Thoughts on 'Climategate'

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I think Prof. Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy outlines a sensible approach to the recent ‘Climategate’ scandal:

Most of us, however, lack expertise on climate issues. And our knowledge of complex issues we don’t have personal expertise on is largely based on social validation. For example, I think that Einsteinian physics is generally more correct than Newtonian physics, even though I know very little about either. Why? Because that’s the overwhelming consensus of professional physicists, and I have no reason to believe that their conclusions should be discounted as biased or otherwise driven by considerations other than truth-seeking. My views of climate science were (and are) based on similar considerations. I thought that global warming was probably a genuine and serious problem because that is what the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists seem to believe, and I generally didn’t doubt their objectivity.

At the very least, the Climategate revelations should weaken our confidence in the above conclusion. At least some of the prominent scholars in the field seem driven at least in part by ideology, and willing to use intimidation to keep contrarian views from being published, even if the articles in question meet normal peer review standards. Absent such tactics, it’s possible that more contrarian research would be published in professional journals and the consensus in the field would be less firm. To be completely clear, I don’t think that either ideological motivation or even intimidation tactics prove that these scientists’ views are wrong. Their research should be assessed on its own merits, irrespective of their motivations for conducting it. However, these things should affect the degree to which we defer to their conclusions merely based on their authority as disinterested experts.

At the same time, it’s important not to overstate the case. I don’t think we have anywhere near enough evidence to show that the academic consensus on global warming is completely bogus, or even close to it. Nor has it been proven that all or most prominent scientific supporters of global warming theory are as unethical as those exposed in this scandal.

On balance, therefore, I still think that global warming exists and is a genuinely serious problem. But I am marginally less confident in holding that view than I was before. If we see more revelations of this kind, I will be less confident still.

Unfortunately the debate over Climategate among laypeople is likely to be heavily influenced by political ignorance and irrationality, especially the tendency to overvalue any information that confirms one’s preexisting views and downplay or ignore anything that cuts the other way. Thus, global warming supporters are likely to claim that Climategate proves nothing at all, while skeptics will trumpet it as justification for rejecting mainstream climate research altogether. Both temptations should be resisted, though I’m not optimistic they will be.

Read the rest here. As Blackadder noted recently, mainstream conservatism has increasingly been associated with views that can be described as ‘anti-science’ in recent years. I think it’s likely that Climategate will be seized upon as a justification for that position in some quarters. If the ‘experts’ are all corrupt, then it would be foolish to allow ourselves to be manipulated by them. And it would be great, great news, of course, if the challenges posed by alleged AGW were entirely a mirage.

But the problem with that approach, of course, is that this scandal doesn’t prove that the experts are all corrupt and/or wrong. Just that some were. And even the most damning of the e-mails and documentation suggest insularity and self-righteous contempt for outsiders rather than a lack of confidence in AGW. We would need a lot more evidence than this to reasonably dismiss the scientific consensus on climate change.

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  1. “We would need a lot more evidence than this to reasonably dismiss the scientific consensus on climate change.”

    I guess we need quite a few more whistleblowers. I imagine that there has been a mass culling of e-mails among many of the proponents of global warming since this story broke. The scientists involved in climategate are pretty big names among climatologists and I doubt if their attitudes and methods are sui generis.

  2. Yes, reasonable. But I think there’s still more reason for concern. It would take very little incorrect (intentionally) data by a handful of these agenda driven scientists to corrupt the entire body of research. Much like a simple math error early on gets built upon and with every additional operation you get further from the correct answer.

    If the discussion was confined to scientific inquiry and understanding, I don’t think many lay people would be concerned about it. It becomes problematic when it’s used as a political weapon by some in an attempt effect broad and inorganic change of the social order – that which they have tried and failed to can’t achieve based on the merit.

  3. Iowahawk never lacks for material these days.

    Rich L. pinpoints the problem – it’s one thing to believe that we should be good stewards of the earth and quite another to attempt to transform the entire social order. What disturbs me about the whole AGW thing is that some of its more fanatical adherents have substituted Gaia for God. Several months ago, I read of couples in the UK who bragged about having themselves sterilized to ensure they wouldn’t add any nasty little polluters to the population. At its extreme end, environmentalism strikes me as deeply anti-human. (I was going to say ‘pagan’ but the ancient pagans had fertility rites!)

