Thursday, February 4, 2010

Climategate revisited: 2 remarks and an addendum

1) Language is a tricky and powerful thing. Climategate, of course, has its semiotic roots in the Watergate scandal, in the 70ies. The Watergate scandal resulted from the break-in into the democratic Headquarter, which lead to the arrest of five men. Later on president Nixon, who had covered up the break-in, resigned office. Whatever the burglars (and Nixon) found in the office of the Democrats is obviously of no importance; the Watergate scandal deals exclusively with those who broke the law and the men behind. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watergate_scandal)



Climategate instead deals exclusively with the stolen goods, with the content of the hacked emails. Thus, the analogy, the wordplay, is not correct. If it were, the debate would be about the hackers and their accomplices. Was it to cover up this mismatch, that the break-in was (intentionally or not) linguistically transformed into a 'leak'? 1000 or so emails just 'leaked' out of a server, only to appear well filed and accessible on the internet - shortly before the climate summit in Copenhagen.

2) Today, Michael Mann was largely absolved by an academic board of inquiry in three out of four points; the fourth point will be under investigation by another panel. See here the full story:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/04/science/earth/04climate.html

Dear skeptics, neo-skeptics, post-skeptics, ex-alarmists, and taxpayers: before you join into the choir conducted by senator Imhofe, just consider for a moment that Michael Mann was the victim of a burglary (just like the Democrats in Watergate).
And now the Imhofe singalong:
“We need to reassure the American people that their tax dollars are supporting objective scientific research rather than political agendas,” he said.
I am sure that those who hacked the server will join the choir.
I don't want to take sides in the scientific part of the debate, but I am an expert in storytelling. Seen from the perspective of narration, this story stinks.

3) Thus, the story - climategate! fraud! scandal! - was ready for the big stage, for CNN and Fox and the like. Julie Holar shows in her article 'Climategate overshadows Copenhagen. Media regress to the bad old days of false balance' (http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4006) how the media immediately staged political debates about this story. In the name of balance of interests and opinions, they invited so-called critical climate scientists, formerly simply called skeptics and now again proud of their name. The debate was open again - is climate change really real? Global warming - trick or truth? Innocent moderators like Anderson Cooper pretended to be neutral; he just followed this brand new developing story, in search of the truth. Innocent? Neutral? The truth? Brand new? The debate was not about cap & trade versus decarbonization; it was not about clean energies and infrastructures; it was not about mitigation and / or adaptation; it was not about the conflict between developed and developing countries - instead, it was a rollback into the stone age of the climate discussion.
Maybe climategate never really was about good or bad climate science; instead, it seems to be a dirty little story that developed into a big thing driven by cultural (not scientific!) logic and based on crude analogies, forced metaphors, familiar symbols and the usual stereotypes. Good enough for many to jump on this bandwagon in order to rearrange the power relations and agendas in climate science and climate politics.

26 comments:

John Costello said...

If George W. Bush's emails were leaked and they proved wrong-doing, would you have the same attitude?

Anonymous said...
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papertiger said...

The hockeystick is a fraud. Michael Mann is a fraudster.
The Penn State inquiry absolving him of wrongdoing with regard to the East Anglia emails, for an analogy would be like a 1930's southern all white jury absolving a klansman of a lynching.

Werner Krauss said...

sorry #1, 2, and 3 - the addendum, part 3), was posted only after your comments.

Falk Schützenmeister said...

Thanks, Werner for this clarification!

Raven said...

The real debate is about policies - not science. The trouble is the alarmists have been using the "science" as a sledgehammer to suppress any discussion of policies other than the kyoto-style carbon reduction schemes. This legacy requires that the false certainty of alarmist science be repudiated and that, unfortnately, requires that the science be questioned. We will be able to have an honest debate about climate change policy once we have an honest understanding of what the science can and cannot tell us about the future.

Anonymous said...

1. How the emails were obtained of course matter little to the debate over global warming - what matters is the content.

2. That a university inquiry staffed by university staff clears (partially) a university employee (without even interviewing anyone except Mann himself and the Nature editors) on the contrary matters little. This is especially true as they (for instance) just ignore the stated rationale for "the trick", I.e. hiding adverse data from readers of the IPCC report.

3. That you lament that "The debate was open again" is very telling. Honest people do not fear open debate. People who have something to hide on the other hand...

Marco said...

