Climategate!!

For supposedly being shut out of the public and disciplinary debate, one sure does hear a lot about the research that says climate change isn’t man-made. Isn’t this the fundamental mark of an idea that has won the day — that it is publicly denied and/or ignored, but whose implications are in fact enacted? Orthodox climate science may have the support of the scientific community, but its effects on public policy throughout the world has been cosmetic at best. All the major endeavors to cut emissions, for example, have been negligible, and even the avowed aspirations to limit carbon levels fall dramatically short of what the science behind the aspirations says is helpful. In practice, if not in spoken principle, the economic power brokers of the world agree with the naysayers. All the derisive emails in the world, or even aggressive collusion in a disciplinary organ, won’t change this.

The soundtrack to a conservative’s declaration of defeat is a victory march.

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20 Responses to “Climategate!!”

  1. john Says:

    But before the storm breaks, I think we should summarise what’s important in the emails.

    First, prominent climate scientists, including a lead author of IPCC report sections, were willing to discuss withholding or deleting information to frustrate legitimate requests made under the Freedom of Information Act in the UK. They apparently chose who could not receive information based on the requester’s identity, which may have been unlawful. They threatened to delete data–data which in fact has since disappeared. They advised each other to delete emails.

    Second, these same scientists worked closely together to control channels of communication regarding climate science and global warming. They banded together to minimise or eliminate skeptical discussion. While telling the world that only peer-reviewed science should be considered legitimate, they fiercely fought to prevent skeptic writings from being peer-reviewed at all. They wrote openly about replacing an uncooperative journal editor (who was later replaced), and boycotting journals that published skeptical papers. They organised peer review so that they reviewed each others’ papers.

    Third, they were willing to change data so that their presentations of the state of climate looked worse. At the end of the day, this is most damning–most of the rest, even apparently illegal FOI actions, is just politics and a playground media strategy. But while world governments were imposing taxes, changing energy policies, preparing energy-based conflict policies, planning to deal with warming-based immigration, these people were content to display figures that were wrongly exaggerated to show the warming they had previously predicted but could not find in actual measurements.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Hopefully not against my better judgment, I decided to allow John’s comment. It didn’t seem in bad faith, though I think it did miss the point of the post. (Mostly, though, I just appreciated the unfortunate coincidence of deleting a comment about the suppression of dissenting positions.) Note, though: I don’t want this thread to become a global-warming pro- vs. con. I will play Stalin if it comes to that.

    While it seems undeniable that that the emails are pretty damning, the claim that they demonstrate a willful changing of data is grossly overstated. I will leave it to others to judge the motivation for this overstatement. I’ve no inclination to get into it now. Suffice it to say, all this is more a blow to the public image of climate-change science, which was already taking a beating — which was more or less the point of the post — but not to the science behind it. Science journals are not there simply to foster dialogue or provide a venue for dissenting positions — they are there to weed out what is regarded as “bad science.” There is unavoidably an ideological component to this process. Like most ideologies, when it comes to the light of day in such a brazen way, its often quite ugly.

  3. Hill Says:

    I’m not sure how there is an unavoidably ideological component to the process of weeding out bad science, unless the method of science is itself an ideology (I realize that some folks hold this view). I would think scientific journals are in fact there to provide a venue for dissenting opinions, provided that the opinions are scientifically justifiable. I think the issue is that there is in practice a complex mixture of science and ideology in the arena of “climate-change science.” This happens even in chemistry, so maybe it is in this sense that you mean that there is an ideological component. I’m not sure that it is unavoidable, though. Most scientists within a field, my experience is with chemistry, would have a pretty easy time distinguishing the actual science from the ideology, but because of the nature of the current funding climate (no pun intended), this sort of para-scientific commentary is very difficult to avoid, as there is a perceived need for science to be “political” (in the loosest sense) at every level. I personally hope this changes and that we can get back to simply reporting facts, developing more accurate models and subjecting them to predictive evaluation. There is a certain temptation to hubris in scientific fields that bear directly on political issues of the day, and I think it often compromises otherwise good scientists.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern was instrumental in getting me to affirm, and continue to affirm, the unavoidability of this mixture.

    Our intellectual life is out of kilter. Epistemology, the social scienecs, the sciences of texts — all have their privileged vantage point. Offer the established disciplines some fine sociotechnological network, some lovely translations, and the first group will extract our concepts and pull out all the roots that might connect them to society or to rhetoric; the second group will erase the social and political dimensions, and purify our network of any object; the third group, finally, will retain our discourse and rhetoric but purge our work of any undue adherence to reality — horresco referens — or to power plays. In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous text, may each be of interest, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law — this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly. (p.5)

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    This is as good a summary as any.

  6. Hill Says:

    I’m sympathetic to Latour’s point. However, it doesn’t get us any further towards justifying the exclusion of scientifically valid dissenting opinion from a scientific journal for non-scientific reasons. Even if the process of determining that research is scientifically valid is itself ideological, it does not follow that the venue of the scientific journal is legitimately subject to any other kind of ideology. I don’t think a scientist can actually relate to science as an unprivileged ideology without engaging in some kind of performative contradiction. In minimally ideological terms, the functioning of the scientific community requires that on this particular agreed upon ideology constitutes a licit test for inclusion or exclusion. This is just another way of saying that there are certain philosophical arguments about the ontological and epistemological status of science that end up having a lot less relevance “on the ground” than people might initially think.

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    Well, of course it doesn’t wholly justify the exclusion! I’m simply saying that there is no ‘utopia’ in which fairly unseemly considerations do not enter into whether one’s position is deemed valid. I’m not making an ethical evaluation.

  8. Hill Says:

    Sure. All I’m really trying to get at is that draconian self-policing of this sort of thing is a part of the continued existence of the scientific community, so if you are going to falsify or suppress data, you better be really effing good at it, because it’s generally not possible to recover from that sort of episode.

