Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blinded by science

There's much buzz this week -- rightfully -- about emails and documents hacked from the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. While the emails aren't likely to settle the debate over whether human actions are affecting the world's climate, they do call into question the ethics of some of the leading advocates of global-warming theory. The insights they provide into how some scientists seek to manipulate data and even suppress opposing views raises important questions about the wisdom of allowing politicians to draw on such experts in order to declare debates to be over, with control over far-reaching, intrusive policies awarded to the victors.

It should be emphasized that the hacked emails don't "debunk" climate change theory. There's no smoking gun in there suggesting that mad scientists manufactured the idea out of whole cloth. And the bulk of the emails consist of academic exchanges of information and data sharing.

But the emails (download them here or here) also include exchanges strongly suggesting that some scientists manipulate data in order to reach stronger conclusions than is warranted, lean on scientific journals to prevent the publication of papers by scientists who are skeptical of climate change, withhold data from rivals and even destroy correspondence so it can't be revealed by Freedom of Information requests.

That science can be politicized is no secret. In one recent email from the hacked archive, a British university department head writes:
Since [name withheld] retired I am a lot more free to push my environmental interests without ongoing critique of my motives and supposed misguidedness - I've signed my department up to 10:10 campaign and have a taskforce of staff and students involved in it.... Every now and then people say to me sotto voce with some bemusement, 'and when [name withheld] finds out, how will you explain it to her ...!
Actually, "politicized" may be putting it kindly. "Theologized" could be a more appropriate term. At times, perusing the emails, the degree of loyalty to a specific theory and rejection of dissenting views seems less like debate among rival scientists and more like priests excommunicating heretics. Tellingly, Phil Jones, director of the Climate Research Unit, wrote to a colleague about excluding papers questioning human-caused climate change from a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:
"I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report," Jones writes. "Kevin and I will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"
Other times, the emails discussed boycotting journals that published papers by scientists whose views are at odds with their own. That's important, given the emphasis that many of the advocates of global-warming theory put on critiques of their position not being peer-reviewed -- a status they had actively sought to deny contrary views.

The emails also discuss denying data to researchers who they consider to be less than convinced of human-caused climate change "because he'll distort and misuse them" as they said of one request from a prominent skeptic.

Overall, the impression is one of a very messy and human process that is far from being as rigorous and open to debate as advertised. It also seems that, while many climate scientists passionately believe that human activity is causing the world to become warmer, they are well aware of and troubled by occasionally contrarian data that they can't explain.

That's to be expected, of course -- the world rarely hands out pat answers wrapped with a bow. But politicians want pat answers, and some researchers appear to have been all too willing to play along with the pretense that all questions have been resolved and now is the time for even the most extreme, state-empowering policies to be implemented in response.


The Department of the Treasury revealed (PDF) in September that the cap and trade scheme touted by the Obama administration would cost Americans between $100 billion and $200 billion every year -- money that would pour into government coffers. It would, of course, require extensive enforcement mechanisms in order to extract that cash.

Enforcement is also the order of the day in the UK, where government officials have begun to paw through people's trash to see what they are throwing away. Green-jacketed inspectors in Britain with the power to enter private property are checking up on CO2 production by private businesses.

Maybe the world is warming and maybe humans are a major part of the case. There's nothing in the hacked emails to say it's not, and someday, if the science is properly followed, we may know for sure. What we do know now, though, is that a lot of power is being accumulated by government officials based on conclusions arrived at through a process that looks a little more rough-and-tumble than we were led to believe.



Anonymous Andrew said...

You are far too rational and objective, JD. Stop it! ;)

Seriously, though, that was some good, objective analysis. If only the mainstream media had such talent.

November 25, 2009 6:28 AM  
Blogger akaGaGa said...

"Theologized" is right. The whole community is a bit like the Crusades.

November 25, 2009 6:58 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

New Zealand, "adjustments" - NIWA's explanation raises major new questions. The CRU story is just the tip of the iceberg...

November 26, 2009 6:45 AM  
Blogger Johnny said...

Australia too: Warwick Hughes shows how Jones selections put bias in Australian Temperatures

November 26, 2009 9:29 AM  
Blogger Johnny said...

And check out this YouTube vid: Hot 'Climategate' debate: Scientists clash LIVE on RT.

November 27, 2009 2:04 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Thanks, Johnny! What's turning up in the hacked documents is turning out to be even more damning than the emails.

November 27, 2009 6:12 AM  
Blogger braney said...

This was good. There's no question that scientists feel forced into making their results more conclusive than they really are by politicians, the press, and all the rest of the folks who don't understand the intricacies. It's only natural for a scientist to be like most everyone else (not you Tucci ;-) and alter her behavior to gain acceptance (for herself and her papers). If a scientist wants her paper to be in Nature or Science, she can't be pussy-footing her way around conclusions, and God knows arguing in favor of global warming is the only correct viewpoint these days.

November 29, 2009 2:10 PM  

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