Climategate

December 18, 2009

I’ve posted quite a bit in a comment thread over on Janet Stemwedel (aka, Dr. Free-Ride’s) blog about Cliamategate, i.e., the (presumptive) theft and release of private correspondence from the CRU. Selected email have been quoted as evidence for everything from conspiracy to falsify results (and actual falsified results) to conspiracy to avoid FOI requests (and actual illegal avoidance of FOI requests). The alleged evidence of falsification is more radically claimed to be evidence that the general consensus of the climate community is false, to wit, some variant that anthropogenic global warming isn’t happening or isn’t a problem (or that either the warming or the anthropogensis isn’t unprecedented). There are also a number of accusations of bad data retention and sharing practices, usually coupled with one of the conspiracy/falsification/general conclusion falsification stories (i.e., the retention/sharing failures are evidence of a worse problem).

This all echos the Hockey Stick Controversy, and I suspect partially depends on it. In particular, escalating witch hunts is, I think, going to make it more likely that some of the targets behave badly (in any number of ways, including switching fields). I think scientists have to be quite careful about elitism (i.e., I think it’s worth thinking hard about Feyerabendian arguments esp. about power and funding; however, I do wonder what he would make about the turns that science and “alternative traditions” (both benign and malign) have taken since his death; in particular, I rather suspect he has misestimated the relative power and authoritarian aspects of anti-science traditions, esp. failed ones; anti-vaxers come to mind; it would also be interesting to have a Feyerabendian story that takes into account material harm and the lifeboat situation we find ourselves in).

Of course, in Climategate (as with creationism/intelligent design), both sides work in the idiom of science (or even scientific authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism; some responses to the Wegman report point to the condescending attitude of academic statisticians as a barrier to working with (some of) them ). So perhaps this is an intra-science fight, though it bears some feel of layperson vs. scientist fight.

The key point is that the anti-consensus forces have considerable power. So its not as if science has a hegemonic position here.

I am not a climate scientist nor am I in a suitably related field nor am I super well read on it. That limits the depth and strength of conclusion I can draw for a lot of things. Furthermore, I don’t want to get myself into a position where I’m defending too strongly from my direct evidence. That is, I’m trying not to feel besieged even as I have considerable sympathy and empathy for what are, in fact, wrongly besieged people (some climate scientists have had death threats; no joke).

(Frankly, the policy implications are clear, regardless. There are multiple, strongly sufficient reasons to make the moves that lead to carbon free economies. Eating less meat, for example, has wide ranging beneficial effects since meat production on the scale we are doing and projected to do has wide ranging detrimental effects.)

One thing I’ll note is that my tentative concerns about the Wegman report and testimony have been sharpened and confirmed by an analysis which shows that chunks of the report were “plagiarized” (albeit with permission) from a draft of a denialist book.

Frankly, my expected seriousness (probability x degree of seriousness) of this is far higher than for any of the CRU allegations. (The serious ones are so unlikely as to be dismissible). For one, it makes the whole report quite suspect. Indeed, anything involving a judgement or not narrow conclusion is not to be trusted. In particular, I’m now very inclined to trust the Real Climate point that centering just doesn’t matter (thus Wegman’s whole criticism is, well, completely wrong).

It would be nice to know exactly what Wegman did so as to understand how he was able to generate graphs that purport to show that the hockey stick shape is an artifact. For a while I was quite open to the idea that Wegman was right on the narrow issue. Reading his testimony put some cracks in that (e.g., his jest about his Finnish friends), and von Storch’s making the centering irrelevance point put more in (as did the RealClimate.org article). But now, I have strong justification to treat Wegman as unreliable and that the cracks revealing fundamental problems.

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