Science /-tists under attack

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(Nederlandse versie hier)

What do you do if you don’t agree with the science (or with the perceived political implications thereof), but don’t have any real evidence to back up your position?

You could try breaking in the computer system of a renowned institute, to then release the stolen emails and documents via internet. If your catch is big enough, there will surely be something that could be spun to embarrass the scientists in question (and, by extension, discredit the whole field). Especially emails written before they had their morning coffee serve that purpose really well.

That must be the line of thinking of the hackers who broke into the web server of the Climate Research Unit (CRU in England), and released an enormous amount of emails of the past 13 years.

This (illegal) activity led to quite a “blog-storm” on the internet, with partly predictable reactions, as if suddenly all evidence for the human impact on climate change has been swept away. It is indicative of the speed with which so-called “skeptics” come to their conclusion. As if the conclusion was already in the drawer, waiting to be opened. Perfect timing, just before the Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Even the most eye catching emails, as discussed on several blogs, are relatively innocent if put in the proper context. Some do show a peek in the kitchen of how the scientists in question communicated with each other (not much different from other people, actually) and here and there is some dirty laundry. That scientists do not think highly of so-called “skeptics” comes as no surprise. Many emails are (logically) multi-interpretable: As Ben Hale noted, through ideological glasses it may look like there’s a lot of shady business going on, but –as an example- the same email could also be seen as a more direct way of saying the same as what was later described in a scientific paper. Some climate scientists have also reacted and provide come highly needed context (e.g. Gavin Schmidt at RC).

It is clear that in many discussions about this a mountain is made out of a molehill. No conspiracy of anthropogenic global warming being a complete hoax, or anything of that kind, has been uncovered. The scientific basis for our current understanding of climate change is as solid as it was before, in spite of all the screaming to the contrary.

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10 Responses to “Science /-tists under attack”

  1. Alex Thompson Says:

    yeah….if there really was genuine intent to mislead in all those 3000 emails (or whatever it was) you’d think they’d be able to come up with something more convincing . Yeah, it might look bad, but if thats all they found in all that evidence, well, frankly, it strenghtens the science!
    I reckon theres a book “Clever strategy and effective lobbying” that could be written from climate change skeptics tactics.

  2. CRUde Hack, everybody loves a charade « Greenfyre’s Says:

    […] Bart Verheggen reminds us that if the Deniers actually had any scientific case they would be talking about it instead. This whole charade is because they have nothing rational, so in desperation they try the irrational: What do you do if you don’t agree with the science (or with the perceived political implications thereof), but don’t have any real evidence to back up your position? […]

  3. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    What I´ve seen in the information from the CRU now in the public domain, and I have only looked at a small fraction naturally, is about tree ring analyses and surface temperature records. It is an interesting scientific area, I think, but the link to what should be done about climate change is rather tenuous.

    The case for CO2 emissions reductions is about things such as biodiversity, local agricultural productivity, sea level rise, hurricanes. It´s about what scenarios for the future are likely, how to value the impacts, about whether you think that the low likelihood, high impact risks are near exclusively on the large CO2 concentrations side.

    A look into the peer reviewed literature will tell you that translated into a present carbon price, there is a huge range for what is credible depending on assumptions, ranging from a few Dollars per tonne carbon of benefits to thousands of Dollars of costs.

    As far as I can see the tree ring studies and surface station data are not responsible for this type of range.

    I think we should look at the tree ring studies and surface station data independent of (an exaggerated perception of) what they might mean for taxation or regulatory decisions.

    I also think it should be irrelevant what the scientists in question believe about the rest of climate science or what type of measures they favour.

    It is most unfortunate that Hansen or Mann appear biased because they are involved in advocacy. There is no need for this. It would be much better, if the scientists doing the temperature data collection had no opinion whether a rise `should` be visible or what this implies about taxation of fossil fuels.

    As I say on my blog there is a reason for double blind trials in medicine. Studies can be influenced by what the scientist believes the outcome should be. I know how easy it is to look hard for errors, when the results look `wrong`, and to not look when they appear right.

    In chemical analysis there are also round robin trials. A sample is sent round to many labs, who are not told what they are analysing, and then the results are compared.

    I do wonder what possibilities there are to exclude the effects of bias for tree ring studies or temperature records. In the first instance, I would certainly try to hand these tasks to independent experts with no previous position on other areas of climate science or known political leanings on the issue.

  4. Bart Says:

    Heiko,

    I agree with what you say about the relevance of temperature reconstructions (the main topic of the CRU emails) for the policy debate: Pretty minor. That’s a very important context to put this whole discussion in.

    Mann is involved in some of these emails, but Hansen is not AFAIK. I don’t have any problem with Hansen taking a policy stance (as long as he’s explicit in when he’s voicing a personal opinion rather than a scientific “fact”, which he is). He’s doing so as a consequence of his insights in the science, and he’s fully entitle to do so. One could even make an argument that a scientist has an ethical obligation to also take the consequences of his research into account, and communicate any risks involved to the public.

    Your ideaof an independent arbiter is unpractical I think. Nobody is free of any plitical leanings, and even if somebody is, it’s impossible to measure that it is so, and impossible to persuade everyone that (s)he is so. And once someone becomes involved in the science, one develops a position towards it.

