Field of Science

The damning global warming emails; when science becomes the casualty

By now everyone and his grandmother must have heard about the hacked emails of the prestigious University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU). The emails were sent by leading climate change scientists to each other and seem to express doubts and uncertainty. More importantly they also seem to display some troubling signs of rather dishonest discourse, with scientists trying to hold dangerously unfavorable opinions of journal editors who seem to be open to publishing papers that don't seem to agree with their views, and asking each other to delete emails which might signal doubt.

There is at least one example of bad science revealed in the emails. It seems that one set of data from tree ring proxies did not show the expected rise in temperatures for a particular period and showed a decline. What was done was that just for that period, a different set of data from another method which did show the rise was grafted on to this piece of data. John Tierney of the NYT has the two graphs on his blog. Does this change the general conclusion? Probably not. Is this bad science and enough to justify a flurry of indignant questions in the minds of outsiders? Certainly so. Good science would have meant revealing all the pieces of data including those which showed a decline.

Now what is remarkable (or perhaps not remarkable at all) is the vociferous political- not scientific- reaction that has erupted in blogs all over the internet. I would point readers to my fellow blogger Derek Lowe's succinct summary of the matter. While I am not as skeptical about climate change as he is, it is disconcerting to see how much political, personal and social baggage the whole issue is carrying. Whenever a scientific issue starts carrying so much non-scientific baggage, one can be assured that we are in trouble.

The comments on most blogs range across the spectrum. There are the outright deniers who claim that the emails "disprove global warming"; they don't, and I can't see how any set of personal exchanges could say almost anything definitive about a system as complex as the climate. Phrases like "hide the decline" (in the case of the above tree ring proxy data) and "trick" have been taken out of their technical context to indicate subversion and deception. And then there are the proponents who want to act like nothing has happened. I like George Monbiot's take on it where he says that even if the science of climate change has certainly not come crashing down, the public image of climate change has been dealt a serious blow, and denying this would simply mean burying your head in the sand. After all, we are supposed to be the good guys, the ones who are supposed to honestly admit to our limitations and failings, and we are not doing this. What ramifications this will have for the important Copenhagen climate summit this month is uncertain.

However, the very fact that we have to worry as much about the public image of climate science as the science itself plainly speaks to the degree of politicization of the issue. I think the liability of this entire matter has basically become infinite and I think scientists working in the field are facing an unprecedented dilemma which few scientists have ever faced. Here's the problem; we are dealing with an extremely complex system and it is hardly surprising if the science of this system (which after all is only a hundred years or so old) keeps getting revised, reshuffled and reiterated even if the basics remain intact. That would be perfectly normal for a vast, multidisciplinary field like this. That is the way science works. One finds such revision and vigorous debate even in highly specific and recondite areas like the choice of atomic partial charges in the calculation of intermolecular energies. The climate is orders of magnitude more complicated. If the usual rules of scientific discourse were to be followed, making such debates and disagreements open would not be a problem.

But with an issue that is so exquisitely fraught with political and economic liabilities and where the stakes are so enormously high, I believe that the normal process of scientific debate, discourse and progress has broken down and is being bypassed. Scientists who would otherwise engage in lively debate and disagreements have become extremely loathe to make their doubts public. These scientists fear that they would essentially be condemned by both sides. The right wing extremists would seize upon any honest disclosure of debate as the kick that brings the entire edifice crumbling down. They would predictably try to discredit even reasonable conclusions drawn by climate change scientists. At the same time, left wing extremists would essentially disown such scientists and either declare them an anomaly or more predictably declare them to be political and corporate shills. A scientist who honestly voices his doubts would become a man without a country.

This is of course in addition to the ample scorn that establishment upholders like climate blogger Joe Romm would heap on them. Thus, if you are a scientist working in climate change today, it would be rather difficult for you to make even the normal process of science transparent. Plus, most scientists are genuinely scared that all the momentum they have built over the years would fizzle out if their right wing opponents pounce on their private doubts. Think about it. The Copenhagen summit is going to be held in a month. Scientists have faced enormous obstacles in convincing the public and governments about climate change. Your work has been crowned by grudging acknowledgement even by George W Bush and the Nobel Peace Prize for Al Gore. Would you be ready to throw away all this rightly hard-earned and hard-fought consensus for the sake of a few dissenting opinions? The simple laws of human nature dictate that you probably would not.

