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Uni Queensland defends legal threats over “climate” data they want to keep secret

This is about data they don’t own, that wasn’t secure, is supposedly available, but they want to keep secret.

More bad news for the University of Queensland. The Australian discussed the issue of the bizarre threatening letter that UQ sent to Brandon Shollenberger when he contacted them to let them know he’d found some data one of their employees carelessly left unprotected lying around on the web. Now the acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor is trying to do damage-control by releasing a media statement, but he’s missed the chance to say the legal threat was a parody  — with that easy escape gone, he’s defending the indefendable. Brandon has already responded on his site, arguing that the VC is “highly misleading”: the names of the surveyers are not important (and are also mostly known already), but time stamps, and missing papers are still unpublished, and UQ has not explained why they ought be concealed.

The UQ Statement (quoted below) also misses the point and in so many ways.

“The following is a statement from UQ acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and International) Professor Alastair McEwan.

“Recent media coverage (The Australian, 17 March 2013) has stated that The University of Queensland is trying to block climate research by stopping the release of data used in a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The data for John Cook’s paper has nothing at all to do with climate research. Cook did a sociological study on key words used in short summaries of papers published about the climate. It tells us nothing about Earth’s climate but possibly gives some insight into the biased, one-sided nature of bureaucratized climate research.

“This is not the case [that UQ is trying to block climate research].

Actually it is. UQ employs John Cook whose main job appears to be to call climate scientists petty names and generally besmirch the reputation of any climate researchers who get results he doesn’t approve of. “Christy’s Crocks” anyone? Cook has a badge for that, and a whole book about “deniers” — just get him to explain the term scientifically? Even he agrees it is inaccurate — but that doesn’t stop him using it. Cook’s main goal with the Consensus Project seems to be to promote the fallacy that science is done by consensus and that a meaningful one exists. If only he had evidence to back him up instead? The infatuation with Argument from Authority is all profoundly unscientific. The University of Queensland science faculty ought be cringing in embarrassment. If the good scientists there are not now, they will be soon.

Then there is a very odd admission — doesn’t UQ know that SkepticalScience is John Cook’s personal site, and the survey participants were volunteers? Do they “own” this research (with all its flaws) now too? Please tell me yes.

“All data relating to the “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature” paper that are of any scientific value were published on the website Skepticalscience.com in 2013.

“Only information that might be used to identify the individual research participants was withheld.

Angst over the identity of participants is a strawman

The identity of participants is not the point. Brandon Shollenberger and Richard Tol want the timestamps, the rater ID’s (in an anonymized way) and the data for 521 papers that were not included in the data files. They want to look for things like rater bias.

UQ seems to believe this has something to do with the confidentiality of volunteers, most of whom are already identified:

“This was in accordance with University ethical approval specifying that the identity of participants should remain confidential.

Does that mean UQ has an ethics policy of sending threatening legal letters to volunteers who helpfully inform them about data they (or someone else) left lying exposed in public? Is it ethical to store those details without password protection and then hope everyone who discovers them writes to UQ so UQ knows who to sic their lawyers onto?

Brandon goes into more detail of just how un-secret the “confidential” participants were:

None of the identities of the participants were keep secret from one another. Heck, people not involved in the project could post in the same forum this data was posted in! How can anyone claim it was confidential? Did everyone involved in the project, and everyone with access to that forum, all sign a confidentiality agreement? If not, the data was never kept confidential.

I’d love to know if there were such confidentiality agreements. That’s why I specifically asked the University of Queensland for them. I wanted to know what data was confidential so I could keep that in mind when considering what data I should or should not release.

John Cook refused to tell me. Later, when the University of Queensland sent me a threatening letter, they invited me to respond. I did, asking for information about these confidentiality issues. They ignored me. They were apparently willing to threaten me with a lawsuit to try to get me to shut up, but they weren’t willing to answer a simple question.

Secrecy of the surveyors was apparently never the point. So what is? It’s hard to believe the secrets of the timestamps and rater ID’s could generate worse publicity for UQ and the 97% Consensus study than what the clumsy legal threats are achieving.


Thanks to UQ for handing this one to us.

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