Climategate and faith in “science”

If you haven’t been keeping up with Climategate, you’ve been missing quite a show.

Personally, I have generally been a climate change agnostic.  I recognize the possibility that the climate could be globally changing and that it is possible that mankind has played a role – that is, that the supposed climate change is “anthropogenic (man caused) global warming” (AGW).  I also recognize that many (not all) of those who are so passionate about the topic are motivated more by the potential for “battling climate change” as a tool to achieve other social and political agendas that have little to do with saving the planet.  I do believe that AGW skeptics have some good points to make and that they generally do not get a fair hearing, while I also recognize that many (not all) doubt/support the theory of AGW out of personal bias and not due to scientific data.

Yet, regardless of the side one takes, everyone HAS to admit: The Climategate e-mail controversy definitely makes the “pro-global warming” crowd look bad.  Really bad.  It is a moment for global warming skeptics to claim a huge victory and a bit of vindication and even for global warming supporters to wonder if they should feel betrayed.

What is Climategate?  If you don’t know I suggest you Google it – it has apparently quickly gained a bigger presence on Google than the phrase “global warming,” itself.  Let me summarize:

An absolutely massive amount of e-mail exchanges between some of the biggest scientific names in the pro-global warming crowd have been made public after being stolen from university data.  They do not appear to be faked at all, and comments from the creators of the e-mails, themselves, all point to their genuineness.  The content of some of those e-mails – spanning years – potentially paint a picture of science gone horribly wrong.  As interpreted by some, the e-mails show scientists discussing how to “work” or suppress data (reminds me of an old saying in statistic-related circles: torture the data until it confesses), how to manipulate the peer review process, how to suppress scientific dissent, how to avoid giving the data to others for verification, etc.  And interpretation aside, many of the e-mails do paint a picture of scientists in the global warming elite behaving in a very unscientific way – acting as partisans and advocates as opposed to “let’s put all the evidence on the table” scientists.

(That said, I would suspect that there are also e-mails in the set of stolen missives that present the scientists involved in a much more positive light.  Regrettably, as is the way of things, these don’t see the light of day as much.  And for the ultimate purposes of this post, they aren’t as relevant.  But let’s continue…)

Actually, my words are insufficient to describe what a big deal this is.  Here are some links for those interested:

Then there have been the running commentaries on Climategate and related issues (such as journalistic integrity concerning these things) in James Taranto’s WSJ “Best of the Web” feature.  Here are some:

The logician in me feels the need to warn: The fact that some of the key scientists behind the “man-caused global warming” idea have been caught apparently acting in a very unscientific manner here and there does not mean that there is no global warming or that if there is global warming that it is not man-caused.  Some will say that these e-mails prove that AGW must be regarded as a complete and utter hoax, but I don’t see that at all, and – from what I’ve read – this would be an illogical conclusion to draw from these e-mails.

However, at the same time the exposed e-mails do cast doubt on the solidity of these scientists’ findings and publications.  It is reasonable to ask, “Why was there so much work done to hide information and to discourage dissent and challenges if the work was solid?”  Does it mean that the work isn’t solid?  Well, no, we can’t conclude that from these e-mails alone.  After all, there are other explanations.  For instance, the scientists could simply be so concerned about the findings of their work that they feel justified in acting as advocates now, as opposed to “merely” scientists.  This does not justify their actions, of course, but it would explain their actions.

And no one should doubt that the e-mails do expose them as advocates instead of scientists in some cases.  For instance (as discussed in this early Washington Post article on the matter), one of the critiques leveled at global warming skeptics is that they don’t have as many peer-reviewed papers published – all the while, some of the very same critics are seemingly threatening and intimidating peer-reviewed journals not to publish these individuals’ papers. Not the most transparent approach and not, in any way, in line with popularly professed principles of scientific practice.

So, there you have it.  Again, I am an AGW agnostic: I simply do not have enough trustworthy information to decide on the matter.  The information I do get always seems to be tainted and agenda driven – whether from one side or the other.  However, while I agree that it is false to say that anthropogenic global warming is “settled science,” I see no reason, yet, to jump whole hog into one camp or the other.  For my part, I simply plan to continue acting as a good steward with the resources I have while thanking God that at least He knows what’s going on without having to rely on CNN, FOX News, or MSNBC.  And besides, the key to man’s salvation or suffering on this earth is not hydrocarbon policy, but repentance from sin and the needed return of Jesus Christ.  Next to that, focusing on proper climate policy is like putting a band-aid on a severed limb.

What interests me more in all of this are the implications for science, in general.  Many like to treat the scientific endeavor as one of religious-like purity: where minds unbiased toil tirelessly, bravely willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads and to expose themselves to even the harshest of reviews and critics that the truth may win out.

