Dec 07 2009

The Climategate Fiasco

In March of 2006 a female student and exotic dancer accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her. In the following weeks media commentators wrote and spoke about the moral implications of this heinous crime. What does this mean about the moral fabric of our society, about the role of privilege, class, and justice? It seemed that everyone had their opinion about the meaning of this crime.

That is, right until it was revealed that the accusations were a hoax – there never was any crime. After the revelation there was barely a “nevermind” (ala Gilda Radner from SNL ) from those so free to moralize based upon the initial accusations. One exception was David Brooks who wrote:

Witch hunts go in stages. First frenzy, when everybody damns the souls of people they don’t know. Then confusion, as the first wave of contradictory facts comes in. Then deafening silence, as everybody studiously ignores the vicious slanders they uttered during the moment of maximum hysteria.

It feels to me, with the Climategate scandal, that we are in the frenzy stage of this witch hunt. But already the “first wave of contradictory facts” are coming in also.

Someone hacked into the computer network at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and published thousands of stolen e-mails and computer code on the internet. Global Warming dissidents (I won’t get into the whole “skeptic” vs “denier” thing here) then poured through the e-mails and came up with several statements they felt were smoking gun evidence of scientific fraud. To them, these e-mails confirmed what they had always suspected – anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a fraud perpetrated by a small cadre of liberal scientists.

Writing for the Telegraph, James Delingpole declared (or at least his headline writer did) that climategate was the “final nail in the coffin of AGW.” Fox news wrote: “This coordinated campaign to hide scientific information appears unprecedented.” And some declared this the greatest scientific fraud of modern times.

But is it really? Like the Duke “rape” case, it is prudent to first ask what actually has been going on at the CRU. Perhaps we should wait for an investigation before we hammer that nail into the coffin.

Here are some of the e-mails:

I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.

Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4?

Keith will do likewise. He’s not in at the moment – minor family crisis.

Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address.

We will be getting Caspar to do likewise.

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that–take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…What do others think?”

Certainly statements like these, coming from scientists, are very concerning, not to mention embarrassing. But they are not smoking-gun evidence of fraud. Those of us who have done research and published papers, or just worked with scientists, probably recognize some of the chatter as the normal kinds of discussions that happen in the messy process of science. Using a “trick” can simply be a euphemism (although poorly chosen) to refer to a statistical method. And “hide the decline” can simply refer to making a complex graph of data look better.

But there can be a fine line between analyzing data and “massaging” the data. So as I said – such statements are concerning, but potentially innocent, and should be independently investigated – but not prematurely condemned.

What about e-mails about refusing freedom of information (FOI) request for the raw data, and the accusations that the CRU “destroyed” their raw data? Again, very concerning – as a rule raw data should always be preserved, and should be made available for independent analysis. No one can reasonable deny this. But the emerging story is more complex.

For example, Jeff Masters explains that resistance to FOI requests was not an attempt to conceal fraud, but was resistance to harassing trivial requests by amateurs who were putting an undue burden on the data managers. In fact they suspected that some of the requests were meant to distract them from their work and eat up their resources.

I don’t know if this is true, but it is a plausible alternate explanation. It does reveal the “bunker mentality” that the CRU scientists had developed, and no matter how this shakes out that is a problem that needs to be addressed.

What about destroying data? This refers to the fact that the CRU threw out raw data backups in the 1980s (before the scientists responsible for the e-mails) that were on paper and magnetic tape when they moved their facilities. Further, they claim that much of this data is still available from the original sources and not lost at all.

Again – I have not seen confirmation of this latter claim, and I await the investigation and the revelations that will come in the next few months. But if true it potentially eliminates the accusation that data was destroyed as part of a cover up.

Dr. Phil Jones, the head of the CRU, has stepped down while the investigation is ongoing, and I think that is prudent. I also think that, given the controversy, we need absolute transparency with this data and independent analysis. This is actually a good opportunity to refocus on the science and evidence of AGW.

But I doubt that the maximally hysterical pronouncements of the extreme AGW dissidents, for whom this scandal was an instant confirmation of all their darkest accusations, will pan out. It seems highly unlikely that climategate will change the consensus of scientific opinion on AGW. It also seems unlikely that the degree of fraud that is being accused has in fact occurred.

One reason for this opinion is that, after pouring through thousands of e-mails, these are the worst that the AGW dissidents can come up with. The lack of more compelling evidence for fraud is itself very telling.

