Sunday, January 24, 2010

Week 4: The Climategate Controversy

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT World: Distributed Intelligence)
Format: Video
Length: 1 hour, 58 minutes, 31 seconds

This week's topic is the Climategate Controversy. "Climategate" refers to the November 2009 hacking of a University of East Anglia server and subsequent release of over 1,000 emails between climate scientists. Many of these emails appear to reveal scientists from the Climate Research Unit (University of East Anglia) and Penn State University behaving unethically - from suggesting data be altered to strategizing over how to keep the work of scientists who are skeptical of anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) global warming out of certain peer reviewed journals.

But if this were just an issue of two or three scientists behaving immorally for their own selfish purposes, it would not be worthy of the international attention it has received. Rather, this represents an important inflection between science and politics, on a global scale. It also represents an issue - global warming (or, the more politically correct name: climate change) - in which many different, often combative sides have entrenched interests (think developing vs. developed world, Democrats vs. Republicans, industrialists vs. environmentalists, just to name a few...).

This post is not about the science behind global warming - I'd embarrass myself even attempting to frame the debate properly. What I do know is that I've tried many times in good faith to understand the issue, and what the science says about the issue. In most cases, with nothing more than an internet connection, some critical thinking and a free afternoon, this is not exceedingly difficult. But with global warming, I've found the task tedious, in large part due the blatant propaganda from all sides. This fact alone is instructive as to the political backdrop of the issue. As I've researched this week's topic, it has become clear to me that science has to some degree taken a back seat to strong efforts on both sides to manipulate the climate change issue for political gain. Indeed, the fact that we discuss this in terms of "sides" shows how polarizing this has become (what with believers, nonbelievers, and the future of the earth in play), and how far we've gotten from rational, intelligent debate on what I think is the important, underlying question: is the world screwed and if so what can we do about it?

In the United States, it seems that the climate change debate has roughly fallen along partisan lines, with each side giving its followers an easy story. Democrats play the oh-so-certain side, safely dismissing any doubter of the veracity of anthropogenic climate change as an idiot (at the dinner party: "oh yes, dear, the poor thing, he doesn't even believe in global warming"). Meanwhile Republicans have embraced the "skeptic" terminology to represent their supposed healthy scientific questioning of the issue (on a freezing cold day: "it's -25 degrees today, yep, must be global warming!"). In other words, just like the health care debate quickly fell to an argument over death panels, the climate change debate has also regressed to lowest common denominator, politically expedient discourse.

But let's bring it back to Climategate. Why should we care? Some scientists wrote some nasty things about each other, maybe tried to change a temperature database, and discussed keeping contradictory work from being published. My first question was: what were the actual effects of this scandal? I particularly liked the approach of Ron Prinn (Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT) - he posed six questions to himself about Climategate:

1) Are some of these emails unprofessional? His answer: Yes.

2) Were the scientists involved successful in preventing journal publications? His answer: No. Not successful.

3) Was the research done by scientists in question critical for the case for anthropogenic climate changes? (my note: the way I understand it, the integrity of one of the major client science databases is now tainted, and the question becomes: is the scientific consensus in tact ex-this database and its associated work) His answer: There are many different data sets and analyses; in short, these scientists aren't the only group doing this. The body of evidence supporting that climate change is anthropogenic is robust, and the risk is, in his mind, high (there is no other planet to retreat to).

4) Has the integrity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change been compromised? His answer: No. Yes, these scientists were involved with the IPCC, and the IPCC is the most important single input to international climate policy. However, in his experience publishing through the IPCC, it was a thorough, honest process, and he thinks hijacking the IPCC by a small group is simply not possible.

5) Is public perception of climate science affected? His answer: Yes. Media's ability to analyze hard science is diminishing, particularly as news sources continue cutting science writers. Moreover, the emails contained juicy soundbites for story writers and therefore gained a larger audience.

6) Can we do better as client scientists? His answer: We need to step back and move away from a knee-jerk tendency for polarization. The almost religious "Believers vs. Nonbelievers" framework needs to be moved away from. We need mutual respect and communication tools, not just on our conclusions but on our process as well.

