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Climategate 2.0 And The Left’s Misunderstanding Of The Scientific Method

The story may have fallen through the cracks owing to its timing, which was right before the Thanksgiving holiday. Suffice it to say that a new round of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit has been hacked and made available for public inspection.

As with the original document dump in 2009, there is much in the newest 5,000-plus emails—nicknamed Climategate 2.0—to cause their senders justifiable mortification. And as with Climategate 1.0, the newest incriminating releases have commentators on the left exasperated.

Kate Sheppard, who covers energy and environmental politics for Mother Jones, laments that “in certain circles,” the latest batch of emails is “playing out much like the first batch of emails did,” meaning that anti-science ignoramuses on the right (and even some on the left!) are “cherry-picking” “quotes from the emails taken out of their context” so as “to paint scientists as scheming or lying.”

Among the media suspects she names are “conservative commentators” at the UK’s TelegraphHot Air (the latter a reference to an article by Ed that ran on November 22), and FOX News. But she also lambastes ABC News (which “just rehashed a bunch of he-said, she-said about it, rather than actually reporting”), the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the New York Times.

So which are the most damning quotes that these various media have taken out of context? One especially popular choice is a portion of an email by Peter Thorne, who currently works with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. In the passage, which appears near the beginning of the dump, Thorne writes:

Observations do not show rising temperatures throughout the tropical troposphere unless you accept one single study and approach and discount a wealth of others. This is just downright dangerous. We need to communicate the uncertainty and be honest. Phil, hopefully we can find time to discuss these further if necessary either in Chicago or when I visit in March (has a date been decided yet?).

As Sheppard acknowledges, the emails since their release have been posted in a format with links that enables the reader to view the complete email exchange and in so doing judge whether in fact a quote has been taken out of context.

But the fragments from the dump that most commanded my attention were those that can’t be explained away by a need for a broader context. Consider this one sent by Kathryn Humphrey, a scientific adviser with the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA):

I can’t overstate the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message that the Government can give on climate change to help them tell their story. They want the story to be a very strong one and don’t want to be made to look foolish.

Or this one by Jonathan Overpeck, co-director of Institute of the Environment at Arizona State University:

I agree w/ Susan [Solomon] that we should try to put more in the bullet about ‘Subsequent evidence’ […] Need to convince readers that there really has been an increase in knowledge – more evidence. What is it?

Concerns for whether a narrative looks “strong” or the funding source (Government) “foolish” are anathema to scientific inquiry. So is a concern for “convincing” readers. It is the job of the unvarnished data to do that.

People like Kate Sheppard should be just as outraged by this political—and anti-scientific—silliness as the sources she condemns. Science is a quest first and foremost for the truth. If a hypothesis fails to predict or describe observable data, then the hypothesis gets replaced—not the data.

When science takes a back seat to politics and politicians’ agenda, we all lose.