Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thoughts on ClimateGate

I've been following the Climategate blow out with a fair amount of interest recently. For those of you who haven't heard, basically some one hacked the emails at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and then published the emails on the internet.

And the emails released were incredibly damaging both for climate science and the climate scientists involved.

Now, I'm not a hard scientist. So when Real Climate explains this email by Phil Jones:
"I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline."
by noting that:

"The ‘trick’ is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all."

I'm pretty much willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Although, scientists, if you actually use the term "trick" to mean "way to solve a problem," you ... really shouldn't. It's not jargon, it's just stupid. If it ain't a rabbit appearing from your top hat, it's not a trick.

So, I'm willing to cut the climate scientists some slack and acknowledge that "insider language" that may look damaging to an outsider could very well have been used in private emails destined for colleagues.

But there isn't really any good way to explain why Professor Jones tried to delete emails that were requested under the Freedom of Information Act. And while Real Climate tries to defend some of the less than polite emails by noting, "Gravity isn’t a useful theory because Newton was a nice person," I'm not sure that that's such a great excuse.

Indeed, a mere couple weeks before the ClimateGate blow out, another blow out took place over the internet, in which Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute contested that Joe Romm of Climate Progress had repeatedly resorted to McCarthy tactics to smear anyone who disagreed with Romm at all about climate change or the policy implications thereof.

As a frequent reader of climate blogs, I have to say, it is a little shocking how much these blogs do descend into ad hominem attacks on fellow colleagues. The unprofessional impoliteness is not limited to private emails, and in any case, as everyone knows, in the digital age, nothing is private. I get that all scientists do not get along. I understand that science is competitive, and I do not expect the world's top scientists to be singing "Kumbaya" and holding hands with each other. But the lack of professional courtesy is out of control.

If there is something to be taken away from this PR disaster it's this:

Nothing sent over the internet is ever private.
Professional discourtesy will come back to bite you in the ass.
There is a need for transparency in science.

And the biggest take away:

Science is political.

It's useless to deny it. There is no such thing as completely objective science, at least not in a highly charged and uncertain science like climate science. And the sooner we start acknowledging this, the better.

For a brilliant analysis of ClimateGate, check out Mike Hulme's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.


The bean-mom said...

I am not a climate scientist. And truth to tell, I have not followed "Climategate" closely. But yes, you're right.

Science is political. Scientists are human. Science, ideally, is the search for truth. A lovely and abstract notion.

In practice, it can get ugly indeed.

Farmer's Daughter said...

There's a fantastic book called "The Mismeasure of Man." I read it in college an am blanking on the author right now... Gould possibly?

Anyway, it's all about how scientists who start out with a preconceived notion can subconsciously fudge the data. This can happen through flaws in design as well as in how the data is analyzed. Sometimes it's not subconscious, and sometimes it truly is. We all know that data can be manipulated to represent what we want it to represent. And yes, when you need to compete with other scientists for funding, it will become political.

Unfortunatley, what this has done is discredit climate change research. It will forever be used as an argument by global warming naysayers. "They made up the global warming data!" will become a rally cry, that's my prediction.

ruchi said...

Bean mom, I think that's the main thing. As long as science is conducted by humans, it's never going to be completely depoliticized. And that's really okay. But we shouldn't pretend it's not.

Abbie, sounds like a great book! I'll have to check it out. Yes, it's really problematic. I don't believe that the emails are so bad as to completely discredit the entire field, but they certainly damage the reputation of many in the field. And they cast doubt on the whole process of "consensus science," which frankly, in my mind, is not such a bad thing.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I think it will discredit the whole field when interpreted by people who are looking to discredit the field (again with the preconceived notions...).

I have to admit though, when I heard about this I thought, well wouldn't it be nice if it was made up??? Wouldn't that mean life would be so much easier for us in the future? A nice thought, but unrealistic.

Crunchy Chicken said...

I loved "The Mismeasure of Man" and I'm fairly sure it's by Stephen Jay Gould. I read it in my Genetic Anthro class and I still have it, all those years later.

Anyway, I haven't been following Climategate at all because I'm afraid to :) I suppose I should pull my head out of the sand sooner or later.

ruchi said...

Abbie, I see that, though if someone didn't believe in climate change in the first place, would this really discredit climate change? I dunno. I do wonder how many people were sort of on the fence and now are more skeptical as a result of this mess.

Crunchy, two votes for Mismeasure of Man! All right. I gotta read it. Also, I want you to pull your head out of the sand just because I have a feeling you'd have some fascinating things to say. ;)