@anonymous:
The "trick" was not used in the IPCC report, nor in Mann's reconstruction from 1998. Please do not blend these things. Also note that the IPCC AR4 WG1 chapter 6 discusses the divergence problem. Quite the hiding of adverse data, discussing it in a report!

The content of the mails is indeed of some importance. But that does not allow unsubstantiated claims by 'interpreting' those mails without asking the people involved what was meant.

Marco said...

I think "papertiger" shows exactly what Hans von Storch meant when discussing anonymous people making very strong accusations.

I also think that Steve McIntyre would strongly object that his criticisms of Mann's paper(s) are evidence of fraud.

I would gladly like to hear papertiger's evidence for calling Mann a fraudster.

Stefan said...

To be honest, it took me surprise a few months ago that suddenly the "Climate Contrarian" issue resurfaced. I am so tired of discussing the issue with people who often lack even the most basic understanding of even high school level physics, let alone the review processes in the scientific community. What annoys me even more is that in my very surroundings - including my family - I suddenly am being confronted with the weirdest conspiracy theories and claims that all this climate change talk is gibberish. The entire issue is reminscent of talking to Creationists. All I say, by definition, is wrong, because it is at odds with the bible. Believers of any breed will never accept the shaky grounds of the scientific method, which is constantly in flux. Yet the scientific method is the only ground we have to provide guidelines for planning and policy making.

ghost said...

very good post. It is the first post here putting the email hack into context.

But when did this start? With Jim Hansens testimony 1988? I do not think so, it was before. I am not sure, has anybody information when the first think tanks with so called "skeptics" appeared? Some were founded in 1984 ("2+2=5" and "double think" fit fantastically), I think. Many "skeptical" claims directly stem from this time.

Also: has the science (some scientists) failed in their communication to the people and media? Is there a chance against PR machines and the Internet multiplication to deliver the truth today? What can you do better?

Hans von Storch said...

Stefan,
I am afraid that your view of "skeptics" is too simple, even if I have to admit that I some times ago would have voiced similar views. What I learned, also through this blog, but also through articles like Myanna Lahsen's paper (quoted the other day)is, that many 'skeptics' are really well educated. There are many physicists among them. also meteorologists, and engineers. Thus people, who have an -sometimes even: excellent! - understanding of physics. What I also learned is that the efforts on the "our" side of climate scientists, and you may be among them?, are simply insufficient - "we" are often incompetent to explain our undestanding and our explanations properly, sometimes do not understand the questions, have no insight with which knowledge claims our explanations compete. On in short - and even worse, in many case we are simply too arrogant to see these limitations.
So, when you are confronted in your social milieu with concepts, which you considere silly, could it be that this is a problems of yours and not of the others?

Hans von Storch said...

Marco/9 - Tatsächlich, der Beitrag von Papiertiger ist genau so ein Rülpserei aus der dunklen Ecke, die ausser dem Rülpser niemand etwas bringt. Ein paar kategorische Aussagen, die keinerlei Zweifel erkennen lassen, dass es vielleicht doch noch Dinge geben könnte, die man nicht weiss oder verstanden hat. -- Aber vielleicht doch ein ganz umgänglicher Typ, der nur mal ein bischen provozieren wollte; sehen wollte, was unsereins zu so einer Flachheit sagt?

Marco said...

@Hans von Storch:
apologies for answering in English, my German isn't as good as it once was (if it ever was 'good' at all).

I'm hoping you are right, but experience makes me quite skeptic (no quotation marks here!).

MikeR said...

Speaking an a non-expert "skeptic", I find the tone of this post disturbing. I'm not a climate scientist, but I am trained as a scientist. Most of the time, when we don't know much about a field, we take their word for it. But that's our free choice. Where we demand more information, better explanation of methods, all the data, you'd better be prepared to provide it!
Judging from the outside, "climategate" and other recent issues have badly damaged the trust that many of us have in _some_ of the principal authors of the IPCC report. That trust will take time to rebuild. Don't blame us for that; trust has to be earned.
Even though that loss of trust is only about that particular group of scientists, I'm afraid that it impacts on all climate scientists. You'll have to deal with that as well.

Hans von Storch said...

MikeR - I think you are describing the problem very well. A matter of trust, a lack of answers. And we all should welcome a critical public in our democratic system. Be critical, but remain open to arguments.

Falk Schützenmeister said...

Thank you Stefan for your contribution. However, I - a social scientist - would like to contradict in one single point. Maybe it is much more fruitful if we discuss our arguments than the accusations of some "anonymous".

