Climategate and what it means for science

John Broder writes today in the New York Times that the uproar over the unauthorized release of hundreds of emails and recent revelations about a mistake in the IPCC report threatens to undermine decades of work and has badly damaged public trust in the scientific enterprise.

Broder's interviews with scientists reveal two thoughtful but seemingly opposing viewpoints:

'Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious scientific body in the United States, said that there was a danger that the distrust of climate science could mushroom into doubts about scientific inquiry more broadly. He said that scientists must do a better job of policing themselves and trying to be heard over the loudest voices on cable news, talk radio and the Internet.

"This is a pursuit that scientists have not had much experience in," said Dr. Cicerone, a specialist in atmospheric chemistry.

The battle is asymmetric, in the sense that scientists feel compelled to support their findings with careful observation and replicable analysis, while their critics are free to make sweeping statements condemning their work as fraudulent.

"We have to do a better job of explaining that there is always more to learn, always uncertainties to be addressed," said John P. Holdren, an environmental scientist and the White House science adviser. "But we also need to remind people that the occasions where a large consensus is overturned by a scientific heretic are very, very rare." '

and this:

'But some scientists said that responding to climate change skeptics was a fool's errand.

"Climate scientists are paid to do climate science," said Gavin A. Schmidt, a senior climatologist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Institute of Space Studies. "Their job is not persuading the public."

He said that the recent flurry of hostility to climate science had been driven as much by the cold winter as by any real or perceived scientific sins.

"There have always been people accusing us of being fraudulent criminals, of the I.P.C.C. being corrupt," Dr. Schmidt said. "What is new is this paranoia combined with a spell of cold weather in the United States and the 'climategate' release. It's a perfect storm that has allowed the nutters to control the agenda."

The answer is simple, he said.

"Good science," he said, "is the best revenge." '

Cicerone, Hodlren and Schimidt are all right on target. We need to do a better job talking about science with the public using all available media. That includes explaining the uncertainties of science as well as what is meant by scientific consensus. We also need to keep doing the best scientific work possible. Few scientists have time to do both. But we are a large community. Lets divvy up the work.


More like this

When asked for his original data, Jan Hendrik Schön said that he had deleted it because his hard drive had run out of space.

When asked for their original data, the Hadley CRU said they had deleted it because they had run out of disk space.

"Climate scientists are paid to do climate science. Their job is not persuading the public."

does not jibe with

"We need to do a better job talking about science with the public using all available media."

The game the deniers play is simple: Hurl incessant accusations however wrong and discredited at the scientists who simply cannot address each claim repeatedly and with exacting diligence as they pour into a scientific paper.
To do so will simply be playing into the hands of the disingenuous deniers.

The best approach is to relentlessly denounce them as frauds, and carry on with the exacting science in the right arean.

A "debate" between a scientist and a denier, for example is exactly such a fruitless exercise. It immediately gives instant credibility to the charlatan who then only has to say something bizarre enough to cause the scientist to stumble in amazement.

Then that gets portrayed as a weakness.

Witness the creationists vs scientists debates. There is a reason why self-respecting scientists are no longer giving the cretins any more opportunities to peddle snake oil.

Climate scientists should do the same.

There is one thing scientists can do. They can speak up with terse denials each time an disingenuous idiot pontificates.

Nothing fancy. Just a mass signature campaign over the Internet condemning the quack. Brief, and unequivocal.

By Simpleton (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

Dear Pamela, you have misunderstood Gavin Schmidt. He didn't say that "we need to do a better job talking about science with the public using all available media". Quite on the contrary, he said "Climate scientists are paid to do climate science. Their job is *not* persuading the public."

The real thing that environmentalist scientists should do to restore the credibility of science has been mentioned in the New York Times, too.

âThe solution,â he concluded, âis for you to stop trying to pass off garbage as science.â

I believe the alleged "scientific consensus" is a PR artifice by governments who have decided they want this scare story irrespective.

I have asked journalists, politicians & alarmist lobbyists now totalling over 10,000 to name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby who have said that we are seeing a catastrophic degree of warming & none of them have yet been able to do so. I extend this same invitation here.

There is not & never was a genuine scientific consensus on this, though scientists seeking government funds have been understandably reluctant to speak. If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk, it would be easy to find a similar number of independent scientists saying it was true, let alone 2. The whole thing depends on a very small number of people & a massive government publicity machine, both very well funded by the innocent taxpayer

I note that Gavin Schmidt says scientists shouldn't be trying to persuade people but simply doing the science. I take it he is an entirely different Gavin Schmidt from the one on the most famous alarmist website Realclimate whose members engage in every artifice, except unensored discussion with sceptics, to push the alarmist cause.

Much as I appreciate Lubos trying to mis-interpret my words for me, rest assured that you are correct and he (as usual) is wrong. My statement was one of fact, not aspiration. The fact is that climate scientists are not paid to persuade, or even educate, the public. The rewards and incentives to do so are scant to negative, and so it is very unsurprising that it doesn't get done more. I wish that this were not the situation and that more scientists would get involved - not in battling oft-debunked nonsense from the contrarians - but in positively showing what their science is, how it gets done, and how and why scientists come to the conclusions they do.


My point is that we need great scientists like Gavin doing their work and doing good science. I completely agree with his statements in the NYT and on my blog (well said, Gavin). We ALSO need people like Cicerone who will speak to the press and try to explain (again and again and again) what peer reviewed science is and how it works. My point is that most people do not have time to do both. We do not want all our leading scientists to be distracted by the denialists- no work would get done. At the same time we need others who are willing to take the time to talk to the media.

So scientists should also be paid lobbyists?

There was another disturbing article in the NYT related to this too: the evolution-deniers are making common cause with the climate-deniers.

Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets The doubt industry cranks up.

I love the description of the asymmetry. That is a basic feature of all of the anti-science arguments (anti-AGW, anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-evolution, etc). They make broad, unsupported, unsourced claims and nobody questions that.

anti-AGW, anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-evolution...

One of these things is not like the others.

One of these things is not a part of a corporate agenda.

Whether the sea levels are going to rise, or there is a pandemic waiting around the corner, or GMO is the panacea of the future is immaterial to the main reason so many people are wary of the salesmen and their programs designed to save us all.

When it comes to believing evolution, no one is trying to sell me something. Actually, the salesmen are all on the anti-evolution side, selling me their bogus religion.

That's what it feels like with the GW hysteria. It feels like someone trying to sell me their religion, but if this religion takes hold, I wouldn't have a choice in filling the collection plate.

Juice, you'll find that the richest companies in the world are oil companies.

Right, climate scientists are the ones with the "corporate agenda", not the oil company-funded climate denial think tanks. Give me a flippin' break.

Pamela, will you please release my comments so that I may address any rebuttals?

Thank you.

Hmm, maybe it was the link. I won't link to anything here.

Oil companies are some of the biggest corporations in the world. But do you know who has them beat?

Investment banks. The top 3 richest corporations in the world are investment banks. The 4th is GE, then I think the 5th is Exxon.

Since I can't post links, just google "investment banks carbon credits" (it's now a $100 billion racket worldwide).

And thank god I got my H1N1 vaccine (o wait I didn't), but the H1N1 vaccine raked in $1.5 billion to pharmaceuticals last year, even though there is NO evidence whatsoever that H1N1 killed ONE PERSON.

Whoa was I wrong. GlaxoSmithKline alone raked in $1.4 billion in the 4th quarter from N1N1 vaccines. And those are all tax dollars. And now all the unused doses are being dumped.

I find this very amusing that the denial continues from those trying to find cover for their misdeeds. Tell the Big lie and keep telling it over and over until it starts to sound like the truth. Mr. Schmidt calls him self a Scientist while making statements like, "It's a perfect storm that has allowed the nutters to control the agenda." Nutters..sounds like good ole Phil Jones and Michael Mann talk. May I remind you of the hockey stick, Medieval Warming period, Amazongate,Himalayan gate, Africagate, Hurricangate, Kilimanjaro Glaciersgate, NASAGATE, and let is not forget the all important Sea Rise Gate. If there is a Nutter here it is one who attempts to ignore the herd of UNIPCC foul smelling Elephants in the room en favor of supporting the BIG LIES of the Sky is falling. Good night Chicken little...

No evidence that H1N1 killed one person?

I guess that is true so long as you don't trust the scientific literature on the subject, seems the British Medical Journal would disagree (as would the New England Journal of Medicine, which has a study showing that 25% of H1N1 suffers out of ~250 who were hospitalized ended up in intesive care, and 7% of the ~250 died - I shan't pollute the post with so many links it doesnt post though):-

with the pertinent statement being

"However, the UK has had far fewer A/H1N1 related deaths with 14 recorded to date. By comparison the US has had 170 deaths and Mexico 119."

I guess you could argue semantics over 'related deaths' but as such I could argue that there is no evidence that cars have killed anyone this year, the deaths were car related, and caused by blood loss, brain damage and any other number of related but not proven links.

Who's to know what those figures would have been without available vaccines?

Neil, two scientists? How about the National Academy of Sciences? There's a pretty solid body of professionals capable and trained in unbiased interpretation of data. That's pretty good scientific consensus.


The big problem here is that scientists have to play by rules, whereas pundits, political dupes and AM radio mouthpieces can make up whatever they want. We must publicly show repeatable results using the best methods of analysis. Those data must be vetted by a rigorous peer review process. Even then there is a conversation in the literature where opposing ideas and reinterpretation shape the scientific consensus.

This is the problem. While scientists engage in this rigorous process to find the truth, deniers just have to say that they don't believe it and scream it at you with "one half their brain tied behind their back". There is no data, no reproducibilty or accountability.

To say that climate change is a fraud because of missing data from East Anglia is like saying an encyclopedia is not to be trusted because of a typo. The data supporting climate change conclusions is compelling and abundant.

Personally, I can't see the danger at interpreting it conservatively and doing everything we can to get off of fossil fuels and become more efficient. We'd be new leaders in a new economy of energy independence. In 40 years we'll be off of fossil fuels. Why not start now? If anthrogenic climate change is happening we can start to mitigate the effects. If it is not, we become better as a nation. It is a win-win.

Why not? Because climate change denial is fueled by fear mongering from the political right. Big oil is their guide. It is favorable to trash a planet and harm the future for political gains now.

But of course, when the climate "change" alarmists depict those who advocate a more thorough, open, transparent process as fear-mongered "deniers" and other such nonsense, they are supposed to be taken seriously as high-minded men and women of science, w/ no agendas. Please.

And sorry Kev, but missing data is far more than merely a "typo." But keeping drinking your Kool-Aid, sport; after all... "Our pla-net has a fe-ver."

By Howee Carr (not verified) on 07 Mar 2010 #permalink

Here's a very strange quote:

"The battle is asymmetric, in the sense that scientists feel compelled to support their findings with careful observation and replicable analysis, while their critics are free to make sweeping statements condemning their work as fraudulent."

Don't scientists usually "support their findings with careful observation and replicable analysis"? Yes. But not climatologists. Do scientists "feel compelled to support their findings"? No, they actually are glad to show support for their findings. In contrast to climatologists.

If climatologists behaved like scientists, their claims could be tested and replicated by anyone with access to the same tools -- and those who "make sweeping statements condemning their work as fraudulent" would be treated with the polite disdain we reserve for flat-earthers.

Finally, anyone who thinks climatologists are lousy at PR hasn't noticed how their predictions have brought the world to the brink of panic, and beyond. It's the most comprehensively successful PR campaign in the history of the world.

By Schiller Thurkettle (not verified) on 14 Mar 2010 #permalink

@ Schiller

The claims of climatologists are tested and replicated -have you never seen one of those graphs with all the climate models combined? So the predictions are replicated. And, judging from the discussions going on in the scientific literature, itâs being peer tested too.

But -oh no!- its being tested and replicated by other climatologists. So I guess it canât be valid. Just like the results of my experiments being tested and replicated by other plant pathologists must not be valid. I suppose I should get some physicist or something to check my findings, so that they wonât be part of the worldwide plant pathologist pro-GE agenda.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink


I'd like to know how one can test and replicate a climate model when the data and code are not available.

But assuming the data and code were fully available, you'd still just be replicating a model. Ho hum. 20 years of predicting planetary doom doesn't make their models look very useful.

By Schiller Thurkettle (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

No expert on the matter, but assuming the models have been around for 20 years wouldn't it be validation of the initial models to look at the data for the intervening 20 years and see how closely it matches the model (which I'm pretty sure it does to a certain extent - temperatures were predicted to rise, and they did)

"planetary doom" predictions appear to be hyperbole invented by those denying that climate change is occuring - most of what I've seen is that the models predicted increasing temperatures, receding glaciars and what not at the poles, and effects to be felt in coming decades. That we don't feel now those effects is simply due to lack of time machines - it certainly appears that the initial predictions from the models are holding out pretty well (rising temps, retreating ice) which at least suggests it might be worthwhile entertaining the concept that the longer range predictions may also be within the bounds of possibility (action may cost something, but inaction is likely to be more catastrophic if the model holds out)


There are two ways which climate models are tested. They, of course, make the model by using past climate data (base data) and then extrapolate the interactions they find into the future. But, when making it, they exclude a small period of time from their base data -the test data. They test the model by extrapolating the model into the test time and seeing if it matches up with the test data. They can also (as Ewan says) test the model as time goes by and more data is collected. So far they have been fairly accurate.

As for replicating RESULTS -lots of different climate models have been made from scratch by independent (as in, not part of the same organisation or lab group) climatologists. The results of one model are essentially replicated by many independent models; generally, the models agree on there being warming and it being anthropogenic. I have used a model before but Iâm not sure how available they are to everybody âI used it under my universityâs licences, so am unsure of their general availability and any copywriting for them. They tend to have fairly detailed papers published in the literature on their development though. Certainly if you are able to understand a models coding and the reasons behind it, you would be able to make your own to confirm the results of another.

It may be hard to get access to the data to build your model on. Most scientists collect some of it on their own and make trades with others for data. After the whole raw data deletion debacle in âClimategateâ, climatologists realised that there could be problems with not keeping tabs on who is storing what data, and now some meteorological institute is gathering up as much of everyoneâs data as possible to collate it and secure it. Canât remember which place at the moment âI read about it in passing.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 19 Mar 2010 #permalink