Alex Steer

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Climategate and speech communities

756 words | ~4 min

Everyone and his grandmother is talking about the emails taken from the UEA Climatic Research Unit. It's even spawned another member of what word-and-paradigm morphologists would call 'the class of words in -gate connoting scandal'. Responses vary from the measured to the wry to the foaming. Of over 60MB of emails taken in the hack on the CRU's machinery, the hot one that's got most attention is this, from Phil Jones, the CRU's director.

I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.

This was seized on by The Telegraph's James Delingpole as evidence of 'manipulation of data' by climate scientists, and by lots of other people too, lots of whom seem to have decided that this is proof that the whole man-made global warming idea is a conspiracy. (Hat-tip to Ken MacLeod, who summarises this neatly).

There has been a widespread insistence (cf. Delingpole) that 'trick' in the quotation above means 'a crafty or fraudulent device' (OED trick n. 1a). Other commentators have suggested that the sense of 'a clever or adroit expedient' (OED sense 3) is more appropriate here: this trick is something neat that can be done to the data to solve a problem. The problem in question is contradictory data from tree-ring analysis, explained here better than I could ever manage.

Because we're human and lazy, as long as we're not writing legal documents we tend to make our communications semantically and logically fuzzy. We make assumptions about the people who are listening to what we say (or reading what we write), and how much they will understand. Before I use a word, I have to guess whether my listener will know what it means. When I hear a word, I guess what the speaker means by it. The same is true for individual senses of words. This is why informal speech or writing can be baffling to eavesdroppers. It's why, back in the 1990s, computer enthusiasts who referred to themselves as 'hackers' tended to get personal visits from law-enforcement agents who assumed that they meant 'people who hack into computer systems' rather than 'people who like to play around with computers'. Linguists use the term 'speech communities' to describe groups of people who share a common language or jargon, and 'sociolect' to describe the language or jargon they share. A lot of this week's trouble has come from the fact that these climate scientists' emails are being read by a wide online audience that doesn't necessarily understand their language.

The assumption that a 'trick' is normally something bad also demands investigation. Is there good reason for it? I don't think there is. Running a collocation search for 'trick' (noun) in the British National Corpus gives a list of words that most commonly occur alongside it in British English. In the table below I've removed very common words and divided the list into four: obviously negative collocations (Neg), not obviously negative collocations (Unclear), collocations forming common set phrases and compounds (Phrases), and verbs.

image lost in database change - sorry!

This doesn't tell us everything - it's quite possible that many of the instances of unclear collocation refer to deliberate attempts to tricks that are malicious and deceptive as opposed to mischievous or opportunistic. But this does suggest that 'trick' as it is widely used in British English does not purely, or even predominantly, refer to deliberate attempts to deceive. On this basis it seems doubly unfair to impute this meaning, and this intention, to a group of people for whom a 'trick' seems an even less harmful thing than it does to most users of English.

# Alex Steer (26/11/2009)