Sunday, November 28, 2010

Best Damn Climategate Redux Post Period

The anneversary of the hacked CRU e-mail has produced a lot of commentary in the blogosphere, most of it not adding materially to our understanding. But the Economist has been publishing some awfully good climate pieces lately, and continues their streak with the most cogent summary of "Climategate," one year on, that I've seen:

Questions about the validity of reconstructions of mediaeval climate based on treerings, about why some treerings are taken to be good records of temperature at some points in history but not in the recent past, about cherry-picking of data, about the traceability or otherwise of Chinese weather station data and so on had all been aired long before. The climategate emails offered little if any new information that might move these debates on in either direction.

What they offered was colour—catchphrases like “hide the decline”—and context. There was clear evidence of circled wagons, shared distaste for the scientist’s critics, and unwillingness to conform to the quite high standards of opennness that the freedom of information act—and the ideals of their calling—seek to impose on scientists.
A lot—[lots], indeed—of science would look just the same if its privacy were similarly breached (and many other areas of human endeavour would look as bad or worse); but to accept that this is the way of world does little to minimise the damage. People do not want to believe that scientific knowledge of high and lasting value is messy and human in the making; scientific culture does its best to insulate then from that belief. The middle of a media storm is not the place to wheel out sociologists and historians who might educate them on the subject.

Perversely, the authors argue, the controversy might have been more swiftly laid to rest if there had been more substance to the allegations:

If there had been straightforward fraud things might, in fact, have been simpler. The most notable flat out scientific fraud in recent years was that of Jan Hendrik Schon, who made up data about single molecule semiconductors. He was found out and disgraced, papers were retracted by journals, souls were searched about how he got away with it: and physics went on. Climategate had no such catharsis, because it revealed no sin so heinous

The authors cannily describe how the opponents of action on AGW used Climategate to recast as a victory for doubt what was really a victory for inertia:

And what of those who were happy Copenhagen had failed? For them, climategate was a more comforting reason for that failure than the real ones. Copenhagen did not fail because governments didn’t want action on the climate, or even because no one is willing to take any action. It failed because they all wanted other countries to take more and different actions than the other countries would agree to. For people who don’t want there ever to be action, though, it is obviously happier to think that the case had been undermined by some dodgy emails than to recognise than that it still stood—and indeed still stands—but had simply failed to compel action. 

All in all, an outstanding bit of climate journalism that reminds us what it's like when a news outlet describes what is happening and why, not just endless he said/she said nonsense.

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