Climate scientists, skeptics earn a “great big time out”

That's a time out for you, young man

By now you’re bound to have heard of the great “Climategate” scandal of late 2009. Hackers broke into the computer archives of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and stole data and email archives dating back 10 years. Then, somehow (who can say?) these files found their way into the hands of climate uber-skeptics. It was discovered that–shock, horror–climate scientists were saying rude and very unscientific things about their most relentless critics. (A good synopsis and discussion, written by someone outside the conflict, is the one by Peter Kelemen at Columbia University.)

Now, to put things in context, you should know something about my two boys, ages 7 and 9. Although they get on fine most of the time, and even like each other, there is some sibling rivalry.

Ewan, the youngest, is a professional little brother. He takes his job very seriously. He needs to mess with his older brother’s stuff, to do everything that his older brother does, and he needs to irritate him whenever he can get away with it. He knows he might get walloped, but he specialized in walking on thin ice.

Angus, the elder, though he enjoys life, is still a little perturbed that his comfortable sinecure as only child was abolished seven years ago. Moreover, he knows he is accorded little of the respect due him in his firstborn status. While largely resigned to the new status quo, he maintains his dignity by adopting a patronizing air, issuing innumerable slights and disparagements, and claiming dubious rights over territory and property. Occasionally his temper gets the best of him. Ewan pushes too far, and Angus wallops him.

My wife or I enter the crime scene, declare that guilt is shared, and they both get a time out.

In a few days, it is the same thing all over again. We recognize this situation.

Back to the climate debate. I think I recognize some of the same dynamics. Climate scientists have the upper hand right now–their knowledge base is growing ever broader, their understanding of the climate system ever better established, and their certainty about the reality and impact of global warming is increasing. Policies are beginning to be shaped based on their understanding, though they believe it is at least ten years too late. Global elites believe climate science to be increasingly trustworthy (though the general public vacillates in its opinion of global warming science).

Yet, climate scientists are relentlessly irritated by the same tired objections, the same discredited critiques, put forward by what seems like the same twelve people. So they adopt an air of patronizing disdain for their critics, calling them deniers (as in “Holocaust deniers”; although in truth that monicker is used far more by environmentalists than by scientists). This quite rightly infuriates the skeptics, who continue to claim that they’re being oppressed.

Then out come purloined personal emails between climate scientists which seem to say exactly that. Surprise, surprise! Climate scientists are, behind the scenes, real people, with real foibles, who are really, really fed up with attempts to portray their careful life work as a political hoax, or to portray scientists as dim-witted groupthinkers. Their frustration with industry-sponsored smear campaigns spills over into their attitudes toward fellow scientists who adopt the role of gadfly, even though the whole enterprise needs more gadflies.

A little–no, a lot–more respect on both sides would seem to be warranted. If I were in charge, I’d give both the mainstream scientists in question, and their prominent skeptics, a great big time out. Then I’d make them apologize, shake hands, and spend the next hour shoveling Legos from off their bedroom floor.

As a Christian, it is easy to see that the whole arena needs to be more infused with grace. Climate scientists shouldn’t have to feel attacked for trying to build the best understanding they can of how the climate system operates. Those scientists who are skeptical about the mainstream science should be recognized–even lauded–for their important role in asking hard questions. Political operatives who pretend to be more certain than scientists about whether people are or aren’t contributing to climate change need to stop fomenting antagonism.

Moreover, as others have noted, these behind-the-scenes emails reveal that much more transparency is needed in terms of access to original data and the process by which scientific ideas are reviewed and promulgated. Doubtless, to some scientists, turning over their original data to those with little respect for science feels like asking for trouble, like giving your house keys to known vandals. In this contentious environment, however it is worth the risk that some will misuse the data. Similarly, the stolen emails reveal some contempt for editors that let skeptical papers through the peer review process.

But bad papers, with unreplicable results or with fatal flaws, will inevitably slip through the peer review process, which is not a “truth machine” (and some journals will always be more cautious than others). The final arbiter of the quality of a paper is whether it survives AFTER peer review–are other scientists able to replicate and use the results? Does it lead to better questions, and better research? The truth is, skeptical papers do get published, when they consist of good science, but because the current science was built piece-by-piece over a long period of time, it won’t be easily overturned by just a few skeptical papers.

