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Ben Pile: When The BEST Ain’t Good Enough, Make Stuff Up

Science cannot end the climate debate, because the climate debate has very little to do with science.
A new scientific study of the Earth’s temperature record aimed to rescue climate science’s reputation from the aftermath of the ‘Climategate’ affair. Advocates of climate policies have long argued that unimpeachable science has driven policy-making, but climate sceptics argued that due scientific process had not been observed. Climategate and other revelations  that seemed to undermine climate science seemed to make the sceptics’ case. Rather than bringing clarity to the debate, however, the new study inadvertently demonstrates that the desire for unimpeachable scientific answers belies a fundamentally political debate.

The ‘Climategate’ affair broke In late 2009. Thousands of private emails between climate researchers based at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unity were leaked onto the internet, the contents of which raised questions about the propriety of high profile scientists. Whether or not they had done anything wrong, the authors of these emails seemed to have been caught taking liberties with statistics, concealing their data and methodology from scrutiny, and treating the critics of their research with contempt. In the wake of Climategate, Professor of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley, Richard Muller said,

Quite frankly as a scientist, I have a list of people whose papers I won’t read any more. You’re not allowed to do this in science; this is not up to our standards. […] This is why I’m leading a group to re-do all this in a totally transparent way.

The first results from Muller’s group — Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) — have been released. Rather than being released through publication in a peer-reviewed journal, however, Muller and his associates took the somewhat unusual step of publishing draft copies of their studies, and made themselves available for comment in the media. Fuelling controversy further, Muller wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, which an editor gave the title, ‘The Case Against Global Warming Skepticism — There were good reasons for doubt until now’.

This comment came to the delight of climate activist journalists, scientists and other commentators. ‘Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed’, announced the New Scientist. ‘BEST reconfirm: warming is happening’, said the influential Carbon Brief blog, which is staffed predominantly by activists from environmental NGOs. Channel 4 News’s science correspondent, Tom Clarke was asked, ‘so does this finally vindicate climate change science’. ‘In a word, yes’, replied Clarke. According to Clarke, the BEST team’s discovery that the world is warming got those implicated by Climategate off the hook.

From the copy it had generated, it would seem that BEST had ended the debate. But climate scientist, and contributor to the BEST project, Judith Curry observed, ‘the spin on the press release and Muller’s subsequent statements have introduced unnecessary controversy into the BEST data and papers’. Curry’s comments were picked up by Daily Mail journalist, David Rose, who wrote

‘The Mail on Sunday can reveal that a leading member of Prof Muller’s team has accused him of  trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.’

Exciting stuff. But not what Curry had told Rose. ‘To set the record straight, some of the other sentiments attributed to me [in Roses’s Daily Mail article] are not quite right’, she wrote on her blog. Meanwhile, Muller himself was distancing himself from the headlines of the article in the Wall Street Journal. ‘It doesn’t represent the article’, he told a journalist in New Mexico. But sceptics pointed out that Muller had said,

Without good answers to [sceptics’ concerns about various attempts to measure global warming and its effects], global-warming skepticism seems sensible. But now let me explain why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.

Confusion reigns. The coverage had by now been established as so much he-said-she-said. Sceptics pointed out that, in spite of the claims that the debate was now over, the BEST study still had argued that ‘human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated’. The data still reflected a stalling of global temperatures over the past decade, and the study’s attempt to rule out one of the main concerns sceptics have about the way temperature data is recorded appear to have some serious shortcomings. Even the project’s leader didn’t seem to be making consistent statements about what his research meant for the climate change debate. None of this phased the BBC’s environmental correspondent, Richard Black, who continued covering the affair in much the same way. Wrote Black,

The original “hide the decline” claim is one of the most easily de-bunked in the entire pantheon of easily-debunkable “sceptic” claims.

Phil Jones wrote the email in 1999, immediately following what still ranks as one of the hottest years on record, and well before the idea of a “slowdown” or “hiatus” or even “decline” in warming gained currency.

So it can’t have had anything to do with hiding a global temperature decline.

The expression ‘hide the decline’ is what ultimately led to Climategate becoming such a major story. Defenders of those implicated by the emails argued that ‘hiding the decline’ referred to a mathematical technique, rather than a conscious effort to deceive. But there was nonetheless good evidence that something untoward had been intended. And it was this that moved Richard Muller to establish the BEST project, as he explains in this video.

If the sceptics’ ‘hide the decline claim’ was as easy to debunk as Black claimed, Muller — a Professor of Physics — would not have needed to bother with the BEST project. But Black had invented the claim he had attributed to sceptics, for which he later apologised. But the cat was out of the bag: rather than accurately representing the arguments made in the debate, he had picked a straw man to argue with, rather than sceptics.