  4. As Blackadder noted recently, mainstream conservatism has increasingly been associated with views that can be described as ‘anti-science’ in recent years.

    You can describe them that way, but the concept is underdeveloped.

  5. If any scientist “manipulates” their data their credentials should be revoked. Period.

    This situation should be thoroughly investigated. There should be “zero tolerance” for such behavior. Of what value is “peer review” when those who are “objective” are among the corrupt? I wonder how “objective” any investigation will be anyway?

    With the strong political/social attachments of many scientists, being at the behest of different organizations, inside and outside government to fund their “research”, is this actually surprising?

    Are there still people who really think that honesty is a driving force in society that means more than the bottom line? You are naive.

    There is ALWAYS some end, which is NOT synonymous with the pursuit of truth, operative in all endeavors. This indictment includes the Catholic Church as well. Corruption is everywhere.

    When intelligent whistleblowers, with significant experience in what they are trying to expose, are ignored and suppressed out of hand because what they are saying could severely impact the “status quo”, this is what you get. People get what they deserve.
    The “complainer” is sometimes correct.

  6. Apparently the scientists involved in climategate were using a very poorly coded computer program as part of their efforts to measure global warming.

    The bottom line:

    “Inappropriate programming language usage.
    Totally nuts shell tricks.
    Hard coded constant files.
    Incoherent file naming conventions.
    Use of program library subroutines that appear to be
    far from ideal in how they do things when they work,
    do not produce an answer consistent with other way to calculate the same thing, but which fail at undefined times, and where when the function fails the program silently continues without reporting the error.

  7. I am one of those sceptics because of how they sell Global Warming. They sell it like it is a pathology which is in the field of medince. Biomedical studies is a science, it increases the body of knowledge. What does it prove when in the Artic when a huge chunck of ice falls into the ocean. They measure the CO2 in the ice or in immissions and determine it is causing it. Pathology uses words like suffering, wound, unrepairable, but in cell pathology as I understand you always take into consideration the word healing

  8. Part of the problem with the scientists involved as I understand it, is that they would not provide their data when requested and even talked about deleting it. Professionally unethical and very, very, very suspect.

  9. Such has happenen in medical publications before. The journels which published the studies retracted the articles and published the reasons why. Similar should happen now if the scientists cannot present their data for independent review.

  10. Let me see if I have this straight: We have some folks in the scientific community acting in an unscientific manner in furtherance of a particular agenda, and yet it is the skeptics of that agenda who, once again, are dismissed as “anti science”. The whole “I’m shocked that people continue to think in this ‘anti-scientific’ way” meme is wearing thin.

    In fact, I’m shocked that any rational person – other than those (1) pushing a particular socio-political agenda for which “global warming” proves to be a particularly convenient bogeyman or (2) pretending to be “more rational than thou” in order to impress somebody – continues to unquestioningly buy into the “science” of so-called “global warming”.

  11. I was intentionally provocative with that previous post. As offensive as it may be to be accused of buying into global warming in order to either push an agenda or impress someone, it is far more offensive to skeptics of “global warming” to be accused of being “anti science”.

  12. Jay,

    I don’t really think the ‘who’s insulted more’ argument is worth having. If you think that CO2 emissions are not a long-term problem (contra the scientific consensus), that’s your call, although I’m disinclined to rely on your expertise in this area. As I see it, there are three basic questions around climate change:

    1) Are CO2 emissions a long term threat to the environment? My understanding is that there is a lot of evidence suggesting they are.

    2) Can we develop models that allow us to predict with some specificity – beyond the insight that they can be a serious long term problem – how CO2 emissions interact with the environment and will affect it in the future? I think the Climategate e-mails suggest we are not as far along on this as many previously thought; at the very least, there are reasons to be skeptical.

    3) Given that CO2 emissions are a threat, what is the appropriate political response? On this question I basically side with Jim Manzi, who accepts the scientific consensus that CO2 emissions are a problem, but thinks that they are a manageable risk, which we will be able to more effectively address through technological advances and economic growth, rather than through draconian and ineffective political half-measures.