Some AGW dissidents argue that the e-mails are not the real evidence, but the computer code used to “analyze” data will be the smoking gun. I have not seen any definitive information about this, so far this is just preliminary accusations. Phil Plait points out that such computer code often goes through many iterations – it’s not as straightforward as you might think. Just because you can find older code that had serious flaws does not mean there is a conspiracy of fraud.

If early indications are representative, then it seems that the scientists are guilty of some poor judgment, poorly chosen words, and not dealing well with the pressures of being at the center of a scientific controversy. But even this moderate conclusion is tentative, and must wait for the results of a thorough investigation.

For global warming dissidents I recommend that you put your rhetoric in check. The witch-hunt frenzy so far in evidence cannot possibly serve you well. If it turns out there was real fraud at the CRU, you will still be criticized for being prematurely shrill and you will lose credibility. Also, the more extravagant your condemnations, the more likely it is that the reality will not be as bad as you are stating – and therefore even if some indiscretions come to light, you will have actually softened the blow because they will not be as bad as the worst hysterical claims. And of course, if it comes to light that no real fraud occurred, the credibility of AGW dissidents will have been dealt a severe blow.

If, on the other hand, you take a cautious and, dare I say, skeptical approach – say that the e-mails are evidence of a troubling attitude at the CRU and deserve full independent investigation, but show restraint in making premature accusations, then you can only win. If the CRU is cleared, you will be praised for your restraint and objectivity. And if any degree of malfeasance comes to light, you can portion your condemnation to the evidence, and will have gained a serious upper hand in the AGW debate. You will be taken seriously the next time you call AGW predictions into question.

I have received many e-mails and have read many blogs and articles on climategate, and find that those who were most adamant that AGW dissidents had been treated unfairly, were also the ones who were being the most hysterical and premature in their conclusions. While demanding to be taken seriously, they were behaving is such a way that almost guaranteed that they would not be.

I have also seen some reasonable responses from those unsure about the claims of climate change and just wanting to get to the truth, and upset that they are being painted with the same brush as the extreme fringe. I understand their concern, but they should not assume that responding to the extreme is equal to painting with a broad brush. We can do both – debunk the hysteria, while acknowledging there is the full range of opinions from dedicated AGW deniers to AGW true-believers. I do not mean to suggest that the truth is a matter of splitting the difference. In my opinion, the science so far favors the conclusion the AGW is real and a potential problem that should concern us. But there is room for ideology and irrationality on both sides of this controversy.

I don’t know what the lessons of climategate are yet – we need to see what actually happened first. But how people deal with climategate says a lot about their process. Those who are making bold claims based upon ambiguous, circumstantial, and out-of-context evidence, are not doing themselves or their side any favors.

Now – let the comment storm begin.

42 responses so far

42 thoughts on “The Climategate Fiasco”

  1. Eternally Learning says:

    I, for one, have always found the debate about global warming a little incidental. One doesn’t need to think that the Earth is dying (I’m talking extremes here) to think that it may not be healthy to live in Beijing. I’ve always felt that in the presence of uncertainty on this issue, airing (no pun intended) on the side of caution made the most sense, especially when being cautious means using less non-renewable resources.

  2. grabula says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time this past week emailing links to some local “celebrities”. We have a few on the radio and tv here in the twin cities who could be solidly labeled global warming deniers. These individuals immediately jumped on this case and reacted as most of the other deniers did, presenting this as adamining evidence that there is no warming trend, science bedamned.

    I doubt it will have much impact. The more deeply I’ve got into the skeptical world, the more I’ve found that most people aren’t willing to honestly budge from their points of view.

  3. Watcher says:

    This is actually a good opportunity to refocus on the science and evidence of AGW.

    A great point and, something that I think is long overdue. The idea has been very politicized lately and needs to be re-centered on the science in order to get more work done. It could also lead to more stringent methods (if some of these allegations turn out to be true) in which case a “better” data set could be obtained. I’ve tended to look at this as a net win for the science, albeit a hassle at this point in time.

  4. symroe says:

    FYI it’s “Climatic Research Unit”, not Climate.

  5. skrile says:

    I believe that the main difference between Science (fact-based belief) and Religion (faith-based belief) is this: The highest achievement of science is overturning a commonly-held belief. Religion’s highest achievement is confirming a commonly-held belief.