I, on the other hand, have consistently said that the practice of science is a very human endeavor and that, as such, it is vulnerable to the same human failures to which other endeavors are so exposed.  In particular, it is vulnerable to the tyranny of assumptions, the corruption brought on by human hubris, and the collectively-shared Jeremiah 17:9 nature of the human heart.

An example of the former line of thought: A commenter on this blog once wrote after reading one of my posts: “Scientists generally write without the hubristic assumption that they know all the answers before the questions are asked, yes… Scientists do not assume that what is written in a book is accurate, especially when real measurements made in the wild contradict what is written.”  (The book in question was the Bible, as you probably know.)  A lack of “hubristic assumption that they know all the answers before the questions are asked”?  A willingness to accept “real measurements made in the wild” when they “contradict” other thinking?  Wow – sounds great.  But these Climategate e-mails are an example – a big one – of those vaunted characteristics being frighteningly lacking at times.  (The whole five-comment conversation can be read beginning here.)

Are we to assume that this particular group of high-profile, top-of-their-field scientists represents the only scientists subject to such corrupting influences?  I mean, after all, passions run pretty high when politics and money abound.

Well, passions run pretty high when Darwin is in question, as well.  And, frankly, if your scientific specialty is the yellow-speckled frankfurter bird, your passion runs pretty high about yellow-speckled frankfurter bird theories.  So to say that these faults stop at the doors leading out of the climatologists’ offices is a weak position to take.

Note: I am not accusing scientists in general (nor these climatologists, in particular) of malfeasance, but rather I simply accuse them of being human.  I have written about peer review” and “scientific consensus” before and have tried to make the same point before.  The important thing to realize is that while “peer review” and “scientific consensus” are important, they are also overrated.  The Climategate e-mails demonstrate that better than Billy Mays ever could.

Science is a wonderful gift – a marvelous and very human endeavor.  Many put their faith completely in the pronouncements of science, believing that science is the only path for revealing what is true.  There are several reasons why such faith – if placed utterly – is misplaced.  But Climategate highlights one of those reasons very sharply: As science is a human endeavor, completely placing your faith in science means completely placing your faith in human beings.  The pronouncements of the scientific establishment should be listened to, considered well, given due weight, and discussed thoroughly, but they are an unworthy target of faith and blind trust.  Science may be an impressive, giant, floating green head, running the land of Oz, but in reality there is no perfect entity bearing the name “science” – just the group of scientists working the controls behind the curtain.  And the scientists are, in every way, human beings.

Maybe Climategate will remind some of that.

(By the way…  All of this said, I know that some of the scientists implicated in the Climategate e-mail scandal have said that their e-mails aren’t being properly understood in the correct context.  And I wish to acknowledge that this may be true.  I have no dog in this hunt, as it were.  But if those scientists are correct, and these e-mails reflect the everyday discussions and conversations that scientists have among themselves in the practice of their profession, then all I have said about science being an incredibly-wonderful-but-faulty human endeavor unworthy of our faith is even more obviously true.  And for the sake of these men and their reputations, I hope they are correct.  At the very least, perhaps someone will go through the purloined electronic missives to create an impressive list of pro-truth, “follow the evidence, boys” e-mails that will create a better or more balanced impression.)

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5 thoughts on “Climategate and faith in “science”

  1. texasborn

    Ah, the controversy! I heard on a late-night talk show a few days ago that Werner Von Braun said (in the 1950s or 1960s?) that if there was a valid reason to precipitate the “global governance” over the world, it would probably be good to create concern over “global warming” as an excuse for that particular implementation.
    And the number of scientists that regard climate change, global warming, etc.–call it what you will, the intention is all the same–as an invalid supposition keeps increasing: first, it was 16,000; then 31,000; then 35,000 (as of yesterday). And Al Gore’s famous quote about the “consensus” of scientists believing in “global warming” was misleading. He conveniently forgot to mention that that “consensus” consisted of the majority of that organization–of about 2,600 members! (If memory serves me correctly.) And of that approximate 2,600 members, 85% of them were not even scientists! (Reminds me of that ole accounting/actuarial saying: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”)
    Regarding the aforementioned 35,000 scientists opposing the global warming/climate change HYPOTHESIS (emphasis mine), it was said that at least 26,000 of them had PhDs!
    Hmmm, wonder if anybody has considered the sun as being a factor in the global warming controversy (due to the earth’s tilt during its orbit around the sun)?
    It has been said that if a poll was taken which asked people if they would sign a petition to oppose the use of “Dihydrogen Monoxide” on Earth, that most people would sign it! I guess they never took a class in General Science in the 8th or 9th grade, and or a class in physics or chemistry in the 10th, 11th or 12th grades, either. (“Dihydrogen Monoxide? horrible!!”) Folks, that’s just plain ole water!!
    And the beat goes on…

  2. Ed Ewert

    I think the situation is worse than you paint it here. You write “I see no reason, yet, to jump whole hog into one camp or the other.” But what are the two camps? It’s not world destruction through global warming vs world destruction vs global cooling. Rather, it’s world destruction through global warming vs those who find aspects of the warmist position to be flawed in various ways. I believe the global warmists have a tendency to be extremists in that they deny as much as they can, criticisms of their position, even when the criticisms are very reasonable and they engage in often extreme ad hominum attacks such as skeptics are like holocost deniers.

