The meaning of Climategate

The Copenhagen Summit on climate change is approaching, and the politics are overheating.

Over 1000 private emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU – site is currently down, post-hack).

At The Telegraph, James Delingpole is trying to convince us that climate change is a figleaf over a one-world government globalisation agenda.

Bob from Brockey sent me a Wall Street Journal piece by an author who doesn’t seem to believe that in the physical sciences the ‘peer review’ process precludes the publication of work which puts up “alternative hypotheses” without solid basis for their relevance. More of such understandings below.

The author objects to the following, reproduced from a stolen email sent by Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann:

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that-take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…”

Note how Michael Mann calls these people ‘skeptics’. I’m not sure this is a good term – or at least, it reflects badly on skepticism. I wish there were a better word which stopped short of ‘denier’ but recognised the role of loyalties and strongly-held beliefs. Reckon I might have to put ‘skeptics’ in scare quotes, which is something I only do when I’ve run out of words.

Anyway, these ‘skeptics’ hope to convince us that the unprecedented scientific consensus that we (humanity) are responsible for this period of climate change is a fiction, and only sustained by suppressing the work of heroic lone voices like the Climate Research journal.

But Climate Research has been politicised for a long time. Former editor Clare Goodess (researcher at CRU) relates the resignation of half its editorial board in 2003. After the publication of a skeptical paper (Soon and Baliunas, 2003) many climatologists protested and the publisher, Inter-Research, initiated an investigation into the peer review process.

“This left many of us somewhat confused and still very concerned about what had happened. The review process had apparently been correct, but a fundamentally flawed paper had been published. These flaws are described in an extended rebuttal to both Soon and Baliunas (2003) and Soon et al. (2003) published by Mike Mann and 11 other eminent climate scientists in July (Mann et al., 2003). Hans von Storch and I were also aware of three earlier Climate Research papers about which people had raised concerns over the review process. In all these cases, de Freitas had had editorial responsibility.

My main objective in raising the concerns of myself and many others over the most recent paper was to try to protect the reputation of the journal by focusing on the scientific rather than the political issues. Though I was well aware of the deliberate political use being made of the paper by Soon and Baliunas (well-known ‘climate sceptics’) and others. Chris de Freitas has also published what can be regarded as ‘climate sceptic’ views.

Eventually, however, Inter-Research recognised that something needed to be done and appointed Hans von Storch as editor-in-chief with effect from 1 August 2003. This would have marked a change from the existing system, where each of the 10 editors works independently. Authors can submit a manuscript to which ever of these editors they like. Hans drafted an editorial to appear in the next edition of Climate Research and circulated it to all the other editors for comment. However, Otto Kinne then decided that Hans could not publish the editorial without the agreement of all of the editors. Since at least one of the editors thought there was nothing wrong with the Soon and Baliunas paper, such an agreement was clearly never going to be obtained. In view of this, and the intervention of the publisher in editorial matters, Hans understandably felt that he could not take up the Editor-in-Chief position and resigned four days before he was due to start his new position. I also resigned as soon as I heard what had happened. This turned out to be the day of Inofhe’s US senate committee hearing and the news of the two resignations was announced at the hearing . Since then, another three editors have resigned.”

Hans von Storch, resignee editor-in-chief mentioned there, now Director of the Institute of Coastal Research at Geesthacht, has (hastily) updated his web site with a restrained account, and a call for action. There’s a link from it to a recent paper – von Storch, H., 2009: Climate Research and Policy Advice: Scientific and Cultural Constructions of Knowledge. Environmental Science and Policy;12(7) 741-747 which I have just read. It’s about the practice of ‘Bringschuld’, the communication of danger on the horizon as a moral obligation of the scientist.

I’m now in a hurry so I’ll dump rather than digest:

On postnormalisation of science and a new awareness of  the role of ‘cultural constructs’ in scientific communication:

“The quality of being “postnormal” was introduced into the analysis of science by the philosophers Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1985 S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, Three types of risk assessment: a methodological analysis. In: C. Whipple and V.T. Covello, Editors, Risk Analysis in the Private Sector, Plenum, New York (1985), pp. 217–231.Silvio Funtovitz and Jerry Ravetz (1985). In a situation where science cannot make concrete statements with high certainty, and in which the evidence of science is of considerable practical significance for formulating policies and decisions, then this science is impelled less and less by the pure “curiosity” that idealistic views glorify as the innermost driving force of science, and increasingly by the usefulness of the possible evidence for just such formulations of decisions and policy. It is no longer being scientific that is of central importance, nor the methodical quality, nor Popper’s dictum of falsification, nor Fleck’s idea of repairing outmoded systems of explanation (Fleck, 1980); instead, it is utility that carries the day. The saying “Nothing is as practical as a good theory,” attributed to Kurt Lewin, refers to the ability to facilitate decisions and guide actions. Not correctness, nor objective falsifiability, occupies the foreground, but rather social acceptance.

In its postnormal phase, science thus lives on its claims, on its staging in the media, on its congruity with cultural constructions. These knowledge claims are raised not only by established scientists, but also by other, self-appointed experts, who frequently enough are bound to special interests, be they Exxon or Greenpeace.”

von Storch recognises that scientific findings are socially situated, and that the skills and sensitivities of a cultural theorist are required when entering into communication with the public:

“In order to give our analysis depth and substance, we need the skills of the social and cultural sciences. My personal experience, which is admittedly limited, informs me that up to now, however, these sciences have largely kept their distance. What I have heard are occasional and general hints that everything would be socially constructed and relative—which I consider mostly signs of an unfortunate refusal to go into concrete detail, which would be unavoidable for any real synergy. It is annoying when colleagues from these fields obviously fail to notice that the scientific and cultural constructs are falling away from each other; instead, they content themselves with cultural constructions as circulated by the popular media and vested interests.”