    In so many ways, most of us are at the mercy of what we’ve been told and our personal disposition as to determine whether Global Warming is real, man made, etc. Both sides take, in my opinion, a very dogmatic approach, and as these emails reveal, there is little room in science for dogma. Scientists know this and frequently talk in blasphemous terms when trying to understand the cold reality of the data they are analyzing. Everyone just needs to chill out, wait 50 years, and change their opinion once again.

  6. Mexican says:

    Probably you have already seen this in Pharyngula. Great post, as usual. Saludos.

  7. Steve Page says:

    Excellent post, Steve. Couple of minor typos though – ‘poured’ and ‘pouring’ should be ‘pored’ and ‘poring,’ at least by my understanding of English. Is this one of these aluminum/aluminium things?

  8. bradachorn says:

    Regarding the computer code, John Graham-Cumming has some interesting analysis of some of the more controversial bits (the upshot – no smoking gun here either):

  9. juga says:

    Thanks, Steven, for a balanced and measured analysis. What interests me is the attempt in some quarters (PZ?) to lump together climate change sceptics and creationists, IDers etc. But it seems to me there is a great difference in the way these two debates are being handled.

    If I say to an evolution scientist that an eye is irreducibly complex, I’m sure I will be given as much information as I can absorb as to why it isn’t.

    Contrariwise, if I say to many climate scientists I think their claims might be overstated, I won’t be shown the evidence and their workings. I’ll be told to shut up because the “science is settled”. Or I’ll be told even if there’s only a 50% or 10% chance they’re correct, I still need to accept their solutions on the precautionary principle. The debate is closed down. The CRU emails seem to indicate that the scientists did everything they could not to be open with their data and methods. As you say, maybe they felt the FOI requests were unreasonably burdensome, but that has not been proved. One leaked email complained that the number of requests had reached double digits, which doesn’t sound very high to me. And FOI requests are only burdensome when the information is not already available.

    The lesson from Climategate is that climate science needs to be as open as evolution science. Perhaps the leaking of the emails will move things in this direction.

  10. Doctor Evidence says:

    It does irk me when the results of science are used to rationalize political positions or to amplify financially-motivated demagoguery. I hope that scientific institutions are not unduly influenced by financial/political agendas, even if the scientific conclusions have merit.

  11. wyomingclimber says:

    While I understand it wasn’t the analogy the poster was going for–we need to be able to hold scientists to a higher standard than exotic dancers.

    We need to be able to count on them being utterly agnostic with regard to their subject of study. “Climategate” is just more evidence that they are not above playing games when their sacred cows or cherished theories are threatened.

    My blind confidence in science was badly shaken by watching respected scientists turn into pop-Creationists at the mere mention of evolutionary psychology. And the chorus of “amens” for the factually questionable “An Inconvenient Truth” didn’t exactly cheer me up.

    Is this particular event a tempest in a teapot or the tip of the iceberg? I assume the former, but I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it. And that worries me.

  12. symroe says:

    On getting bogged down by FOI:

    In the UK public authorities much comply with request that cost less than £450 to respond to (including the man hours taken).

    For a smallish science group, this could cost them *a lot* of time and money.

    However, I don’t want to comment further on the matter, as, like Steve said, nothing is proven yet.

  13. tfk says:

    I hope that the increased transparency provides solid evidence that everyone can understand. Although I’m a strong supporter of science, I haven’t been following this topic closely. “Hide the decline” is pretty damning. Can you say more about why it might not be?

  14. tfk says:

    BTW: I mean damning to the individual scientist, not to the theory.

  15. daedalus2u says:

    juga, Creationists and AGW deniers are similar. They use similar tactics. The difference is that Creationists are denying evolution for theological and religious reasons, the AGW deniers are a more diverse group. Some are deniers because they profit from a delay in changes in energy markets/prices to reflect the costs of dealing with AGW, some are deniers because they are sucking up to those denying it because they profit, some are deniers because it opposes liberals, some because run-away global warming sounds a lot like the Apocalypse that they are praying will happen in their lifetime.

    The difficulty with global warming predictions is because they are about the future, but depend on the past. Once the future happens, it is too late to change the past, there are no do-overs.

    The uncertainty in the predictions is mostly about the timing, not about how much warming there will ultimately be. Timing is critically important in making economic decisions because the discount rate makes costs far enough in the future unimportant in the present. Unfortunately those costs still depend on who bears them in the future and who bears the cost of dealing with them now.

