of this satirical approach might not be to make you laugh:

More posts on the “0.3%” consensus paper:



There is so much to puzzle over. Stepping outside any satirical genre, Brandon Shollenberger says:

No indication was given the project was tied in any way to the University of Queensland. The data was stored on a third-party website. If the University of Queensland owns this data, there’s nothing to indicate it.

Naturally, if the data doesn’t belong to the University of Queensland, it cannot have the supposed contractual obligations regarding it. Let’s assume, however, it does own the data. Let’s also assume the University of Queensland had the obligations it claims to have had. If those things are true, why was the data stored on a publicly accessible, third-party website? Wouldn’t that failure to protect the data amount to a violation of the supposed contractual obligations?

Finally Brandon asks about the study data he holds related to a paper on key-words used in scientific abstracts and published as “creative commons”:

Tell me what material I possess could cause harm if disseminated. Tell me what agreements or contractual obligations would be impinged upon if that material were released to the public.

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