Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The climate tempest's teapot

You may have noticed the recent hullabaloo about the stolen email records from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The people who hacked into the system, and the climate-change-denier community generally, have taken the content of these emails as proof positive that climate science is all one big hoax. What they actually have is evidence that on one occasion one climate scientist informed his colleagues that he was doing some mildly misleading things to one graph to make it look prettier. Clearly he shouldn't do that, but this is proof of basically nothing beyond itself. I won't dwell on the point. Those who can't accept the global flood of evidence for anthropogenic climate change are not susceptible to logic or evidence, and none of the seven regular readers of this blog are among that crowd.

What I think is interesting about this is the extraordinarily high level of truthfulness we expect from our scientists these days. Journalists, politicians, doctors and lawyers are all expected to, in varying degrees, present pictures which are rosier, clearer, more advantageous or less illegal than the straight hard truth. A defense attorney is expected to find the most preferable interpretation of truth, rather than the straight up truth. Doctors need to make their patients feel comfortable and confident, even if that means overstating their confidence. No one is surprised when Republican appointed judges reach different decisions than Democratic appointed judges. Text-book writers are free to get as much wildly wrong as they want, usually for no apparent reason. Advertising is the art of misleading without directly lying in a provable way. But Phil Jones, the guy who fudged the graph, is resigning his appointment.

This is not to say that I think this level of expectation is a bad thing. Scientists don't have the excuses for bending the truth that lawyers or doctors or journalists have. We are supposed to fight desperately hard against our biases, against anything that prejudices our communications or thinking. Of course realistically many scientists fail to live up to this ideal, and there are (and should be) consequences when these failings are exposed. But one of the many things reactionary deniers of all sorts (moon landings, evolution, Holocaust, climate, HIV/AIDS, etc.) tend to refuse to see is that science also has powerful mechanisms for keeping any one person's malfeasance from making too much of a difference to our larger understanding. The more respected and influential a scientist is, the more people there are looking to poke holes in everything he does. The more enshrined an idea is, the more it benefits the career of a young researcher if she can point out a fatal flaw, an exception, a modification, even an unexplained corner. Every scientist that was ever great built his or her reputation and career by finding flaws, limitations or unanswered questions in the work of older, more established scholars. If I could produce convincing evidence that macroevolution doesn't happen, I would be the most successful scientist of the century (unfortunately for me, macroevolution happens, so producing that evidence is going to be hard). Under such a system, fakery may help get a single paper published, even help build a successful career, but it can't easily lead to a lasting consensus that is contrary to data that somebody else can go out and collect, because somebody is always trying to tear a hole in anything that could possibly be torn. The single best argument for anthropogenic climate change is that nobody has yet succeeded in blowing a hole in it.

No comments: