Posts Tagged ‘lesson’

“Climategate”: lessons learned

November 23, 2010

These are some of the take-home messages or lessons from “climategate” as I see it.  They are strongly related to each other, with the overriding theme being that disagreements about climate change are not so much about the science, but rather about a clash of underlying values, ideas (e.g. related to risk perception) and ideals. Scientists are caught in the middle of this trying to defend the science against various distortions (while also having their own values, ideas and ideals of course).

– There’s no strong relation between knowledge/information and people’s perceptions: Just the facts won’t do. It’s all about the narrative. Climategate resonated because it could easily be spun into the underdog fighting the mean establishment. Scientists and those communicating the science should take a lesson from this: Don’t be such a scientist when communicating with non-scientists. Tell a story rather then flooding people with facts, numbers and uncertainty intervals. Steven Mosher, in a comment at Judith Curry’s, points to another lesson to be taken from this: Focusing on the consensus feeds into this underdog-versus-establishment narrative. I think he’s got a point there, though of course it is based on a faulty dismissal of a scientific consensus as being meaningless. Perhaps we should stress that the consensus is not monolithic, but rather concerns the big picture only, and even there it is still a bell curve of viewpoints rather than unanimous agreement.

– Climate science is embedded in a wild sea of culturally differing views, where values and ideals clash. Scientists should consider this (partly hostile) public environment when communicating about climate science. Retreating in the ivory tower of academia would be a detriment to the public discussion. I think we should consider strategically effective ways to convey scientific insights to the public and policymakers.

– The animosity towards climate science is even greater than we thought it was. Those who object to the perceived policy consequences of the mainstream scientific view go through great lengths in order to try to discredit the science. This has had an effect on how scientists and their supporters communicate (or not) with the public: Many have gotten afraid for speaking out publicly, while some others have gotten more strident or even defensive. Both reactions are understandable, even though neither are useful imho.

– Not directly a consequence of climategate, though it did bring it into clearer focus, is that there are many other aspects besides science that influence one’s policy preferences. It applies to those who argue the science as a proxy for arguing the politics, but it also applies to defenders of the science; it applies to everyone. Endless arguments about sea level rise in 2100 are perhaps not so useful when the underlying disagreement is much more about different values (e.g. about valuing the present versus the future; freedom versus responsibility; how to deal with risk) than about the Greenland ice sheet. This is tricky though, because scientists and their supporters (I really need to come up with a proper word) will still feel the need to defend the mainstream scientific view against distortions. I don’t know how to best deal with that catch 22.

– The need for increased transparency and openness of data and code is now widely shared. I think this is an inevitable and inevitably difficult process, but “climategate” reinforced the importance of such transparency for public trust and credibility. It will not convince the more fanatic “skeptics” out there, nor will it prevent such smear campaigns from happening again in the future. But it will help to make the wider public, who are more or less agnostic about the topic, more immune to various accusations of secrecy and fraud. And that’s important.

Citizen science has taken off over the last year. I’m not sure if it’s just anecdotal evidence based on my blog reading or a sign of a real trend (where’s VS if you need him ;-) but I have a feeling that there’s much more interest and participation amongst non climate scientists in actually doing analyses themselves, most notably related to the temperature record. And some good work is coming out of that. I don’t regard it as a dramatic change in how science overall is conducted (its effect is much more on the public trust and perception), but it’s an interesting development nevertheless, and a more productive way of using one’s energy than blogospheric shouting matches.

Other reading:

Visit climatesight for a good and readable summary of “climategate”. See the Yale forum for an interesting collection of scientists’ view on lessons learnt. I get a sense that overall, many of them don’t disagree with my rant about how low of an action this was. Gavin retells the story of what happened over at RC.


Update: The second installment at the Yale forum is up, about science journalists’s views of lessons learned. Elizabeth Kolbert’s answer to what journalism should have learned is noteworthy (my comments in […]):

The obvious lesson of faux scandals like “climategate” is that they tend to be created by groups or individuals with their own agendas, and journalists ought to be very wary about [uncritically] covering them. The notion that there is some huge scientific conspiracy going on, involving dozens of researchers at different institutions, is pretty implausible on its face. This goes for climate science as for all other scientific disciplines. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it’s just hard to imagine how it would work. Conversely, it’s very easy to imagine why an individual or a group with an economic or political [or ideological] interest would want to claim that such a conspiracy existed. The burden of proof ought to be very high. Instead, it seems the bar was placed ridiculously low.

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