Bug Report (cartoon via xkcd)
Does “climategate” really have “legs”? The CRU hacking incident seems to be doing damage even though not all that large of an audience professes interest.
Two Alarming Observations
My friend and occasional critic Victor has recently been, from a standing start, taking an interest in climate science and climate change. Victor is a mathematician/programmer and a successful computational scientist. He has found a couple of things I have said convincing, found Alley’s keynote compelling, and is reading Archer’s textbook now.
He said a couple of things over coffee yesterday that fits in with my impressions, and it’s something we very much need to think about, in the context of the remarkable and discouraging success of the swifthacking publicity push.
The first is that, in researching any climate-related question that has crossed his mind of late, Google (presumably Bing is no better) seems to come up with nine denialist sites for every actually informative site. This was Victor’s estimate, not mine.
The second is that he has been entangled in a debate with a “climategate” afficionado on a mailing list for computational music.
Both of these facts attest to the political brilliance of the opposition.
The progressive left has been congratulating itself with its grasp of the internet as a marketing tool, starting with the Dean campaign and going through the Obama campaign, but is constrained by an ethical sense which doesn’t burden the opposition. Marc Morano, to the extent he has orchestrated these events, and/or whoever else is behind it, is a political genius unfettered by decency.
Let’s consider what has happened. (It is sort of the opposite of a “miracle”.)
The Ludicrous Conspiracy Theory
A ludicrous theory exists that people have invented “global warming” from whole cloth in order to advance either our own personal interests (the idea mocked by the title of this blog) or, more recently, a subversive political agenda intended to
- 1) weaken the west in favor of the less developed countries
- 2) weaken the less developed countries in favor of the west
- 3) reinstate a Stalinist totalitarian state or
- 4) corner the energy market and drive small businesses into bankruptcy.
The various elaborations of the theory are strikingly mutually inconsistent, but details of the vast conspiracy are left to innuendo, stoking the particular paranoia of the listener.
The Violation of Privacy and Probably of Law
As everyone with the slightest interest in the matters of this blog already knows, some emails and other files were published on the internet under circumstances that reek of data theft and violation of law and decency, including an attempted illegal hijacking of the RealClimate site. Nevertheless, the act is being called “whistle blowing”.
What Was Actually Revealed
- a rehash of a well-known controversy about how to present tree-ring data
- frustration about too much attention to substandard scientific papers slipped into the literature by marginally qualified people with nonscientific agendas, and discussions about how to handle that
- frustration about opposition by filibuster via freedom of information requests
- a single suggestion about “deleting emails”, without any context, which plausibly does not refer to deleting emails from a server (scientists are probably aware that end users cannot really do this) but rather to deleting them from a response to one of many FOIA requests
- some sloppy code and a pretty sad but perfectly typical lack of understanding of the advantages of dynamic programming languages
- a couple of fudge factors explicitly labeled as such probably used in testing, commented out
- some older data for which CRU is not the originator or primary repository is not in any known dataset at CRU
- about 985 emails and 1995 other files of no apparent interest to anyone
In other words, (with the possible exception of the email deletion incident, which I imagine the lawyers are fretting about) the only things remotely unusual here are a direct consequence of the existence of a politically rather than scientifically motivated opposition.
How This is Spun
People who have been able to convince themselves of the existence of a conspiracy are able to convince themselves that the thousand emails are totally incriminating, and that anyone who is mentioned in any of the emails (including Revkin, Pielke Jr, Annan, etc.) and by extension even anyone who “believes in” something like the IPCC position is in fact part of this vast and monumentally evil conspiracy which obviously will assassinate anyone who gets the least bit out of line. After all, NOBODY (of the cast of thousands) has ever confessed, so the threats as well as the rewards must be vast; you’d think someone’s conscience if not their desire to write a million-selling expose would get the better of them.
See for example this ludicrous attack on William Connolley’s excellent efforts to keep politics out of climate science at Wikipedia, and the follow-up comment here
Doesn’t the fact he is being paid by the Climate Research Unit to astroturf Wikipedia for the AGW POV pose a fiduciary conflict of interest with his role as editor here? I thought astroturfing was banned at Wikipedia?
What sort of world does this person live in where an academic research unit has money to pay people to subvert Wikipedia, I wonder. Anyway, the above fortunately was met with the appropriate rejoinder:
Since that hasn’t happened no. Please don’t abuse the word “fact” in future.
It’s interesting to see the Wikipedia process in action. But it’s amazing to see what sorts of things the conspiracy-tuned mind comes up with.
How This Spreads
We’ve all seen the overheated rhetoric in the press. The Wall Street Journal has been particularly egregious. The message received by the public is simply that “some climate scientists have fudged some data”. Since there are plenty of examples of dishonest scientists in other fields, this isn’t hard for people to believe.
