Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What I Learned from Climategate

I am still struck by how many intelligent people, some of whom I respect, say that the Climategate emails are a ho-hum matter. They apparently know a lot more about how "mainstream" climatologists work than I do. I actually learned four things that I did not know before. Apparently, they did know these things. At the risk of boring someone, and in the spirit of getting on the same page, let me list these things:

1. I had thought the the famous hockey stick graph and other global temperature information represented in some direct way readings of actual thermometers in the real world. In fact, these results do not directly report such raw data. Rather, climatologists nudge and tweak the raw data in various ways. This is understandable, in and of itself. After all, there are a great many of these thermometers around the world, and they record their data in a variety of situations. Some sit near air conditioners that spew hot air, others sit on pavement, or on rooftops, or on green grass. Not all have equal value. Adjustments or allowances must be made. This wouldn't be so bad, of course, if these tweaks follow fixed formulas, which are published.

2. In fact, these adjustments in the data do not follow fixed formulas. Well, that is not good, but it wouldn't be so bad if these adjustments in the data are not being made by people who think they know what the results of the data ought to be. However,

3. These adjustments are being made by people who have very strong, even passionate views on what the results are supposed to be. Hm. Well, this doesn't look good. But it's not really, really bad, as far as the science involved is concerned, if the raw data are publicly available and can be checked by others, to see if they get the same results from the same thermometer readings. Science is all about reproducible results, after all! But, no...

4. The raw data are not publicly available. In fact, that is what precipitated Climategate in the first place. Somebody actually had put in a Freedom of Information Act (England has a FOIA, just as the US does) request to see the damn data. Many of the emails involve these climatologists conspiring to continue to conceal this information. Indeed one of the things I learned from Climategate (but didn't seem to surprise certain other people) was that a significant portion of these data had been deliberately destroyed and cannot ever be checked by anyone.

The people who say "this is what academics are like" and "this is how science works" evidently knew all this. I have to confess my ignorance here: I did not. I learned it from the Climategate emails.

I should add the it is also clear that the academics and scientists that these people know are very different from the ones that I have known.

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.