Science Self-Corrects Even When Scientists Don't

Kerry Emanuel

The National Association of Scholars was formed largely to counter an erosion of scholarship originating in the political left and driven by an ideological commitment to advancing certain agendas at the expense of the free and open inquiry we once took for granted. It is therefore both ironic and distressing to find some of its members in sympathy with an equally disturbing and just as ideologically driven campaign against scholarship that can only be characterized as a war on science. The latest example is the egregious piece published recently by H. Sterling Burnett. It closely follows what has become a template for the conservative campaign against climate science:

  1. Tar an entire scholarly endeavor with the alleged crimes of a few
  2. Endlessly repeat allegations long after they have been proven false
  3. Falsely attribute to scientists extremist statements originating outside science
  4. Claim that the existence of minority opinions obviates the need to take risk seriously
  5. Attribute ulterior motives to scientists while ignoring the rather obvious motives of their critics
  6. Claim that the lack of existence of easy solutions justifies ignoring or discrediting science

As Dr. Burnett notes, the latest release of hacked emails, sometimes known as “Climategate II,” involves largely the same “cabal” as the first round; indeed, they were harvested at the same time but deliberately withheld so as to have an optimum negative impact on the recently concluded climate talks in Durban. As they contain little new information, however, they have had minimal influence.

To be sure, some of the hacked messages are decidedly unflattering to their authors. I agree with Dr. Burnett that the requests to destroy emails or to hide data are completely out of line with the ideals of free and open inquiry that constitute a key cornerstone of scholarship. (Fortunately, various inquiries into the matter ascertained that no emails were destroyed in response to this request; nor is it possible to hide publicly funded data.) These are not defensible statements and no scientist I know would subscribe to them. But it is at this point that massive leveraging begins. We know something is amiss when Burnett claims that “the e-mails show the scientists involved to be violating their professional ethics with the result that climate science in particular and science as an institution more generally is brought into question” (emphasis mine). This represents a fundamental lack of understanding of how science actually works. It is simply naïve to imagine that science can only work if all its practitioners are models of virtue; it works because the enterprise as a whole is self-correcting, not because individuals are. Error, whatever its source, is a constant feature of research and advances are made only because results are constantly being tested by others. The land-temperature data that Phil Jones is best known for working on have been pored over by many groups, including most recently that of the Berkeley physicist Richard Muller – a strong critic of Jones’s efforts – and found to be robust. It is also consistent with records of sea surface temperature, which are based on entirely independent measurements.

From here, Burnett descends into repetition of false allegations. His claims that scientists destroyed raw data, that peer-review was undermined or that scientists employed “tricks” intended to deceive have been shown over and over again to be false, but those intent on undermining climate science hope that they will nonetheless gain currency by endless repetition. Burnett also falsely claims that researchers argue that “the science is settled”; no scientist in his right mind would ever claim that about any scientific finding. It is a claim made frequently by politicians and environmentalists, not climate scientists.

Imagine for a moment that some hacker gained access to thousands of emails exchanged among members of your profession. Can you honestly and confidently assert that none of these would reveal unprofessional behavior? Would the existence of such invalidate all the work you yourself and your profession as a whole is devoted to?  The holier-than-thou moral preening so abundantly evident in recent attacks on climate science has a singular purpose: to discredit a scientific endeavor whose findings are seen as lending support to policies advocated by Al Gore, environmentalists, the far left, and others that conservatives find distasteful. Perhaps because scientists are such easy targets, it’s easier to discredit them than engage policies that deal with climate change. At root, this is simple cowardice.

I am a scientist, a member of this organization, and someone who regards himself as conservative. I believe that our grandchildren will remember our generation not for its grand and overhyped exposés of a handful of climate scientists but for our failure to honestly and openly confront the risks that threaten their wellbeing, of which our attempts to discredit climate science are but one symptom.

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

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