Context Critical to Email Evidence

A highly publicized hack into the email server at a prominent client-research center highlights one of the problems with email evidence. It is far too easy to take things out of context.

In this case, over a thousand emails were taken and posted publicly. This has resulted in numerous accusations of collusion and warped data around global warming statistics in the blogosphere.

Scientists are accused of taking climate change data, and then wrongly adding their assumptions around "corrective" factors to normalize the data. The scientists claim they did so in an attempt to more accurately reflect reality. They claim opponents have not read their papers explaining why they adjusted figures the way they did. Opponents claim the scientists are hiding the fact that global warming isn’t as bad as the scientists claim.

Opinion. Perception. Lessons learned in the school playground. He said. She said.

One of the fundamentals of human existence is that each of us perceives the world through the lens of our particular world view. We live trapped within our context, and cannot be as objective as any of us would wish to be. An ancient Chinese proverb says, "If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish."

When it comes to interpreting the evidence – especially with something as ad hoc as email – it is absolutely critical to make every effort to understand the context within which a statement was made.

Claiming you have found a smoking gun, without having a clear understanding of the context, can lead to fatally flawed arguments. If you are building a case on such evidence, you are on shaky ground.

... David Sengupta

One Comment

  1. witheld
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 3:06 PM | Permalink

    Manipulating climate data… Didn’t Al Gore make his millions by doing the very same.

  2. Nate
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 9:42 PM | Permalink

    If this is true then every effort should be made by the scientists under fire to publish supporting documentation. Afterall, if this work is to be regarded as science, why guard it like some corporate secret?

  3. Posted December 2, 2009 at 7:22 AM | Permalink

    Hi David,

    Great post. I think one of the reasons companies are looking to proactively handle e-discovery is that the other side only produces the one smoking gun email out of context, and to have a good defense, you need the 100 other related emails that produce the clearer picture. Typically the other side isn’t kind enough to provide those!


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