Had Black wished to overcome the limitations of mediocre journalism, to get to the heart of the debate, there are many well-informed sceptics he could have turned to for comment and advice. One such is Andrew Montford, author of ‘The Hockey Stick Illusion’ and a report published by  the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on the Climategate affair (PDF).  ‘He’s not representing what the sceptic’s arguments are’, Montford told me.

The majority of sceptics say ‘yes, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that the world has warmed’. That’s really hasn’t been argued very much for a long time. There are  few people out there arguing [against] that, but really not very many. What you read about sceptic objections in the newspapers is not really what the sceptics’ objections are.

Montford agrees that there is no definitive ‘sceptic’ argument. This fact mirrors the many varied positive claims that are made on the other ‘side’ of the climate debate, but which seem to emerge axiomatically from the fact that ‘climate change is happening’. For many sceptics, too much rests on the claim, however true it is, which is in the first place a question of degree with a considerable amount of latitude, even within the ‘scientific consensus’. A concatenation of non-sequiturs cascade from the first: about sea-level rise, species extinction, drought, famine, resources wars, and so on. And these consequences seem to cascade just as ‘inevitably’ to the remedy: the creation of powerful political institutions, a transformation of the global economy, and the de facto rationing of energy and regulation of lifestyle.

In short, the climate debate is by definition as complex as the whole of human social life and natural science combined. But such a complex state of affairs does not make for easy reportage, especially by journalists who don’t seem able to digest nuance and complexity, let alone reflect meaningfully on them. And so to take issue with any aspect of the debate is to seemingly deny that the earth has warmed approximately 0.7 degrees centigrade and that humans had some part in it.

So what does the BEST study really reveal, according to sceptics? And how has it changed things in the post-Climategate world? Montford tells me that,

[BEST] doesn’t really change anything. People like Steve McIntyre [the climate blogger who first raised issues with how historical temperature records were created] were saying long before Climategate: you’re not going to find a smoking gun in the temperature record, and you always had the satellite records which were telling pretty much the same story. [The Climategate researchers] are just being civil servants and trying to hide the fact that they’re not doing very much, they haven’t got many quality-control procedures, and they’ve got commercial incentives to keep everything under wraps. That’s the only reason for the secrecy.

So it would seem that few, if any, sceptics were claiming that there had been no warming, or that the scientific data had been plucked out of thin air. BEST merely confirmed what most sceptics agreed was probably happening anyway. Nonetheless, the BEST story was widely reported as representing a meaningful end to the climate debate. Muller had made ambiguous comments, which were amplified by an incautious sub-editor. A phantom news story appeared out of an uncontroversial study. Journalists were reporting from inside their own heads, not from the real world. And that is an interesting phenomenon, and one which needs some explanation.

Complex debates are reduced to simple, moral stories of ‘scientists versus deniers’, in part because of the shortcomings of news organisations and their journalists’ attachments to the debate. Anxieties about the end of the world give moral orientation to otherwise disorientated commentators. Taking a stand that claims to ‘save the planet’ elevates journalists, who without climate change, would quite probably struggle to overcome mediocrity, to define a sense of purpose for themselves. It looks like bravery, but it is merely vacuity that drives sensationalism.

However, vapid journalism — churnalism — is not the whole story. The controversy generated not by BEST itself, but by the treatment of its result, speaks about wider and unrealistic expectations of science. Politicians, activists, and scientists are as vulnerable as journalists to the idea that science can supply them with uncorrupted objectivity and unambiguous instruction. Given that Muller himself didn’t seem able to supply clarity to the debate — in spite of the science — it is no surprise that arguments downstream have even greater difficulty getting the story straight. ‘Science’, rather than shedding light on the material world, obscures the debate.

Climategate, and other events in late 2009, such as the failure of the COP15 meeting at Copenhagen to find a successor to the Kyoto protocol revealed that too much had been invested in science. Science was, after all, produced by humans prone to error and vice. Climate scientists had refused to reveal their data and show their workings, and several alarming claims about climate change were found to be groundless. This would have all been without consequence, had there been more circumspection about the role of science. But rather than reflect on such expectations, the BEST project aimed to reproduce the science with virtue: ‘transparency’. It made no difference, though, because before it had even been peer-reviewed and published, it became the peg onto which the same old prejudices, myths and politics were hung. BEST now ‘vindicated climate science’, exonerated climate scientists and forced ‘sceptics’ to concede that the earth had warmed.

BEST says nothing about any of these things, of course. Sceptics weren’t ‘denying’ that the world had warmed. The debate wasn’t divided between climate science and its critics. And ‘Climategate’ remains an embarrassment to those who refused to release data (or concealed it) and its methodology, as Muller explained. Science cannot end the climate debate, because the climate debate has very little to do with science.