The leaked emails from the University of East Anglia contained no evidence of conspiracy.
The lay public, when presented with confusing data and competing arguments about climate change, deploy the mental shortcut of believing the people they most trust. Trust in the communicator is therefore crucial.
Unfortunately the three main climate change communicators: politicians, journalists and environmental campaigners, are among the least trusted people in society – fighting it out for bottom place in the ranking with lawyers and car salesmen. No one would pay any attention to them at all if they were not drawing on the aquifer of public trust in scientists.
But climate scientists have always misunderstood the dynamic of public belief and trust. They assume that belief will be built on their data and that public trust is merited by their authority. With the exception of a few outstanding communicators, they often make no attempt to speak to deeper values or make an emotional connection with the public – indeed they see that as contrary to their professional independence.
Climate change deniers have always understood this. They use language that is designed to appeal to deeper values (such as freedom, independence, progress). The narrative they tell of being determined (and even persecuted) free-thinkers, standing against the tide of oppressive and self-interested conformity is designed to create an aura of integrity and trustworthiness.
The recent hacking of the servers of the University of East Anglia can only be understood within this landscape of competing appeals to public trust. The denial industry (and hordes of climate nerds) has trawled through these emails and found sentences which, when removed from context, support their storyline that climate science is being deliberately distorted and exaggerated for a mixed bag of self-interested and politicised ends.
But you could find anything in here. I looked and found lots of references to lunch and fun, 94 to hate, 31 to love. Generally, though, the emails are extremely focused, technical, and, dare I say it, really dull. As noted on realclimate.org, the emails contain "no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to 'get rid of the MWP', no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no 'marching orders' from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords."
But this is hardly the point. This is an orchestrated smear campaign and does not require balance or context. The speed with which the emails have been cut apart and fed into existing storylines is remarkable. At the very least the UEA email campaign is an application of dirty political tactics to climate change campaigning.
I suspect it goes further than that. The storyline is too clever, the timing on the brink of Copenhagen and the US climate bill too convenient. I wait with interest to find out how these emails were obtained.
The UEA response has been frankly pathetic. It was informed by Real Climate of the hack on 17 November but only reacted two days later when journalists caught on to the story. It refused to confirm whether the emails were accurate or not and, for a long time, refused to comment at all.
Now, in typical scientist fashion, it seeks to argue the data rationally. The UEA website states that "the selective publication of some stolen emails and other papers taken out of context is mischievous and cannot be considered a genuine attempt to engage with this issue in a responsible way". Mischievous? Irresponsible? What naughty pixies.
Then the Climate Research Unit director, Prof Phil Jones, focuses on one of quotes: "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." For the smear campaign it is only those key words "trick" and "hide" that count – the rest can be made into anything it wants. Jones ignores this and responds with a detailed technical explanation of the passage with reference to the original graphs. It's like responding to someone calling you a bastard by showing them your birth certificate.
One can only imagine that the UEA's communications team is totally out of its depth. A less charitable conclusion is that they are defending the interests of UEA and are not concerned about (or have not understood) the damage to climate science.
I believe that Jones should speak to every journalist who calls, go on the offensive and defend his science. He ought to clearly state that he is not prepared to have his hard-working and committed colleagues around the world defamed or slandered by the kinds of people who illegally hack into computers. This is a desperate, last-ditch tactic by fanatics who have lost the rational debate.
Sadly, due in part to the lacklustre response, I am sure that these wretched emails have now entered permanently into the mythology of climate denial. Scientists are going to have to be a lot more savvy and on the ball in future.
• George Marshall is the founder and director of projects at the Climate Outreach and Information Network. He posts regularly to the blog climatedenial.org.