Global warming emails: followup

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Dec. 4 2009 11:28 AM

Global warming emails: followup

I think a followup on my earlier post on the climatologists' emails is called for.

The comments in that post have been interesting. Most of them -- and there are a lot -- completely missed the point I was making, which isn't terribly surprising. I called this whole thing a non-event because it's manufactured drama. It is not the smoking gun, it doesn't discredit climatological research showing the Earth is warming, and it doesn't show that scientists are some sort of priesthood guarding their domain. As Real Climate points out, it's not what's in the files that's interesting, it's what's not in them: nothing about huge conspiracies, nothing about this all being faked. If this is such damning evidence, where's that evidence?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


What these files do show is scientists trying to deal with data, software, and science, all the while also trying to figure out what to do with attacks on their work that are largely ideologically driven. I don't think they handled that all that well, and that doesn't surprise me. They're scientists, not wonks. Of course, if you look at the files from the point of view of giant conspiracies it seems very racy, and clearly a lot of the commenters on my original post feel that way. But to reiterate, this does not call into question the reality of global warming in general.

To further show that, look at some of the things being said. Many people -- and some who should really know better -- are saying Phil Jones, the head of the group whose files were hacked, has been "fired". That's simply not true. He has stepped aside, temporarily, while the situation is being investigated. The news reports on this were very clear. So why would someone say he was fired? I submit it's because they are trying to spin this situation up into more than it is.

Again, as I thought I made clear in the earlier post, the methods being used by the scientists in question don't look to me like they were faking data. In software it's common to test out different methods, see what works, and what doesn't. A piece of software I wrote for working with Hubble data went through hundreds of iterations and edits before going live (and was updated quite a bit after that as well). Software used to analyze data is a little like science itself: it changes as you learn more and find better ways to do things. If you found an early version of my code you might wonder if I was faking the data too! The examples of code in the hacked files may have been early versions, or had some estimations (called, not always accurately, fudge factors) used in place of real numbers... the thing is, we don't know. Drawing conclusions of widespread scientific fraud from what we've seen is ridiculous.

As far as the scientists' attitudes go, much hay has been made of that as well. But I wonder. Imagine you've dedicated your life to some scientific pursuit. You do it because you love it, because you want to make the world a better place, and because you can see the physics beneath the surface, weaving the tapestry of reality, guiding the ebb and flow of forces both subtle and gross. Then you find that people start attacking you with flimsy evidence, politically motivated vitriol, and even elected officials say that what you are doing is a "hoax". How do you react?

The circling of wagons and questions of what to do and how to deal with the situation don't surprise me at all. And again, without the context of those emails we don't know what the real story is. You can claim scientific fraud and obstructionism all you want, but you don't know, and I don't either. I actually agree that this should be investigated, but I hope they look at all the evidence, and don't quote mine and cherry pick as so many people have done.

People say I'm biased, which may be a fair cop. I am biased: to reality. If we had real evidence that global warming was not occurring, then I'd pay attention. I've looked at the so-called "other side", and found their claims lacking. Science is all about finding supporting and falsifying evidence. When enough data piles up that shows previous thinking is wrong, then scientists change their mind. Look up "dark energy" if you have doubts about that. In this, I am in agreement with the American Meteorological Society, Nature magazine, and Scientific American.

Science is necessarily conservative. Once something is established as being an accepted model/theory/law, then it becomes the standard paradigm until it is shown to be flawed in a significant way. You may not like it, but in modern climatology, global warming is accepted as the standard. It's not up to me or anyone to prove it right at this point, it's up to scientists to show it's wrong. To do that you'll need a lot of really good evidence, and from what I have seen and read that evidence is not there. Maybe it's fair to say not yet there, but in reality it may not be there at all.

This has become so politicized it's hard to know what's right and what's wrong. I personally would be thrilled to find out the Earth isn't warming up. I'd like my daughter to grow up on a planet that isn't on the fast track to environmental disaster. But I have no stake in the claim scientifically either way; I don't cling to AGW because of political bent or any ideology. I think global warming is real because of the overwhelming evidence pointing that way.

I'll note that some people are still upset by my use of the term deniers. Again, to be clear: a skeptic is someone who uses evidence and logic to reach a conclusion. A denialist is someone who will say or do anything to deny an issue. I stand by my definition. There are actual global warming skeptics out there -- and I would not only support their efforts but praise them -- but what I see on the web and in the comments overwhelmingly is denial, not skepticism.

Joshua Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas has a lengthy post on these hacked files, which is well worth reading. He is more adamant about the icky nature of the data theft than I am -- I do see where it's wrong, but also understand that motivation is an issue, as I point out in my original post (after all, what one person calls a thieving hacker another would call a whistleblower)-- but we largely agree on everything else.

Also, as predicted the comments in my original post accuse me of all sorts of horrid things, which I take in stride. I maintain that the vast majority of what I have seen claimed by the global warming deniers is simply taken out of context. Programmers and scientists complaining about software and data? Quelle horreur! Wow, we never do that.


In conclusion: I called this a non-event because it has no real impact on global warming science or our understanding of it. Of course it has a huge impact, politically. But that's because the ideologues out there have seized on this and made as much noise as they can, so in that sense it is an issue -- an issue of how political science has become, how easy it is to disrupt the process, and the effect this has had on the scientists themselves. This issue won't go away any time soon, but we need to focus on the signal, not the noise.



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