    I’ve read extensively about these issues over the years and there is much that could be said. But one thing that concerns me, that I haven’t seen referred to, is that as a result of the tactics of the global warmists in pushing out and marginalizing those scientists who are skeptical, this degrades reasonable science in the same way that studies in biology have been degraded by pushing out those scientists who question darwinian evolution.

  3. Greetings, Mr. Ewert —

    No, the two camps I was speaking about are “man-caused climate change is destroying the planet” vs “man-caused climate changed is a complete myth.” And I still see no reason to jump whole hog into one or the other.

    Both sides have their very serious, sober, and scientific supporters AND both sides have their biased, cherry-picked-evidence, win-the-argument-at-all-costs supporters, as well.

    While I’m sympathetic to the concerns you express and would likely agree on much were we to discuss the topic together, your comment comes across as guilty of some of what you are pointing to on the other side.

    For instance, you characterize the camps as “world destruction through global warming vs those who find aspects of the warmist position to be flawed in various ways.” That makes it sound like all who disagree with the theory of global warming are simply doing so out of reasonable concerns. Truly, some who have questions (like, apparently, you and I) do so out of reasonable concerns. But your statement reads much like those of the opposite side, who would state it in a manner something like this: “Rather, the two camps are those who dogmatically believe global warming is impossible vs those who reasonably believe that the facts argue for the quickest action possible before irreparable harm is caused.” Do you see how this biases things the other way? Yet it is quite similar to your formulation.

    Everyone seems to want to characterize the side that has their sympathies as the rational good guys and the other side as having tendencies to dogmatic faith and politics over science. Both sides have people guilty of this, which is what I have tried to communicate.

    For instance, you are correct: I have seen instances such as you describe when “criticisms are very reasonable and they engage in often extreme ad hominem attacks such as skeptics are like holocaust deniers.” Absolutely correct.

    Yet, I have also seen the reverse, where reasonable scientists who simply and sincerely believe that the data and analysis they have seen for global warming outweighs the evidence against it are painted as “lefties” and “tree huggers” who are out to use AGW as a tool to bring the world under tyrannical, one-world government. Generalization and ad hominem attacks are wrong no matter what direction they fly in.

    There are extremists like this on both sides. But there are also reasonable people on both sides.

    I stated these facts, however briefly, in the post, so I don’t think the situation is worse than I’ve painted it. Rather, I have tried to make sure that I do not inappropriately characterize either side.

    As for the last part of your comment, I hope you have clicked on some of the links I provided, because the thing you said hasn’t been referred to is actually being discussed quite a bit now due to Climategate. Just today (I think) the head of the CRU has temporarily stepped down over the disclosures in the e-mails while an institutional review of the matter is conducted. And actually, Mr. Ewert, I refer to that tactic several times in this very post (discouraging dissent and threatening journals not to publish submissions by scientists whose papers do not agree with AGW “orthodoxy”). So take heart — it is being discussed, now. ABC, NBC, and CBS apparently haven’t discovered all of this (at least not through yesterday), but CNN, the WSJ, and others (even the WP and the NYT) are discussing these things.

    I do think you and I agree on much of this, Mr. Ewert. It’s just that I want to make sure that I don’t over generalize about anyone: “global warmists,” “deniers,” “skeptics” — what have you. Both sides have their crazies and moonbats. Both sides have their zealots who have turned either AGW or anti-AGW into a religion. Yet both sides have their reasonable scientists and researchers, as well. And hopefully those reasonable folks will continue to look into things to discover the truth of the matter. But until they have done so clearly enough, I will remain an AGW agnostic.

    (And, I should note: the purpose of the post was actually not to discuss the truth or fiction behind global warming, but, rather, was to discuss the fallacy of placing too much faith in science as if it is some sort of “deified institution” devoid of human faults and failings, even on very large scales.)

    As always, thanks, so much for writing, Mr. Ewert!

  4. Ed Ewert

    I agree with what you write. My comments were perhaps a little terse because there was so much that could be said, and I didn’t want to go on at too great a length. But I will argue that among the top people on the warmist side, such as James Hanson, Phil Jones, and Michael Mann, there is a powerful tendency to play politics by distorting the truth. The top people on the other side have been much more reasonable.

    I also see a prophetic significance here: few people know what the real dangers are that will soon engulf the earth. They are transfixed by problems that are ultimately of a lesser nature. And the irony would be if trillions of dollars were spent to fix global warming, and there was actually a trend towards cooling at this time (living in Canada, I’m aware of how much damage to crops a little cooling at harvest can cause).

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