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.


Gina Patton said...

Love this. Spot on.

halfSpinDoctor said...

I think its shameful that, in most scientific fields, raw data are usually not available to anyone but the investigator who acquired them.

There is something to be said for not making scientific data 100% publicly available, as it would be open to mis-interpretation or criticism by people who do not understand how to interpret it (as you correctly identified in your post, most data are biased and require some sort of correction or calibration, or at least require special knowledge about the way it was acquired to facilitate correct interpretation). But it is ridiculous that a qualified research in the same field cannot have access to confirm or deny a particular scientific interpretation. This is especially true if it was a government or publicly funded study.

One positive example of data sharing is the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (http://www.adni-info.org/), which allows access to a huge database on Alzheimer's disease and aging to any qualified research who applies. Such a paradigm would alleviate many controversies (and foster great research!) if applied to other disciplines.

MG Blogger said...

Sure, with the current capabilities of "the cloud" raw date can and should be shared - and just to say I warned you, this will open up new debates as information is taken out of context for political and economical reasons as "think tanks" o about [i][b] their [/i][/b] business of representing clients as they are paid to do. There are bad science concerns out there, but even worse may be outright, lawyer-like truth manipulation masquerading as science - will the 99% be able to tell the difference?

Climate data may or may not have repercussions in our lifetime (beyond obvious economic implications). Worse though may be the raw data originating from the borderline poisons sold as pharmaceuticals. We mostly chuckle at the litany of side effects in drug commercials, but are in reality only presented with the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And lives can change direction based upon a bad decision uncorrected based upon the clinician's [i] time management [/i] skills ...

Yes, there will be abuses and misinterpretations and a cornucopia of debate, but why not? After all most of America obsesses with the daily stock index averages which have absolutely no bearing on their lives .... there are [i] better [/i] fish to fry!