Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Climategate positive feedback loop

I've avoided writing about "climategate" because of the artificial nature of the "scandal".

There is certainly a need to reduce tribalism in the scientific community (not just climate science!), improve peer review and improve the assessment process - I'll cheer those initiatives with enthusiasm.

That's not why the hackers released those emails were released online. The timing of the online publication of those e-mails were no fluke. The goal was to create a grand diversion from the important policy issues of the day. From the Times of London:

The computer was hacked repeatedly, the source close to the investigation said: “It was hacked into in October and possibly earlier. Then they gained access again in mid-November.” By not releasing the e-mails until two weeks before Copenhagen, the hacker ensured that the debate about them would rage during the summit. Very few of the e-mails are recent. One, in which Professor Jones mentions a “trick” which could “hide the decline” in temperatures, was sent in 1999.

Bob Ward, director of policy at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, based at the London School of Economics, said: “From the timing of the release of the e-mails, it seems that the intention was not just to inform the public but to undermine mainstream climate researchers and influence the process in Copenhagen.”

Many scientists are now offering eloquent public explanations for the problems with some scientific practice and the assessment process. Terrific, but only in the abstract.

The problem is the impression given by a public blood letting. Climate scientists, people who trained in the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere, realize that regardless of issues with how some scientists conduct and publicize their work, all the basic concepts are still solid. That's not true for everyone else. So by constantly questioning scientific practice in public forums, it gives people the mistaken impressions there is dissension about the basic concepts, no matter how many caveats are then offered about strength of our understanding of the basic concepts (caveats just make it look like you're dodging the truth!). Good intentions aside, it is fueling public misconceptions about science and feeding the 24-7 scandal machine.

Perhaps the hackers understand climate dynamics better than we assume; they sure knew how to initiate a positive feedback.

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