    When Greenland melts (not if, when; at current CO2 levels the Greenland ice sheet is unstable and will melt, the only question is the timing) and sea level goes up 7 meters, what is the value of the property that will be destroyed by being converted from dry land to sea bed? How much is it worth to spend to stave off the melting of Greenland by one year? Presumably it is the interest on the replacement value of the property that will be destroyed.

    The problem with predicting the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is that it is inherently a non-linear chaotic process. Every ice sheet that has been observed to collapse has done so catastrophically. None have melted slowly and incrementally. How to model the catastrophic collapse of an ice sheet is unknown. How to model a slowly melting ice sheet is known.

    Every estimate I have seen of the melting of the ice sheets has been modeled through a slow melting process, but they all have the caveat that the model assumes slow melting and not catastrophic melting. Those who understand the rudiments of the modeling know that the slow melting is an extreme upper bound. No one expects it to take that long. The melting will occur sooner. How much sooner? No one knows.

    When Greenland does melt, it will likely go in catastrophic episodic bursts, the loss of a significant percentage flowing into the sea as ice bergs. Those might make the Atlantic impassible. If 15% of Greenland flows into the sea, it raises sea level by 1 meter world-wide. What does it do to the Atlantic coasts? Is there a surge of a few meters before the excess flows out of the Atlantic?

  16. bitbutter says:

    “And “hide the decline” can simply refer to making a complex graph of data look better.”

    As I understand it we already know quite a bit about this. And it’s not good.

    In a sense it is about making data look ‘better’ (for AGW theory at least). This was achieved by silently swapping out inconvenient data.

    The graph in question appears on the cover of the WMO 1999 statement. Jones swapped out post 1960 tree ring data with instrumental data. This had the effect of making it look as though the tree ring data was more reliable than it really was, as well as reinforcing the impression of a clear upswing at the end of the chart. Even though other literature describes the divergence problem, no mention was made in the WMO document that any of the series’ used in the graph were composites. This is a piece of deception.

    American thinker has a good explanation:

  17. Jerry says:

    This incident could be a catalyst to more open access to research data, so that people don’t have to do FOI requests, but just download the raw data from a website.

    A clearing house with all the temperature data collected in countries around the world, the historical record, instrument data, the proxy data.

    Of course, this all is distracting policy makers from the real issue, sustainability and alternative energy. Because even if the climate would cool 5C, oil will run out, pollution will continue and habitat is increasingly destroyed, all while the sea gets more and more plastics in her.

    Those things need to be addressed no matter what.

    That’s why I’m no longer caring about whether or not the earth is warming because of us, how much, and with what consequences.

  18. bitbutter – New Scientist has another take:

    Essentially, tree ring data is complex. It seems to fit prior to 1960, but not afterward, and no one is sure why. Jones himself discusses this problem in his work. No one is hiding this fact.

    So you can throw out the tree ring data entirely, or only use it for those periods where is agrees with direct measurement.

    Either way – rising temperatures in the 20th century do not go away.

  19. B-Dawg says:

    Steve’s point, as I’ve heard him state repeatedly on the SGU, is that the case for climate change rests upon a “consensus” of climate research. What troubles me, though, is that the emails raise questions about the integrity of the peer-review process that produces the findings upon which the consensus is based. To the extent that eminent climate scientists influence where researchers send their manuscripts, or suggest blackballing journals that publish articles by those who report divergent findings, the consensus may be flawed. And blind review is no cure for this problem. I publish in peer-reviewed journals and frequently review manuscripts for them. The review is “blind,” but a quick scan of the abstract and reference list is usually sufficient to identify the manuscript’s author.

    I am not a climate scientist and can’t say that ClimateGate alters the bigger picture on climate change, but the boys-will-be-boys explanation for these emails doesn’t wash. This is precisely the kind of flap that undermines public confidence in science (which is low enough already).

  20. gdjsky01 says:

    Steve I perfer Brian Dunning’s take on AGW. If it is happening or not, not a single person on the planet can reasonable say air pollution is a good thing. And the very same technology and habits that reduce air pollution, just happen to reduce greenhouse gases. So to me, that is a win win. Within (economic) *reason* of course. Something that is always lacking in these bipolar arguments.