    If you have a problem with the standard views in the global warming community to questions 2 & 3, then we’re in basic agreement, although I may be somewhat less skeptical than you about question 2. If you have a problem with question 1, then I think you’re venturing into ‘anti-science’ territory – and I think this could be a real problem for conservatives at some point. As the post indicates, I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area. I think Prof. Somin outlines a reasonable way for non-experts to approach Climategate. Feel free to disagree, but I don’t think speculating about my motives does much to advance the conversation.

  13. Brought to you by Climategate:

    a) data manipulation
    b) subversion of the peer review process
    c) intimidation of science journal editors
    d) persecution of skeptics
    e) revelations of a non-consensus internal to CRU models and data
    f) communications through an unelected UN panel stacked and hand-picked by CRU members
    g) millions of dollars of grant money at stake
    h) destruction of data
    i) obstruction of the freedom of information act
    j) unprofessional conduct

    I can not support the largest wealth transfer in human history based on a science so full of arrogance and pettiness. The probability of error in this group appear extreme as demonstrated by the collective conduct. Rationality has not been their primary behavior.

    John Q. Public

  14. Time is getting short and it is coming down to the fact, that soon ( December 7 to December 18 ) I will have to pray to my Lord, to maintain our freedoms and that God, not allow our leaders to sign the Copenhagen Treaty, which will take away our liberties, let go and let God-this being a challenge to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ? However, while there is still time to prevent the loss of a lifetime, perhaps loss of life it’s self – I will do what I am able to fight for our freedoms! The whole Climate Change agenda is a proven fraud and racketeering, but the United Nations and Globalist governments don’t care as that is just the excuse instrument they have used to ensnare us! Has everybody out there become a tree hugger? Anyone out there want to fight and maintain their freedom anymore? Please do all you can to preserve freedom in North America!
    Check out what Government is doing behind your back at: :

    To request that PM Harper doesn’t sign the Copenhagen Treaty, thereby causing Canadians to lose their Sovereignty and Freedom email the PM at:

    Any lawyers want to help out by filing this Copenhagen Treaty be classified as an illegal Treaty to help save Freedom in North America? ( Unlimited Promotion Opportunity Here For a Law firm to Gain a favorable high profile credibility! )

  15. “Climategate” started out when there appeared on the Internet a collection of e-mails of a group of climatologists who work in the University of East Anglia in England. These documents reveal that some climatologists of international preeminence have manipulated the data of their investigations and have strongly tried to discredit climatologists who are not convinced that the increasing quantities of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are the cause of global warming.

    It is true that a majority of the scientists who study climatic tendencies in our atmosphere have arrived at the conclusion that the world’s climate is changing, and they have convinced a group of politicians, some of whom are politically powerful, of the truth of their conclusions.

    A minority, however, is skeptical. Some believe that recent data that suggest that the average temperature of the atmosphere is going up can be explained by natural variations in solar radiation and that global warming is a temporary phenomenon. Others believe that the historical evidence indicating that the temperature of the atmosphere is going up at a dangerous rate is simply not reliable.

    Such lacks of agreement are common in the sciences. They are reduced and eventually eliminated with the accumulation of new evidence and of more refined theories or even by completely new ones. Such debates can persist for a period of decades. Academics often throw invective at one another in these debates. But typically this does not mean much.

    But the case of climate change is different. If the evidence indicates that global warming is progressive, is caused principally by our industrial processes, and will probably cause disastrous changes in our atmosphere before the end of the twenty-first century, then we do not have the time to verify precisely if this evidence is reliable. Such a process would be a question of many years of new investigations. And if the alarmist climatologists are right, such a delay would be tragic for all humanity.

    The difficulty is that economic and climatologic systems are very complicated. They are not like celestial mechanics, which involves only the interaction of gravity and centrifugal force, and efforts to construct computerized models to describe these complicated systems simply cannot include all the factors that are influential in the evolution of these complicated systems.

    All this does not necessarily indicate that the alarmist climatologists are not right. But it really means that if global warming is occurring, we cannot know exactly what will be the average temperature of our atmosphere in the year 2100 and what will be the average sea level of the world’s ocean in that year.

    It also means that we cannot be confident that efforts by the industrialized countries to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will have a significant influence on the evolution of the world’s climate.

    Alas, the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would be very costly and would greatly change the lives of all the inhabitants of our planet–with the possibility (perhaps even the probability!) that all these efforts will be completely useless.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

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