In my opinion, that is what seems to have happened with the scientists at the CRU. They have been so afraid of not only expressing their doubts (many of which as noted above would be valid given the science involved) but also entertaining other dissenting opinions that they have unfortunately picked the option of trying to silence open debate in a way that would be unacceptable in science in general. One can understand their motivation, but their actions still seem deplorable.

I think these emails point to a much more serious structural problem in the scientific enterprise of climate change. For good reasons and bad, whether to stand up to political hacks or ironically to defend good science, this enterprise has accumulated so much political baggage that it is now virtually impossible for it to compromise, to change, to maneuver even in the face of cogent reasons. The science of climate change has essentially bound itself into a straitjacket. My prediction is that important decisions about this science will in the future be mainly politically motivated. Public consensus not completely backed by good science will be the driving force for major decisions. The consequences of those decisions, just like the climate, are uncertain. We will have to wait and see.

But as usual, the casualty is ultimately science itself. What was good science and ineffective politics before is becoming effective politics and bad science. Whatever else happens, science never wins when it gets so overtly politicized. And hopefully about this there will be universal consensus.


  1. I completely agree that science progresses in a cocoon separate from the practical world. This gives it ample freedom to progress in an unbiased and objective manner. And that whenever this insulating wall breaks down, we land in messy situations like this.

    But I want to point out that there have been a few other previous instances of political priorities impugning the scientific process. There was the field of nuclear weapons where secrecy and national imperatives guided scientific reporting ( and of course, you are much more of an expert in this than me :) ), then there was the period in 1960s (?) when big science and tobacco funded science clashed over the health effects of cigarettes. Even right now, with the Obama administration making green science a national priority, the scientists in the National labs and the people writing their funding proposals have a strong motivation to fuzzify their science.

    Perhaps, like the Hipocrates oath, we should have a similar explicit set of core principles that every scientist vows to uphold.

  2. Quite true. The example of nuclear weapons is an especially cogent one, where political pressures and world events led Truman to announce a crash program for the hydrogen bomb even when evidence for its very existence was slim. On the other hand, looking back, one can discern a sense of inevitability in what happened, and this is what I fear about climate change.

  3. From my planner for today there is an excellent, timely quote from Ghandi: "Truth never damages a cause that is just".

    The entire global warming story has long since gone beyond science as we know and practice it and has lived in the realm of policy, where everyone is out there trying to cut the best deal they can. It's interesting that the name ExxonMobil" has become an invective by the AGW Alarmists, but look at the position the company tries to take, at least publically. Truth is most businesses, esp. large businesses, try to go with the political flow of the day.

    The time when the science really could have be openly debated was short circuited, most certainly deliberately, by those that wanted this to become policy.

    I am new to this blog and very happy to have stumbled across it!


  4. That any such "un-truthery" had to be used at all speaks to me profoundly. If they (CRU) knew they were right and had the data, then why the games? As you kept saying, this is an extremely complex system and somehow they never found any data that contradicted themselves. I never find that in simpler systems so I am really distrustful all their efforts.

    I'm reminded of Feynmann's quote, that it's easy to fool people, and the easiest person to fool is yourself. The train got launched, they started riding it and then by the time they might have wanted to stop it, it was too late. They can't go back now and reexamine their data; they are all-in.

  5. Any writer -- scientific or otherwise -- has a responsibility to summarize and clarify the data. Otherwise, we'd just publish the raw data.

    One of the challenges in writing a scientific paper is that data are complicated, and the complicated bits take many more words to describe than the simple parts. One can easily end up with a paper showing a big effect (First-born children are three feet taller than only children!) but spend half the paper dealing with some complicated tidbit (unless they were born on a Thursday before 10am...except that's really due to three subjects who were measured by a nurse who we think was drunk). The problem is that the more words you spend on something, the more more important it seems.

    There is always the risk that the complications you choose to excise turn out to have been important, but that has to be balanced against the risk that if you include those complications, nobody will understand the paper (also bad). But this is not an avoidable problem.

    I'm not saying that's what the scientists in the emails were doing, but it's worth thinking about.


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