Saturday, December 19, 2009

On "climate-gate" and Tiger Woods

The Copenhagen talks on climate change concluded with the predictable outcome: a vaguely worded non-specific, non-binding document promising that all countries will do something to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, plus a promise that funds will be transferred to vulnerable countries to help them adapt. I'm oversimplifying things a little here, but for the most part the outcome of Copenhagen was similar to most annual climate talks of the past decade. It differed from previous years in that it received far more media attention, and likely had the greatest built-up anticipation, given that this was the first time Obama participated.

The talks were also to some extent overshadowed by what the media has dubbed "climate-gate" (must every controversial issue have the word "gate" added as a suffix? After all, the original Watergate had nothing to do with water). The essence of climate-gate is that someone is supposed to have hacked into the personal e-mail accounts of a number of climate scientists working at the University of East Anglia, home of a very large and important climate change research institute. A number of such messages were then released via the internet. Their contents suggest that some researchers may have engaged in unscholarly activities such as suppressing views that were in conflict with their own, manipulating climate data to achieve particular future projections and threatening to destroy data rather than share it publicly.

Climate science-bashing had previously been a sport practiced most enthusiastically on mid-day AM talk-radio shows and late-night FoxNews shows, in business-section op-ed pieces written by retired oil company executives and their admirers, and here in Canada by the lovably bizarre pundit Rex Murphy. Not only did "climate-gate" give these folks spasms of angry joy, it gave the mainstream media a scandal almost as juicy as a philandering Tiger Woods being supposedly clubbed by his wife. My favourite moment came during a prime-time debate on CNN between children's TV show host Bill Nye the Science Guy and Patrick Michaels (the latter fellow known for writing shrill op-ed pieces downplaying the risks of climate change while receiving funds from fossil fuel industry groups, and for calling himself the "state climatologist of Virginia" when no such position actually existed). The irony of a children's TV personality lecturing grown-up host Campbell Brown on her irresponsible presentation of the science was the type of TV magic only CNN can generate (the video is posted on Bill Nye's website as I write).

While I'm having some fun in the preceding paragraph, it is an important matter that the general public and the policymakers representing them have an accurate understanding of the scientific understanding of human impacts on environmental systems like climate and the feedback effects on human wellbeing. Important policy decisions with far-reaching economic and social impacts need to be made, and CNN info-tainment does not help.

I have a couple underlying concerns about "climate-gate", the first being the origins of the e-mails in question. Computer hackers are not always the most reliable sources of information. Many tend to be vandals, mischiefs or people with axes to grind; for others, the hacking is done for the purpose of committing fraud. Was the East Anglia hacker an exception - someone on a crusade for truth and justice? If I stole your iPod and claimed I did so because I wanted to see if you were illegally downloading songs, even if it turns out you did does that make me a credible crusader for justice? 

But let's assume that whoever accessed these messages was in fact an ethical hacker with good intentions. It begs the further question of whether all the stolen messages were released unedited and in their entirety, or if they had been sorted and edited. Imagine the following e-mail exchange between a scientist communicating with a journal editor as they prepare a manuscript for publication after it has successfully cleared peer-review:

Scientist: What do you suggest I do about the problems with the data in section 3?

Editor: The reviewers and I all believe that section is too jargonistic and overwhelming for our readership, which is primarily non-specialists. There's so much raw data presented within the paragraphs it makes it less readable. I suggest you collapse the various data sets into one or two tables, and then put the tables in an appendix. This will streamline things considerably.

Scientist: That makes sense. I'll strip out the data as you've suggested and simplify the writing. That way readers who don't know the subject will focus on the things I want them to see.  

Obviously, if you only had access to the e-mails written by the scientist, and knew only that s/he was communicating with another scientist, you might well believe the two were conspiring to alter the substantive findings of a study, and not simply to make editorial changes to the report. Tweak a couple simple words and it looks even darker.

But let's go the final step and assume that the e-mails circulating on the internet really are the unvarnished writings of several scientists working in the East Anglia centre. What does this tell us? Foremost, it's a commentary on just how important climate science has become. Risks that necessitate important public policy choices inevitably become highly politicized. The whole Tiger Woods affair will inevitably fade away because, at the end of the day, no matter how much the media likes to hype it, it doesn't matter much. The debate over what to do about climate change will not go away so easily.

Second, it shows that as much as scientists like to pretend they're objective, unbiased actors who let the results of their work speak for itself, every scientist takes his or her own work very seriously and hopes that others will act upon their findings. Most scientific research (social or natural science) goes unnoticed by all but a few interested peers, notwithstanding the inevitable statement that "these findings have implications for policymakers and other researchers" one finds in the conclusions section of so many academic journal articles. Climate scientists have found an attentive audience in (and in many ways been actively encouraged by) policy makers and politicians; once they're caught up in such a politically heated public debate (as it is in the UK, much more so than here in North America), it's not surprising they should take sides or become partisans.

But partisanship is one thing; deviously manipulating findings or deliberately scuppering evidence that contradicts one's own work is academic fraud. There are few things that will cost a tenured professor his/her job (and poor teaching is not one of them), but academic fraud is one. The light of day is now being brought to bear on these researchers, rightly or wrongly, and if they have indeed committed such acts, they will be found out and punished. And yes, the hacker will have hastened that process, but such things are difficult to conceal indefinitely. 

Most importantly, wrong science gets found out, even if it takes time. And that is the real problem facing the Rex Murphy's and other mud-throwers out there. Climate-gate does not prove that the basic physical science underpinning our understanding of climate change is wrong, just as Tiger Woods is not proof that all golfers deserve a good thrashing for cheating on their wives. The fundamentals of climate science are continually poked and prodded, and our understanding of them continually improved by thousands of scientists at hundreds of institutions. The interactions of greenhouse gases with radiation and the origins of atmospheric greenhouse gases are not "paradigms" of science as some Popper-quoting pundits have suggested. They are observable, measurable phenomena, not political positions taken by scientists.

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