My Take on Climategate: Nixonian Science

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.

2 Responses to My Take on Climategate: Nixonian Science

  1. Scott Veirs says:

    I found this history of the Manufactured Doubt Industry to be fascinating context for the hacking:

    It is indeed a fragile power we scientists wield… Somehow we need to mash-up peer review, openID, an avatar trust mechanism, and free access to scientific publications!

  2. hkyson says:

    “Climategate” started out when there appeared on the Internet a collection of e-mails of a group of climatologists who work in the University of East Anglia in England. These documents reveal that some climatologists of international preeminence have manipulated the data of their investigations and have strongly tried to discredit climatologists who are not convinced that the increasing quantities of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are the cause of global warming.

    It is true that a majority of the scientists who study climatic tendencies in our atmosphere have arrived at the conclusion that the world’s climate is changing, and they have convinced a group of politicians, some of whom are politically powerful, of the truth of their conclusions.

    A minority, however, is skeptical. Some believe that recent data that suggest that the average temperature of the atmosphere is going up can be explained by natural variations in solar radiation and that global warming is a temporary phenomenon. Others believe that the historical evidence indicating that the temperature of the atmosphere is going up at a dangerous rate is simply not reliable.

    Such lacks of agreement are common in the sciences. They are reduced and eventually eliminated with the accumulation of new evidence and of more refined theories or even by completely new ones. Such debates can persist for a period of decades. Academics often throw invective at one another in these debates. But typically this does not mean much.

    But the case of climate change is different. If the evidence indicates that global warming is progressive, is caused principally by our industrial processes, and will probably cause disastrous changes in our atmosphere before the end of the twenty-first century, then we do not have the time to verify precisely if this evidence is reliable. Such a process would be a question of many years of new investigations. And if the alarmist climatologists are right, such a delay would be tragic for all humanity.

    The difficulty is that economic and climatologic systems are very complicated. They are not like celestial mechanics, which involves only the interaction of gravity and centrifugal force, and efforts to construct computerized models to describe these complicated systems simply cannot include all the factors that are influential in the evolution of these complicated systems.

    All this does not necessarily indicate that the alarmist climatologists are not right. But it really means that if global warming is occurring, we cannot know exactly what will be the average temperature of our atmosphere in the year 2100 and what will be the average sea level of the world’s ocean in that year.

    It also means that we cannot be confident that efforts by the industrialized countries to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will have a significant influence on the evolution of the world’s climate.

    Alas, the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would be very costly and would greatly change the lives of all the inhabitants of our planet–with the possibility (perhaps even the probability!) that all these efforts will be completely useless.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

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