Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Wizards of Thaws

The clip above is the climactic scene from the Wizard of Oz. If you have never seen Oz you should be warned that the clip contains spoilers... oh, and welcome to Earth, stranger; we Earthmen have seen the film an average of seventeen times each.

I was reminded of the self-styled Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz while reading this article from Reason Online about the scandal that has arisen around some questionable practices among climate researchers at several prestigious scientific institutions, most notably the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Great Britain, a scandal that some pundits refer to as Climategate.

The Reason Online article is well written, fair, and worth reading, especially if you haven't been following the Climategate story. Basically, the scandal involves a number of computer files, including emails between climate researchers discussing ways to manipulate the data to eliminate the bits that don't fit the theories, obviously fudged data sets, and snippets of sketchy software that was used to produce reports showing alarming levels of global warming -- things which, taken all together, give a disturbing picture of tendentiousness in the selection and processing of the data, processing methodologies of highly dubious scientific merit designed to eliminate ambiguities, and a desire to suppress debate and pervert the peer-review process. The role played by Dorothy's dog, Toto, in Oz was played in Climategate by an anonymous whistleblower who stole the files from the researchers' computers and released them on the Internet.

The global warming skeptics community is obviously delighted with these developments and they have chosen the name Climategate to suggest that the climate scientists have exhibited Nixonian levels of corruption, deceit and abuse of power. I suppose they are right but in saying that I should probably admit that I have always thought that Nixon got a bit of a raw deal. Watergate was wicked, I suppose, but the standards for naughtiness in politics are pretty high and I just can't get that excited about a bit of clumsy political espionage. Ten worse things are done every day without causing any furor at all. And I think that some of the calumny aimed at the climate researchers is equally hyperbolic.

I am sure, for instance, that Dr Phil Jones, who has temporarily stepped down from his post as the head of the CRU while an investigation is carried out, feels a bit ill used -- and not without some reason. He and the other climate researchers were not fudging their data to lie to the public -- quite the opposite, at least to their way of thinking. They were simplifying the data to make a more compelling story for the public and the politicians -- trying to convince them of things that they, themselves, urgently believe.

Activist scientists are often initially drawn to their chosen fields because they see the need for some sort of action. Their belief in the problems they are seeking to solve precedes their studies and guides them. They become experts on their problems and the possible solutions but remain a poor choice to evaluate the urgency of those problems. They wouldn't have devoted years of their lives to studying an unimportant problem and much of their professional prestige is tied up in the perceived urgency of their pet issue. It poses a constant moral hazard to them and it takes a very scrupulous scientist indeed not to yield occasionally to the temptation to exaggerate.

Adding to this temptation is the undeniable fact that a number of the more vocal climate change skeptics are pseudo-scientific cretins who see every cool day as a thoroughgoing refutation of the whole global warming theory. The climate researchers spent weary years answering these critics and gradually developed an us-vs-them mentality and an almost religious devotion to their theories. When the first few years of the past decade were cooler than expected based on their theories the climate researchers knew that the cool spell would prove to be a temporary aberration and that the inevitable upward trend would resume. But they knew also that they would be attacked and the oh-so-important changes they sought in fossil fuel usage would be impeded. So, for the good of the planet they fudged the data to make the cooling spell go away, confident that when the upward trend resumed their minor adjustments would make little difference. But there was a problem with that plan: the expected resumption of the temperature rise did not occur. Year after year for the rest of the decade the temperature rise failed to materialize and the amount of adjustment needed to "hide the decline" kept growing, but the climate researchers had left themselves with no face-saving exit strategy. The pressure built until the recent leak led to a rupture and the whole thing blew up.

Our best hope to get the climate change debate back on a more science-based footing is to avoid ad hominem attacks on the errant researchers. They have been deceptive and self-aggrandizing, but not to an unusually excessive degree. The problem with ad hominem attacks is that they lead to ad hominem defences -- the researchers are not unusually wicked. By attacking them -- and not their findings and methodology -- the opportunity is lost to correct the damage they have done.

When Toto pulled back the curtain and revealed the Wizard to be less than he pretended to be Dorothy accused him of being a very bad man, to which he replied: "Oh no, my dear, I am a very good man; I am merely a very bad wizard." The Climategate scientists are not necessarily bad people, but they are clearly very bad scientists.

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