I’ve been quieter on the blog this week while in Texas–where I must say I’m impressed at both the hospitality and barbecue. But that doesn’t mean I can escape the PR mess that is “ClimateGate.” Out at a local pub last night, surrounded by cheering basketball fans and $2.25 pints, it wasn’t long before a friendly new acquaintance inquired, “So what’s all this stuff on tv about scientists and data?”
I continue to believe that despite however many editorials are published in academic journals, however many science journalists come forward playing defense, and no matter how many scientists calmly (or not so calmly) explain that this email kerfuffle probably only serves to demonstrate that scientists are people too, the damage has been done. The entire episode is an unfortunate case study of our increasingly Unscientific America–an example of how the media distorts a story, partisanship spins the details to suit a particular agenda, and scientists are ill-equipped to manage the PR fallout.
I am saddened to observe the state of broad perception of climate science, but not surprised. Further, this is not “the public’s” fault. It’s up to us in the scientific community to figure out how to stay on message. If we aren’t prepared to speak up for ourselves in a united voice about the state of the planet, others with less noble intentions will. And we won’t like the result.
Another major scientific voice–Nature‘s editorial page–has now come out stating that the Swifthack affair has no impact on the credibility of mainstream climate science:
Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.
The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers’ own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a ‘trick’ — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature‘s policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.
From people familiar with modern climate science and the robustness of its conclusions, I can confidently predict that this message will continue to be echoed. You can read the full Nature editorial here.
Phil Jones is standing aside pending an independent inquiry into what happened at CRU. Skeptics are going to smell blood in the water, even though it is hard to see what else the East Anglia unit could have done in this case. Given the massive levels of attention this story has drawn, some kind of inquiry makes sense; and Jones certainly cannot investigate himself.
To be clear, while the jury remains out, none of us who think the “Swifthack” is no big deal are arguing that every last email that has been revealed is necessarily defensible. Rather, we’re arguing that when viewed in proper context, what has been revealed simply does not go to the core issues of whether climate change is human caused and what we need to do about it.
Meanwhile, in a statement that I’ve only just become aware of, I note that the American Meteorological Society–a leading scientific membership organization–fully supports this view:
For climate change research, the body of research in the literature is very large and the dependence on any one set of research results to the comprehensive understanding of the climate system is very, very small. Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true — which is not yet clearly the case — the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited.
We’ll continue to follow this important story on the blog in the run-up to Copenhagen.