Through this lense, it seems to me that the actual results of the Climategate scandal - from a climate science perspective - are not nearly as damaging as they have been made out to be. This is not to say they haven't had a meaningful impact on public discourse - the headlines surely provided fodder for those on one side of the political war. And let's be clear, this is a political war; the event was no accident - someone with a vested interest in the outcome hacked into a server, stole information, and released it to coincide with the largest international climate summit (December 2009, Copenhagen) since Kyoto.

But in my view, one major positive of Climategate is the opportunity it has provided us laypeople to think about how science and politics are married on this important issue. On the video panel, Judy Layzer, a Professor of Political Sciences at MIT and Government at Harvard, walked us through this intersection of the vastly different worlds of science and politics. Most people have a rational view of policy making - that is, the more we know about a problem the more we should be able to solve it. But that is simply not how it works.

Science is about assessing theories and advancing our understanding of the world in which we live, a process that is never complete, never certain, and always skeptical. She contrasts this with science-based policy decisions, in which people have to act in the very near-term on imperfect information. She points out that what we are asking of scientists in this situation isn't science at all. It is regulatory science, and regulatory science is inherently uncertain. And so scientists are asked to make assumptions, and assumptions are based on their values. Once we have assumptions based on values, we have moved from pure science into some other realm.

And from the purely political side of the equation, she says policy making is not at all linear - in other words we are never choosing the "best" from an array of options. Rather, there are many advocates - each with its own ideology, interests, and funding source - competing for the right to define a problem and therefore be able to give the solution. She goes on to say that, unfortunately, in many cases the underlying science has no impact on policy - it has to be woven into a political story to make a difference.

In climate change, environmental skeptics have learned the political game and know that discrediting the science is very important. Spinning the issues is not at all difficult - whether creating and using words like "Climategate" that conjure up previous scandals or simply discrediting scientists' models. Professor Layzer notes that a major problem is that scientists are not equipped to deal with such political attacks. Scientists are traditionally reserved in their language and the way in which they present arguments and conclusions. But when faced with a politicized opposition, they want to react. Imagine being a climatologist who has studied meticulously the issue of global warming and come to the independent conclusion that it is a major problem for the planet, your children, and the human race. Now imagine your valid work being discredited by some partisan hack as nothing more than the ramblings of an idealogue - wouldn't you be more willing than usual to use stronger language to persuade the public of your case? It's hard to imagine scientists not having more of these types of problems following the Climategate emails, which show impropriety on the part of only a very few scientists. While unfortunate, it represents the arena in which climate scientists, willingly or not, have been thrust.

To summarize, politicians are being politicians, some interested party hacked into computers and stole information for its gain, and a few scientists succumbed to human temptations thereby discrediting their work... What is the takeaway? First, it's clear to me that with the stakes so high all around, we will only continue to see a politicized and contentious debate on the issue of global warming. Climategate has reminded me that powerful misinformation campaigns exist, and they exist at very high levels. The incentives for scientists on both sides to be discredited are high, and my sense is that sides will only become more entrenched as we move closer to global climate regulation. This week's research has reiterated the need to have a healthy skepticism for everything that we read or are told. But also, I think we should be looking for and advocating forums, publications, and platforms that are focused on giving people access to the best possible information.


  1. "Has the integrity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change been compromised? His answer: No. Yes, these scientists were involved with the IPCC, and the IPCC is the most important single input to international climate policy. However, in his experience publishing through the IPCC, IT WAS A THOROUGH HONEST PROCESS and he thinks hijacking the IPCC by a small group is simply not possible. "

    Now think about the words in block letters in the context of glaciergate. You will know how much biased your good prof (Ron Prinn) is....

  2. Thanks for the comment - to be clear, Ron Prinn was never my professor. However, on the panel he described his experience publishing a chapter of a book through the IPCC, and said he had to answer literally thousands of comments before it was approved. Not only that, his reply to each comment was checked by an independent "referee." Obviously I don't know the man personally, but if accurate that sounds both honest and thorough to me.

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  4. I love it. All the data, all the politics, all the posturing... this issue boils down to one question: " the world screwed and if so what can we do about it?"

  5. More information than anyone can possibly absorb here: