As in Post Script, Climate Shift, and Bull Shit.
I really wasn’t expecting so many responses (getting boinged obviously ramped up the amplitude a bit). There have been hosannas and trolls and yes, some well-taken objections to my last post, both here and around teh tubes. Once again, some of my responses are too long to fit comfortably into a typical comment thread; hence this follow-up.
There are four major objections I feel compelled to respond to. Plenty of other hackles have been raised— over broken hockey sticks, selective use of data, “tricks” used to “hide” alleged “declines”— but these have generally been raised by deniers more interested in slinging shit than in reasonable discussion. The specifics of those specifics have been explored and explained here (a little) and elsewhere (just google “Climategate”) — and while some of it certainly shows some folks in a bad (and possibly deserved) light, none of it compromises the weight of evidence for anthropogenic climate change. That’s not what the last post was about anyway; so forget that stuff.
You may remember some of these points, though:
Stop using the word “deniers” to stereotype open-minded skeptics. You spit upon the millions killed in the Holocaust. (No, really; check the comment stream).
Individual weather events (Australian firestorms, west-coast flooding) do not constitute evidence for ACC.
Academia is not quite so uniformly cutthroat and petty-minded as you would have us believe.
Come on, dude; we’re talking about deleting e-mails in the face of FoI requests. That’s a bit beyond private ill-mannered sniping.
So. Let’s go through them.
Stop using the word “deniers” to stereotype open-minded skeptics.
Sure. Just as soon as I encounter some open-minded skeptics.
I’m not being flippant. I’ve no doubt, given all the chaff out there, that there are a lot of confused folks who are honestly trying to figure this stuff out. But I don’t see them posting on the ‘crawl in any great numbers, nor do I see them making much of an appearance on other more erudite blogs. What I do see are hecklers who strafe forums with highly-specific talking points about thermal spikes and volcanoes, and then— when challenged— either disappear or muddy the water with invective and deliberate misconstruction. They’re the equivalent of those idiots who shouted from the bleachers at last summer’s town hall meetings; their goal is not to engage, but to disrupt and obstruct. “Uncle Al” and “Neil Craig” are examples who’ve posted on this crawl, but if you check out the comments threads for How to Talk to a Global Warming Skeptic you’ll see a lot of others. (“Craker14″, for example, weighs in with an innocent-seeming question under “Measurements taken on top of a volcano!“, accuses someone who answers him of “jibbering”, and proceeds to hijack the thread with denialist talking-points that have been asked and answered a hundred times.) This is not honest inquiry, or a search for understanding from an open mind. This is the French Knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Their kind are not skeptics in the empirical sense of the word: they are deniers, pure and simple.
Australian firestorms do not constitute evidence for ACC.
This objection has more substance to it, because of course it’s true. You can’t pin any given forest fire, flood, tornado, or heat wave on global warming, just as you can’t state with certainty that the cancer that killed a specific smoker was caused by smoking. There’s always the chance that the guy would have got cancer even if he’d never lit up in his life; there’s always the chance that California would have caught fire even if the Industrial Revolution had never happened.
But man, when ten times as many smokers than nonsmokers die of cancer, you sure as shit know that something‘s going on.
That’s what we’re looking at here. Extreme weather events are up all over the globe, and it’s all consistent with current climate-change models. The denouement in which I cited some of those (the fires, the flooding) was simply an illustration of events we don’t need the modelers and the climatologists to show us; it’s in our face, happening now, and you don’t need to know the Stefan–Boltzmann law to turn on the weather network. (My citation of the Australian fires was based on communications from a couple of folks I know down there, who do in fact seem under the impression that those things have gotten worse recently.)
Scientist are not all the cutthroat assholes you describe.
