November 23, 2009
Climategate: When Scientists Become Politicians
Fudging results in an attempt to make the world fit one’s preconceptions is beyond the scientific pale and a real crime.
At the dawn of the modern age of science, a few hundred years ago, accounting for the motion of the planets was a mystery, but one driven by a flawed theory. It was thought, going back to the ancient Greeks and Plato, that the motions of the planets, being otherworldly and celestial objects, must be perfect and therefore circular. Unfortunately, actual observations were hard to reconcile with this notion. The ancient astronomers could have fudged the data to make it conform to the theory, but that would have been unscientific, so they fine-tuned the theory to try to make a better fit. Almost two millennia ago, Ptolemy refined the concept of circles within circles, or epicycles, to try to develop a model that would explain the observed planetary motions. The theory reached its height half a millennium ago when Copernicus, with the insight that the earth orbited the sun, like the other planets, came close to modeling planetary motion by adding new epicycles, albeit with a different model for each planet. But it was a very complex system, and still wasn’t quite close enough.
Kepler resolved the issue by demonstrating that the best fit of the motion was not circles within circles, but rather simple ellipses. He came up with simple but powerful and explanatory laws that described the motion of the planets as a function of their distance from the sun. Newton in turn used this finding to validate his own universal theory of gravitation.
But it still wasn’t quite good enough. For centuries, the innermost planet, Mercury, stubbornly refused to conform perfectly to Newton’s laws, and many more modern astronomers postulated a hidden planet elsewhere in the solar system that might account for the discrepancies; they didn’t abandon Newton’s theory. However, despite years of trying, they could never determine its location or mass. But despite this frustration, they never yielded to the temptation of simply denying the planet’s mercurial behavior — they continued to refine the theory, no matter how difficult.
About a century ago, another physicist, Albert Einstein, came up with a new theory of gravitation. A key part of it is that Newton’s laws must be adjusted slightly to account for the near presence of large masses. By Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, of which Newton’s earlier theory was simply a special case for velocities much less than that of light and locations not adjacent to very large masses, Mercury’s motion was perfectly explained by its close proximity to the sun.
Over thousands of years, at each step, the response of the scientists was to continually adjust and refine their theories to conform to the data, not the other way around. This is how science is done and how we developed the knowledge that has given us such tremendous and accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs in the past century. It is occasionally reasonable to throw out a bad data point if it is in defiance of an otherwise satisfactory model fit, as long as everyone knows that you’ve done so and the rationale, but a deliberate and unrevealed fudging of results in an attempt to make the real world fit one’s preconceptions is beyond the scientific pale. Journal articles have been thrown out for it; PhD candidates have lost their degrees for it.
But such behavior, along with attempts to cover it up and dishonestly discredit critics, is exactly what was revealed in a leak of emails last Friday from a research facility in eastern England. And it was not the behavior of previously unknown researchers on some arcane topic of little interest to anyone outside their own field. It was the behavior of leading luminaries in perhaps the greatest scientific issue and controversy of our age: Whether or not the planet is warming to a potentially dangerous degree as a result of humanity’s influence. It is a subject on which billions — if not trillions — of dollars worth of future economic growth and costs hinge. It was the basis for the massive “cap and trade” bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in the spring and seems stalled in the Senate. It is accordingly a subject on which a great deal of money is being spent on research to understand the problem. And when there is a great deal of research funding at stake, often funded by people less interested in truth than in power and political agendas, the temptation to come up with the “correct” answers can perhaps overcome scientific integrity.
It is hard (perhaps impossible) to know the motives of the people who would so betray the basic precepts of science. It is easy to postulate that they have political aims, and there are certainly many “watermelon” environmentalists (green on the outside, “red” on the inside) who see the green movement as a new means to continue to push socialist and big-government agendas, after a momentary setback with the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
But scientists are human, with human failings. Thomas Kuhn noted half a century ago that science doesn’t always follow the idealized model of the objective scientist seeking only truth; it is often driven by fashions and fads, peer pressure, and a lust for glory and respect by the other courtiers of the court that fund them. So we may never know whether this defense of a flawed theory arose from the sense of power that it might give them over the rest of our lives. Or perhaps it was due to simply an emotional attachment to a theory in which they had invested their careers. Either way, what they did was not science, and they should be drummed out of that profession. They can no longer be trusted.
Many in the climate change community have condemned what they call “skeptics,” often to the point of declaring them de facto criminals and assigning them to the same category as Holocaust deniers. They tell us that “the science is settled” and that we should shut up. But every scientist worthy of the name should be a skeptic. Every theory should be subject to challenge on a scientific basis. Every claim of a model’s validity should be accompanied by the complete model and data set that supposedly validated it, so that it can be replicated. That is how science works. It is how it advances. And when the science is supposedly “settled” and they refuse to do so, it’s not unreasonable to wonder why.
Well, now we know.
In fact, when scientists become politicians but continue to pretend to be doing science, that is the real crime. The theory being promoted by these men was being used to justify government actions that would result in greatly diminished future economic growth of the most powerful economy on earth (and the rest of the world as well). It would make it more difficult and less affordable to address any real problems that might be caused in the future by a change in climate, whether due to human activity or other causes. It could impoverish millions in the future, with little actual change in adverse climate effects. And when such a theory has the potential to do so much unjustified harm, and it has a fraudulent basis, who are the real criminals against humanity?