Sunday, March 18, 2012

A new paper purporting to present a scientific analysis of ad hominem attacks in the "Climategate" emails has caught the attention of global warming skeptics. The paper's "analysis" has little value--the idea of scientifically analyzing ad hominem attacks is a bit dubious from the start, and this paper does nothing to vindicate the concept. Its primary attraction to the skeptics lies in its attitude towards the climate change question: it bends over backwards to be neutral, while tut-tutting the poor behavior of the climategate emailers--sort of Judith Curry-style. In this respect, it highlights the primary weakness of the climate change skeptics' case.

The problem with this detached, neutral, scientific conduct-focused approach is that the scientific questions can't be so cleanly separated from the conduct questions. It's nice to think that even when one side in a scientific debate--whether the establishment or the dissenters--is the scientific equivalent of flat-earthers or creationists, the other side can and should stick to careful technical arguments, and will eventually win the day. But people (and institutions) are human, "eventually" is a long time, and a lot of damage can be done when flawed ideas are advanced by unscrupulous means, and resisted only by the most fastidiously scrupulous ones. In this respect, the "alarmists" actually have the better of the argument.

"Fakegate" has provided an excellent illustration of this point. Most of the discussion on both sides has carefully avoided the question of the authenticity of the disputed "strategy memo"--one side emphasizing instead Glieck's dishonest methods in obtaining insider information from the Heartland Institute, and the other side, the contents of the acknowledged-authentic Heartland documents--for the understandable reason that the authenticity of the "strategy memo" cannot be proven one way or another, and probably never will be. Yet the final judgment on Glieck's actions depends crucially on that question: if the memo is indeed authentic, then Glieck's deception to expose an organization intent on undermining science education (among other sins outlined in the memo) is at least understandable. And conversely, if the memo is fake, then Glieck isn't simply an investigator with somewhat controversial methods--he's at the very least a reckless purveyor of slanders, and at worst an outright forger.

Likewise, if opponents of the "consensus view" on AGW really are the equivalent of flat-earthers or creationists, trying to replace legitimate scientific consensus in the service of a patently unscientific agenda, then scheming to keep them out of peer-reviewed journals and science classrooms is a perfectly reasonable, even noble endeavor, arguably necessary to defend the standards of scientific research and education from attack. It's only if the climate skeptics have a legitimate scientific case that the shenanigans of Jones, Mann et al. start to look disturbing.

And this is where the real failure of the broader scientific community becomes clear. Academic research has become so specialized and compartmentalized--for political reasons as much as for scientific ones--that entire scientific fields of highly dubious merit have sprung up, keeping large numbers of "scientists" busy doing research that is at best useless and at worst downright bogus, with nary a complaint from the collective scientific establishment. In this environment, it's simply expected that the scientific community will rush to the defense of any fairly small collection of scientists that comes under attack from without, regardless of the credibility of their conclusions and despite a complete lack of external scrutiny.

It should be obvious to any scientifically literate person that the claims of the AGW establishment are nowhere near iron-clad enough for all of their critics to be dismissed out of hand as cranks, lunatics and political hacks. Yet not only do I hear embarrassingly few scientists from outside the immediate field address this point, but nobody thinks it odd that these outside scientists should simply defer en masse to their specialist colleagues, no questions asked. If I didn't know better, I'd think the scientific research community as a whole cared more about solidarity in the protection of its status as collectively coddled, well-funded "experts" than about the quality of its scientific research.