Philip Jones: The Trick’s Jason Watkins ‘does his research’

University of East Anglia researcher impressed by on-screen portrayal in climate science drama

October 23, 2021
Jason Watkins in The Trick as this programme is illustrated for this story
Source: BBC/Vox Pictures

What did the academic at the heart of the 2009 controversy have to say about the background to the recent BBC “Climategate” drama, The Trick?

When an anonymous hacker breached the server at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and released hundreds of emails, critics rushed in to claim that they revealed manipulation of evidence. Most of the heat was borne by Philip Jones, the former director of the CRU (where he is now a professorial fellow) – although he was later completely exonerated.

“The email hack came out of the blue,” Professor Jones told Times Higher Education, “but there had been a lot of attention before. It did feel as if there were people trying to waste our time and catch us out.”

Despite clear signs that others were seeking to undermine his work, however, the vicious response to the Climategate leaks came as a complete shock to Professor Jones.

“I was used to dealing with other scientists at conferences and responding to comments on peer-reviewed papers,” he recalled. “I just couldn’t deal with the media storm.”

Yet however painful to him personally, there was also a view at UEA, still a major centre for climate research, that it was “a story which needed to be told”.

Trevor Davies, pro vice-chancellor for research, enterprise and engagement, proposed “the idea that we should do something”, Professor Jones went on, and vice-chancellor Edward Acton found Owen Sheers, who had done an MA in creative writing at UEA. The latter agreed to write what became The Trick and interviewed all the people involved.

As the production developed, Professor Jones and his wife “had a couple of Zoom sessions with the actors and saw them in real life on the Norfolk coast. We were amazed by how well they had got our mannerisms and quirks. They could just turn it on during the filming. Jason Watkins watched my performance at the House of Commons select committee and I gave him a link to a talk I had given at a university, where he saw me being more ‘normal’ than in the House of Commons.”

So why did Professor Jones believe that he had been subject to time-wasting and hostile, rather than legitimately scientific, requests for information?

“We presented our temperature data as a gridded product,” he replied, covering a larger area of land rather than just single points. “Most scientists were very happy to use our data and didn’t want the individual station data underlying that.” So it seemed a bit suspect when people started putting in repeated requests for such data.

“If they’d read the scientific literature beforehand,” Professor Jones explained, “they would have realised that an individual station is less important…We have about 7,000 or 8,000 stations now, but they are not independent of each other. Some are very close together and are going to be very similar. You don’t need thousands of stations to produce a global temperature record. About a hundred will do if they are well spaced around the world.”

Furthermore, comparing data sets produced by the ECU, the National Weather Service in the US and the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies had convinced Professor Jones that the central claim of climate science was “just so robust – and we used to send people papers to read about why it was so robust. They didn’t seem to want to listen to that.”

After seeing him in action, Professor Jones also gave Mr Watkins the ultimate academic accolade: “He certainly does his research.”

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