No, of course they’re not. I wasn’t a cutthroat asshole (although the people who ended up as department heads frequently were), and I had lots of non-asshole friends and colleagues. Furthermore, peer-review was frequently a very positive and constructive experience. Which was why I was careful to put phrases like “to at least some extent” and “at least partly” in front of my claims. I was not trying to describe the behavior of scientists in its entirety; I was only trying to describe that vitriolic part of it on display in some of the Climategate e-mails, and which seemed to take so many outsiders by surprise.
Stop downplaying the discussion about censoring journal access and deleting e-mails in the face of Freedom-of-Information requests. Their behavior wasn’t just ill-mannered, it was unscientific and potentially criminal.
Well, yes. Yes it was. (And the Guardian has a good opinion piece that addresses this, and the broader downplaying-Climategate issue in general — thanks to Jon Watts for that link). Quite apart from the basic ethics of censorship, the optics are really bad when you’re caught with a line like “I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” stuck in your teeth. It seems pretty certain that these guys were going to some pretty extreme lengths to keep their data from falling into enemy hands; and that is the very antithesis of peer review.
I can’t claim to know what was going through their heads when they circled those wagons. I can guess, though, based on my own experiences.
Back in the mid-nineties I was part of a research consortium investigating the decline of the North Pacific’s Stellar sea lion population (actually, as it turned out we were investigating ways to let the US fishing industry off the hook for that decline — which is one reason I am no longer in academia — but I digress). One day I was approached by a pusillanimous pus bag by the name of Peter Hamilton. He runs something called “Lifeforce”, which — as you can probably tell by the name — is one of those new-agey pseudoconservation activist groups that “raises awareness”, conducts “research”, and takes money from credulous little old ladies in tennis shoes. Hamilton told me he was concerned about that fact that I was working with captive Steller pups at the Vancouver Aquarium, and the conditions under which those creatures were being kept. I tried to set his mind at rest: yes, I told him, we were keeping wild animals in captivity. We were trying to figure out why their population had crashed by 75% in a decade, and since one of the leading hypotheses involved food shortages, we had to figure out their food requirements. That meant measuring metabolic rates during conditions of rest and exercise. Sometimes that meant putting them into a custom-built metabolic chamber for a few hours at a time. They were trained; they went willingly. The chamber didn’t stress them in the least — in fact, they frequently fell asleep during the runs. I pointed out that suffering or stress of any kind would impact the sea lions’ metabolic rates and invalidate our results; even if none of us had a gram of empathy, it was essential to our work that the animals not be harmed or stressed in any way.
Three hours I spent talking to this guy. His questions seemed reasonable; my answers seemed to satisfy him. He thanked me for my time and went away.
The next day, Peter Hamilton put out a press release. It showed a picture of my equipment with the words “Vivisection Chamber” underneath.
He didn’t even believe it himself. He admitted as much a couple of years later, when he approached me to help out in one of his campaigns (I’d quit the consortium by then and had written a critical report on the Vancouver Aquarium’s marine mammal displays — evidently he thought that made me an ally). This isn’t the only such experience I’ve had, but it makes the point: Peter Hamilton is one of those people who throws around words like “data” and “research” in pursuit of a purely political agenda. Because I believed in reaching out to the public, because I believed that enemies could be converted into allies if treated with respect and told the truth, I opened up to this duplicitous fucktard and got labeled a vivisectionist for my trouble.
Now, suppose the subsequent time-line had unfolded differently. Suppose I was still working at UBC. Suppose Lifeforce filed a Freedom of Information Act request for confidential data and/or e-mails on my work. What would I do now, knowing what I do?
I would shred every fucking memo and napkin-scribble down to the punctuation. You bet I would. Not because my science was bad or because I was part of some great conspiracy, but simply because I know how this guy operates. The optics would be terrible if I got caught. My behavior might be illegal. Wouldn’t matter. I’ve sung this song before; there’s no scenario in which disclosure ends well.
So to repeat: I don’t know what was going through the minds of the scientists whose e-mails are now all over the Internet. But the voice of my own experience tells me to reserve judgment, lest I myself be judged and found wanting.
See? Even the Bible can occasionally make a bit of sense.