26 November, 2009

The Climategate Controversy

Let me make this perfectly clear: I believe in science. I believe the universe is about 13-14 billion years old, the earth is around 4.6 billion years old, that life on this world began around 3 billion years ago, and that the human race is the product of an ongoing process of evolution that has existed for aeons on this planet. I believe that the universe is more complex than we can possibly imagine, but that everything -- from the smallest quark to the largest super cluster of galaxies, fits inside a structure that is both rational and understandable, though at present we only have the vaguest notion as to its internal workings.

And I believe that climate change on this planet is real. One only has to look at one hundred year old pictures of glaciers to understand that something has happened to the world’s climate in the last century, and that we are definitely in the midst of a global pattern of weather change.

However, where I disagree with most of the climate-doomsayers is the notion that we are heading for irreversible disaster, or that man is incapable of finding a way to either solve the problem or compensate for the change. And I vehemently disagree in the notion that the only way to stop this change is to adopt measures that seriously curtail personal freedom, or that require the establishment of all-encompassing, intrusive government entities -- or worse yet, the establishment of autocratic government in order to closely regulate people’s lives, all in the name of “saving the planet”. But yet, that is the end result that many, many in the Global Warming movement advocate, though I will grant that some do not seem to have fully thought through the implications of the policies they are advocating.

What the scientists at the Climate Research Unit in the UK have done is a disgrace. Not only to the study of science, but to the scientific process itself. Science is based on facts, and facts do not lie. What these scientists evidently did was not make conclusions based on the facts they had discovered, but instead edited the facts in order to fit their conclusions. The extent to which this was done is still unclear, but judging from the leaked emails, it appears to have been an ongoing, coordinated effort promulgated by multiple prominent scientists, going back at least ten years (and probably longer). At best, the leaked evidence suggests an extreme practice of data cherry-picking (admittedly, nothing new in scientific research); but at worst, there is some suggestion of outright data fabrication (although I personally don’t buy into that conclusion). But even worse was the way they sought to discredit and disqualify those that questioned their conclusions, or attempted to offer different theories -- even to the extent of seeking ways to outright silence them by preventing publication of their papers, or by attempting to the get the mainstream media to brand these dissenters as “kooks” and “out of the mainstream”, when the very data they were collecting seemed to be favoring the dissenters and not them.

Reading the leaked emails, these scientists come across very much as being so wedded to their most cherished ideas that they were unwilling to accept even the remotest possibility that, just perhaps, they were wrong. About anything, even the tiniest notion. They had a theory they wished to prove, that they believed in whole-heartedly and unquestioningly, and the very notion that they might be incorrect about any part of it proved so anathema that they were not even willing to consider the idea. No matter what the evidence said, no matter what anyone else said. They were so completely certain that their ideas were correct that they were willing to restructure the data to fit their conclusions, perhaps in the vague hope that maybe future studies might perhaps be more favorable to them and thus vindicate their theories. Further, like the true believers they had become, they concluded that the only proper place for the heretics in their midst was to be burned at the stake, and not only sought to find ways to make that happen, but fantasized about being the ones to pile the kindling at their feet.

I do not think that these scientists actions have discredited the notion of global climate change. However, I do think they have seriously undermined the process of scientific research into its questions. Those scientists who have been saying for years that climate change is not (nor will it ever be) as drastic as many have opined now have new, potent ammo. But more politically significant, the studies these scientists published have been used to justify sweeping legislation designed to strengthen government involvement and regulation; discrediting these studies calls into question such things as Cap and Trade, environmental policy, and even energy policy. It is important to get these issues right, and not implement radical new policies on the basis of flawed data, irrational fear, and scientists with ego problems.

It seems a similar set of accusations about climate research is being made in several New Zealand studies. A study involving temperature measurements going back to the 1850s appears to have its data substantially skewed to show global warming, when the unadjusted data clearly shows that the change in average temperature in New Zealand since 1850 has been less than one degree.

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg on NRO's The Corner has posted an email he received which does a pretty good break down of the red flags that should have been raised about the climate change research and researchers:

I followed with interest your interchange about the recent developments concerning global warming research. I thought John’s point that there will always be contrarians in any scientific discipline, and that in general it is likely that the consensus position has more validity than the contrarian one, is a valid one. Given the recent events, though, it seems to me that we need to develop methods that can alert us to situations where the consensus position is faulty. In the case of climate research, there were numerous such clues that were available five or more years ago which should have made people look much more carefully at the consensus. Here are some red flags in the behavior of mainstream scientists that could be used as prompts for examining more carefully the consensus position.

(1) Consistent use of ad hominem attacks toward those challenging their positions.

(2) Refusal to make data public. This has been going on in this area for some time.

(3) Refusal to engage in discussions of the actual science, on the assumption that it is too complicated for others to understand.

(4) Challenging the credentials of those challenging the consensus position.

(5) Refusal to make computer code being used to analyze the data public. This has been particularly egregious here, and clear statements of the mathematics and statistics being employed would have allowed the conclusions to be challenged at a much earlier stage.

If one believes in the science one is doing, one should be willing to go to great lengths to engage those who challenge it or fail to understand it, and provide various explanations at various levels of technical detail, rather than attempt to discredit others.

Link here.

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