  21. zoe237 says:

    Thanks for a well balanced article. While I don’t think it’s possible for scientists to be “agnostic” about their research, I can hope they can get away from this “bunker mentality” you speak of. I am a full AGW acceptor (believer has some negative connotations, I think), but some of those emails are pretty difficult to defend. It certainly doesn’t castigate AGW, but perhaps the politics involved in science. Unfortunately, most people aren’t gonna know the difference, and it’s just another wound to public understanding of science. We don’t know who to believe.

    I was pretty appalled by the arrogance, quite honestly, but I do understand frustration. And yet, many are still defending these scientists 100% (which is why I like the more balanced viewpoint in Novella’s post). Or claiming that AGW is an elaborate hoax. I don’t know; I guess we’ll see where this goes. People aren’t going to be paying attention when an investigation is complete though.

  22. eiskrystal says:

    If this is the totality of the (giggles) corruption then quite frankly it probably puts the CRU unit as one of the least corrupt places in government.

    What still really really makes me mad is that looking after the planet isn’t an issue unless it causes “us” an inconvenience to these deniers. If we aren’t all going to drown in the next 2 years then nothing needs to be done.

    Pigs are happy to wallow in their own filth I suppose.

  23. B-Dawg – No one is trying to dismiss this as “boys will be boys.” In this case there was a concern, not just that opposing views were being published, but that ideologues had taken over the editorial positions in a journal for the specific purpose of getting sub-standard anti-AGW articles in the peer-reviewed literature. In other words, these scientists thought they were protecting the integrity of the peer-reviewed literature from ideological manipulation.

    Whether they were right or wrong remains to be determined.

    But we also have to acknowledge that the peer-review process is not perfect. This is not a defense, just a description of what’s going on. Reviewers tend to be tougher on submissions that disagree with their position on a topic, or might invalidate their own research. It’s hard to weed out all bias.

    It’s really up to the journal editors to make sure they get good reviewers with differing opinions and they need to review the reviewers, to see if their opinions are reasonable. If they are recommending rejection of what appears to be a good paper, that should trigger a red flag and perhaps another opinion.

    Also – competition among journals allows for different biases to average out. You might keep a paper out of the top tier journals, but it is impossible to keep them out of the literature entirely.

  24. weing says:

    The question that needs to be asked is whether we want global warming or not. I, for one prefer global warming to cooling. That does not mean I want pollution either. It is obvious that our climate cannot stay unchanged. I don’t think we have the technology and resources to do that.

  25. CW says:

    I would not ask that question at all weing. That’s the logical fallacy of False Dichotomy. We don’t need to desire either option. All we need to do is conduct studies, accumulate the evidence, and then try to devise calculations that take the data and matches it with the trends, and then make predictable hypotheses.

  26. Draal says:

    This is how I’ve seen publishing an article goes about…

    An academic scientist wants to publish in the best journal (highest impact factor) that is suitable for their subject matter. If their work isn’t stellar, then they would ignore ‘Science’ and ‘Nature’ and move down the list of journals. If their work is hoo-hum, then a lower tier journal is selected to maximize the chances of getting published. Knowing who the editor(s) is of a journal is also important when deciding if a paper will be accepted. Like it or not but connections make a huge difference. Then, the researcher submits a list of scientists whom they do or do not want reviewing their manuscript. It’s up to the editor to decide who they select to peer review a manuscript but they general will respect the ‘do-not-allow-to-review list’. It’s also very important to realize that ultimately it’s the editor’s decision to publish an article or not. If the peer reviews come back and one of the reviewers has only nasty comments, it is up to the editor to accept the reviews or not and forward the comments to the author. I’ve seen a couple papers where the editor just flat out ignored 1 out of the 3 reviewer’s comments. Also, as far as I know, the reviewer has full knowledge of who they are reviewing.
    So I agree with Steve that when someone refuses to submit to a journal that they feel has too low of standards, then it’s their prerogative to not submit there. The reputation of a scientist is based largely in part on the quality of their publications which is heavily influenced by where the article is published.

  27. Watcher says:

    The question that needs to be asked is whether we want global warming or not. I, for one prefer global warming to cooling. That does not mean I want pollution either. It is obvious that our climate cannot stay unchanged. I don’t think we have the technology and resources to do that.

    Amen. The climate will always be changing, we can only hope it changes in the right direction. That’s not to say we can’t control our output of environmental change factors and use them when necessary to our benefit. I refuse to call CO2 a pollutant though, it’s too close to something like calling Vitamin C a toxin because in high enough concentrations it can kill you.

