More on Climategate

In my previous post on Climategate I blithely said that nothing in the climate science email dump surprised me much. Having waded more deeply over the weekend I take that back.

The closed-mindedness of these supposed men of science, their willingness to go to any lengths to defend a preconceived message, is surprising even to me. The stink of intellectual corruption is overpowering. And, as Christopher Booker argues, this scandal is not at the margins of the politicised IPCC process. It is not tangential to the policy prescriptions emanating from what David Henderson called the environmental policy milieu [subscription required]. It goes to the core of that process.

One theme, in addition to those already mentioned about the suppression of dissent, the suppression of data and methods, and the suppression of the unvarnished truth, comes through especially strongly: plain statistical incompetence. This is something that Henderson’s study raised, and it was also emphasised in the Wegman report on the Hockey Stick, and in other independent studies of the Hockey Stick controversy. Of course it is also an ongoing issue in Steve McIntyre’s campaign to get hold of data and methods. Nonetheless I had given it insufficient weight. Climate scientists lean very heavily on statistical methods, but they are not necessarily statisticians. Some of the correspondents in these emails appear to be out of their depth. This would explain their anxiety about having statisticians, rather than their climate-science buddies, crawl over their work.

I’m also surprised by the IPCC’s response. Amid the self-justification, I had hoped for a word of apology, or even of censure. (George Monbiot called for Phil Jones to resign, for crying out loud.) At any rate I had expected no more than ordinary evasion. The declaration from Rajendra Pachauri that the emails confirm all is as it should be is stunning. Science at its best. Science as it should be. Good lord. This is pure George Orwell. And these guys call the other side “deniers”.

While I’m listing surprises, let me note how disappointed I was by The Economist’s coverage of all this. “Leaked emails do not show climate scientists at their best,” it observes. No indeed. I should say I worked at the magazine for years, admire it as much as ever, and rely on the science coverage especially. But I was baffled by its reaction to the scandal. “Little wonder that the scientists are looking tribal and jumpy, and that sceptics have leapt so eagerly on such tiny scraps as proof of a conspiracy,” its report concludes. Tiny scraps?  I detest anti-scientific thinking as much as The Economist does. I admire expertise, and scientific expertise especially; like any intelligent citizen I am willing to defer to it. But that puts a great obligation on science. The people whose instinct is to respect and admire science should be the ones most disturbed by these revelations. The scientists have let them down, and made the anti-science crowd look wise. That is outrageous.

Megan McArdle adopts a world-weary tone similar to The Economist’s: this is how science is done in the real world. If I were a scientist, I would resent that. She has criticised the emails and the IPCC response to them, then says she still believes the consensus view on climate change. Well, that was my position at the end of last week, and I suppose it still is. But how do I defend it? There is far more of a problem here for the consensus view than Megan and ordinarily reliable commentators like The Economist acknowledge. I am not a climate scientist. In the end I have to trust the experts. That is what we are asked to do. “Trust us, we’re scientists”.

Remember that this is not an academic exercise. We contemplate outlays of trillions of dollars to fix this supposed problem. Can I read these emails and feel that the scientists involved deserve to be trusted? No, I cannot. These people are willing to subvert the very methods–notably, peer review–that underwrite the integrity of their discipline. Is this really business as usual in science these days? If it is, we should demand higher standards–at least whenever “the science” calls for a wholesale transformation of the world economy. And maybe some independent oversight to go along with the higher standards.

The IPCC process needs to be fixed, as a matter of the greatest urgency. Read David Henderson or the Wegman report to see how. And in the meantime, let’s have some independent inquiries into what has been going on.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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