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Earlier this week I was invited to join an e-mail discussion involving a variegated array of scientists and science communicators exploring a provocative question posed by one of them (I’ll leave the identities out, but will invite them to weigh in here).

The conversation encompassed the case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard specialist in cognition found guilty of academic misconduct, and assertions that climate research suffered far too much from group think, protective tribalism and willingness to spin findings to suit an environmental agenda.

The question? “Maybe science—in some fields, not necessarily all of them—is much more corrupt than anyone wants to acknowledge.”

Here’s how I responded, focusing on the climate end of things. The note is imperfect and incomplete, but does distill some of my thinking on where the field of climate science stands these days (follow the links for full context on some of the names; I’ve added some beyond those in the e-mail for further clarity):

After following the global warming saga – science and policy – for nearly a quarter century, I’ve seen the biases at the journals and  N.S.F. (including their press releases sometimes), in the  I.P.C.C. summary process (the deep reports are mainly sloppy in some cases; the summary writing — read the climate-extinction section of this post — is where the spin lies), and sometimes in the statements and work of individual researchers (both skeptics and “believers”).

A prime problem with climate science — related to peer review — is that it is implicitly done by very small tribes (sea ice folks, glacier folks, modelers, climate-ecologists, etc) so real peer review — avoiding  confirmation bias — is tough, for sure.

As for  Steve McIntyre and others challenging those tribes, in the long run I see their influence as positive, particularly in prompting more statistical rigor and transparency. But I also still await the entry of many of the critics into the peer-reviewed literature (with all its flaws). If  Richard Lindzen can publish readily, why not McIntyre? Steve told me, in essence, that he simply can’t be bothered.

One other problem particular to climate research is that meaning only emerges when its tribes collaborate (sea level is not an oceanography question, but a glaciology question, etc.). Group think can emerge, and journals have been complicit. See what Peter Huybers said here about Antarctic research

But I’ve also seen that, in the end, reality (including unbending uncertainty) surfaces. There are periods of overstatement (as was the case in the grand Katrina-Gore-I.P.C.C. era) and periods of overzealous proclamation of hoax (as was the case with “climategate“).

Behind those short-term pulses, which I’ve compared to water sloshing to the ends of a shallow pan, the reality remains where it has been for a long time. More CO2 = more warming = less ice, higher seas & changing climate patterns. But the outcomes most consequential to society remain the least clear (track the hurricane-climate researchto see “negative learning” on display).

Another enduring reality is that the “danger” level is for society to judge, not science (despite those in the science community who have shouted danger).

The policy debate is far uglier, and contains even less certainty than the biogeophysical science of climate, because of the human element and the reality that the unknown unknowns include our next steps as an innovative, reactive, unpredictable species.

As I wrote above, this note is imperfect. This line would be more accurate with the italicized changes, for example:

(the deep reports are, at worst, sloppy in some cases; the summary writing — read the climate-extinction section of this post — is where the spin somtimes lies)

And some of my critics will quickly pounce, asserting that I’m equating the proclamations of hoax in recent months with the exhortations of crisis that came before. I’m just describing the pulses of interest and attitude, both of which were transitory and — as polling has shown — have had little sticking power. To see one indicator of the transience of all of this, click here to see what the Google search trend has been for “climategate.”

Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes.

Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn’t be a journalist if I answered yes.


Dot Earth, 26 August 2010