Now that the main charges of scientific misconduct arising from the hacking of the University of East Anglia email system have been proven false, it’s possible to get a reasonably clear idea of what actually happened here. For once the widely used “X-gate” terminology is appropriate. As with Watergate, the central incident was a “third-rate burglary” conducted as part of a campaign of overt and covert harassment directed against political opponents and rewarded (at least in the short run) with political success.
The core of the campaign is a network of professional lobbyists, rightwing activists and politicians, tame journalists and a handful of scientists (including some at the University of East Anglia itself) who present themselves as independent seekers after truth, but are actually in regular contact to co-ordinate their actions and talking points. The main mechanism of harassment was the misuse of Freedom of Information requests in an effort to disrupt the work of scientists, trap them into failures of compliance, and extract information that could be misrepresented as evidence of scientific misconduct. This is a long-standing tactic in the rightwing War on Science, reflected in such Orwellian pieces of legislation as the US “Data Quality Act”.
The hacking was almost certainly done by someone within the campaign, but in a way that maintained (in Watergate terminology) “plausible deniability” for the principals. Regardless of what they knew (and when they knew it) about the actual theft, the leading figures in the campaign worked together to maximize the impact of the stolen emails, and to co-ordinate the bogus claims of scientific misconduct based on the sinister interpretations placed on such phrases as “trick” and “hide the decline”.
The final group of actors in all this were the mass audience of self-described “sceptics”. With few exceptions (in fact, none of whom I am aware), members of this group have lost their moral bearings sufficiently that they were not worried at all by the crime of dishonesty involved in the hacking attack. Equally importantly, they have lost their intellectual bearings to the point where they did not reflect that the kind of person who would mount such an attack, or seek to benefit from it, would not scruple to deceive a gullible audience as to the content of the material they had stolen. The members of this group swallowed and regurgitated the claims of fraud centred on words like “trick”. By the time the imposture was exposed, they had moved on to the next spurious talking point fed to them by the rightwing spin machine.
To keep all this short and comprehensible, I haven’t given lots of links. Most of the points above are have been on the public record for some time (there’s a timeline here), but a few have only come to light more recently. These Guardian story brings us up to date, and names quite a few of the key players (see also here). For the role of allegedly independent journalists in all this, see Tim Lambert’s Deltoid site (search for “Rosegate” and “Leakegate”).
Update I should have mentioned that much the same team had their first outing in the controversy over the Mann et al “hockey stick” graph. All the same elements were there – supposedly disinterested citizen researchers who were in fact paid rightwing operatives, misuse of accountability procedures, and exceptional gullibility on the part of the “sceptical” mass audience. Details are here (h/t John Mashey).