Like a lot of scientists — I’m a physicist — I assumed the “Climategate” flap would cause a minor stir but would not prompt any doubt about the threat of global warming, at least among educated, intelligent people. The evidence for anthropogenic (that is, human-caused) global warming is strong, comes from many sources, and has been subject to much scientific scrutiny. Plenty of data are freely available. The basic principles can be understood by just about anyone, and first- and second-order calculations can be perfomed by any physics grad student. Given these facts, questioning the occurrence of anthropogenic global warming seems crazy. (Predicting the details is much, much more complicated). And yet, I have seen discussions, articles, and blog posts from smart, educated people who seem to think that anthropogenic climate change is somehow called into question by the facts that (1) some scientists really, deeply believe that global warming skeptics are wrong in their analyses and should be shut out of the scientific discussion of global warming, and (2) one scientist may have fiddled with some of the numbers in making one of his plots. This is enough to make you skeptical of the whole scientific basis of global warming? Really?
The analogy that comes to mind is to evolution. Suppose a bunch of emails among paleontologists were released, showing that they had conspired to quash scientific papers about creationism; had refused to share data with creationists; and had refused to publish in journals that publish papers that deny evolution. Suppose the paleontologists were shown to have fabricated data, hidden or distorted fossil data that are hard to explain, and just generally distorted their findings to make a messy dataset look like a good, clean match to evolutionary orthodoxy. Would this make you question evolution? Should it?
Note that I’m not asking whether the behaviors described above would be acceptable (my opinion: some are, some aren’t). What I’m asking is, if you found out that some scientists were acting this way, would you throw up your hands and say “the whole occurrence of evolution is called into question by these revelations”?
The actions I’m talking about not so hypothetical, when it comes to supporting evolution: Mendel fudged his data on heritability. Several fossil finds that were used to support the theory of evolution were hoaxes or frauds. And when I was a kid it was revealed that a Smithsonian exhibit on the evolution of the horse had arranged a bunch of fossils in order by size (which seemed really convincing, because it showed a gradual, monotonic “evolution” from small to large) rather than in chronological order (which doesn’t show a monotonic progression at all).
Coming back to the “Climategate” emails: Failing to provide data when asked…that’s bad. Fudging data is completely indefensible. The emails do indeed reveal some unethical and scientifically damaging behavior by some researchers. They reveal pettyness and poor judgment by others. But they don’t disprove or discredit the theory of anthropogenic climate change, any more than the Piltdown Man hoax discredits the theory of evolution.
It’s very disheartening that some smart people are so quick to buy the arguments of the climate skeptics. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: you can still find evolutionary skeptics, too, 150 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and about 100 years after the case for evolution was essentially proved. There are still people out there — lots of them — who look for, and find, evidence that evolution is a hoax at worst, or an example of “groupthink” by researchers at best (search for “case against evolution” in the search engine of your choice). There are enough of these people that they sometimes succeed in quashing the teaching of evolution. I suppose there’s no reason to expect the theory of anthropogenic climate change to have an easier time of it. In fact, it will probably take longer: acceptance of evolution didn’t threaten substantial economic interests, the way acceptance of global warming does. But I don’t think the economic forces explain the phenomenon that I find so discouraging, of intelligent people with nothing at stake who are so willing to believe global warming is a hoax. These people, or at least the ones I know, don’t claim to have worked through the science and found it unconvincing or wrong; they simply choose to believe other people who claim to have done so. Why?
[I feel like I need to say a few things here at the end that a better writer would have found a way to work into the text. (1) No analogy is perfect; evolution skeptics are not exactly the same as climate change skeptics. (2) Yes, I am aware of the claims of mainstream climate skeptics: that the climate isn’t actually warming because 1998 is still the warmest year on record (misleading), that warming in recent years or decades is explained by increased solar radiation (false), that the theory of global warming depends critically on factors such as atmospheric levels of water vapor that are so unknown that the whole theory is questionable (false), and many others. Many of these, I am scientifically capable of judging for myself; others are too far outside my area of knowledge but are easy enough for experts to test that it is just impossible that everybody gets them wrong. (3) There are plenty of quickie pro-and-con discussions on climate, from every side. For a short, readable (but non-technical and thus hopefully non-persuasive) article, this one isn’t bad; for a lot more detail, including links to data and technical arguments, RealClimate.org is a great source.]