A Consensus on Global Warming vs. Climategate

It must be remembered that regardless of how we feel about the flogged and lamented Climategate scandal the scientific consensus on global warming is almost universal. The American Geophysical Union conducted a poll of those in the geoscience community.  Of this community 90% agreed that global temperatures have risen and over 80% agree that human activities are a significant contributor to global warming.

As you can see from the graph below, there is a significant difference on the feelings of human contributions to global warming between those who are familiar with the research and the public in general.  Now this could be explained by the institutionalization of the idea of global warming which biases geoscientists toward a “belief” in global warming.  This would be unlikely, however, considering how this consensus has developed over time.

Climate Science

What interested me the most, however, is that only 47% of petroleum geologists concurred with the rest of the scientific community about the causes of global warming. This indicates that there is an institutional bias involved in opinions about global warming.  Still, it’s telling that those who are most intimate with the research are the more overwhelmingly unanimous.

Climategate is an important issue, not because it squashed fraudulent global warming claims, but because it highlights the very real nature of institutionalized biases.  It is crucial to examine the institutional biases that might impact scientific objectivity, and mainstream science should not shy away from this very real and applicable dilemma.  However, this is no less true for global warming deniers (GWD) as it is for the mainstream scientific community.  Conservative pundits and other GWD often harp on how the scientific community is bought by moneyed interests invested in global warming fraud (though it’s unclear who they are and how they benefit) yet neglect the obvious conflicts of interest among GWD organizations with regard to oil and petroleum interests.

Secondly, climategate makes an obvious case for increased computer security. We don’t know who these hackers are and how they got access to these e-mails, but I would imagine that there’s a lot of deleting going on right now. Every scientist in the world knows that sending e-mails to colleagues may not be as private as they think.  As yet there is little outrage about this breach of privacy that could constrain communication between scientists.

Thirdly, climategate brings our cultural ignorance of scientific process and methodology to the surface.  Climate research is very complex. The Earth is an impossibly dynamic system (much like society).  The intricacies of global climate systems never conform to easy predictions, models or analysis. How can the earth be getting hotter if it was colder in New England, and snowing early in Houston?  How can oceans rise in one part of the world, but not in another? To the lay person it sounds as if scientists are talking out of both sides of their mouths when they point out how short term trends do not contradict long term trends.  Climate scientists must find a way to make their science more accessible to the lay person if they want their warnings to be understood and taken seriously.  Also, science education must provide more in depth experience with scientific and statistical methodology.  This is a kind of depth that cannot be attained through high stakes tests.

We also need a better understanding of the sociology of science.  What takes place in the arcane chambers of the scientific world? For many people the science lab is as inaccessible as El Dorado. When a piece of that world is revealed to us, and it turns out that scientists are just folks doing a job there’s almost a betrayal of our preconceived notions, especially when those scientific folks turn out to be flawed. The statements made by the invaded scientists were certainly questionable. It’s easy to understand how a lay person would be irate over the idea of scientists “hiding” data or using “tricks”.  It’s also reprehensible that scientists might try to hide their data from competitors and detractors.  This is not your high school science lab.  This is interaction between people who do science for a living, people with the same frustrations that all working people have with their jobs. That’s not to condone the more questionable statements, though I do understand what they may have meant about hiding declines and doing tricks.  For the lay person, however, reading these e-mails (or rather about these e-mails from a select conservative pundit) is understandably outrageous. Climategate comes nowhere near unveiling a worldwide conspiracy to convince people they are getting warmer(?), but it certainly can be spun in such a way.  People knowledgeable in science, and I would hazard the sociology of science (of course this might be an institutional bias) would be more likely to see beyond the spin.

I really hope that all of the explanations about the hacked e-mails are true. I have enough experience to suspect that they are not, but I also know that this is no revelation of conspiracy.  Climategate will be used as a tool to call into question the incredible consensus that exists on global warming. What’s more, it will be used to destroy the political will to act boldly and radically on climate change.  In this issue science and politics overlap.  That’s a dangerous combination.  Science can highlight, but cannot solve problems. Only political action can do that, and political action is subject to claimsmaking and social movements.   I hope it is coincidence that this bomb fell before a major international conference on climate change, and without evidence to the contrary I will assume that it is, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Let’s just hope that the rest of the world is not as subject to sensationalism as we are in the United States.


Here’s an article by the Union of Concerned Scientists addressing this issue. Read Debunking Misinformation about Stolen E-mails.

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