The Divine Name and the New Testament
Let Reason Prevail

Climategate and the Limits of Science

It’s the 131th "gate" scandal since Watergate [!], so said one writer who listed them; don’t ever say pundits can’t drive a fad into the ground. But Climategate is the first to take the tone of an actual gate – a prescribed sort of thinking – much like Jesus' counsel at Matt 7:13 to go in through the narrow gate.

Didn't this fellow sum it up well, who offered advice to the Economist?  (12/5/09)

Now that we know from leaked emails that some of the raw data behind the most widely used graph of global temperatures have been lost or discarded; now that we know that the peer-review process in climate science has been hopelessly incestuous; now that we know that some skeptics' concerns about corrections for urban heat islands were privately shared by those who dismissed them in public now that we know that proxy graphs were truncated specifically to "hide the decline" and avoid giving fodder to the sceptics - you are free to start covering the science of climate change again. Matt Ridley, Newcastle

He's not saying the global warming theory is wrong, necessarily. (well….likely he is saying that, but let him develop the point, not me.) For me, the striking revelation is that global warming science is run like any top-down organization. Those at the top disparage whoever’s not falling into line, suppress their contributions, and doctor their own data to gloss over whatever doesn't prove their point. And to think I was lectured by someone – was it Plonka? - “prove a scientist wrong, and he will thank you for it!"... so pure is their desire to reach unadulterated truth! Sigh....not here. No, here it's “try to prove a scientist wrong and he will run you off the road.” Maybe not when the stakes are low, if the research is about shoe horns or something.  But when the stakes are high, as they certainly are with climate change, people invest in their position emotionally, be they scientists or not. They become advocates, cheerleaders. And if they imagine themselves immune to emotional sway, as scientists are wont to do, they can become downright insufferable. They don’t suffer fools gladly, and a fool is anyone who disagrees with them.

News coverage of Climategate varied dramatically from source to source, depending upon pre-existing attitudes. Here in the U.S, conservative Fox Network beat the subject into the ground, opining (gloating?) it would mark the death of a theory they despise. The other three networks, on the other hand, the liberal ones, didn't even mention the story for two weeks, apparently thinking (hoping?) it would blow over. (they did run 37 juicy Tiger Woods stories in that time!) When it didn't blow over, CBS’s Kimberly Dozier (Dec 6) reported that “the e-mails show some of the world's top experts decided to exclude or manipulate some research that didn't help prove global warming exists…..1998 was the hottest year since record-keeping began...but the temperature went down the next year, and it's only spiked a couple times since….An e-mail exchange in 1999 shows scientists worked hard to demonstrate an upward trend. They talk of using a "trick" to "hide the decline" in global temperatures.”

Among the intercepted emails, there were some suggesting collusion to keep dissenters from getting published. "I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" wrote the head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of Anglia. When the journal "Climate Research" did publish a non-bandwagon article, another leading scientist wrote "This was the danger of always criticizing the skeptics for not publishing in the 'peer-reviewed literature'. Obviously, they found a solution to that—take over a journal!" And "Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal." These guys play hardball.

Now, mind you, I don't necessarily disagree with this tactic. If manmade global warming is an imminent crisis, and if you wait till all the grousers and foot draggers come on board, the sea will rise and put out the Statue of Liberty torch before everyone agrees. My point is that science does not operate as the emotionless meritocracy that some would have us believe. No. It's those at the top bullying everyone else to hold the party line. If is the operative word, of course, and humans probably don't have the wisdom to determine if the if is so. Certainly they don't have the wisdom to persuade those of the opposite view. An extinguished torch would persuade them (maybe), but then it would be too late. So they twist arms instead, just like any other human organization.

Look, the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses is not a democracy, either. Nor was the first century congregation, as shown throughout the book of Acts, most notably chapter 15. There are those who take the lead in governing the congregations, both then and now.  (Lots of churches used to be that way, but no longer. Parishioners tired of it.) My point is that, as a purely practical matter, science isn't that different. Now, because I hang around the Bible a lot, I’m confident in the way Jehovah’s Witnesses explain it and the leadership they give. They're on to things that others miss or deliberately ignore. But when it comes to global warming, I end up acquiescing to those who know, though it's by no means clear that they do know. People end up going along because of the dire warnings issued, not necessarily the evidence presented, which is conflicting.

