“Climategate”: A Different Perspective

Jul 19, 2010 | 

Kerry Emanuel

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“Climategate”: A Different Perspective

Jul 19, 2010 | 

Kerry Emanuel



Much has been made in Academic Questions and elsewhere of the contents and implications of a series of hacked emails; the resulting scandal is now known as “climategate.”  As a climate scientist and member of NAS, I am inclined to agree with those who have described it as the “greatest scientific scandal of our generation”, but the scandal I see is very different from the one that has been presented to NAS members. Climategate is merely the latest in a series of coordinated, politically motivated attacks that represent an aggravated assault on scholarship that should be of concern to every member of NAS who, if they are like me, joined this organization because we were tired of seeing scholarship enslaved to ideology, particularly in academia. NAS has been at the forefront of the battle against such assaults on reason as campus speech codes, affirmative action, deconstruction, and other horrors perpetrated mostly from the political Left. A true test of NAS’s commitment to reason and scholarship is whether it is prepared to take on an attack that this time is mounted largely from the Right.

What the emails show are a few researchers behaving in a manner unbecoming scientists and gentlemen. The true scandal is the attempt to catapult such behavior into high crime and to dismiss an entire scientific endeavor based on the privately expressed sentiments of a few (a very few) researchers working in an environment of ongoing harassment. At the time of this writing, three separate panels convened in Great Britain, and two investigations conducted by the Pennsylvania State University have cleared the authors of the controversial emails of any serious wrong doing, and with good reason. Meanwhile, the gross mischaracterization of what those emails actually contain continues unabated.

It is helpful first to remember that the emails in question were semi-private correspondence among scientists and that the vast majority of the email shows a high level of diligence and professionalism in conducting and reporting research. The few emails that have been the subject of so much heated rhetoric show that some scientists are occasionally prey to human pitfalls (shocking!). It is simply naïve to suppose that we never complain to each other about the unfairness of editors and reviewers and openly wish we could replace them, or that we sometimes wish we could keep data out of the hands of those we know are determined to misuse it. Drop a microphone into a conference social event and one would hear countless conversations along these lines. This is nothing to be proud of, and most of us are wise enough to keep it out of written correspondence, but the idea that this represents a conspiracy among a broad cross-section of researchers is ludicrous.

Much has been made of the so-called efforts of the authors of some of the emails to keep papers out of the peer-reviewed literature. But the conversations in question were about whether to cite certain papers in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC performs no research; the decisions in question concerned whether the IPCC should include citations to certain already-published material in their report. There is neither a desire nor an obligation of the IPCC to cite all peer-reviewed publications bearing on the subject, and the writers’ decisions about what and what not to include in the report are based on a judgment of their scientific quality. Far from being blackballed, research that in my view would not normally pass peer review ends up being published out of reviewers’ fears of being accused of blackballing. (The paper that the authors of the emails were discussing did end up being cited in the IPCC report.)

Then there is a discussion about whether a certain editor should be removed from a journal. Such discussions are not uncommon, and I myself have participated in an effort to remove an editor whose professionalism I questioned. It is not only a right but, I would argue, a duty of responsible professionals to seek to replace an editor who consistently underperforms. It is up to the boards of the journals to decide whether such charges have merit.

By now, whole forests (or their electronic equivalent) have been chopped down to provide space for discussion of the “hide the decline” remark in one of the emails. This concerns a well-known disagreement between reconstructions of temperature based on analyses of trees, and actual measurements of temperature. The proxy reconstructed temperatures and the instrumental temperatures agree quite well up to around 1960, but after that, some (not all) of the reconstructed temperatures disagree with the instrumental record. In the extensive scientific literature on the subject, this is referred to as the “divergence problem.”  As the land-based instrumental temperatures are highly robust, as has been verified in countless scientific publications, no one in my profession thinks the reconstructed temperatures are correct after 1960; the real question is how reliable they are going back in time before the beginning of the instrumental record of global temperatures dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century. The “hide the decline” remark concerns a decision made by the authors of the third assessment report of the IPCC not to include the part of the proxy record that disagrees with the instrumental record in a summary figure showing global temperature over the last millennium or so. In my view, this represents poor judgment on the part of the authors of that report. But if those same authors were conspiring to hide something important from the public, they did an exceedingly poor job of it, as anyone with the slightest interest in pursuing the matter would rapidly come across the extensive literature on the divergence problem, which includes papers by the authors of the emails in question. The sin of those responsible for simplifying the summary figure pales in comparison to that committed by all those who have sought to elevate this to the level of a grand conspiracy among climate scientists and thereby to discredit a whole field of scholarship.

