So, the hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia have been news for awhile now and I haven’t said a damn thing about it. Partly it’s because I don’t like talking about the subject very much because it’s a big complicated ball of snakes, of scientific, cultural, economic, and political varieties and it gives me a headache, and partly it was because I wanted to see how reactions went and what would emerge as people more industrious than me dug into the data; either way I didn’t want to comment at the time.
There was a Vicious Circle on the subject (yes, I know, a finer panel of expertise has never been assembled), in which Unix-Jedi mentioned that I had been wrong about one thing, which was that at the time we talked about it, I thought it would amount to roughly nothing. I figured it didn’t really fit well into the media’s narrative- and while various media outlets are definitely biased in their respective partisan ways, nothing can get one to ignore a story faster and more thoroughly than not fitting well into established narrative- and scientists would shrug it off, because detractors would pick up on all the wrong things in the e-mails and make stupid points. As it turned out, I was about half right, but definitely wrong about it turning out to be a nonevent. So since I don’t have much of a narrative myself beyond, a few bits and pieces.
1. The damning thing in the e-mails isn’t the language, like “trick”- it doesn’t really mean the same thing within that kind of scientific circles as it does in, say, running the con game. And it isn’t that it catches a bunch of senior scientists behaving like catty sorority sisters, either; despite the white idealistic edifice of Science, there are a lot of rivalries and bitter enmities within disciplines, and people defintely have their own agendas. If anything, this prevents huge conspiracies from being formed; nobody would be able to resist the temptation of showing up that bastard Doctor Brandx well enough to maintain them. And the peer-review process is sadly political, though it usually doesn’t go to quite the lengths described. I say this not to defend that sad reality, but to say it’s not really that extraordinary. The lengths gone to in the e-mails are unusual, they’re just not fantastical.
2. The damning thing *is* the deletion of the raw data. The space-saving excuse is just unfiltered bullshit; you just don’t dump your raw data like that. Especially not when it’s as critical to the other people working in your field as it is.
3. The damning thing is also the code for the modelling and the data it was based on found, which is a complete spaghetti mess. The now-infamous in programming circles HARRY_READ_ME file is a rather poignant account of a programmer faced with producing project-dependent results from buggy, poorly documented code with sometimes-missing and sometimes-invalid data. If you’re going to rely heavily on computer modeling.. it should fucking well be a well-constructed model.
4. The general response from the scientific community as a whole has been a giant scoff, pointing out that just because this one dataset (though it was a dataset from which a great deal of work has been done) is compromised doesn’t mean the earth isn’t warming. And the thing that a lot of skeptics are missing is, they are absolutely right. Recent warming over the past century HAS been corroborated by a vast number of other data sources, both direct and proxies like melting ice. Saying that global warming is a sham based on Climategate is like saying evolution is bullshit because of Piltdown man. (Which doesn’t stop a ton of creationists from doing just this, but never mind.)
But here’s the other thing: that’s not the issue. If I were continuing to use evolution as an analogy, let’s say that I was a scientist in an alternate universe where Charles Darwin went into the clergy and Alfred Russel Wallace was fatally bitten by a viper and no naturalist with any real observational skill to speak of had ever followed them. Say I were a naturalist who had observed what I believed to evidence of species changing over time, and that ever since my mother was raped during an itinerant carnival when I was small, I had a tendency to relate everything surprising or bad in my life to clowns in some fashion. I develop a complex theory statistically relating the practice of dressing up in makeup for entertainment over the course of history to change in species over time and show their relationship, and arguing that societies being able to afford more luxuries to support more full-time clowning as they became richer would lead to catastrophic and grotesque mutation in the species.
At that point, if you were seeking to support or refute the Theory of Clown Corruption of The Kinds, you would have deep and multiple wells of data supporting the idea that species changed over time, and you would probably also be able to find a higher rate of mutants near sources of industrial (rich-society) waste- but the actual relevant point you would need to attack or defend would be their link to clowns and the strength of the statistics supporting a direct causal relationship between clowns and change in species.
The argument between serious people isn’t about whether the world is warming or whether climate modellers tried to “hide” the recent slowdown in warming- which climate scientists themselves readily accept is due to solar activity at this point. It’s not even about whether human-generated CO2 causes warming; both of these things are, in fact, “settled science”. What it’s about is how much warming it can cause, and what drives natural variations in climate, and whether the current warming trend is being *dominated* by human sources or natural variation. That’s what makes the models important: they help us tease out the variables involved in something that doesn’t offer historical data as nicely as the fossil record does for vertebrate evolution. And that’s what makes the integrity of the modelers- and how well they’re looking after that historical data that we do have- important, and why this IS a big deal, even if a lot of people who should really know much better are playing see-no-evil, speak-no-evil.
5. On that last point: again, they’re not doing it because there’s a conspiracy. Some climate researchers have a lot to gain in grants from the catastrophic anthropogenic scenario, but a lot of others could make an insta-reputation tearing it apart, and a lot more than that work in some other physical science altogether. They act like they do because virtually to a man, CAGW opponents act like just about every other variety of anti-science loon there is. In a great many cases they’re even the same people. They use the same kind of arguments, the same kind of paranoia-mongering, the same kind of ignorance of basic facts well-known within physical science, and generally look, act, flap, and quack just crackpot ducks. Shrugging off this breed is reflex at this point.
6. I should reiterate: “the establishment” of whitecoats is right in that this doesn’t actually invalidate anything or prove any kind of conspiracy; what it DOES is suggest that the various organizations and major researchers involved need to voluntarily commit to transparency at all levels if we want to get data we can trust to both demonstrate what is happening and plausibly demonstrate why. And so far they seem more interested in denial games.
I’d finish this off and say THAT’S the damning part, but I can’t feel any sense of triumph or vindication over this. Because there’s still the chance they might be right anyway, as a thousand jackasses before them were right for the wrong reasons or behaved badly with their information. That’s the tragic part.