So after the hack-fest that was Climategate, what has it really shown us? That climate scientists were dishonest, covering up data, manipulating data for their own ends, spinning us a propaganda tale? Not a bit of it.
The Independent Climate Change Email Review was set up by the University of East Anglia to investigate the charges because, of course, an academic institution rests on its reputation. If scientists are indeed abusing their position, manipulating data and misleading people, that’s serious and demands prompt action.
But as was obvious when the story first broke, based on a bunch of hacked emails, it was a load of nonsense. The scientists had been accused of withholding temperature data from weather stations and keeping secret computer algorithms for processing it into a record of global temperature.
But the report found that the source data was openly available, that the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) wasn’t in a position to restrict access to it, and that it took less than two days to write the computer code to analyse it, all independent of the CRU. And guess what? The results were consistent with other independent analyses. What does that show us? It shows us that climate change deniers were out to get these scientists, to undermine their credibility, and to trump up charges that would encourage people to question the reality of man-made global warming.
So now we can expect these deniers to accept the facts and stop raising absurd allegations? Alas no, that’s not how it works.
As every propagandist knows only too well, once you have told someone something, especially from a potentially authoritative source like a newspaper, a large proportion of them will continue to believe it even when presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. The more outrageous the initial claim, the more resistant it is to some people from being subsequently changed by evidence.
The howl from the hack-pack is substantially louder than the whisper of any reasonable enquiry report. Of course, there have already been three previous enquiries which made an equally loud whisper. The House of Commons select committee had already cleared them of any malpractice and Ron Oxburgh who chaired the House of Lords enquiry has already said, “We found absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever”. Pennsylvania State University has also cleared Michael Mann of any impropriety.
So what now? Reasonable people should be justifiably concerned about these climate change denier hacks getting off scot-free. They have impugned the reputations of professional scientists who, had the charges been upheld, would never have worked as scientists again. Surely there are libel laws? We already know how keen some sectors are to employ libel as a weapon against scientists exposing unjustified medical claims. How about a similar charge being levelled against global warming denier journalists who make damaging allegations against reputable scientists?
But hold on. We don’t need to drop to the level of gutter tactics to deal with these ignorant suspicious people who don’t understand the science and see a conspiracy under every piece of pizza. The data is available, the evidence is widespread, there is a massive scientific consensus, and virtually every government now accepts (after years of denial it has to be said) that global warming has a critical man-made component.
We should learn from the consequences of Climategate. We should learn that ignorant and ill-informed people can make a lot of damaging noise. We should learn that scientists are generally not the same as PR merchants or lobbyists, and don’t work with the same media-grabbing tools. They don’t slur and abuse; they use open argument backed up with data, peer-reviewed and challenged.
But we should also learn that the results of science are not simply opinions to be disputed as a matter of taste. If the data says that global warming is substantially man-made, then it is. Science is not the result of consensus but the result of a critical process of data analysis, theory, hypothesis, testing, and the review of results. To be acceptable as a scientific result, the evidence has to stand up to open public scrutiny. And it has.
Science is sometimes difficult to understand because we have to have some knowledge of the subject to make sense of the results. If we are not willing to put the time in to becoming informed about the subject, then we either have to rely on experts, accept the conclusions uncritically, or oppose the results on fatuous grounds. But if we want to engage in the debate, we need to mug up on the subject, learn about greenhouse gases and their properties, understand the constraints used in climate models, look at the data provided by the IPCC, study the data and the arguments, and so on.
There’s plenty there to challenge in a substantive way if anyone wants to and the data has always been available to everyone. But that’s very different than the somewhat scurrilous journalistic tactic of trying to undermine professional reputations. We can only hope that the reputations of those journalists so keen to jump on the Climategate bandwagon takes the kind of hit they hoped to direct at those respectable and reputable scientists who worked so hard with the raw data.
Who knows, maybe they’ll all be queuing up to write apologies.