• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

‘Climategate’: what a pointless investigation

Some will celebrate the results of the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s investigation into the furore surrounding the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit as a vindication of the reputation of climate science, the work of the unit, and of all the academics involved. After all, the investigation found that the CRU academics did not ‘distort data’. Others, however, will be astounded by the complacent tone of the committee’s report and its reluctance to ask any difficult questions.

But the real question we should be asking is this: what was the point of the investigation? The House of Commons committee self-consciously refused to pose any probing questions, and its main aim seemed to be to ensure that the moral status of the current consensus on climate change remained intact.

What is most remarkable about the committee’s report is that it openly acknowledges that it is not the product of a serious investigation. It claims that the reputation of Phil Jones, director of the CRU, ‘remains intact’ – but it doesn’t make this claim with very much conviction. What it actually says is that ‘within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the reputation of Professor Jones and the CRU remains intact’. That’s another way of saying: we did not look very hard at the details of this scandal but here’s what we decided anyway…

The committee also ‘expressed regret’ that its investigation was terminated prematurely because of the end of the parliamentary term. So what we are left with is an incomplete inquiry, or in truth only the performance of an investigation. The real inquiry, we are told, is being left to two other investigations that will be held in the future. So the MPs’ report expresses its hope that future inquiries will be able to examine in greater detail such controversial issues as why Phil Jones asked for emails to be destroyed.

So what was the purpose of this staged, performed investigation? The answer, to me, seems fairly obvious. As Labour MP Doug Naysmith indicated, he hoped that the report would serve as a ‘corrective’ to climate-sceptic hysteria. Investigations that are meant to serve as a ‘corrective’ to people’s misguided or immoral sentiments used to be called rituals. And that is what this the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s ‘limited inquiry’ was mostly about: a ritualised pseudo-investigation aimed at correcting people’s allegedly backward views.

Of course, every ritual needs to go through the motions of finding something or someone to fault. So the committee’s report points the finger at the University of East Anglia for mishandling requests under the Freedom of Information Act and supporting the ‘culture at the CRU of resisting disclosure of information to climate-change sceptics’. And why is that seen as a problem? Is it because this House of Commons committee is fervently committed to the cause of freedom of information? No. As far as the report is concerned, what is ‘regrettable’ is that the university failed to comprehend the damage that would be done to the moral status of climate science as a result of its cavalier treatment of requests for scientific data.

From the perspective of damage limitation, the university is being criticised not so much for its attitude to the disclosure of information as for letting the side down. ‘When the prices to pay are so large, the knowledge on which these kinds of decisions are taken had better be right’, says the committtee’s report. In other words, the CRU’s real failing was to dent the authority of the climate-change morality tale, with its idea that, with the end of the world fast approaching, there is an urgent need to monitor people’s behaviour and lower their horizons. A cynic might conclude that when moral entrepreneurs say that the ‘prices to pay are so large’, their investigations into public controversies will inevitably have a perfunctory character, since there is allegedly a higher, more pressing truth to be defended.

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