December 8, 2009
"Science" responds to Climategate
The response of the climate-science establishment to Climategate has been disappointing if predictable. The guild mentality has come to the fore. Campaigns are under way to defend the integrity of science from a scurrilous smear campaign. The message is simple: you are either with us or you are a barbarian.
The first line of response to the leaked or hacked emails, you recall, was to say that they showed science going on as usual--even science at its best, some argued. "Trick" did not mean trick; "hiding the decline" did not mean hiding the decline. These were innocent phrases torn out of context. As for the expostulations of harry_read_me, and discussing ways to punish or silence dissidents, and musing over the deletion of data that might be demanded under FOI requests, er, this is all just part of the healthy cut and thrust of normal scientific enquiry. We all have to let off steam now and then. No conspiracy. Nothing improper.
That did not work--too many of the emails speak for themselves--and the scandal refused to die down. The next line of response was to say that the emails involved just a few individuals, and implicate no more than a sliver of information about global warming. Even if you threw out everything CRU had done, such is the weight of other research that nothing would change. (The newly empowered EPA administrator added a nice wrinkle last night on the PBS Newshour. The work in question was done abroad. Other research was done by Americans. So no cause for alarm. Well, no cause for lack of alarm, if you see what I mean.)
This is a strange defence. Would deleting not just selected CRU data but its entire research effort really subtract nothing from what we thought we knew?If CRU's work is as redundant as that, taxpayers might wonder if they have been getting value for money. At the very least, in fact, one layer of confirmation would be removed, which is not nothing. And of course CRU's contribution was much more important than that. The emailers are among the world's leading, and most influential, climate scientists; they are not just a few marginally significant individuals. It is far from clear how independent the supposedly corroborating research on the temperature record is. Networks of co-authors span these various efforts. A lot of the raw and parboiled data is shared. If the CRU work is impaired--that is the question the emails raise--the effects on the state of our knowledge are non-negligible.
Also note that the first line of defence fatally undermines the second. If the CRU emails show climate science as it is done in the real world, and there is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, then what reason is there to think that the corroborating research, even if truly independent, has been done to a higher standard? If coercing the data, bad-mouthing dissenters, and covering your tracks are business as usual in climate science--which is what we have been told--why expect the other proofs of the temperature record to be any better? I would be far more persuaded by the "plenty of other evidence" line if there had been more of an outcry over the CRU emails from within the climate-science community. There have been some protests, but not many.
Which leaves just the "attack on science". Circle those wagons. If you criticise one of us, you criticise all of us. No distinction is attempted between intelligent informed critics (of whom there are plenty) and ignorant malicious critics (of whom, admittedly, there are far more). The distinction which is emphasised, rather, is between qualified critics and unqualified--where "qualified" means "people who agree with us". What could be more anti-scientific?
To criticise the work of a particular scientist or collaborating group of scientists is no more to attack science than criticising a particular journalist is to attack press freedom, or criticising a particular politician is to attack democracy. Trying to shut down criticism in the name of science is the real attack on science.