In the meantime, we have to ask whether any harm was actually done, not to the reputation of climate scientists or to their relationships, but to the underlying science itself. Was there anything in any of the emails to cast doubt on the science that says people are, in part, causing the climate to warm? (In fact, as the science journal Nature showed in its commentary, the bluster between scientists about suppressing certain controversial papers didn’t result in any suppression; both papers in question were included and discussed in the IPCC assessment.)

As an exercise for the attentive reader, review the six-step explanation for why CO2 is a problem (from RealClimate–motto: “climate science from climate scientists”), and try to guess which step is undermined by the testy language in the hacked emails.

Hint: it might be that the science is more robust than scientific decorum.

Rusty Pritchard thinks climate change is happening and that people are causing part of it, but his views are his own and not those of his parent organization, Flourish. Flourish believes every Christian should be caring for creation, no matter where they come down on the climate issue. A version of this article appeared in the ESA ePistle this week.

14 thoughts on “Climate scientists, skeptics earn a “great big time out”

  1. Rusty,

    I think your understating the contents of the CRU e-mails. I agree
    that some of the comments reveal only spats and professional rivalries.
    Wanting to beat up Pat Michaels is worthy of a “time-out” but doesn’t say
    much about the science. Potential tax evasion and violations of the Freedom
    of Information Act may be criminal, but they don’t say much about the
    science. However, the e-mails show a number of things that do reflect on the
    science (and, the files are not only e-mail but computer code).

    1. The scientists deliberately present data in a way that emphasizes the warming data and de-emphasizes the cooling data. They have crossed the line from scientific inquiry to advocacy. Admittedly, scientists are allowed to advocate, especially when they believe the problem is serious. It appears, however, that they have been unscientific in they way they advocate, at least in data presentation. This is suggestive of a similar ethical lapse when handling the data and processing itself.

    2. They have lost their raw data, and it appears from the e-mails that reconstructing the process that led from the raw data to the processed data is a mess and couldn’t be reproduced now even if skeptics (or mainstream climatologists) wanted to. Your comment about truth being determined by reproducibility rather than peer review is a good one. The CRU results are no longer reproducible.

    3. They admit in private what most advocates won’t admit in public, that the earth is not currently warming (it hasn’t for about 12 years). Of course, even a dozen years isn’t long enough to falsify the global warming hypothesis. But we’ve been hearing for years now that the trends of the 12 years before that were solid evidence for AGW and that action needs to be taken within a few years or we are doomed. 12 years of level temperatures should soften debate about the immediacy of the problem.

    4. Some of the computer code contains comments about artificial corrections. The analysis of that code I’ve seen shows corrections that adjusted temperatures on an upward trend, with the only comments in the code being something like “Extremely artificial correction”. I’d like to give the scientists the benefit of the doubt, and often do when the stakes are lower and there hasn’t been other evidence of deliberate attempts to mislead. It’s possible that this code was never used in a paper or production mode. It’s possible that this artificial correction has a good reason behind it that the scientist who wrote the code could explain if given the chance. However, point 1 above suggests that these scientists have crossed the line into misleading advocacy and in my mind, the burden of proof is on them.

    Eric

    • Thanks, Eric, for your comments. It’s nice to talk to folks who are informed and seeking the truth.

      You mentioned folks wanting to beat up Pat Michaels, but in this case he’s on the global warming side: as one of the chief skeptics of mainstream climate science, has repeatedly warned other skeptics away from the “global warming has halted argument”, admitting that it will make them look ridiculous in the long run, and it’s bad for skepticism. He warns against trying to get much mileage out of your point #3. It’s an argument that could have been made many times in the past 150 years (that global warming appeared to have stopped), but each time that argument would have proved wrong. Only time will tell if the current slowdown is permanent, but history is against it.

      Remember that the CRU dataset is only one of four major temperature datasets on global average surface temperatures. Two are based in US institutions, one in Japan, and one in the UK. They show remarkable agreement on trends, and in fact the CRU dataset (from the UK) was the one that showed the least change, so if you rejected it, the global warming evidence would actually appear more dramatic. But the attention to this dataset should increase scrutiny on the others, which is right and useful.

