Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowlege, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Climate and the emails

In late November, a story surfaced about the hack of a computer at East Anglia University in the U.K., revealing all sorts of private communications between climate researchers.

Margaret Wente, who likes to dabble in uninformed climate denial for the Globe and Mail, had a column in Tuesday's paper entitled Climate science's PR disaster:

The damaging e-mails were hacked from the servers of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. Its temperature databases provide much of the case for global warming. Some of them appear pretty damning. One says, “The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.” Another refers to a “trick” that can be used to “hide the decline” in temperature. One from Phil Jones, the centre's director, says, “I will be e-mailing the journal to tell them I'm having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor.”

Even sympathizers concede the e-mails are a PR disaster. “It isn't worth pretending that this isn't a major blow,” wrote well-known British environmentalist George Monbiot, who's making an appearance this evening in Toronto.

Monbiot had a column on this issue — The Knights Carbonic: (posted Nov. 23)

…. Some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate sceptics(5,6), or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(7). I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones*, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed.

* Jones announced Tuesday he would be stepping aside pending an investigation

But do these revelations justify the sceptics’ claims that this is “the final nail in the coffin” of global warming theory?(8,9) Not at all. They damage the credibility of three or four scientists. They raise questions about the integrity of one or perhaps two out of several hundred lines of evidence. To bury manmade climate change, a far wider conspiracy would have to be revealed. Luckily for the sceptics, and to my intense disappointment, I have now been passed the damning email which confirms that the entire science of global warming is indeed a scam. Had I known that it was this easy to rig the evidence, I wouldn’t have wasted years of my life promoting a bogus discipline. In the interests of open discourse, I feel obliged to reproduce it here.

Read the whole column, but be assured it's quite satirical.

Actually, Monbiot does take the revelations seriously. During his appearance in Toronto on Saturday, he said in response to a questioner: “It's a blow. But global warming can withstand a hell of a lot more than that blow.”

He also said secrecy is the enemy of good science, and that that the science should be absolutey transparent.

Wente concluded with this this:

For us ordinary mortals, when it comes to climate change, “objective science” can be awfully hard to find. As a few dismayed scientists point out, the real issue is not whether the University of East Anglia torques its temperature records. It's the effort to suppress research you don't like. “What has been noticeably absent so far in the Climategate discussion is a public reaffirmation by climate researchers of our basic research values: the rigours of the scientific method (including reproducibility), research integrity and ethics, open minds, and critical thinking,” American climate scientist Judith Curry wrote. She figures the damage inflicted by this affair on the credibility of climate research “is likely to be significant.”

Academic spats, name-calling, data-massaging and cozy peer review by friends are not exactly rare in the world of science. You'll find them anywhere that careers, reputations and resources are on the line. The difference is we are not usually asked to wager billions on the findings. Given the stakes, it's hard not to conclude that climate science is too important to be left to scientists.

Here's another perspective, published at the BBC website and written by two scientists, who somewhat agree with Wente:

In certain areas of research – and climate change is certainly one of these – the authenticating of scientific knowledge now demands two further things: an engagement with expertise outside the laboratory, and responsiveness to the natural scepticism and desire for scrutiny of an educated public.

The public may not be able to follow radiation physics, but they can follow an argument; they may not be able to describe fluid dynamics using mathematics, but they can recognise evasiveness when they see it.

Where claims of scientific knowledge provide the basis of significant public policy, demands for what has been called “extended peer review” and “the democratisation of science” become overwhelming.

Extended peer review is an idea that can take many forms.

It may mean the involvement of a wider range of professionals than just scientists.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, included individuals from industry, environmental organisations and government officials as peer reviewers of early drafts of their assessments.

More radically, some have suggested that opening up expert knowledge to the scrutiny of the wider public is also warranted.

While there will always be a unique function for expert scientific reviewers to play in authenticating knowledge, this need not exclude other interested and motivated citizens from being active.

These demands for more openness in science are intensified by the embedding of the internet and Web 2.0 media as central features of many people's social exchanges.

It is no longer tenable to believe that warranted and trusted scientific knowledge can come into existence inside laboratories that are hermetically sealed from such demands.

The scientists are:

Mike Hulme: Professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change

Dr Jerome Ravetz: Independent scholar affiliated to the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) at Oxford University

Both think anthropogenic global warming is a real phenomenon that is pushing the world's climate systems down a dangerous path.

I wonder what public they have in mind: People who think that because Canada has six per cent of the sky and two per cent of the carbon emissions, we're under-polluting? This country is one of the world's top per-capita carbon emitters.

Would Wente be on such a panel? She has shown a repeated inability to grasp the science, despite efforts of those such as myself to correct her mistakes. Actually, I wonder why the Globe seems so tolerant of her repeated inaccuracies. Opinions should be based on facts.

In arguments in various forums with people who fall in the skeptic/denialist camp, I listen to their concerns, do some independent research, report back to them, and ask them to refute what I've found. They never do, and a few weeks later, they're back to repeating the same old canards. That's not intellectually honest.

If you're a skeptic, and you're presented with evidence that shows your skepticism is misplaced, I would suspect that your skepticism should lessen. If you're a denialist, you do what those people did.

Among the denialist camp, there is no argument that will convince them. In the U.S., belief global warming has plunged since the 2007 IPCC reports, mostly because of a precipitous decline amongst Republicans.

How does evidence strengthen and doubt grow? This has become a faith-based argument. And yet it warms. From a Nov. 24 Hadley Centre news release:

The decade 2000–2009 has been warmer, on average, than any other decade in the previous 150 years

Holme and Ravetz didn't have much to say about that reality. For all her bleatings about objectivity, neither does Wente.

In fact, surprise me and show me one time where she's debunked a denier's argument or acknowledged her errors. You can do it. I just know you can.

Wed, December 2 2009 » * Big Picture Stuff, Main Page, Media