science commentary

name and address
dec 13, 2009; updated dec 21, 2009

Don't Blame Science for Climategate

G lobal warming just might be the most important problem facing Western civilization after all. Not because of anything the globe is doing, but rather because of the scientifically-proven fact that our politicians have all gone stark raving mad and could well agree to a plan, proposed at 2009's Copenhagen Summit, and bound to be re-introduced sooner or later, to cut carbon dioxide emissions--and our economic output--by as much as 95%.

The consensus at Copenhagen seems to have been that such an agreement is the only way third-world countries can avoid being “incinerated,” as Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese delegate at the conference, put it.

The EPA has gone one step further, and decreed that CO2, along with methane and four other greenhouse gases (hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrous oxide, or laughing gas) shall henceforth be referred to as “pollutants.” Even the mainstream media, certainly no stranger to laughing gas (or methane--but let's not go there), recognized that this may have been nothing more than a political maneuver designed to intimidate Congress into passing an economy-crushing cap-and-trade carbon tax: if Congress doesn't act to wreck our economy, the EPA is saying, we will, and no revenue for you!

However, when it comes to wrecking the economy, I think we can be confident that Congress will be up to the task, even without a cap-and-trade bill. Experience matters.

The only problem is that carbon dioxide, by any reasonable definition, is not a threat. Not counting our recent cooling period (or somehow massaging it away), the average global temperature, we were told, has increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius since 1900. To put this into perspective, 0.6 degrees is just barely within the human body's ability to detect. Not quite incineration, but getting there, if you exaggerate it by a three or four orders of magnitude.

The new EPA ruling is not based on any observably harmful changes in the environment. Contrary what Al Gore may have told you, sea levels have not risen significantly, the Arctic ice is melting and re-freezing pretty much as usual (although the amount of ice seems to depend on whom you ask), the main part of Antarctica is colder than ever, and hurricanes have, if anything, decreased in severity. The ruling is based solely on what a small number of scientists, who are psychologically committed to one specific conclusion, think might happen.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the original data that back up the warmularians' most fundamental claim, that the Earth had been heated up by almost a whole degree since the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid to late 1800s, have been conveniently erased (to save space, of course; after all, the globe is a small place), or burned up by the earth's heat, or eaten by their dog , or something. And now we learn that some of the climatologists who have been fattening the pages of Science and Nature each week with articles about global warming, the end of the world, and similar stuff have been conspiring to massage their data and crush free debate, raising the very real possibility that, in fact, it has all been a lie and there has actually been no warming at all.

In fact, Climategate is only the latest in a long string of revelations of apparent data manipulation by climatologists. The infamous Hockey Stick is the most well known. More recently, some New Zealand climatologists were caught peddling another temperature curve that had apparently been fraudulently manipulated to show warming. Then there was the time somebody accidentally filed October's temperatures under N for November, and they went around screaming the planet had started burning up. Of course, none of this proves the Earth isn't warming. But it's fair to ask, as columnist Mark Steyn did: if it's real, why is it necessary to lie about it?

How Trustworthy is Science?

Climategate has spawned a new wave of concern about fraud and the trustworthiness of science in general. If climatologists cannot be trusted to tell the truth, what about other branches of science? The credibility and status of each branch of science are determined by the degree of rigor, accuracy, and predictive power it has achieved. Some fields at the very bottom, like homeopathic medicine, astrology, and Britney Spears studies, as interesting as they may be, have zero predictive power and have long since been cast out of science altogether. Average people walking down the street, who are typically more concerned about problems of the moment like the dripping from their rapidly-melting ice cream cone, may not realize that there's a strong pecking order in science, and that climatology is, well, not at the top of it.

Some people even claim to have lost faith in science as an institution. In an article in the Dec 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal   titled "Climategate: Science Is Dying", Daniel Henninger wrote:

Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and "messy" as, say, gender studies.

Henninger's title alone should win him an award for the most hyperbole ever in a political article. But his point is valid: in gender studies, it doesn't matter whether the evidence supports your conclusion, as long as you conclude that white males are the oppressor. Since everyone already knows the conclusion (and those who don't can be easily dismissed as “male oppression deniers”), you could make up any data you want and nobody would care. In science, you're allowed to be wrong (although, it is hoped, not all the time), and you're even allowed to have a crazy theory, but if you lie and falsify your data, even if your motive is to “save the planet,” your credibility is shot and all your past work is suspect.

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I've argued before that mixing politics with science is bad for science. But the problem is not with science. It is with politicians and those in the media who give credibility and influence to anyone claiming to be a scientist who tells them what they want to hear. Much of climatology, in the eyes of other scientists, is little more than environmentalism done on computers. The arguments for catastrophic anthropogenic global warming were, at best, overstated. Indeed, 31,000 of us--including 11,000 practicing Ph.D. scientists--signed a petition to that effect. But the media had decided what the truth would be and ignored us.

Why is that? Only a handful of times did anyone ever ask any of us for our opinion. To be honest, if they had, our answer probably wouldn't have been very helpful. Any scientist will tell you the same thing: at any given moment, there are probably thousands of “findings” in the research literature that are provably wrong. Global warming was just one of many theories. Who has time to debunk one of a thousand crazy theories that may not even be in our specialty, especially when doing so would get one crucified by the press and fired from one's job by spineless university administrators? ... er, no offense, Bob. Not you. You're very spiny.

In fact, many people found the time, because they suspected that something was wrong. And the warmers kept raising the stakes. To reduce CO2 emissions by 95%, without providing a substitute, as the warmers are now suggesting (suggesting may not be the right word--more like “screaming hysterically about”), would be disastrous. Even a more modest reduction could effectively wipe out industrial civilization. It's not hyperbole to say that millions would die as a result. Such a calamity would almost guarantee a worldwide ecowar. Al Gore's Peace Prize would be a cruel irony.

The general public is more interested in finding out why Tiger Woods's wife was chasing after him with a niblick than they are with preserving the integrity of science and keeping politics out of it. And understandably so. At least with Tiger Woods, we have a fair chance of eventually finding the truth, or in this case the fourteen (and counting) truths. But the public should care, because there are thousands of activists, not just in climatology, but in almost every branch of science, trying to infiltrate science for the sole purpose of being able to say their claims are backed up by scientific evidence. They know it's the only thing that would give their cause credibility. Politicians, most of whom know little about science, are especially vulnerable to this ploy. That makes it the public's problem because, as ZZ Top would say, they've got your money, and they know how to spend it.

There's an unfortunate tendency among politically-engaged people, especially on the right, to write things off as a lost cause, whether it's Europe in the case of its demographic future, Wikipedia in the case of its hopelessly inaccurate articles, or science after Climategate. But to reject science altogether, as Henninger wants us to do, would be to surrender it to these activists who, in using it for their own political ends and thereby depriving it of its credibility, would destroy it. The cost of losing society's most powerful tool for learning the truth would be incalculable.

Whether the globe was really warming or not, there is now no question that the global warming movement was a global fraud. Anyone who knows how science works should have realized this when activists, basking in the warm glow of science, started using anti-scientific terms like “consensus” and the loaded term “denier” to characterize their opponents. But the existence of fraudulent claims by a group who, backed by the UN and subsidized by a cadre of eco-profiteers, falsely claim to speak for the rest of us, is not a failing of science. It is the job of politicians, funding agencies, and scientific journals to make sure they're not being lied to by activists claiming to be hard scientists. It is a failing of every man, woman and child, every news reporter, every editor, and every politician who was taken in by the warmers to exercise some basic effort in thinking for oneself.

That is why Climategate will not just go away, as the East Anglia warmers and the news media hope. People can forgive being lied to by politicians--they're used to it. After all, that's their job. But people can never forgive being forced to admit that they were almost made into fools (and poverty-stricken fools at that) because of it. It would be like your doctor telling you you were going to die of a fever. If you found out it was just a lie so the doctor could make a profit from you, you'd probably be really, really annoyed.

Contrary to what Henninger says, science is not “dying.” At the moment, we are watching one of those famous “paradigm shifts” that we keep hearing about. Climatology will drop down several notches and astrology, ufology, and homeopathy will move up one to fill the void. Al Gore and the East Anglia gang may have pretty much killed off the former science of climatology as a respectable field of endeavor. But the rest of science would only be in danger if funding agencies and politicians followed their example and began to require scientists to reach pre-ordained conclusions in order to receive funding. So far, that's not happening--but it may be just a matter of time.


Update, Aug 9, 2010 - John Rosenthal points out in an informative article in the Aug/Sept 2010 issue of Policy Review that the EU required applicants to have reached pre-ordained conclusions as a prerequisite for climate research funding.