      Geochemist Peter Kelemen agrees with you that some scientists, like the ones in the emails, have moved on from advising to persuading, not a role for scientists as scientists. As he puts it, all real scientists are climate skeptics. It points to a misuse of the word “skeptic”. Most of the people who reject mainstream climate science are not skeptical, they just don’t believe it (the same can be said about many environmentalists, but they don’t claim to be skeptics). No amount of evidence would convince them to be skeptical of their own positions! Again, that’s true of many on both sides of the anthropogenic global warming debate.

      • In regards to Pat Michaels, he clearly is (was) skeptical as he changed his mind as new evidence came in. Some amount of evidence did convince him. I’ll tell you straightforwardly what evidence will convince me. Freeze the code of a climate model, ca. 2009. Make predictions of global average temperatures, as well as other information that would clearly distinguish a CO2 forcing explanation for other competing hypotheses like solar variation, in ca. 2029. Record global average temperatures and the auxiliary information in 2029 in a manner that is reviewed in the open air by mainstream climatologists, agnostics and skeptics. I’m a physicist by training and things like this are done routinely in physics. That’s one of the reasons why physics is so far ahead (and so much less political) than other sciences. Alternative hypotheses are constantly produced. Well designed experiments are carried out in the course of months to distinguish between competing hypotheses. These experiments are reproduced repeatedly in multiple labs and built upon.

        Forensic sciences (like Astronomy, economics and climatology) can’t do this. The experiment I propose will take 20 years, not months. The experiment is not repeatable, as nature only takes one course over the next twenty years. And, for that matter, I’m not sure anyone is even contemplating doing this. Are you aware of any attempt to validate frozen 1989 models against 2009 data?

        By the way, I don’t think climatology is in a unique situation. I’m currently a professor in a department that is heavy on economics, where I have a reputation for being skeptical of all econometric fitting that doesn’t have a prediction for data that couldn’t have been known at the time of the original parameter estimation. J. Scott Armstrong, marketing professor at Wharton, wrote the book (literally) on forecasting. He claims econometric fits are nearly useless at predicting data that couldn’t have been known at the time of the fit. He has a proposed bet with Al Gore that global temperatures will be closer to level than the IPCC prediction in the near future. I don’t believe Gore has accepted.

        Anyway, until climate models have passed a hypothesis/dangerous distinguishing prediction/experimental result test, I’ll remain skeptical.

  2. Upon first reading of the leaked e-mails, my initial concern was that it shows that the scientists are not being unbiased in their research. If I recall correctly, at least one of the e-mails could be interpreted as the scientists colluding to make sure that their “findings” agree on a particular issue. If that is the case, then collusion on one point would bring all of their findings under suspicion.

    I am troubled by the unwillingness to disclose the underlying data. Science relies on the findings being capable of reproduction. Without the underlying data, there is no way to confirm the findings. To have scientists posture that the data from publicly funded research is not subject to open records laws is troubling, and the laws should be reviewed to see if they are truly exempt. Where I live, it is a crime to fail to disclose or to destroy public records.

    As I have thought about the issue more, I have softened my views. When there is a church scandal, skeptics point to the fallen leaders and suggest that all of Christianity is untrue because of the failings of one person. Since I do not accept that attack against something that I believe, I should not use an equivalent attack against something that I don’t hold as strongly.

    You are right that there is clearly a human effect on the environment. Looking at the six steps that your referenced, I see the word “around” used frequently. That is where allegations of manipulating or concealing data undermines the science. There is a question as to the extent of the effect. Without transparency, skeptics will continue to assert that the climate scientists are exaggerating the issue.

    • Hi John. Thanks for your even-handed comment. One problem with simply “releasing the data” is that the Meteorological Offices of many countries charge for their data, and those data were incorporated into the global data set that CRU had amassed. So CRU couldn’t post it. Hopefully this mess will convince those countries to allow CRU to post their data.

      Also, on the word “around”: that’s how you know you’re reading science and not pseudo-science! Scientists never truly claim to know things for sure–they always work hard to tell you how sure they are. A skeptic who is a real scientist will give you some estimate of the certainty of their claims (which shows that most so-called skeptics, like most environmentalists, aren’t scientists!).