Is Jones blameless? I am not sure. Is any of this important? Well, no.
It surely is no evidence of a conspiracy to see Jones or Mann being argumentative in emails against other scientists; surely it is the opposite of a sign of the massive big-bucks evil windmill conspiracy of the IPCC.
What’s hard to understand is the pervasiveness of the whole thing on the internet: the fact that people flogging conspiracies far more extreme than appear in even the Wall Street Journal or the National Post appear everywhere, and the prevalence of their websites. Here is the secret weapon of the denial squad; and I would be surprised if it isn’t operative around other extravagant
right-wing conspiracy fantasies.
Am I Taking This All A Bit Too Seriously?
You’ll forgive me. The fact that my paternal grandfather among other close relatives was in fact killed at a concentration camp on the basis of
right-wing conspiracy theories makes it hard for me to take the matter all that lightly. I don’t imagine that climate scientists are going to be rounded up and gassed anytime soon, but the reinvention of the techniques for stirring up mass paranoia would disturb me greatly even if they weren’t directed, you know, at me and at some of the people I respect most in the world.
So What is Going On?
Somebody or something is motivating people to repeat conspiracy theories about science on the internet. This is what we need to understand.
Even the most extreme of them pretend to the purest of motivations, but they are inaccessible to reason. There is a small grain of truth in what they say, scientists being human and all. Honest people cannot claim to the sorts of certainty that dishonest people can claim, after all.
Meanwhile, legitimate and honest inquiry keeps bubbling up. Some people are legitimately skeptical, and people looking into it have varying degrees of capacity for examining technical evidence. The purpose of “climategate” it seems was not to disrupt Copenhagen. Copenhagen was going to flounder of its own accord, and very few people there were taking this matter seriously.
No, the purpose of “climategate” was explicitly a Googlebombing. It was to keep real science and real policy discussion out of sight of people taking the occasion to investigate climate science. As such, it was a shocking and discouraging success. Even defenses against these calumnies, necessary as they are, actually help the bombing process along.
In the end, we need to tell the truth, but we also have to motivate people to understand it and repeat it and rehash it, so the network isn’t swamped with noise if for no other reason. It’s not as if we can convince the most extreme people of anything of course. What we need is for valid information to be as easy to find and absorb as lies and paranoid pathologies. At least let’s try to get to the point where people easily find a reasonable point of view to weigh against any paranoid theory.
Sympathy for the Devil
A couple of odd personalities are at the center of all this. In particular there is Steve McIntyre, and some genuine skeptics among his followers. Eli recommends we treat McIntyre with the same sort of contempt we justifiably aim at the likes of Singer and Michaels. I disagree. While he doesn’t exactly play by the rules, McIntyre raises some real issues.
I think there is a real point that the stakes are higher than they have been, that the conduct of climate science needs to be formalized, and that data provenance and computational reproducibility are henceforth core issues for our field. I am deeply disappointed that we did not understand this ten years ago when the first controversies erupted regarding the Mann hockey stick.
What traditional practitioners of climate relevant sciences need to understand is that the practice of science must change as we transition from a curiosity-driven field to a necessity-driven one. We also need to grasp that our methods of bringing people into the fold do not scale, and do not meet the very real, substantial and important demand for outside review.
On the other hand, people casting themselves as our opposition need to understand that such changes do not come easily or cheaply. If we need to make a transition to an engineering-level discipline we need to be funded like one. Certainly advocates of geoengineering need to support a vastly invigorated climate modeling discipline.
The Bottom Line
Finally, and yet again, critics of our field (and to some extent I count myself among them) need to understand a crucial fact. Costs increase nonlinearly with the amount of climate change. Therefore, the less you trust the IPCC results, the more dangerous the risk profile you face, and the more severe the constraints on carbon emissions and other anthropogenic forcings need to be. Yet, almost everybody argues this crucial point backwards.
Update 12/25: Morano is featuring this story prominently. Apparently he works Christmas Day.
Update 12/26: Obviously I’m being Godwinned here. I am amazed that right wing people have so little grasp of what “right wing” means and what the dangers of that point of view are, but I suppose leftwingers probably disown Stalin in pretty much the same way.
Anyway, the point about the dangers of deliberately invoked public paranoia is the key to this whole piece, so it has to stand, Godwin or no.
That said, I don’t want to spend time on the ridiculous argument about which flavor of totalitarian disaster Nazism is. It’s not an especially relevant piece of historical, um, controversy. So “right-wing” is removed as a descriptor of paranoia. I think that improves the article anyway.
Update 12/26: A related article at the Christian Science Monitor.
Update 12/28: A related article at Media Matters and a related video by Potholer54.
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