kmod's blog

10Dec/090

The Great Climate-gate Debate

I went to this a forum today on the recent "Climate-gate" event. In case you haven't heard about it, someone hacked into the University of East Anglia's email system and publicly posted a large number of emails sent by climate scientists working in their Climatic Research Unit. And some of those emails are pretty bad -- they talk about withholding data, keeping papers from being published, and other scientifically unethical things.
http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2009/11/uk-hack-puts-climate-scientists-personal-e-mails-on-display.ars

There was a forum today at MIT on the incident, along with discussion on climate science in general.  As far as I could tell from some simple google searching (I missed the introductions, unfortunately), the panelists are very well-respected, and I was very lucky to be able to hear them all talk.  Here's a quick summary of what people said (descriptions taken from the MIT event site):

  • Kerry Emanuel, Breene M. Kerr Professor of Atmospheric Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences -- said Yes these emails look bad, but it's normal human beings talking to each other.  and besides, there is so much evidence already that even if we throw out the contributions of these people it doesn't matter.  Oh and climate skepticism is a big conspiracy.
  • Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences -- said These emails look bad and show that we've been right when we've been saying that climate alarmists have been withholding data and prevent paper publication.  Oh, and there is a vast global warming conspiracy.
  • Judith Layzer, Edward and Joyce Linde Career Development Associate Professor of Environmental Policy, Department of Urban Studies and Planning -- said Well I don't know much about climate science, but ultimately the public is not going to be swayed by the weight of the evidence, but rather some sort of political persuasions.  So these emails may not affect the evidence in any meaningful way, but they will affect public perception very heavily.
  • Stephen Ansolabehere, Professor, Department of Political Science, MIT and Professor of Government, Harvard University -- said something about how we should use this as a teachable moment about ethics in science, and how scientists need to really self-police themselves to earn back the trust of the public.
  • Ronald Prinn, TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Director, Center for Global Change Science -- said that he changed his mind about global warming between his two congressional hearings in 1997 and 2007.  And we can do much much better [in discussing global warming? not sure]

Ultimately, I think Prof. Layzer had the best take-home message (which was contributed to by everyone else, so I don't want to attribute it just to her).  There are lots of people on both sides of the debate, there's lots of money on both sides, and there's a lot of politics on each side.  In the end, simply improving the climate science is not going to settle the matter, just like improving evolution science is not going to convince the 40% of the US population that doesn't believe in it.

So where does that leave us?  I'm not really sure what to believe.  I think now I'm a global warming agnostic (before I was a global warming atheist) -- I think both sides of the science are so heavily politicized that you can't really trust either side any more.  I think the only way we will know for sure is by letting the world play out and see what happens; in the meantime, we're going to have to decide something somehow, and we can only hope that it's right.

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