The scientific community and self-criticism

Whatever your view on anthropogenic global warming, the recent hacking of private emails of the world’s top climate scientists has been a fascinating story. Over a thousand emails and documents were electronically stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the UK, uploaded to a Russian FTP server, and made available for anyone to download.

I don’t have a stake in the debate – even apart from the question of whether global warming is the best scientific hypothesis – we should yet be firmly committed to the stewardship of the environment and practices that are sustainable and responsible. What I find interesting, however, is the way these emails give a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes efforts of scientists and the lengths some will go to shape the public perception of the claims of science. Andrew Bolt, writing for the Australian Herald Sun, argues that these emails point to:

Conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.

If legitimate, the private messages paint a damning picture of the defensiveness and insularity that can occur within the scientific community. Questions can also be raised about the frequently trumpeted guarantor of scientific truth: peer-review. Far from an impenetrable safeguard of intellectual rigor, peer-review can just as easily be captive to personal and political agenda. Bolt and others catalogue stunning examples of conflicts of interest, bullying, and other forms of manipulation that took place by the top climate change scientists to keep opponents from publishing in credible journals. The admission by, in their response to the hack, that scientists are “generally very competitive” is a magnificent understatement.

Indeed, the New York Times reports that “several scientists whose names appear in the e-mail messages said they merely revealed that scientists were human, and did nothing to undercut the body of research on global warming. “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA whose e-mail exchanges with colleagues over a variety of climate studies were in the cache. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.””

I was reminded by this quote from David Berlinksi, former fellow at the Institute des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France and recent author of the book The Devil’s Delusion:

“The idea that science is a uniquely self-critical institution is of course preposterous. Scientists are no more self-critical than anyone else. They hate to be criticized… Look, these people are only human, they hate criticism — me too. The idea that scientists are absolutely eager to be beaten up is one of the myths put out by scientists, and it works splendidly so they can avoid criticism.

We’re asking for standards of behavior that would be wonderful to expect but that no serious man does expect. A hundred years of fraudulent drawings suggesting embryological affinities that don’t exist — that’s just what I would expect if biologists were struggling to maintain a position of power in a secular democratic society. Let’s be reasonable… the popular myth of science as a uniquely self-critical institution, and scientists as men who would rather be consumed at the stake rather than fudge their data, is okay for a PBS special, but that’s not the real world; that’s not what’s taking place…”

It will be interesting to see how this story will play out, and of course, if these correspondences are actually a fair representation of what has gone on. Our own local networks have been slow to pick up the news, but check out Peter Cresswell’s excellent summary and overview of the fall out. Glenn also offers some thoughts here.

4 replies
  1. Rob
    Rob says:

    It bothers me when there is consensus + money + politics + reputations + Nobel prizes in the same ring.

    Unfortunately scientists and science are the ones who are going to get slammed over this IF the media do their investigative job properly (yeah, right!) and there is found to be dirty laundry on the now public clothesline.

    I guess peer-review works well in many areas of academia, and is probably the best we have for maintaining standards. Yet it is easy to see how scientists and their peers could/would collaborate, when ideology is at stake.

    Is ideology at stake? One way to know is to perturb the system and see how it responds. The system has now been perturbed…

  2. Rob
    Rob says:


    From here:

    Police in the U.K. are continuing to investigate the attack, and the university there said Monday that it is conducting its own review.

    Hans von Storch, editor at the time of “Climate Research,” had his own objections to the paper mentioned by Dr. Mann, and resigned shortly after it was published, citing a breakdown in the peer-review process. But Dr. von Storch, now at the University of Hamburg’s Meteorological Institute, said Monday that the behavior outlined in the hacked emails went too far.

    East Anglia researchers “violated a fundamental principle of science,” he said, by refusing to share data with other researchers. “They built a group to do gatekeeping, which is also totally unacceptable,” he added. “They play science as a power game.”

  3. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    In regard to the topic of climate change, the ACL has put together a new magazine which features this very issue in the first (free) publication. They have given two scientists, one from each side, space to present their case with opportunity for reply.

    Can be downloaded here:

    Thought there might be some interested people.

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