Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Climategate ... an update

Today (5 April), I was asked by a colleague:

The "climategate" emails and the recent responses to them have been generating a lot of discussion on the environmental anthropology listserve. ... Do you have any thoughts on this ... - who can speak for or against the science? Who is legitimate?

My first reaction to this is that anyone can speak for or against the science - it's a free country. But not all opinions are equal! I've already posted a blog about "climategate" - see here for my take. I see no reason to discredit the IPCC consensus because a few participants engaged in some questionable behavior. With the microscope of media scrutiny comes the very real risk of losing sight of the forest in focusing on only a few trees within that forest.

But considering the issue from a broader perspective, I offer the following thoughts:

In any specialized subdomain within the broad spectrum of meteorologists (a category within which I would put climatologists), the number of folks whose work is within that subdomain can vary considerably, depending on the topic. Given the obvious importance of global climate change and its funding situation over the past 15 years or so, I suspect there's a fairly large number of folks who would be considered the global climate change science "illuminati" regarding the topic. At least large in comparison to the topics in which I specialize.

People in research tend to migrate toward where the money is allocated. Those who migrate into a subdomain from somewhere else might be considered "carpetbaggers" by the illuminati. This may be unfairly derogatory - it's quite possible that someone coming in from outside eventually can make important contributions, despite having not started within the field. However, I know of no one who has become rich by being a carpetbagger in some research subdomain. It's difficult to become rich via science research grants, which typically earmark most of the funds for "overhead" paid to the research institution housing the researcher(s), supporting students, buying necessary research tools, travel support, page charges for publications, etc. And scientist-invesigator salaries are determined by the housing institution. Research grants mostly are not a big bag of money placed in the hands of a researcher without any strings; no-strings cash awards are prizes (e.g., the Nobel prize) for important research accomplishments, not grants for work yet to be done.

I know a few of the global climate change science illuminati - they include Drs. David Karoly and Susan Solomon. Because I know these people, it is inconceivable to me that they would have been participants in some sort of cabal designed to line their pockets with gold and/or to deceive the public into supporting political actions based on that science that are not in the public interest.

I also know several folks who would not be considered as members of the global climate change science illuminati, but are contributing via their expertise in other specialties that are relevant to the general topic of global (and regional) climate change - such as severe storms, tropical cyclones, etc. In fact, some of them are contributors to the development of the IPCC consensus but would not be considered specialists in global climate change science, per se. They likely work with those who are amongst the illuminati, naturally, and so might be privy to more information than those of us who are directly working the global climate change specialists. Our own Dr. Harold Brooks falls within this group. To suggest that he is becoming rich or seeking to gain power for some evil purpose is preposterous in the extreme!!

The question is not one of black-and-white legitimacy, although it's pretty evident to me that many of the more vocal (in public) "deniers" have at most only a limited basis for claiming any credibility in the topic. For example, Dr. Bill Gray, a notable denier, is a tropical cyclone specialist. His opinion is roughly comparable to mine: not a specialist in global climate change, but a respected contributor in a domain that is at least connected with global climate change.

It's both puzzling and disturbing to me that Dr. Gray would choose to seek to discredit the work and reputations of those who are specialists in global climate change. Frankly, I see his expressed views as bordering on becoming unethical, in part because he has chosen to carry on his criticisms via the media, and because he questions their motives for supporting the IPCC consensus. To suggest that the scientists associated with the IPCC reports are misrepresenting the science for personal gain or to foster some political agenda is getting uncomfortably close to slander/libel, unless it can be proven (presumably in a court of law) that an individual engaged in a conspiracy to defraud or mislead the public, or misspent public funds. Dr. Gray has a professional obligation to avoid seeking to discredit his colleagues in the way he has been doing so, in my opinion. It's one thing for some media demagogue to engage in such things - it's quite another for a science professional to do so, in the absence of compelling evidence for misconduct.

I note that although I'm questioning the legitimacy of Dr. Gray's methods via a public medium, I have not impugned his motives (which are unknown to me), nor am I suggesting that he actually has engaged in slander/libel. I'm simply expressing my concern about the actions of a respected colleague, in the context of discussing what is and what is not appropriate for a science professional to do.

The public side of this debate obviously is horribly polarized, with posturing and propaganda on both sides, unfortunately. The debates of substance are being carried on at scientific conferences, workshops, and in the refereed journals, away from the public eye and typically opaque to the media. What goes on that is visible to the public is simply a grotesque caricature of the real scientific process, for the most part. Scientists tend not to be very good at PR because they're too busy doing science. This is an unfortunate by-product of being passionate about something - you tend to neglect other things. Those participating in the scientific process are those who have a legitimate claim to having their statements be regarded as most substantial.

For instance, I believe that my opinions on this matter have considerably less substance than those of the global climate change illuminati, but considerably more substance than those of media demagogues, the general public, and non-meteorologists. I know a thing or two about atmospheric physics and have had at least some contact with real global climate change scientists, who have enlightened me regarding some parts of the argument. I have no logical claim to seek to overthrow the IPCC consensus until such time as I become a participant in the process and have established my credibility in that domain, via the process of publishing research results in refereed journals. Since that's not likely to happen, I will defer to the experts. I believe most of the critics of global climate change science should do the same.