The statement: "Yet the scientific method is the only ground we have to provide guidelines for planning and policy making." Is fortunately not true. There are morality, culture, matters of justice, the people, and yes, religion. If your statement were true we would not need democracy just some very good scientists who would tell us what people need and want and what to do.

Especially, in the US this technocratic position is sometimes arrogantly presented, e.g. if scientists write books about what presidents need to know about physics in order to solve all problems. But policy is not science and vice versa. The underlying spirit is sometimes also haunting climate research.

I suggest to remember the precautionary principle. It means to take action because scientific knowledge points to a possible problem even if there is no final proof. The reason for people to act is the resulting risks and values that make the possible outcomes not desirable.

The question, I will put up for discussion is: Why is action following the precautionary principle so hard to achieve in the case of climate change?

In other fields of policy the principle is very common. Who would think that there are no terrorists only because secret services faked evidence and used criminal methods to obtain intelligence? There is nothing like that in climate research! And which country would base its defense spending on scientific proof that a thread actually exists?

The principle is also common in private. People act on the suspicion that the toy of their child might contain poison. They do not wait for scientific proof.

And why should we put trillions of tons of a substance in the air only because we do not know what it does (I personally do think we know). Wouldn't it be a worthwhile goal to reduce its possible not yet known impacts anyways if we could reach our goals in a different manner?

Sorry, Stefan I discussed with the skeptics again.

Hans Erren said...

The scientific method is not the problem, it is the not applying of the scientific method by some climate "scientists" that is the real problem, combined with the blatantly biased selection from the existing peer reviewed literature by IPCC lead authors.
The first whitewash has already happened in Pennsylvania. Will Klimazwiebel comment?

Werner Krauss said...

to Hans:
I appreciate your Buddha-like tolerance. Of course, many of the 'skeptics' are wonderful people, as are many of the 'alarmists', by the way.
But do you think it is really necessary to skip all the current debates about mitigation and adaptation, about possible energy futures etc only because of climategate? Do we really have to start from scratch and discuss whether global warming is trick or truth? Do we really have to suspend all climate policies, be they national or global, only because of the errors in the IPCC? I don't think so.
That's why I say that the climategate story stinks. It is used for a real rollback. Some reactionary politicians jumped on this story in order to boycott clean energy policies, the Liberals, Washington, you name it. I live in Texas, I know what I am talking about... As soon as the 'taxpayer' argument comes up, you can bet that there is another tea-party round the corner.
I think energy and adaptation problems are really urgent. It is not funny to see this special kind of angry and ill-minded skeptics gain ground again, doubting the very existence of a climate problem. There is one. This debate is really closed.
Having said this, I of course support every kind of discussion with interested people, be they in a skeptical, apocalyptical, hot or cool mood.

Werner Krauss said...

to anonymous #7:
you call me dishonest? You say I have something to hide? Interesting, anonymous #7.

Werner Krauss said...

Yeah, cowboys, let's step back, take a time-out and check the facts:

http://www.texasobserver.org/forrestforthetrees/comments/rep-joe-barton-global-warming

I don't like this company.

MikeR said...

http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2010/02/05/why-climate-science-is-on-trial/

Anonymous said...

Werner. Re #20. #7 wasn't me Werner. It was someone else using my name! :-)

Hans Erren said...

Most of the critics of the climate science have a professional background in data processing. I am flabbergasted by the complete amateurish way of database management and data aquisition, the prima donna behaviour of these professionals, and the complete lack of procedural standards.

GISS and CRU would completely fail in any ISO certification quality audit, where prodedures have to be defined according to strict rules and adhered to.

Blaming the people who bring this behaviour to the daylight, shows absolutely no familiarity with professional quality audits, be it in either data management or general procedure keeping.

eduardo said...

@ 18

Hans Erren wrote
'The first whitewash has already happened in Pennsylvania. Will Klimazwiebel comment?'

Independently of the current case, can you cite an example of a political commission that could establish the truth ?

Anonymous said...

(Motivated by this comment (although I'm not that anonymous #1) about "conspiracy theory" (Verschwörungstheorie)): To date, we do not know if the e-mails were hacked or leaked (and therefore we cannot know anything of possible "accomplices".). And we don't know if they were "stolen" (cf. here). They were "published without consent".

In front of the - even on Klimazwiebel - repeatedly used words "hack", "hacked" (see e.g. user ghost) or "stolen" should perhaps better stand the word "probably". Then, imho of a skeptic, it would not be only a "storytelling" that appeals to one "side".

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