The latest column by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post is a fascinating read. He starts out with a well reasoned account of why the stolen climate emails from East Anglia cannot be taken to undermine the global edifice of climate science:
But the hacked climate e-mails reveal a scandal, not a hoax. Even if every question raised in these e-mails were conceded, the cumulative case for global climate disruption would be strong. The evidence is found not only in East Anglian computers but also in changing crop zones, declining species, melting ice sheets and glaciers, thinning sea ice and rising sea levels. No other scientific theory explains these changes as well as global warming related to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Over millennia, the climate shifts in natural cycles. But we seem to be increasing the pace of change so rapidly that plants, animals and humans may not be able to adequately adjust.
Bravo! This is better than I could have put it. And yet unfortunately, Gerson then somehow goes on blame the scientists quoted in the emails for undermining the whole scientific enterprise:
This professional objectivity is precisely what the hacked e-mails call into question. Some of these scientists are merely activists, deeply invested in a predetermined outcome. They assume that political change is the goal; the scientific enterprise is the means — like a political ad or a campaign speech. But without trust in disinterested, scientific judgments on climate, most non-scientists will resist costly, speculative, legislative actions. When the experts become advocates, no one believes the experts or listens to the advocates.
It is an irony of the first order. Having accused others of a “war on science,” it is climate scientists who are assaulting the authority of science more effectively than anyone else.
I’m not saying that every scientist whose emails have been quoted in “ClimateGate” behaved in a perfectly appropriate manner. However, although he whirls around the phrase “war on science,” Gerson clearly doesn’t know what it means.
What it means, among other things, is that the very scientists now in question were at that moment, when they were writing those emails, subject to politically motivated data requests, harassment, and attempts to seed the scientific literature with questionable papers, all activities tied to fossil fuel interests and their supporting think tanks and politicians. All of this is documented amply in The Republican War on Science.
So for Gerson to describe the scientists as arrogant, “a community coddled by global elites, extensively funded by governments, celebrated by Hollywood and honored with international prizes”–this is ludicrous. These are people who are regularly slandered, pulled before Congress, and indeed, subject to email hacking. They have been under intense and politically motivated fire for years. And, yes, they developed a bit of a siege/herd mentality as a result. Who wouldn’t?
The East Anglia emails cannot be read in any other context but this one.
I’ve contributed another post to the Science Progress blog; it’s about how climate skeptics and deniers have been winning the PR battle the past two years, with science defenders and advocates still far too disorganized and ineffective. Here’s a sampling:
The new skeptic strategy began with a ploy that initially seemed so foolish, so petty, that it was unworthy of dignifying with a response. The contrarians seized upon the hottest year in the global temperature record, 1998—which happens to have been a powerful El Nino year, hence the record—and began to hammer the message that there had been “no warming in a decade” since then.
It was, in truth, little more than a damn lie with statistics. Those in the science community eventually pointed out that global warming doesn’t mean every successive year will be hotter than the last one—global temperatures be on the rise without a new record being set every year. All climate theory predicts is that we will see a warming trend, and we certainly have. Or as the U.S. EPA recently put it, “Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.” But none of them beat 1998; and so the statistical liars, like George Will of the Washington Post, continued their charade. Read More
..The entire [Swifthack] 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.
In your ‘note’, you take issue with the concept of staying on message:
Real scientists don’t have a “message.” Politicians and ideologues and science journalists have “messages,” and they have seduced many scientists to betray their science and “speak up in a united voice.”
You are spinning my words out of control. And I find it particularly amusing that a group intent on disputing evolution could have the audacity to accuse anyone else of betraying science. By staying on message, I mean that scientists must be clear when talking about science. As Phil noted, when we don’t, others with a particular agenda will distort what’s said for their own political purposes, and the important message about climate will get lost. [As you’ve just demonstrated].
You accuse Chris and me of being “ideologues..who have perverted science with their hard-left ideology..damaging science in ways that scientists haven’t even begun to comprehend.” That doesn’t even make sense. My allegiances never fell neatly on one side of the aisle and my decisions are dictated by content. As far as global warming, I go with the best science available.
