I’m going to make a bit of an exception today. There were other newsworthy items after my heart (Jason Stackhouse — yes, you read that right — sent me an intriguing link on insect intelligence, and who could resist the creation of the first cat-based AI?). But I’ve decided instead to weigh in on this UCR e-mail hack that’s got the climate-change denialists wetting themselves so gleefully.
I rarely mention climate-change issues in the ‘crawl because I like to reserve these pixels for cool stuff, cutting edges that may or may not pan out, findings of interest (and frequently, of contention). Anthropogenic Climate Change hasn’t qualified for years; the science is settled, the effect is real, and the only uncertainty among the folks who actually know their shit is whether we’re in for a bad ride or a downright catastrophic one. The “debate”, such as it is, is political and entirely dishonest at its heart. Climate-change skeptics like to portray themselves as a feisty rebel alliance speaking truth to power, up against a colossal green propaganda machine calling all the shots— a little like the way Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly like to portray US Christians as an endangered species. Anyone familiar with the Bush administration’s environmental censorship of NASA, the EPA, and its own military knows how ridiculous that is. I have better things to do than research every objection raised by (as Bruce Sterling calls them) shortsighted sociopathic morons who don’t want to lose any money. (I would recommend How to Talk to a Climate Change Skeptic, however, to anyone who does want to fit a couple of denialists in between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Birthers lined up on their stoops. It addresses all the usual canards, from warming-stopped-in-1998 right out to global-warming-on-Pluto.)
I also generally avoid going on about stuff that’s already getting a lot of press elsewhere; if you saw it on slashdot, boingboing, or the NY Times I’ll be giving it a pass unless it’s really central to my current interests, simply because the blogosphere will already be writhing with opinions on the subject and mine has probably been better put by someone with better insight.
Now. In what can hardly be a coincidence, just a few weeks before the Copenhagen summit the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia got hacked. The sixty-odd megabytes of confidential e-mails that ended up littering the whole damn internet either a) blew the lid off a global conspiracy to fake the global warming crisis, or b) lay there in a big sludgy pile of boring communications about birthdays, conference meet-ups, and whether or not Poindexter over at Cal State was going to be allowed into the tree fort this year. Judging by the criteria I described at the top of the post, I should just stick my fingers in my ears and hum loudly until the current shitstorm abates.
But I’m not going to. Not this time.
I haven’t read all 62MB. I’ve read hardly any of it, in fact. I’m familiar with the money shots: the “Nature trick” used to “hide the decline” (and sorry folks, anybody who’s ever run a residual analysis knows there’s nothing nefarious about the word “trick” in this context. Besides, climatologists need hookers same as Republicans). I’ve read the e-mail-deletion thread, seen quotes that decry evil denialists and call for the censure of skeptic-friendly journal editors. The very conditions under which these e-mails were released makes it entirely plausible that some of them were forged; but at least some of the more controversial bits have been verified as legitimate by their authors. I don’t have much to say about any of that; maybe it’s all real, maybe it’s been spiked, none of it compromises the overwhelming weight of evidence in favor of anthropogenic climate change. Whatever.
No, what I want to address here is the attitude of the scientists, and how that relates to the way science actually works.
I keep running into recurring commentary on the snarkiness of the scientists behind these e-mails. They’re really entrenched, people seem surprised to note. Got a real siege mentality going on, speak unkindly of the skeptics, take all kinds of cheap shots unbecoming of the lab coat. These people can be downright assholes.
No shit, Sherlock. I was a scientist myself for the longest time, and the people I’d gladly drop into a vat of nitric acid start with the Pope and go all the way down to anyone who voted for Stephen Harper’s conservatives.
The apologists have stepped up, pointed out that these were private conversations and we shouldn’t expect them to carry the same veneer of civility that one would expect in a public presentation. “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” remarked one widely-quoted NASA climatologist. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.”
No. I don’t think he’s got it right. I don’t think most of these people do.
Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?
There’s this myth in wide circulation: rational, emotionless Vulcans in white coats, plumbing the secrets of the universe, their Scientific Methods unsullied by bias or emotionalism. Most people know it’s a myth, of course; they subscribe to a more nuanced view in which scientists are as petty and vain and human as anyone (and as egotistical as any therapist or financier), people who use scientific methodology to tamp down their human imperfections and manage some approximation of objectivity.
But that’s a myth too. The fact is, we are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment. We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. The best we can do— the best science can do— is make sure that at least, we get to choose among competing biases.
That’s how science works. It’s not a hippie love-in; it’s rugby. Every time you put out a paper, the guy you pissed off at last year’s Houston conference is gonna be laying in wait. Every time you think you’ve made a breakthrough, that asshole supervisor who told you you needed more data will be standing ready to shoot it down. You want to know how the Human Genome Project finished so far ahead of schedule? Because it was the Human Genome projects, two competing teams locked in bitter rivalry, one led by J. Craig Venter, one by Francis Collins — and from what I hear, those guys did not like each other at all.
This is how it works: you put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the shit out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.
Yes, there are mafias. There are those spared the kicking because they have connections. There are established cliques who decide what appears in Science, who gets to give a spoken presentation and who gets kicked down to the poster sessions with the kiddies. I know a couple of people who will probably never get credit for the work they’ve done, for the insights they’ve produced. But the insights themselves prevail. Even if the establishment shoots the messenger, so long as the message is valid it will work its way into the heart of the enemy’s camp. First it will be ridiculed. Then it will be accepted as true, but irrelevant. Finally, it will be embraced as canon, and what’s more everyone will know that it was always so embraced, and it was Our Glorious Leader who had the idea. The credit may not go to those who deserve it; but the field will have moved forward.
Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it. And it does that at least partly fueled by our pettiness and our rivalries. Science is alchemy: it turns shit into gold. Keep that in mind the next time some blogger decries the ill manners of a bunch of climate scientists under continual siege by forces with vastly deeper pockets and much louder megaphones.
As for me, I’ll follow the blogs with interest and see how this all shakes out. But even if someone, somewhere, proves that a handful of climatologists deliberately fudged their findings — well, I’ll be there with everyone else calling to have the bastards run out of town, but it won’t matter much in terms of the overall weight of the data. I went running through Toronto the other day on a 17°C November afternoon. Canada’s west coast is currently underwater. Sea level continues its 3mm/yr creep up the coasts of the world, the western Siberian permafrost turns to slush. Swathes of California and Australia are pretty much permanent firestorm zones these days. The glaciers retreat, the Arctic ice cap shrinks, a myriad migratory species still show up at their northern destinations weeks before they’re supposed to. The pine beetle furthers its westward invasion, leaving dead forests in its wake— the winters, you see, are no longer cold enough to hit that lethal reset button that once kept their numbers in check.
I could go on, but you get my drift. And if the Climate-Change Hoax Machine is powerful enough to do all that, you know what?
They deserve to win.