By Sean Carroll | December 8, 2009 3:12 pm

I keep meaning to write something substantive about the theft of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, but my day job does sometime intervene. (Over six hundred postdoc applications in theoretical physics, but not to worry — only about 400 of them are in areas related to my interests.) There are some good discussions at Time and Foreign Policy, and you can’t poke your nose into the science blogosphere without reading someone’s take on the issue.

My own take is: what in the world is the big deal? Indeed, I would go so far as to ask: what could possibly be the big deal? Most of the noise has simply been nonsensical, focusing on misunderstandings of what scientists mean by the word “trick” and similar deep issues. And some people got upset when a dodgy paper was accepted by a journal, and they discussed giving the journal a cold shoulder. Cry me a river.

But I don’t really want to defend the scientists involved, because I’m not informed enough about who they are and what they did. For all I know, they may be very nasty and unethical human beings. (Actually that’s not true; I know Michael Mann, and he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.) And I see no reason not to do a thorough investigation, and hand out appropriate sanctions if there’s real evidence of wrongdoing.

What baffles me is the idea that this changes the conversation about climate change in any way. This isn’t a case like Jan Hendrik Schon, the rogue physicist who rose to prominence on the basis of falsified data, and was later exposed. The job of monitoring the climate is one that has been taken up by more than just one or two groups of people. There have been thousands of peer-reviewed papers that have provided evidence of global warming. Not to mention common sense; when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has shot up dramatically over the last century, and the temperature has done the same thing, it takes some willful stubbornness to avoid the obvious conclusion. All of the noise we’re hearing about “Climategate” is based on politics, not on science.

And that’s what really puzzles me. I understand the non-scientific motivations of certain climate denialists; in the abstract, they don’t want to accept that the unfettered actions of capitalism can ever have any deleterious effects, and in the concrete, many of them are paid by oil companies. (See this charming “letter to the American Physical Society,” whose handful of signatories includes “Roger Cohen, former Manager, Strategic Planning, ExxonMobil.”) Those are powerful incentives to ignore the evidence.

But what is the incentive on the other side supposed to be? What exactly is the motivation for the nefarious conspiracy of people who are supposedly plotting to mislead the world about global warming? What do the people counting oysters get out of this?

Are there a lot of people out there who think that scientists as a group (since the vast majority of scientists appreciate the problems of global warming) have knee-jerk reactions against technology and industry? Let me propose another motivation for whatever corners the East Anglia group might have contemplated cutting: they’ve seen the data, they know what’s happening to the planet, and they’re terrified of what the consequences might be. They know that the other side is motivated by non-scientific concerns, and they want to fight back as hard as they can, both for the good of humanity and for the integrity of science. There’s no question that scientists can go overboard, pulling the occasional shenanigans in the pursuit of their less lofty goals. (Like, you know, other human beings.) But nobody wants to believe that we’re facing a looming global ecological catastrophe. They believe it because that’s what the data imply.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Science and Politics

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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