You call me a “science-journalists-with-an-agenda” who is “toxic to science” collaborating with “fools and opportunists” in the scientific community, before going on an incoherent ramble about invoking a “science-civil war.” Now it doesn’t do much good to address these kind of ridiculous remarks, so I will just make one point directed at what I percieve as your primary concern–the same I made in comments in the original post–and notably, the part you chose to omit:
While working on Capitol Hill, I became increasingly frustrated over the number of scientists that would arrive from universities, NGOs, and industry, who ultimately had the same goal regarding upcoming legislation, but a very jumbled mix of presentations with no notion of overlapping efforts. This is an institutional problem–much of which results from competing for limited resources and funding. On top of that, many scientists brought complicated p-values and figures yet did not explain to staffers what they represented. Meanwhile, psuedoscientific groups with a particular agenda were often well organized, articulate, funny, and could pack a briefing room by serving food. Now science, of course, should never be about lobbying. However, it is important to work across institutions and groups if we are to engage decision makers when we share common goals.
Nick Sundt of the World Wildlife Fund was present in a recent congressional hearing in which members of the administration were asked to respond to questions about “climate gate.” You should read Sundt’s whole report, as it is very impressive, but I particularly enjoyed White House science adviser John Holdren’s incredible refutation of all the overreaching concerning “ClimateGate”:
The e-mails are mainly about a controversy over a particular data set and the ways a particular small group of scientists have interpreted and displayed that data set. It is important to understand that these kinds of controversies and even accusations of bias and improper manipulation are not all that uncommon in science – in all branches of science. The strength of science is that these kinds of controversies get sorted out over time as to who is wrong, who is right, and how much it matters, by the process of peer review, and continued critical scrutiny by the knowledgeable community of scientists. Read More
Every time I post about ClimateGate, it seems, Sheril brings me back down a few notches by pointing out that even if this scandal does not change the science of climate change one whit, it nevertheless has major implications for public opinion and the framing of the issue. Indeed, in the public arena, “ClimateGate” hurts badly the cause of curtailing our greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to the way the incident has been spun and used, quite effectively, to suggest that the science of climate is all bogus.
I really don’t disagree with Sheril’s points; rather, I would add the following to them. Back when Bush was president and in power, I and others gained immense momentum by demonstrating–including through internal emails and the like–how the administration and the fossil fuel industry had conspired to undermine the legitimate science of climate change. As Matthew Nisbet would have put it, we therefore successfully exploited a “political wrongdoing” type of framing of the issue; The Republican War on Science helped to crystallize this message.
What’s so insidious about “ClimateGate,” in this sense, is that now the tables have been completely turned. I don’t believe the new charges are nearly as outrageous as the old charges were; I certainly don’t think they support the ridiculous claims about the bankruptcy of climate science they’ve been used to support. But nevertheless, I understand well the power of generating outrage by crusading against those in power and suggesting their malfeasance, wrongdoing, and corruption. Despite the invalidity of their position, you have to credit the Moranos of the world with a brilliant tactical move–and right now, I just can’t say how bad the damage is going to be. All signs at the moment point to massive.
I’ll be saying much more about this tactical side of “ClimateGate” in the coming days.
In the run-up to Copenhagen, we have now seen a second apparent attempt to steal computer files from a climate change research center. This time, the research institute in question is the Centre for Climate Modelling at the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada. See here for the story in Canada’s National Post.
It is too soon to say what these events mean–they are being investigated. We do not whether the Canadian and British stories are related, though some will inevitably speculate.
To me, though, one thing is clear. The global warming story, which I have watched and covered since the year 2003, is moving to a very new and different place, with a dramatically increased level of chatter and frenzy as the frame changes and this ceases to be a story about science, and becomes one about scandal and wrongdoing. As a result, the whole issue feels on the verge of a new tipping point as we move into the two weeks of Copenhagen.
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.
House and Senate Republicans are asking the EPA to withdraw its proposed endangerment finding regarding carbon dioxide over the SwiftHack/ClimateGate issue:
As you are aware, the scandal involves a number of climate change scientists and institutions that have played prominent roles in the development of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, most recently, the Fourth Assessment. EPA heavily relied on the IPCC’s findings and conclusions in its development and justification for the controversial proposed Endangerment Finding. Given the multiple regulatory efforts that hinge on the Endangerment Finding and consequently the integrity of the IPCC reports, it is imperative that EPA act swiftly and with transparency to analyze the numerous questions that have been raised by the disclosure of the emails.
Just yesterday, I showed that the American Meteorological Society, a top scientific organization, does not agree that the CRU affair, even in the worst interpretation, undermines the consensus on climate change:
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.
It’s simple: These Republicans (Sensenbrenner, Vitter, Issa, and others) are attempting to leap far beyond the legitimate implications of this scandal and use it for totally unwarranted political purposes.