Sunday, December 6, 2009

Damage control: East Anglia ethical lapses

Recent disclosures of possible ethical problems within the climate change science going on at the University of East Anglia have stimulated a firestorm of accusations by the global warming skeptics. I recently received an email from an acquaintance:

Saw the attached editorial in the Wall Street Journal and was amazed that I had not heard anything about this scandal. I did a little research and saw the distrubing [sic] trends that I had long suspected might be coming to light. I have always known that man was probably having some profound effect on the environment, but probably not in the respects or degrees that the media was putting before us. This has huge implications as we are moving toward Capping Carbon and the U.S. prepares to enter in with the rest of the world in global treaties that will probably not have any unilateral aspects. I am almost certain that the U.S. will take the biggest brunt of the cost of so called "Global Warming". ... The point of this for me anyway, "Who do we trust." If we are going to make decisions that are costing farmers, industry, and all citizens billions of dollars then we need the correct data. I want to do what is right for my children and grandchildren, but I cannot make good decisions about what I believe if the liberal media and various environmental groups decide to massage the data to their liking. Let's Beware.

My responses follow ...

Beware, indeed! It's very appropriate to ask the question about whom to trust. Unfortunately, like everything else humans do, science is done by people and some of the participants haven't always been completely and perfectly ethical. Within any group of humans, you will find those who are willing to go beyond ethical boundaries.

Nevertheless, it's simply stretching credibility to the extreme to take the sins and errors of a few climate change scientists and extrapolate to reject the content of the IPCC reports, which are the consensus among hundreds of scientists. A few of those scientists who contributed to the IPCC reports are friends of mine, and I have absolutely no reason to believe that they've perpetrated the sorts of shenanigans that have come to light as the result of the hacking (an illegal act, by the way). I know something about the topic of physical processes as they relate to climate change and the notion that global warming is not happening is simply absurd.

This isn't a conspiracy within climate change science, although a few may have gone beyond ethical limits. It's not about the mythical "liberal media" pushing the global warming agenda. And "climategate" is an obvious verbal ploy to manufacture a media-based scandal. If a limited number of scientists have "massaged" the data inappropriately, then you should also consider the very real possibility that some (if not many) of the so-called "skeptics" have been massaging their data to show contrary results.

You're free to believe whomever you wish, of course. I understand your frustration when some scientists cross the boundary to unethical behavior. Such behavior bothers me, too. But don't believe that they represent anything more than a tiny fraction of the contributors to the IPCC report. You should also understand that science doesn't do well with absolutes - see my essay about how science works.

It would be nice if science could answer questions with a simple "yes" or "no" answer. But that's just not the way things work. Consensus CAN be wrong, and anyone claiming infallibility for consensus science should be viewed as suspect. For some thoughts about how to look at the question of global warming see my essay on the subject.

If you want to do right by your children and grandchildren, consider section 5 of that essay about a "policy of least regret".

Meanwhile, another acquaintance sent:

Even some non-scientists have legitimate concerns about openness and honesty in science.

My response follows ...

Anyone who was laboring under the notion that science (a decidedly human endeavor) has heretofore been immune to ethical lapses must be living in a world of fantasy. Concerns about openness and honesty in science are legitimate. What's happening here is that climate science has revealed itself to be the same as any other science - ethical lapses by small groups and individuals can happen. It's unfortunate when it happens and enters the public consciousness, as it does indeed tarnish our "image" - but a squeaky-clean image for science is simply not realistic so long as science is done by fallible human beings.

We scientists need to be concerned about such things, and to reject them as unworthy of the scientific enterprise. But to extrapolate to say that "science is dying" is simply absurd. Climate science has joined a long list of other sciences in which scandalous ethical lapses have occurred. Science isn't dying, but we must repudiate those who sully the profession and renew our personal pledges not to fall into ethical traps. The ends never justify the means.