  28. weing says:

    No problem with that. I thought the studies were showing warming. I’m hoping they’re right. No beach front property. All my property is on higher elevation in anticipation. I don’t stand to lose anything if the status quo changes.

  29. weing says:

    I refuse to call CO2 a pollutant also. Can you imagine if plants were sentient and declared O2 a pollutant?

  30. Ash says:

    While to some extent I can see weing’s position, I’m not sure I completely agree. Obviously the climate changes due to natural processes as well as human inputs, and I think we can’t automatically assume that the natural changes in climate will be favourable to humans. However, one of the concerns is that our contributions might result in a very fast change in climate, which would cause some fairly major short to medium-term problems irrespective of whether the end results was on the whole more or less favourable to the usability of Earth. Therefore, taking at least some action to ensure that human-induced climate change is kept to a reasonable level while we improve our understanding of climatology seems like the most appropriate response to me (but I’m definitely not in the “stop all development” camp, and think the Kyoto protocol was horribly designed and really just moves emissions and money from one country to another).

  31. DLC says:

    I do have to ask though, why they don’t make copies of their data and any computer code available. It’s not like they have to dig into a volcano or get past legions of undead minions to get at it.
    If the people who made the requests do not or cannot understand it, so what? I understand that it’s a politically charged environment and that one does not like to hand ammunition to one’s enemies, but facts have no political bias, only people do.
    The case in favor of AGW is being made by plenty of people, and the case against, if argued from the same facts, will either stand or fall of it’s own merit.
    (personally, I think the (as Dr Novella calls them) AGW dissidents
    (good term, I’m going to steal it) are wrong, and no few of them are motivated by politics and/or greed instead of science.

  32. Draal says:

    why they don’t make copies of their data and any computer code available.

    Steve mentioned on SGU that their data is a collection from around the world. They may not have the legal right to redistribute the data if they signed material data transfer agreements in order to get the data.
    I think data that is published publicly is a different matter.

  33. ghulse says:

    Good article. I think the Duke lacrosse fiasco is a good comparison for the hysteria that is going on now.

    What is often overlooked in the AGW debate is that there is a decidedly political component to global warming that is separate from the science. The actual science is doing what science does, probing, asking questions, analyzing data. Science doesn’t deal in absolutes. There’s a certain level of confidence that humans are contributing to global warming, but as scientists look at the data and try to understand the processes involved, there are people out there positioning themselves for political gain. Those who are reacting so strongly to global warming are probably reacting mostly to this political side of things, not the actual science behind it. People like Al Gore, in my opinion, are making the situation worse by proselytizing the global warming cause before science has come to definite conclusions about it. For that matter, the IOCC, though comprised of scientists, is actually more of a political body than a scientific one and that fact should be recognized.

  34. JH-man says:

    Ghulse touched on it.

    Here’s my high-level overview of what’s happening: first of all there is the science. The scientific field investigating this issue starts off fairly tentative, with probably a bunch of research pro and an equal bunch of research against. Over a period of 30 years methods, measurements and conclusions slowly improve and evolve towards the weight of the evidence ending up largely on the “pro” side. A very big majority of scientists end up agreeing with warming, a significant majority with the idea that it is human caused, and a majority that this will likely have bad consequences and can and should be tackled.

    Now comes the problem that this is an international issue, and that any kind of approach of a solution (demanded by caution and risk-benefit considerations) inevitably impacts the interests of countries and large corporations. It becomes politicized no matter what, there’s no way around it. So what happens? Ideally one would want to just let the science speak for itself, and trust that it will convince the powers that need to be convinced (leaders or their voters). But in practice you inevitably get caught up in a situation where propaganda will appear from the side of those who disagree or don’t WANT to agree. Large corporations, countries with oil, anti-intellectualists and anti-government people… an unholy alliance. To see exactly what is possible, just look at the evo-creo neverending story.

    Ok, at this point it is recognised that it would be rather naive to expect the science on itself to gain this battle. The next response – unfortunate but deemed necessary – will include letting go of the high standards and mobilize counter-propaganda. Which in turn leads to the avalanche of over-the-top attention for events like the Copenhagen conference, an apparant total lack of critical examination in the mass media (our newspaper talks more about what’s on the menu for the attendants than anything else, believe it or not…), and images of a bunch of hysterical schoolchildren protesting and demanding CO2 reduction.

