Monday, November 28, 2011

The Lessons of Climategate

In response to the new load of 5,000 emails from warmist climatologists that were dumped on the public last week, I am reposting the post I did in 2009, when Climategate itself first broke out, with an update.

I've noticed a couple of libertarian economists who have said that the CRU scandal is no big deal. "Nothing much here," says Tyler Cowan. Robin Hanson says " this behavior has long been typical when academics form competing groups, whether the public hears about such groups or not," and that "academia works this way."

I think this last is, quite literally, a bizarre thing to say. (I gather that one of Hanson's projects is the idea of "prediction markets," which is a way of compelling people who opine to be careful and honest -- so he may have a professional reason to think that academics are generally sloppy and dishonest. I don't know what Cowan's problem is.*)

First, let's remember what the "this way" is, in which academia is supposed to work. It includes trying to get a journal editor fired who approves the publication of views with which one disagrees. and trying to accomplish this end by threatening to withhold one's own publications from the journal, as well as organizing a boycott (presumably secret a one) of the journal. (See this.)

One possible objection to what I just said: The evidence I discuss below only shows someone declaring an intention to carry out these abuses, and does not show that he actually did them. My reply: Since these actions would be carried out in secret, we may have no way of knowing whether they have been carried out or not. What we do have is evidence that in a very important section of the pro-AGW (anthropogenic global warming) scientific community such behavior is not considered to be beyond the pale, across the line, off the menu, etc. etc.

There is a very, very good reason why such behavior has to be regarded as beyond the pale. Take a look at the diagram at the top of this page (hat-tip to Watt's Up With That). Do you see a box labeled "make threats" or "organize boycotts"? I don't. Why do you suppose these boxes have been omitted from the diagram?

Short answer: Scientific method is biased in favor of the truth. It cannot be used to support just anything. Threats are biased in favor of the powerful, they cannot be used by just anybody. And if you are powerful, they can be used to support just about anything, true or not.

If the scientific community is to arrive at reliably true results, it is vitally important that this sort of behavior be regarded as off the menu. As far as we can see, when Michael E. Mann (allegedly) wrote the offending email, no one said "Frankly, and with all due respect, what you are proposing would be improper." And that is a real scandal.

* Update: On second thought, I do have a theory about what Cowan's problem is. Econ and climatology have something in common: both have huge political implications and trillions of dollars and enormous amounts of sheer power are at stake. As a result of this, both disciplines have been corrupted. For that reason, there probably are economists who behave in the deplorable way in which these climatologists are behaving. This is not a fact about academics, but about money and power. Number theorists do not behave that way, nor do metaphysicians.


Ann said...

Bravo, Lester! I think ClimateGate is a very big deal. We've been asked to sacrifice economic prosperity and trillions of dollars to reduce our 'carbon footprints' because of this questionable climate research. I've been following a lot of research on climate for the past several years from a number of sources; there is a lot of evidence that the shifts we observe in decades-long warming and cooling trends are pretty much of a random walk, and manifestations of other much longer-term benign climate cycles of the planet. Hansen and Mann may well be remembered like Joseph McCarthy soon. They are zealots who have already decided that their ends justify any means, including dishonesty, bullying and other strong-armed tactics to squash any curiousity or dissent about their agenda. It's definitely not what the scientific method is about.

Lester Hunt said...

Thanks, Ann. We need a new Thomas Kuhn, to produce a detailed account of what happens when science touches on politically hot topics, and has megaquantities of government money injected into it.

[Note though that Hanson is an economist and a commentator on the passing scene, not one of the zealots. I thought I should point that out, in case he ever visits this site!]

Ann said...

I am referring to James Hansen of NASA, the climatologist. He's not the economist you are referring to, is he? Hey, maybe you should think about writing the new Kuhns-style book - you've got the credentials as a professional philosopher. It does seem like a very important and timely topic.

Lester Hunt said...

I now see these are different people. I might as well let my earlier comment stand, in case others make the same Hanson/Hansen mistake I did.

If I had another lifetime, I probably would write such new Kuhn a book. As things stand, I lack the grounding in subjects like statistics and computer modeling that it would take to do this thing right. Four score and ten years just ain't enough!

Ann said...

An excellent summary of climate issues and a very astute analogy at the end of the essay by Richard Lindzen.

Lester Hunt said...

Thanks Ann! Yes, that was well worth reading.

John Derbyshire (who is not a scientist but I think a very good science journalist) has a very thoughtful piece here:

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Sorry for missing the "please post comments on my blog." But I stand by everything I say in the following:

I clicked through to the "a climategate e-mail" post, which seems to contain your main argument, and found it to be pretty ignorant. I'm not saying culpably ignorant, but ignorant.

Seriously, you show no sign at all of knowing anything about climatology. You appear to be just making assumptions based on your experiences in philosophy. But philosophy and the sciences are very different, and it isn't safe to extrapolate from one to the other.

Read the Wikipedia article on the paper being talked about in those e-mails:

The paper was very publicly (not just "in secret") criticized for drawing conclusions that could not be justified by the data presented, and many editors of the journal resigned because they felt it was a sign that the paper's peer-review process was not working properly.

Many philosophers seem to have resigned themselves to making a career out of unconvincing arguments. In the sciences, however, making claims that are not justified by your data is still a big deal. There are also fairly objective standards of what constitutes a good paper, so it makes sense to worry about the peer-review process of a journal that lets a bad paper through.

Lester Hunt said...

I say that climatology cannot be a parallel universe where, unlike the one I live in, science can properly be conducted by means of threats, secret boycotts, and refusal to publish raw data. See my more recent post on this. Contents of any one scientific paper are not relevant to this point.

pappy d said...

It seems as though you are seeking to have the issue of global warming dismissed on procedural grounds.