Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Paying Dearly

Australian ethicist and author Clive Hamilton has written a series of lucid articles that provides needed perspective on the SwiftHack affair (the so-called "Climategate scandal".)
While the “revelations” have been milked for all they are worth, and a lot more, the science remains rock solid. If instead of cherry-picking two or three that lend themselves to spin, you read the 1000 or so emails that were posted on a Russian server the picture that emerges is one of an enormously dedicated group of men and women doing their best to carry out research of the highest quality.


And the emails reveal the enormous external pressure they were under. They show they were constantly accused of being frauds and cheats; their work was twisted and misrepresented; and they were bombarded with vexatious freedom of information requests orchestrated by denialists. In short, they were caught up in a hot political debate that they did not really understand or want to be part of, yet they were the target of savvy, secretive and ruthless organisations ready to pounce on anything they said or wrote.
The charge that these scientists have been engaged in some kind of deep and carefully hidden conspiracy to foist alarm about climate change on a gullible public does not withstand scrutiny.

As Hamilton and many others have repeatedly shown, there is no evidence for such a conspiracy. There is also no plausible motive for so many scientists to act, in essence, against their own self-interest. When scientists fabricate their work and are caught, their careers are irretrievably ruined. What does motivate scientists, especially those early in their careers, is precisely the opposite of careful conformity. Disproving some generally accepted scientific theory and surviving a careful peer review establishes a name and a reputation. Constantly probing for flaws in scientific theories and proposing better ones is the means by which our scientific understanding of the world advances.

At the core of the attacks is a lack of understanding of science and its method:
Bloggers and columnists, who attack climate science without ever opening an IPCC report or speaking to a real climate scientists, imagine that the body of climate science is a house of cards, and taking away one or two will cause it to collapse. In fact the scientific case for global warming is like a mountain built up by adding one rock at a time over many years. Even if all of the alleged errors were true it would amount to picking off a handful of rocks from the top of the mountain, leaving the rest unchanged and unmoved.

Yet these alleged mistakes – non-existent or trivial – with no implications whatever for the robustness of climate science have been deployed in a sophisticated campaign to blacken the reputations of the scientists responsible for alerting us to the perils of global warming.
The purpose of the campaign is to create doubt and delay, allowing those who fund the disinformation to continue to profit from business as usual.
Over the last five months, a vast gulf has opened up between the media-stoked perception that the climate science has been exaggerated and the research-driven evidence that the true situation is worse than we thought.
If anything, the dangers have been understated; the rate of change is accelerating. The FUD campaign is succeeding. Concludes Hamilton:
Just when we should be urging immediate and deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, the public is being lulled into disbelief, scepticism and apathy by a sustained and politically driven assault on the credibility of climate science. For this we will all pay dearly.

(h/t Climate Progress)
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