      • Another way to tell that you are doing science, is by creating a
        hypothesis and then using a well designed experiment to test that hypothesis. This experiment should be reproducible even by those who are initially agnostic or skeptical. Climate scientists seem to be doing an awful lot to prevent agnostics and skeptics from analyzing their methodology.

  3. Thank you for this big picture perspective. It is predictable yet incredibly frustrating that so-called skeptics are using the debacle to undermine the scientific evidence. There is a lesson here for scientists… I”m sure they feel the ends (saving the planet) justified the means but they have discredited the scientific process, their best defense for action on climate. A deeper look demonstrates that the evidence is intact, but for the casual sound-bite observer it looks like it has come apart at the seams.

    • Actually, I don’t think a deeper look demonstrates the evidence is intact.
      A serious fraction of the data is clearly suspect if not outright wrong. I
      hope readers take this post seriously and do look deeper. Don’t just check
      realclimate etc. but check climateaudit etc. One man’s case looks right
      until another challenges it.

      Also, it would be polite not to use the word “so-called” in front of the
      word “skeptic”. The skeptics are actually skeptical, so “skeptic” is the
      correct word to use to describe them. Many (though, as at CRU, not all) are
      intelligent, informed, qualified and honest.”

      • As I pointed out in another comment, even if we distrusted and ignored the data from this research institution, there are multiple lines of evidence supporting the notion of a warming earth. It’s nice that scientists are in a sort of competition with each other, and don’t simply trust each others’ results.

        Here’s a quote from a “so-called skeptic”, a crackpot (word-chosen carefully) named Lord Monckton. “The Hadley-CRU temperature data set is simply a joke. It has no scientific data whatsoever,” he asserts. “It’s simply made up; it’s just nonsense.”

        What’s nonsense is that kind of bald assertion. Folks at the CRU may have mismanaged their data–which still hasn’t been shown–but they didn’t just make it up. Folks like Monckton don’t deserve to be called skeptics–they have their minds firmly shut to the influence of evidence. And of course, you could make the same critique of some environmental activists.

        But using the word “skeptic” simply for folks who disbelieve mainstream science does an injustice to any who claim to be a scientist, where skepticism is fundamental virtue. We wouldn’t know what we know about the climate system if scientists weren’t skeptical.

  4. This is very similar to my own perspective. I am really angry with scientists who even suggest impropriety, because in the minds of many, it brings all of the science into question. Some of their actions are close to or are, professional misconduct. But the data seem to be very strong, and that is upheld by people not in this group, also irritated by them, doing other climate work. One summary that was helpful t me was this in Popular Mechanics by Peter Kelemen, another climate scientist:
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/earth/4338343.html

    Thanks for a great article, Rusty

    • Thanks Dorothy. Kelemen adds the disclaimer that he’s not a climate scientist but rather a geologist. (He is working on an important climate issue, that of carbon capture and storage, which might help with the problem, if it can be made to work.) I think that it makes him more credible to be on the outside looking in. And it gives some confidence that there is more than one dataset to rely on for the necessary science (although they should be under increased scrutiny now!).

  5. Rusty,

    Once again you have taken a level-headed and prudent approach to this divisive issue. I constantly remind myself that I am not a climate scientist who possesses enough expertise to judge the validity of science’s claims. The scientists I do know, however, tell me that it takes decades of time and mountains of data to develop this level of confidence in a scientific theory. As a Christian who isn’t an expert, that’s all I have to go on. It seems to me that the prevailing opinion on climate change is very likely true. If so, the fallout will ravage earth’s poorest residents.

    My occupational integrity and Christian virtues lead me to support prudent action despite these emails.

    Jonathan

  6. Eric’s listed two pretty good websites to look at:

    realclimate.org (pro), run by Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)
    climateaudit.org (con), run by Steven McIntyre, a former mining company executive, who has been critical of NASA GISS research

  7. Finally, most of the data in question is already publicly available. RealClimate has a data sources page (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/data-sources/) that many have found helpful, and they add to it regularly when new sources come online.

    The experiments Eric suggests are good ones, and they’ve been run repeatedly. I’ll dig up some citations and add them soon. They tend to show that climate models have consistently gotten it nearly right, and if anything have tended to underestimate the magnitude of global warming. Check back later for cites.

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