  9. Alex Says:

    To John. Have you read the e-mails? With regard to point three, what the people were saying was no worse than “the argument I am making in the second section of my essay is pretty shit, so I am going to need to bolster it or my opponents will fillet me in x manner”. I don’t see how this kind of “shop talk” is at all problematic. I do it all the time, and I am pretty sure, if my private e-mails were exposed (those which say “this position is horseshit”) then I could be open to the very same accusations.

    Overall, as one blog post pointed out, none of the e-mails falsify that climate change, caused by humans, is a reality. Anymore than knowing Newton was an obstinate twat who continually screwed people over falsifies gravity.

    PS Brad is right. If anything sceptical climate change opinions get far more noise in the press than people who claim, rightly, we are up shit creek.

    It’s a bit like when Messrs. Dawkins and Dennett claim you cannot discuss religion, let alone criticise it in the public sphere, while being number one on the Amazon sales rank.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Please note that, in a seemingly impossible coincidence of opposites, the people with the assholish tone are factually in the right — that is, unless their scientific work says, “These results and projections remain accurate until such time as I insult a global warming skeptic personally.” (Actually, if insulting global warming skeptics makes global warming go away, wouldn’t there be a moral obligation to insult them?)

  11. bd Says:

    All I think we can really say about the effects of this event are as it pertains to a myth or narrative of something along the lines of “scientific objectivism” in the public sphere. People have generally related to the phenomenon of the global climate crisis in utterly unscientific ways, either based on the authority of one group of researchers or another. I know I certainly don’t have the technical abilities to interact with it any other way. In may cases I’m not sure if the conflict between the two parties (not their professional figureheads, but the followers) is anything more than tribalism with a minor ideological flair to it. Generally I think people arrive in the camps they do because of how they regard the role of scientific research as authority in their lives. So in the end I think the story is about authority, if that makes any sense at all. So I agree with Brad that opposition to “warmism” had already been determined, and succeeded, by a visceral human reaction to the narrative or authority which was being projected and that the data was always going to be (for most) inconsequential.

    Being from an arts background as I imagine most readers of this blog are, I’m actually not disposed towards evaluating scientific research, but I am fairly certain that even rough lines of equivalency drawn between the two tend to be misleading. I do know that I resent the way I can be manipulated by data (not the manipulation of data). I want to change the way people interact with the environment simply because that’s the right thing to do. I’m not sure if interacting with the environment in a more wholesome manner in order to prevent an apocalypse is even ethical, or has anything to do with ethics. Not that it would particularly matter if it was ethical in light of impending apocalypse, but it is nevertheless deeply important to me, even if it is irrational, that our ecological behavior is an ethical decision.

    All of this to say that even though Brad may not agree with me, I intend to agree with Brad (hat tip for the Latour quote btw)!

  12. bd Says:

    And I apologise for the nonsensical grammar of my first sentence.

  13. Alex Says:

    bd,

    You appear to be pitting one group of researchers against another on equal footing as if we need to, as people in the humanities, flip a coin since both are equally valid options. However, the more accurate situation is pitching the overarching scientific consensus, endorsed by all major national and international scientific bodies, against a very small minority who are mostly funded (with a few exceptions – like Steve McIntyre) by extremely obvious private interests (eg oil companies – see this article for a dissection of this -http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a793291693?words=think|tanks&hash=838649050 ).

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I feel like we either get the utilitarian “apocalypse aversion” option or the “doing nothing” option. The “thoughtful reflection in the public sphere about how we relate to the earth” option is sheer fantasy.

  15. Alex Says:

    Meanwhile, back in reality – http://www.copenhagendiagnosis.com/press.html

    The report concludes that global emissions must peak then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change.

    To stabilize climate, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases need to reach near-zero well within this century, the report states.

    Does it cite the papers of serious skeptics like McIntyre? Of course it does.

  16. bd Says:

    Alex, my point is that the relationship between the two groups isn’t actually an operative factor for most people in choosing which to associate themselves with. That’s my reading, that the skeptics especially are using climate change simply as a proxy for a conversation largely removed from that actual topic. The science is actually immaterial. Otherwise I’m at a loss to explain current political reality.

    Adam, I’m not entirely convinced by your choice, but fair enough. The choice itself already assumes the utilitarian perspective. More than that, I’m not sure what else it might imply. Is apocalypticism always the only route towards ethical living, or only in ecology? Should we, like so many Victorians, revitalize eternal damnation for its utilitarianism? Of course I’m teasing this out further than it can probably bear, but the concern remains the same.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Great to see that the slippery slope argument is alive and well.

  18. Brad Johnson Says:

    I think bd is probably right, re: “climate change simply as a proxy for a conversation largely removed from that actual topic.” If so, this explains why the arguments with people who are not removed from the actual topic, i.e., are not using it as a proxy, are often so infuriating. (Though, like Adam, it would seem that in terms of this issue, there is really only the choice between affirming that catastrophe looms or that it doesn’t. If there is an alternative it is only in the form of espousing the former but living as though the latter is the case — which is what we as a culture have opted for at present. Such is the interesting difference between our age and that of the crisis of modernity, that we are not powerless and act as though we are. )

    The biggest tragedy, on a personal level, is that before something dramatic happens that would convince even Bjorn Lomborg that perhaps the situation is immediately dire and that the investment required to make a change is desperately worth it, the Yellowstone Caldera Volcano will finally belch mightily and cause apocalyptic ruin on life as we know it. I’m petty enough to be very sad indeed that I would be thus denied the chance, in the final moments before ash blocks out the sun and soot blackens my lungs, to call or IM my climate-change denying acquaintances, and say “TOLD YOU!”


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