Published in Tribune, 18 December 2009
It hasn’t been a very good few weeks for climate science. The Copenhagen summit trundles onwards to certain fudge or failure. A recent Times poll appears to show fewer than half of all Britons even believing that global warming exists, and the storm rages on over the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit.
The United Nations climate summit is due to conclude after this issue of Tribune goes to press – but, regardless of the eventual outcome, the fact that all the countries have agreed at least in principle to deep cuts in emissions is a start.
The Times poll, too, isn’t quite the disaster it first seems – though the reporting of it raises some serious questions about journalistic integrity. As the excellent new website Climatesock.com points out, the raw data from the pollsters shows that the low figure of 41 per cent of people in Britain who believe in climate change, cited with the most prominence in the Times article, was reached only by excluding a further 32 per cent who agreed with the statement “there is a widespread theory that climate change is largely man-made, but this has not yet been conclusively proved”.
Not quite what it seems, then – and to think it’s the climate change deniers who accuse the climate scientists of cherrypicking data and coming up with bogus conclusions.
Indecisiveness by politicians is hardly news, nor is sensationalism from a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper. But the accusations of dishonesty against the researchers at the University of East Anglia are a far bigger story, since they erode the credibility of a previously unimpeachable source.
Yet while the leaked emails aren’t exactly edifying – and they certainly don’t reflect well on the individuals involved – the suggestion that they undermine the whole edifice of climate science is nonsense. The real damage here is in the awful PR, rather than the relatively minor malpractice revealed.
Part of the trouble here isn’t just that the scientists misbehaved. It’s that we have come to hold them to a higher standard than we do everyone else.
Science generally works better when people are honest and open, but if we expect a level of integrity that is unobtainable then we simply set science up for a fall. Researchers are human beings, with all that entails: don’t believe the fairy stories that science is collaborative and free. It is intensely competitive, both for glory and for money – two things that tend to bring out the worst in humans.
Unfortunate or not, it’s the way it is, and while it should inform our judgement of scientific discoveries (some degree of scepticism is always in order, particularly for the preliminary results that so often form the basis of news stories), it shouldn’t throw into doubt the entire edifice of scientific knowledge. Peer review, however imperfect, exists to protect data from being compromised by individuals, an implicit recognition that scientists aren’t perfect.
And why would they be? It’s a matter of historical record that this sort of thing, and worse, has always gone on.
Do we think any less of Isaac Newton’s theories because of his relentless bullying of the astronomer John Flamsteed? Newton went as far as publishing an early draft of a book by Flamsteed without permission or even attribution, leaving the astronomer to go around buying and destroying the offending tomes. Newton may well have been a complete turd, but I don’t hear gravity sceptics claiming his laws of motion are bogus as a result.
Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA and won a Nobel Prize in part based on data discovered by a rival team of researchers at another university – whom they then denigrated in the paper revealing their results. Watson went on to offend women, gays, blacks and fat people in a series of outbursts that would make the Duke of Edinburgh proud. Is Watson a bastard? Unquestionably. But again, where are the DNA sceptics, insisting that all of genetics is undermined as a result?
Of course, the difference is that there isn’t a multi-billion dollar global industry whose profits rely on fooling people into believing gravity and DNA are hoaxes. Maybe that’s the real scandal.