    Then we arrive at the last step where even undecided, but by nature skeptically inclined, people start seeing red flags all over because the support for AGW that is VISIBLE (through the media frenzy), happens to be the one that is not backed up by critical scientific arguments. Skeptical people love to oppose hypes, since hypes have a high probability of being bogus. They start looking for critical information, and arguments for hidden agendas and presto! They get exactly what they want from the denier-sites who provide them their one-sided scientific look on the issue, mixed with some conspiracy stuff. Compared to what the mass-media offers, this stuff sounds more sophisticated and more reliable and enables one to feel like escaping from herd-mentality. And it catches on. And because not a single mass-media outlet adequately and comprehensively discusses all this, the train keeps rolling and on the horizon we only see more confusion, less properly weighed conclusions etc. etc.

    And all this isn’t helped by the complexity of climate science, which makes it totally impossible for a layman to weigh the scientific arguments. Or at least not to the same extend as is possible in for example evolution vs. creation, where you CAN get reasonably up-to-speed in a matter of months.

  35. ghulse says:

    I said IOCC. I meant IPCC.

    In response to JH-man, you’re right about the abysmal quality of news reporting. Unfortunately, it has become something of a conservative platitude to deny global warming and we can see that bias in the news as well.

  36. artfulD says:

    From a neo-conservative rag?

  37. Trueskeptic says:

    This blog post is an obviously biased defense of these clearly corrupt scientists. This is the only subject where I have seen Dr. Novella drop the skeptical ball. He has often resorted to the “argument from authority” on this subject, even tacitly branding those who are simply not convinced by the data as “deniers”. A term that has been repeated here in the replies to this blog. So this is not new. However I really thought that this scandal would restart his skeptical engine. I was wrong. The bias is sad and obvious. Scientists participating in this type of behavior is completely corrupt and unacceptable. The idea that anyone who opposes a said scientific conclusion is incompetent or a mindless denier is contrary to the very idea of peer reviewed science. Manipulating data, deleting data, resisting the free disclosure of data are all reprehensible examples of scientific fraud. It exposes the obvious bias of some of these fanatic scientists (which both sides of this controversial issue have plenty of). There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “Prove it to me”. In fact we MUST say this. The science is certainly not concrete. Those who suggest that we should err on the side of caution are dead wrong. Remember some of the so-called proven scientific theories of the past. Using this practice, we would have rounded up all of those people with certain cranial features under that sound scientific theory of Phrenology and incarcerated them to prevent the epidemic of criminal behavior. Sound policy at the time Phrenology was influential, yet dead wrong. Or we could have taken some of the so-called studies that clearly proved that non whites were inferior and delegated all non whites to menial labor as they were incapable of doing more complex or intellectual jobs. Again it would have been dead wrong. I am not saying that anyone who espouses a theory claiming that the earth is warming, or that man is causing it is as wrong as the proponents of the previously mentioned theories. However there is nothing wrong with asking for conclusive proof from UNBIASED scientific study. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being skeptical about some of these conclusions. Is the earth warming? Seems to be. IS man causing it? Haven’t seen any scientific study that even comes close to proving that conclusively with reliable, verifiable data. I certainly will not be accepting anything these scientists have been involved in as irrefutable evidence as they are exposed as venomous haters and embarrassingly biased individuals. The danger of confirmation bias is very high with these individuals. Manipulating data to put forth a previously held belief is a BIG scientific NO NO. Their bias is undeniable and indefensible. Labeling anyone who is not convinced yet as deniers is an attempt to eliminate legitimate debate, and relegate anyone who disagrees to the fringe. That is unfair and demeans science as a whole. Am I arguing that the earth is not warming because of man? No I am not. What I am saying is that there needs to be a lot more study and a lot less political hype involved. Hysterical scientific movements have historically almost always been wrong. Why should I believe this one is any different without concrete proof? Because some scientist says I should? If we were talking about intelligent design, chiropractic, or any other subject this would not be sufficient to satisfy Dr. Novella or any of the rest of you. Why is it acceptable on this subject?

  38. JH-man says:


    maybe it’s because the current consensus is based on 30 years of progressive worldwide research backed up by countless national and other scientific organisations, while this “scandal” is based on a couple of – clearly carefully selected – private mails, AND because the independant investigation hasn’t finished yet. YOU are tilting things much further to one side than Steven can be ever be accused of.

  39. HHC says:

    Pachauri, UN senior official, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that the UN will investigate the stolen, leaked emails. Independent data, climate records, are kept by the U.S. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The US records document global warming.

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