At least if you can't stand the governing arrangement of Jehovah's Witnesses, you can always leave; it's a big world and there is life outside. But there's no escaping the clutches of the global warming people, who aim to design policies that will affect us all. Ah, well. It's humans trying to rule the earth, for which they are ill-equipped. It does, though, make one long for government from the One who understands climate and can even control it. "Who really is this, they said about Jesus, for he commands even the wind and the sea, and they obey him." (Mark 4:35-41) That's the government we advocate, God's Kingdom. We have no part in bringing it about, you understand, but we announce its coming.

thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  (matt 6:9-10)

By the way, here are the 1400 intercepted Climategate emails. Why don't you take the next three years of your life going through them?

And if it is ever established that human activity is not responsible for global warming, it will hardly be any credit to us. It's not as though we're such caring stewards of the planet as to never let such a thing happen. It's just that the sum total effect of our environmental meddling isn't significant enough. If it turns out we're not ruining the earth in that way, well....there's a dozen other ways in which we are ruining it. Perhaps that's why climate change believers play for keeps? Man's record of caring for both the planet and those inhabiting it is not a noble one.

******  The bookstore


Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'


Jason Chamberlain

Your point about scientists is a good one. I have a friend who calls himself a "skeptic." He became an atheist because of the "problem of evil," not because there was empirical evidence to drive him away from believing in God. When I discussed the existence of God with him he claimed that skeptics have open minds and will go where the data leads. Of course, that's not really true because a quick look around should be enough to make one at least a Deist.

My point in this story is just to give an illustration about how everyone seems to have an inviolable belief system that must be defende at all costs. Almost as if we were born with a sinful nature.


Hey Tom,

I got a new job a few months ago which has significantly cut down on the amount of time I have to troll around on your blog, or even post to my own. I'm sure this is to the betterment of the inter-worlds.

But, as usual, I would like to throw in my two cents worth on this topic - not as an agreement or disagreement, but just to deepen the issue a bit.

As I have been in university and am currently working as a research assistant, I feel a bit of sympathy for these guys (being the climate scientists). Out of the 1400 emails, two or three have had lines that are potentially embarrassing, but I don't think damning, in context. The one about using "Mike's trick" seems to be a real sticking point for people, and yet this is one that I passed over the first few times.

I guess that comes from years of coding/programming experience. "Trick" is just another piece of jargon, and I guess I'd be pretty damned if anyone looked through my inbox, or the inbox of some of my coworkers. Yes, we use "tricks" all the time, but it's sort of the same way that people say "Oh, yeah, the trick to getting a door on it's hinges right is...." The problem is that when you're working with significantly complex datasets, sometimes you do need to use coding "tricks" to keep some variables static, or manipulate them in such a way as they're useful for analysis. This can be as simple as a "trick" to remove quotation marks from around variables, and as complicated as actually messing with the numbers themselves in a systematic way. There is sometimes a thin line between a "trick" like this to make an analysis work (recently I know I've had to throw out bits of a dataset to make an analysis work, but the problem was with the data themselves - missing values, incorrect reporting, etc), and "massaging" the data to make it come out the way you want it to. I think here we have to look at long-term, replicated, and peer-reviewed studies.

The other parts of the emails that seem so damning, the whole bit about "hiding the decline" or "not having evidence for warming and it's a tragedy," are really not bad in context. The authors of the email are discussing a paper about tree-ring data (which is actually linked in the article) that talks about how tree-ring data has recently gone off from tracking temperature, possibly due to higher CO2 levels.

The issue here is that tree-rings have tended to give a general record of temperature changes that can be corroborated with other means (recorded temperatures, etc). In the past few decades, this has gone off the rails and is no longer accurate. So, in terms of people who use tree-ring data, for the most recent years, it does appear as if has been a relatively large decline in temperature, despite recorded temperatures rising on the average. This does bear a problem for people who use this type of data, and indeed that's most of what the email exchange is about.

It seems to me that overall when you have two or three emails out of 1400 from one organization that are maybe embarrassing, but hardly evidence of fraud or "faking data," and when you can look at averaged recorded temperatures and see a significant trend upwards, and when we know that C02 may not drive rising temperatures, but certainly exacerbates any increase...well, I'm a bit surprised this became a scandal at all.

