ClimateGate: The Very Ugly Side of Climate Science

When we think about “scientists,” most of us probably envision people toiling away in the lab or the field, accumulating and analyzing data in order to test theories, leaving their personal biases at home, scrupulously considering any confounding data or theories and willfully distancing themselves from the political implications of their research.

How quaint.

Truth be told, scientific research has been a blood sport for centuries. But a recent scandal that’s been dubbed ClimateGate is showing a very ugly side of climate science, and anyone who clung to that old-fashioned vision of scientists at work will be surprised by the reality.

There is much to be written and said on this topic, and a lot of what’s being said at this early date is hyperbolic, on both sides of the aisle. Here’s a good summary from Andrew Revkin at The Times:

Hundreds of private e-mail messages and documents hacked from a computer server at a British university are causing a stir among global warming skeptics, who say they show that climate scientists conspired to overstate the case for a human influence on climate change.

The e-mail messages, attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers, include discussions of scientific data and whether it should be released, exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptics, and casual comments — in some cases derisive — about specific people known for their skeptical views. … In one e-mail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical “trick” in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend. In another, a scientist refers to climate skeptics as “idiots.”

Some skeptics asserted Friday that the correspondence revealed an effort to withhold scientific information. “This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist who has long faulted evidence pointing to human-driven warming and is criticized in the documents. …

The evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument. However, the documents will undoubtedly raise questions about the quality of research on some specific questions and the actions of some scientists.

If you are a fan of science, this is a pretty grim day. If you are a fierce partisan on either side of the global-warming issue, you are either gnashing your teeth or clicking your heels. If you are a government official heading to Copenhagen soon for the climate summit, you are probably wondering what the hell you’re supposed to think now. If you are a reader of the Freakonomics blog, you are probably … well, I don’t know: tell us what you’re thinking.

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  1. catpro54 says:

    Not a surprise to me. I’ve thought for quite a while that “global warming” has been overstated and just one more on the list of things to make people panic about something. Thanks for this.

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  2. Christopher says:

    It’s peculiar when scientists enter the political debate. Although on a greater scale, these recent events seem reminiscent of the 1980 PBB contamination in Michigan and the role scientific uncertainty played in the case. It’s strange to think this a more regular occurrence than one would expect. Sad to think it’s still the case in the context of bigger issues like global climate change.

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  3. elie says:

    There’s no doubt there’s a lot of politics involved in climatology, especially when it comes to global warming.
    But I don’t htink that this revelation constitutes a major blow to the scientific credibility of global warming.

    But I do agree that this shows an ugly side of climate science.

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  4. Joshua says:

    The worst part seems to me the deliberate effort to collude in deleting emails and possibly data rather than comply with FOI requests. It’s particularly blatant when they discuss it in the context of an email from the University warning them not to do so. If I understand correctly one of the data sets that one of the researchers said he would rather delete than turn over did in fact get “accidentally” deleted…or that’s their story. All the attempts in the world to spin it as the usual rough-and-tumble of science, or people being naturally unguarded when it comes to private conversations seem to me to come unstuck on this point.

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  5. DaveyNC says:

    I’m thinking, “Hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.”

    There will be some sort of hastily prepared statement saying that in fact, the emails mean the exact opposite of what they say and a general sweeping under the rug of this episode. Too many people have too much moolah on the line and must continue to display undying belief in the bad effects of anthropogenic warming, whether it exists or has been made up out of whole cloth.

    The media will forget this soon enough and go on to blame the lack of hurricanes this season on global warming.

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  6. Andy Denis says:

    How is this ugly? Why a grim day? Some people who are convinced that climate change is not our fault or doesn’t exist or something hacked some scientists’ computers – and found … well, what did they find? That the scientists thought they were idiots – well, that’s news. That the scientists used ‘tricks’, ie neat ways of doing things. How extraordinary. As so often the story is in what isn’t said. In particular, the *absence* in the hacked messages of anything at all to undermine the scientific position on climate change.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    Caller, heard on the BBC (the only good way to get news about the USA. BBC radio is England’s gift to humanity):

    “We HAVE to stop this pointless debating! Climate change is too important to discuss. We must DO SOMETHING NOW….”

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  8. Matt says:

    I guess I’m missing the controversy (is it news that sometimes people use strong language in private e-mails when ?) And the so-called “trick,” if you look to the actual paper, is simply plotting two different time-series of temperature data on the same graph; that is, it highlights the divergence as opposed to hiding it.

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