He refers to science as a proxy battlefield whereby politicians present politics as subservient to science, and so the political battles are accordingly played out in the laboratories and scholarly publications. Policy-makers wait to see who “wins”, but science is supposed to hold itself open, to explore where there is a lack of resolution. Science is about question-finding; it should not be about propagandist tactics.

von Storch then goes on to discuss risks inherent in the representation of climate change as a catastrophic event for three different actors: scientists, politicians and the media:

“Science, or more precisely: the scientific institutions react to this risk by implementing professional “press relations”—which are oriented to “representational principles of the mass media.” Policy-makers protect themselves by creating a “hierarchy of knowledge, or of advice,” with advisors to the Chancellor, Climate Service Centres and the like. The mass media seek the attention of the public by selectively presenting scientific findings that either agree or conflict with the cultural construct, or else by staging controversies, by which means yet another cultural construct is served; namely, the construct of the allegedly arbitrary nature of scientific evidence.”

He ends by acknowledging that his view is limited to Central and Northern European experience, and hoping (in fact, I think it’s a yearning) for a reconciliation of cultural construction and scientific construction, concluding:

“The insight of two competing types of knowledge has a number of practical implications for science. One is, that science itself is under permanent influence of non-scientific knowledge claims, such as ideological or pre-scientific claims. They influence the scientist in his way of asking and in her request for evidence before accepting answers. Claims, which are consistent with cultural constructed knowledge are easier accepted as accurate than results, which contradict such claims. Another issue is the transfer of scientific understanding into the policy process. Here, the scientific understanding should help to prepare policy design – which must not be misunderstood as enforcing certain designs – by clarifying the natural science part of the issues.”

Besides the security breach of a university’s secure system (which I’ve passed over but which is terribly important), this is what the story of Climategate is really about . It isn’t that climate change is suddenly not human-induced. The consensus that it is is overwhelming. The real story (an old story) is that science is politicised. Consequently it falls to politicians to take responsibility for asking the right questions, coping with uncertainty and acting on the findings. We know that rigorous, disinterested climate scientists are being marginalised and unrecognised as authorities because they are cloistered. Policy-makers must pursue both relations and public relations on their behalf as a matter of urgency.

To read:

Update: “Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute for Studies, said: “While there will always be debate over climate data, it’s important to remember that the state of the world’s icebergs and glaciers remains wholly dependant on which group of tedious, hectoring arseholes is currently winning the argument.” HT Weggis.

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5 thoughts on “The meaning of Climategate

  1. I wonder what that film, age of stupid is like?

    Sounds like history will treat these climate change sceptics rather harshly, like flat earthers.

  2. “Climategate” started out when there appeared on the Internet a collection of e-mails of a group of climatologists who work in the University of East Anglia in England. These documents reveal that some climatologists of international preeminence have manipulated the data of their investigations and have strongly tried to discredit climatologists who are not convinced that the increasing quantities of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are the cause of global warming.

    It is true that a majority of the scientists who study climatic tendencies in our atmosphere have arrived at the conclusion that the world’s climate is changing, and they have convinced a group of politicians, some of whom are politically powerful, of the truth of their conclusions.

    A minority, however, is skeptical. Some believe that recent data that suggest that the average temperature of the atmosphere is going up can be explained by natural variations in solar radiation and that global warming is a temporary phenomenon. Others believe that the historical evidence indicating that the temperature of the atmosphere is going up at a dangerous rate is simply not reliable.

    Such lacks of agreement are common in the sciences. They are reduced and eventually eliminated with the accumulation of new evidence and of more refined theories or even by completely new ones. Such debates can persist for a period of decades. Academics often throw invective at one another in these debates. But typically this does not mean much.

    But the case of climate change is different. If the evidence indicates that global warming is progressive, is caused principally by our industrial processes, and will probably cause disastrous changes in our atmosphere before the end of the twenty-first century, then we do not have the time to verify precisely if this evidence is reliable. Such a process would be a question of many years of new investigations. And if the alarmist climatologists are right, such a delay would be tragic for all humanity.

    The difficulty is that economic and climatologic systems are very complicated. They are not like celestial mechanics, which involves only the interaction of gravity and centrifugal force, and efforts to construct computerized models to describe these complicated systems simply cannot include all the factors that are influential in the evolution of these complicated systems.

    All this does not necessarily indicate that the alarmist climatologists are not right. But it really means that if global warming is occurring, we cannot know exactly what will be the average temperature of our atmosphere in the year 2100 and what will be the average sea level of the world’s ocean in that year.

    It also means that we cannot be confident that efforts by the industrialized countries to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will have a significant influence on the evolution of the world’s climate.

    Alas, the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would be very costly and would greatly change the lives of all the inhabitants of our planet–with the possibility (perhaps even the probability!) that all these efforts will be completely useless.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

    • This sounds like a counsel of dispair Harleigh!

      So, it’s complicated. There we go. Things are complicated. Deciding not to engage with complicated stuff which threatens our only abode is not an option.

      As far as I can see, alarmed (I don’t think they’d appreciate being called alarmist) climatologists are well aligned with energy specialists who recognise that fossil fuels will run out in the not-so-distant future. A huge injection of R&D effort into renewables, global cooling and GHG sequestration is in order. As for cost, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better to think of it as a new economy.

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