  5. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    http://www.eastangliaemails.com/search.php

    He’s involved, which isn’t surprising, because Phil Jones is behind HadCRU and Hansen behind GISS, one of the three main surface series. Roy Spencer is behind one of the main satellite series.

    The thing is, from the errors I’ve seen Hansen and Spencer admit so far, it looks very much as if their political views influence when they stop looking for errors, or which adjustment procedure they prefer when in doubt. Every single one I know about has been about increasing temperature trends for Hansen and about decreasing them for Spencer.

    It’s also what you’d expect. As I said, that’s the reason for double blind trials. If the doctors believe an anti-psychotic ought to work, they’ll see things in their patients on the drug, they wouldn’t, if they already thought the anti-psychotic was crap prior to starting their study.

    I suspect that the actual accuracy of the work would be improved by putting an embargo on expressing policy views on the employees of institutions entasked with collecting temperature data (as said there are only three world surface series and two satellite series, so it’s not many employees). If they couldn’t run around expounding their views, I think they would not hold onto their views so desperately, have less confirmation bias, and therefore do their work better.

    I see your argument about being entitled to views and all, but this seems to be more about seeking fame, and we are talking about a tiny number of people I’d want muzzled. If say Hansen or Phil Jones think advocacy is more important to them, they could resign their functions with respect to GISS and HadCRU and leave the task to someone else.

  6. Bart Says:

    Ok, I hadn’t seen en email to/from/about Hansen being discussed yet.

    Gavin Schmidt responded to a similar allegation of corrections only being in the direction of enlarging the trends:
    “Some examples, corrections for UHI reduce surface temperature trends and the correction for the bucket measurements pre-WW2 reduced trends in the SST records. Corrections for radio-sonde biases in the stratosphere reduces cooling trends there, corrections for post-glacial rebound reduce estimates of mass loss on Antarctica. Corrections for water vapour overlap reduced the amount of forcing associated with CO2 changes. I could go on. – gavin]”

    I heard that Hansen was asked for an important post in the Obama administration, but he declined because he wanted to remain in science rather than in politics. That doesn’t stop him from having or voicing a political opinion of course, nor does it stop the ethical obligation he feels to warn the public about the risks we’re taking as a society, and about which he happens to know a great deal about from his research experience. I commend him for doing what he’s doing.

  7. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    Look again at what I wrote, I made no “allegation” of corrections only being in the direction of enlarging the trends. I know a fair bit about the corrections.

    Spencer also has plenty of corrections in there that enhance the trend. The point is: Both Spencer and Hansen have admitted to mistakes they have made and all the ones I know about go the way you’d expect from their political leanings.

    I don’t think that there is any reason Hansen has to both be responsible for models predicting temperature increases, and for one of the three key databases looking at the temperature record.

    I think it needlessly damages both the actual quality and the credibility of the GISS temperature data.

    Don’t you think that confirmation bias by scientists is a) a real issue and b) we should strive to eliminate it (where relevant and practical) in climate science just as in double blind clinical trials?

  8. Bart Says:

    Ok, I see that you meant the errors in correction, rather than the corrections themselves. I haven’t looked in details at such errors in corrections, so I have no particular opinion about them.

    There is something to say to keep the temperature reconstruction and modeling work separate, yes. We may differ in opinion as to how bad it is that they’re not.

    I think that the climate policy views of e.g. Hansen are a consequence of his knowledge about climate change, rather than that his knowledge is skewed by his political views. It is of course not black and white, or only a one way streat; it could go both ways.

    When a result is as expected, you’re inclined to look less hard for errors than when a result goes counter to your expectations. If you turn this around though, it makes perfect sense: When I was a teaching assistant during my PhD, what I kept telling the students was to do a sanity check of the result they got: If the result was that that the bucket of water weighted 10000 kg rather than 10 kg, they likely made a mistake somewhere (e.g. in the unit conversion of a factor 1000, or something else). Such a sanity check is very important as a first check. It doesn’t mean however that the 10 kg answer is necessarily correct, but the chance of an error in the 10000 kg answer approaches one, whereas the chance in the 10 kg answer is less than one (dependent on how good the student/scientist is).

    I dont’ see a practical way of doing something similar to double blind clinical trials in climate science. Prohibiting a scientist from speaking out about the societal consequences of their research would be very bad in my opinion, and a clear example of the treatment being worse than the ailment. It wouldn’t do much, if anything to remedy confirmation bias either.

  9. hro001 Says:

    “It is most unfortunate that Hansen or Mann appear biased because they are involved in advocacy. There is no need for this. It would be much better, if the scientists doing the temperature data collection had no opinion whether a rise `should` be visible or what this implies about taxation of fossil fuels.”

    I’m not a scientist, but clearly their advocacy is the root of the problem: i.e. that these scientists have sacrificed objective assessment of the data because of their “belief” in the “cause”. The emails that I’ve reviewed show that this advocacy – along with the mandate and agenda of the IPCC – has been going on since at least 1997 (pre Kyoto). Pls. see:

    http://hro001.wordpress.com/2009/12/06/the-fog-of-uncertainty-and-the-precautionary-principle/

  10. Bart Says:

    hro001,
    Ever thought of the possibility that some scientists became advocates of emission reduction based on theri objective assessment of the data?

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