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 realclimate.org, 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.