My Take on Climategate: Nixonian Science

November 28, 2009

Among the many volatile issues at the intersection of science and public policy is what is now popularly called global warming.  A common tactic among those that oppose adopting public policies to mitigate anthropogenic influence is to question the science, not by following the methods of science, but by imagining a method of science is that a single study can disprove one hundred others that pre-date or worse to dismiss findings by asserting that science is entirely about money, not honest inquiry.   The flip side among some climate scientists is to characterize those same one hundred studies as a proof, which it is not.  So defining “geek” for the moment as including US Senators, learned advocates, and a public always with strong views, some backed by information, some backed by swagger:  too many public policy geeks are pretending to be scientists and too many science geeks are pretending to be public policy analysts.  Good science can inform public policy, but it certainly will not dictate public policy.

And so it has played out in Climategate, the strange story of a, likely illegal, exposure of years of documents and e-mails from a server at the Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia.  Google “Climategate” and of this afternoon you’ll get just over 10 million hits.  Plenty of information and disinformation to make for a long read.  (My own suggestion:  these NYT and WSJ articles are reasonably balanced overview of the extreme range of views.)

So why do I even bother to add my take?  I’m hoping it will be cathartic.  We’ll see.

I read a subset of the CRU material.  Most is benign and supports the idea that the methods of science are probably safe.  Yet there is a small portion of the content which to me is incredibly offensive.  Summarizing some key pieces: A Phil Jones (head of CRU) e-mail offering to stifle contrary views by abusing peer-review.  The “trick” e-mail, most offensive through another of his colleagues dismissing the issue in the press by asserting that scientists use the word trick all the time, not!  And one e-mail that hasn’t gotten much attention describes the pedigree of a figure in an IPCC report; difficult to read this one and not think that way too many people were not being very constructively critical.

And so in the tenth day of this storm, one would hope for something akin to a day of atonement in the climate science community.  But one of my UW colleagues in a press conference just two days ago didn’t confront the reality of the behavior of his scientific community, but instead offered that the release of documents was an act of desperation of the climate skeptics in advance of the Copenhagen meetings in order to politicize the science.  Perhaps non-scientists are only able to politicize the science?  And nicely ignoring, by his own approach, he did as well.

Very much Nixonian science.  Nothing like an enemies list to promote counterproductive discourse and behavior.

Update 11/30

Harry is with me.