It seems to me that, even regardless of whether or not there is anthropogenic global warming, it would be a good idea to cut pollution emissions and move towards a more sustainable and efficient model of energy production and use. I mean, I know we're all waiting on fusion tech to pan out, but in the meantime, I think we can make significant advances towards curbing these trends which have demonstrable harm on ecosystems and very likely on climate.

Part of the issue that climate is such a nasty and complex problem. Which is not to say that we can't make general statements about it. For example, the flip of a fair coin is notoriously hard to judge - you have a 50% chance of it going either way with any given flip. However, over a long-term test, say 100,000 flips, you could say that the average should approximate 50-50 heads and tails. Likewise, weather predictions are notoriously wrong (and the models are incredibly complex and subject to vast differences given the slightest of input changes), but climate trends, overall, can be approximated to a fair degree.

This is not say that I'm claiming any expertise in the area beyond knowing what it means to employ a "trick" in coding, or some knowledge in the area of randomness and complex datasets. Like you, I have to go along with what the consensus is. If in a few years, that consensus changes, so be it - I still think cleaning up our energy production is a good idea. If they're not wrong, however...well, that's a much more serious problem. I realize that this is an argument from consequences and thus really not valid at all, but I think in this case I'll let myself slide on it - we know that CO2 can drive temperature spikes higher than they would be, and given that most crops in most areas of the world are already growing at near their temperature optimum, any small increase in temperature could throw that off kilter and lead to mass starvation and food shortages. (Consequently, I've never understood how people can be so flippant about a "rise of a few degrees" in global temperature.)

Anyway, that's my two cents, for what it's worth. Hope to hear from you soon.


tom sheepandgoats

All of us are prone to make flippant remarks to close colleagues which, if taken out of context by those with an opposing agenda, might well seem to undermine our case. I've no problem with that interpretation.

On the other hand, most articles that I have read seem to have taken that into account. Some accuse these fellows of perpetrating outright fraud. But most simply feel that they are "stacking the deck," most likely out of what they consider good motive, thinking the average layman would be ill-equipped to analyze warming data that contain lots of swirls and backeddies. Likely that's why they resisted the Freedom of Information Act, since the captured emails show them not relying on impartial peer-review nor the assumed 'rising to the top' of the best theory. Instead, they seem to rely upon good ol' fashioned pushing and shoving to ensure that their views prevail. And if they're views are correct, then pushing and shoving is probably what they have to do.

But again, the operative word is "if." I doubt humans are capable of determining the "if" with any certainty. So global warming measures might be viewed as purchasing insurance. Trouble is, the premiums are quite steep, and, more to the point, they don't impact people equally. The ones whose circumstances make them able to pay lambaste those whose circumstances would make paying a real hardship. But it would probably be different if the roles were reversed.

As with most human activites, personal self-interest is what rules. And that's not necessarily a good way to run the world.


"Instead, they seem to rely upon good ol' fashioned pushing and shoving to ensure that their views prevail."

Exactly. The 'embarrassing' parts of the emails just seem to confirm how many people have felt about the scientific field for some time, namely, that there is more hubris at work there than objectivity.

Science is always presented in the noblest of terms, an honest quest for understanding. Yet there seems to be all the same forces of politics at work there that we see in...well, politics.

The more scientists continue to look down their collective nose at the 'simple' people, the more they will continue to alienate them. Such arrogance isn't all that helpful to finding real understanding of the world around us either.

"Pride is before a crash, and a haughty spirit before stumbling." (Proverbs 16:18)

tom sheepandgoats

I will come to the defence of scientists (not that they asked) to the following extent: Decades ago the average interested person of intelligence might reasonably hope to get his/her head around all branches of science. I don't know that it's possible anymore....areas have become too specialized. Therefore, there is a tendency to "bet on the jockey," trusting that the jockey knows his field. That is why these emails do such damage - they cast serious doubt on the integrity of various jockeys.

Bill in Detroit

Ummm ... what this shows is that scientists, press releases not withstanding, are humans. Cranky, territorial humans at that.

What's new? Edison put the hammer on Tesla, too.

Follow the money ...

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