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Does the Climategate code produce reliable output?

November 30th, 2009

The source of several rather important commercial programs have been made public recently, or to be more exact programs whose output is important (i.e., the Sequoia voting system and code and data from the Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia the so called ‘Climategate’ leak). While many technical commentators have expressed amazement at how amateurish the programming appears to be, apparently written with little knowledge of good software engineering practices or knowledge of the programming language being used, those who work on commercial projects know that low levels of software engineering/programming competence is the norm.

The emails included in the Climategate leak provide another vivid example, if one were needed, of why scientific data should be made publicly available; scientists are human and are sometimes willing to hide data that does not fit their pet theory or even fails to validate their theory at all.

The Climategate source has only only recently become available and existing technical commentary has been derived from embarassing comments and the usual complaint about not using the right programming language (Fortran is actually a good choice of language for this problem, it is widely used by climatology researchers and a non-professional programmer is probably makes best of their time by using the one language they know tolerably well rather than attempting to use a new language that nobody else in the research group knows).

An important quality indicator of the leaked software was what was not there, test cases (at least I could not find any). How do we know that a program’s output is correct? One way to gain some confidence in a program’s correctness is to process data for which the correct output is known. This blindness to the importance of program level correctness testing is something that I often encounter in people who are subject area experts rather than professional programmers; they believe that if the output has the form they are expecting it must be correct and will sometimes add ‘faults’ to ‘fix’ output that deviates from what they are expecting.

A quick visual scan through the source showed a tale of two worlds, one of single letter identifier names and liberal use of goto, and the other of what looks like meaningful names, structured code and a non-trivial number of comments. The individuals who have contributed to the code base obviously have very different levels of coding ability. Not having written any Fortran in anger for over 15 years my ability to estimate the impact of more subtle coding practices has atrophied.

What kind of faults might a code review look for in these programs? Common coding errors such as using uninitialized variables and incorrect argument passing are obvious choices and their are tools available to check for these kinds of error. A much more insidious kind of error, which requires people with the mathematical expertise to spot, is created by the approximate nature of floating-point arithmetic.

The source is not huge, but not small either, consisting of around 64,000 lines of Fortran and 16,000 lines of IDL (a language designed for interactive data analysis which to my untrained eye looks a lot like MATLAB). There was no obvious support for building the source included within the leaked files (e.g., no makefiles) and my attempt to manually compile using the GNU Fortran compiler failed miserably. So I cannot say anything reliable about the compiler output warnings.

To me the complete lack of test cases implies that the Climategate code does not produce reliable output. Comments in the code such as ***** APPLIES A VERY ARTIFICIAL CORRECTION FOR DECLINE********* suggests that the authors were willing to patch the code to produce output that matched their expectations; this is the mentality of somebody for whom code correctness is not an important issue and if they don’t believe their code is correct then I don’t either.

Source code in itself is rarely that important, although it might have been expensive to create. The real important information in the leaked files is the climate data. Now that this is available others can apply their analysis skills to provide an interpretation to what, if anything statistically reliable, it is telling us.

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