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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Andy Denis

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.

Eric M. Jones

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...."


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.


Those of us who've actually contributed to a scientific paper know this sort of thing happens in every field. Tweaking graph axes to present data in as favorable a way as possible is truly an art-form.

But there's one thing none of them do (barring outright fraud, of course) - lie. Read between lines or distrust implications as much as you like, but the bare facts presented in the scientific articles of prominent journals are as trustworthy as anything you'll find written by mankind.


These emails are a "Smoking gun"? "Mushroom cloud"?

Hardly. That's just plain wishful thinking on the part of climate skeptics.

Rather, these emails show that the scientists involved are ... human. Nothing more, nothing less.

(The result would be the same if we wiretapped the climate skeptics, or monitored their email messages. They're human too.)

What matters is not so much the human flaws and blemishes, but rather the quality and accuracy of the data, analysis, and conclusions that are drawn in published, peer-reviewed journals.

And even more fundamentally, the premium on reproducible results is a time-tested and robust process by which the scientific method corrects over time for any flaws -- howsoever arising -- that might appear in published reports.

So these emails are embarrassing and unappetizing, but they hardly amount to anything more than a pinprick to the egos and reputations of the humans involved.



This is pretty sad. From what I have read they fudged numbers to further support their data. Now everything is questioned.

Jeff B.

I think the worst thing to come from this is that it gives credence to the idea that there is a vast scientific cabal out there to undermine people's beliefs. Watch out Evolution, they're coming for you next.


The summary you quoted leaves out the most egregious part:

Several of the emails were sent to journals who chose to print articles questioning global warming, and the authors threatened to pull their contributions if the journals continued printing skeptics' views. One email advocated the firing of the editor responsible for allowing a contrary view to get into print. Another email said that they could not envision a particular skeptic's article ever getting published - and threatened that they would find a way to keep it from being published, even if they had to "redefine" what peer review meant.

I don't care if you call your opponents "idiots." I do very much care if you engage in guerilla tactics to prevent your opponents' ideas from *even being heard.*

It's thought control, and it's evil and scary.


The emails are more or less a sideshow, except where they lead us to question the data. The data -- access to it and interpretation of it -- is all that really matters.

Steve M

I am not sure anyone needs to do anything right now re. this release of information.
First, opinions are already fairly hardened, so partisans will either inappropriately dismiss this as a sideshow, or will seize it as evidence of a global conspiracy. The truth is likely in the middle somewhere.
Second, there is evidence that graphs were doctored. Was this falsification of data, or was this a PR move to make the information more understandable to laymen?
Third, re. the name calling in referring to climate skeptics as “idiots.”, immaturity runs both directions on this issue. Acknowledge it, deal with it, and get back to arguing the relative merits of the points of view.

stan lippmann

It's a great day for science, a bad day for so-called scientists. The real scientists have discovered the fraud of the so-called scientists. Scientists are genuine and fake, just like in every other human enterprise. The infection of Government money in science, as in every other aspect of life, is the problem. Same with Ozone hole, same with vaccines, same with War, same with Social Security and healthcare, same with the IRS, same with economists, same with the whole University System, same with the public school system, same with pharma, insurance, the Fed, the Oil lobby, did I forget anything? Hard money is the only check on all these follies, that's why we had silver in our pockets until they shot Kennedy.

Jackson Jones III

This teaches us one thing. Nothing is ever really private. As far as the climate change argument is the spin masters.

David H.

If this was the Church's archives being exposed saying "We don't really believe in Jesus" or "The Bible is a total fake" it would be NYT Page 1 for the next 6 months. Well, the Church of Warmism has been exposed as a faux religion that has knowingly manipulated its findings and pushed its anti-capitalist agenda, all in the name of "saving the planet." This should be the biggest news story of the year, we'll see if the press is still up for doing its job. Call Dan Brown.


What am I thinking? This: why aren't you working on leading us to a cleaner more pollution free world?


mike: «This is pretty sad. From what I have read they fudged numbers to further support their data. Now everything is questioned.»

No, they did not. They used the term "trick" which, in another context, would seem to indicate trickery. Except that it's common slang in the field to denote a way to format or graph the data. In skateboarding parlance it means a acrobatic feat. On the streets it evokes prostitution.

And do on and so forth.

If you crack my mailbox you will find that I've had intercourse with various pieces of computer machinery. Or I could have used the F word to simply denote a mistake.

Anyway, I find it bewildering that the freakonomists should jump on this. Bit too obvious as far as gloating is concerned. And risky, considering how thin that ice is.