There are discussions among the authors of the controversial emails about whether to withhold data from some of those requesting it. Such withholding of data is almost never justified, and the email authors must be held accountable for their behavior in this regard. Nevertheless, it is helpful to see their correspondence in the context in which it occurred. It is a matter of record that some of the scientists involved in the email exchanges had been subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests of such volume as to rise to the level of harassment. (FOI is, alas, often used in the legal profession as a blunt instrument to bring the opposing side to a standstill; now it is being used to slow down the progress of science.) There is, however, a solution to the problem: simply post all scientific data sets online and make them freely available to everyone. There were two impediments to doing so in this case. First, as a strictly practical matter, much of the instrumental temperature analyses and associated publications date back to the 1980s, before it became routine to digitize the records, and so it is not so easy simply to post it. Second, and far more consequential in the long run, was the decision by certain western European nations to cease to regard environmental data as a public good and treat it as proprietary, forcing others to purchase it and sign non-redistribution commitments. Not only has this greatly slowed scientific progress and created major headaches for researchers, it has also contaminated a culture committed to free and open access to all taxpayer funded environmental data with the notion that environmental data is proprietary and must be shielded from “illegal” uses. The true villains in this story are the governments of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and a few other nations, who are cheating the taxpayer by charging him once, through taxation, to collect the data and a second time to acquire and use it, and who are thereby impeding the progress of science. We scientists (and indeed all citizens) should be far more active in opposing these policies and in insisting that environmental data once again be treated as a public good; at the same time, we must ourselves do everything in our power to make our data sets and analysis methods (including computer programs) easily and freely available.

The allegation that the researchers actually destroyed data has been shown to be false, but it is repeated endlessly.

Shortly after the climategate emails were published, several factual errors were discovered in the most recent assessment report of the IPCC. These include a permutation of digits in the year in which certain Himalayan glaciers were predicted to vanish, and the citation of a Dutch government report that incorrectly stated the fraction of the Netherlands that is below sea level. While errors of this kind are regrettable, the attempt to leverage them into a sweeping condemnation of the whole report betrays such obvious political skullduggery as to be unworthy of further remark.

The land temperature records compiled by the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, and the computer codes used to analyze them, have been poured over by countless scientists, including some who have been critical of the CRU, and shown to be highly robust. This is only one of many lines of evidence about how and why the planet’s climate is changing. These include independent observational records, such as those of sea surface temperatures, sea level, sea ice extent, and mountain glacier extents, as well as basic theory and computational models, all pointing to anthropogenic climate change over at least the past few decades. The characterization of climate research as a “house of cards” simply does not bear scrutiny and is insulting to the many climate scientists who have devoted their lives to understanding the earth’s climate. It represents an ongoing attempt to politicize scientific research, a process NAS should strongly oppose rather than abet.

This brings me finally to the overarching question of the influence of politics (campus and otherwise) on science. In any discipline, one finds zealots, and climate science is no exception. Yes, there are environmentalist zealots who are happy to use global warming as an excuse to force us back into a golden stone age of happy hunter-gatherers unencumbered by modern transportation, electricity, and so on; one is right to question the objectivity of their research. So, too, are there reactionaries who reflexively deny the validity of any evidence that we are changing our climate. Whatever side of the issue, we scientists know who these colleagues are; one cannot imagine those colleagues changing their minds in the face of new evidence. I have been working in this field for 32 years and can attest that such ideologues constitute a tiny fraction of active scientific researchers.

Aside from the zealots, there is, in any controversial scientific issue, a broad spectrum of attitudes. This is particularly the case towards the beginning of a scientific endeavor, when the evidence is sometimes murky and the results of experiments are often equivocal. As the field progresses, the evidence usually coalesces into a clearer picture of objective reality.  Along the way, scientists exhibit varying degrees of skepticism. It is important to understand that all scientists worthy of the title are skeptics who seldom accept evidence at face value and are always questioning the status quo. A sure way for an up-and-coming young scientist to make a name for himself or herself is to overturn some generally accepted piece of the scientific canon. This is what makes science a largely self-correcting enterprise: no incorrect result can stand long in the face of continuous scrutiny. There are and will always be mavericks in science, and this is a good thing as it combats any herd behavior that might develop. There are serious biologists who do not think that HIV causes AIDS, and until surprisingly recently, there were world-class geologists who refused to accept the theory of plate tectonics. Once in awhile, these mavericks’ ideas prove to have merit. But when extra-scientific organizations embrace maverick views, one can be sure that politics are at play.

Dividing the entire field of climate research into “believers,” “skeptics,” “deniers,” and so on is a particularly egregious tactic deployed by those who wish to discredit climate research.  Science is not about belief, it is about evidence. Projections of climate change by the IPCC are deeply skeptical, and there is no attempt to hide the large uncertainty of climate forecasts. The possible outcomes, as far as we have been able to discern, range from benign to catastrophic. Ironically, those labeled “skeptics” by the media are not in fact skeptical; they are, on the contrary, quite sure that there is no risk going forward. Meanwhile, those interested in treating the issue as an objective problem in risk assessment and management are labeled “alarmists”, a particularly infantile smear considering what is at stake. This deployment of inflammatory terminology has a distinctly Orwellian flavor. It originates not in laboratories and classrooms, where ideas are the central focus and one hardly ever hears labels applied to researchers, but in the media, the blogosphere, and political think tanks, where polarization attracts attention and/or turns a profit.

But it turns out that there are not enough mavericks in climate science to meet the media’s and blogosphere’s insatiable appetite for conflict. Thus into the arena steps a whole host of charlatans posing as climate scientists. These are a toxic brew of retired physicists, TV weather forecasters, political junkies, media hacks, and anyone else willing to tell an interviewer that he/she is a climate scientist. Typically, they have examined some of the more easily digestible evidence and, like good trial lawyers, cherry-pick that which suits their agendas while attacking or ignoring the rest. Often, they are a good deal more articulate than actual scientists, who usually prefer doing research to honing rhetorical technique.  Intelligent readers/viewers should demand to know the actual scientific backgrounds of these posers and recognize that someone with a background in particle physics or botany may in fact know very little about climate science.  Does he/she have a background in atmospheric physics? Can they answer elementary questions about radiative and convective heat transfer, or about the circulation of the ocean and atmosphere?  More precisely, does their expertise actually bear on the particular points they are making? It may sound elitist these days, but there is a point to credentials.

While the climategate email authors are castigated for not being paragons of virtue, the sins of others go unremarked. In the summer of 2009, a one-page letter was sent to Congress, signed by one actual climate scientist and six physicists with little or no background in climate science, three of whom were retired. Among other untruths, it contained the sentence, referring to evidence of anthropogenic global warming, “There is no such evidence; it doesn’t exist.” I confronted the sole climate scientist among the authors with this statement, and he confessed that he did not hold that to be the case. Last I checked, lying to Congress was a federal crime.

The issue of global warming has been used to advance all kinds of agendas, often obnoxious ones, like forced sustainability, high taxes, and so on. The preaching of such agendas in the classroom is a legitimate concern for organizations, like the National Association of Scholars, that are committed to keeping politics out of the classroom and the laboratory. But it is the antithesis of such noble objectives to seek to kill the messenger, in this case, climate science, by attacking the science itself, anymore than it makes sense to combat fascism or racism by attacking the theory of evolution. NAS stands at a crossroads: is it truly committed to upholding standards of objective scholarship and free inquiry untainted by political agendas, or is it merely a particular brand of political passion masquerading as high principle? If the former, it should stop attacking climate science and turn its guns against those who are politicizing it. 

Kerry Emanuel is a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.He is the author of Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, (2005, Oxford University Press). In May 2006 he was named one of Time magazine's "Time 100: The People Who Shape Our World."

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