A trick of the trade, not the playing of a trick

The word ‘trick’, apparently in relation to an attempt to hide a decline in recent temperatures, was the single most damaging aspect of the Climategate emails affair. News and comment around the world focused on this single expression. The climate scientist Myles Allen recently pointed out that even the BBC repeatedly used the phrase  'trick.. to hide the decline' as part of the backdrop to its television news reports. (1) The assumption was always that this word must necessarily have indicated intent to deceive but a cursory examination of dictionary definitions shows that the word ‘trick’ is at least as likely to mean a use of a skill or technique. This fact should have been given more prominence by media covering the Climategate affair and by Sir Muir Russell's recent report. We now know that the expression in the emails referred unambiguously to the decision not to use data derived from measuring the width of recent tree rings in part of a graph of temperatures. The tree data suggested that a decline in temperatures in recent decades but we know from thermometer records that the rings were giving false information. To ‘hide the decline’ wrongly indicated by the information from trees, the University of East Anglia scientists replaced the data with instrumental records.

The investigative report by Sir Muir Russell and others examined the phrase and while they criticise the failure of the scientists to provide details of their technique when the chart was published, they seem to accept the explanation of Phil Jones, the head of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA, that the word can ‘mean for example a mathematical approach brought to bear to solve a problem’ when used by scientists. The impression given by Sir Muir’s report is that this sense of the word ‘trick’ is a specialist term, a jargon word that would be understood by other scientists but not necessarily by ordinary people. It is as though the word is an artifice, only used as a sort of internal language in communications between experts, perhaps in order to confuse the wider public.

This interpretation of the meaning of the word is wrong. In conventional English, as used by men and women in ordinary life, the expression has had two sets of meanings for several hundred years,  as well as many other subsidiary connotations. The first of these main meanings revolves around deception or fraud.  The second refers to the use of a skill and has no overtones of malpractice whatsoever. In fact it suggests admiration and appropriateness. It is a great pity that Sir Muir and the journalists that covered Climategate have not made more efforts to demonstrate this point. As a result, the impression among non-experts is still that the CRU scientists behaved wrongly.

Here are the definitions from the full Oxford English Dictionary, the language’s most important record of the history and meanings of words.

Meanings implying deception

 A crafty or fraudulent device of a mean or base kind; an artifice to deceive or cheat; a stratagem, ruse, wile; esp. in phrase to play (show) one a trick, to put a trick or tricks upon. (+ three closely related senses)

A freakish or mischievous act; a roguish prank; a frolic: a piece of roguery of foolery; a hoax, practical joke. (+ two closely related senses)

Meanings implying skill

A clever or adroit expedient, device or contrivance; a ‘dexterous artifice’; a ‘dodge’. bag of tricks.

The art, knack, or faculty or doing something skilfully or successfully.


The OED also gives many other meanings to the word, such as a particular habit (‘up to his old tricks’) or a prostitute’s customer. Because the OED entry for ‘trick’ was finished in 1914, most of the quotations used to support the definitions offered in the dictionary are several hundred hears old. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, an offshoot of the main OED, gives more modern quotations to illustrate what a word means. Here is one example from the writer and broadcaster Clive James: 'I learned the trick of carrying nothing much except hand baggage'. No sense of deception or artifice there.

The Shorter Oxford also provides a useful definition of this sense of the word 'A clever or skilful expedient; a knack or special way of doing something’. Those writing and commenting on Climategate should now specify that this sense of the word was almost certainly what the CRU scientists meant rather than continuing to imply some form of disingenuous or dishonourable behaviour.

(1)    At a meeting at the Royal Institution in London to discuss Fred Pearce’s extremely thorough and illuminating new book, The Climate Files, published by Guardian Books, May 2010.