I have always thought that the global warming, or climate change debate, was as much about social psychology as science. Now we have the perfect example in the unseemly row over a thousand purloined e-mails to and from the scientists of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain. Its a significant scandal, and inevitably it is being called climategate (that ubiquitous metaphor). East Anglia is one of four centers worldwide which keep the more-or-less official records of world temperature and climate history. They were among the first to claim that human activity was causing global average temperatures to rise to dangerous levels, basing their claims on several research projects, notably on tree rings on an eastern Siberian peninsula; and they adopted Michael Manns infamous hockey stick graph which claimed to show a sharp upward tick in recent temperatures. When pressed to share their basic data with other scientists, who might in true scientific method see if they could reproduce the conclusions, they refused.
As I recall (and forgive my faulty memory) their lead researcher Phil Jones, the director of the CRU, told an Australian climate researcher whom he feared was skeptical, something like I have 25 years invested in this data base; why should I share it with you who are only trying to find fault with it? Then a Canadian statistician, Steve McIntyre, showed that Manns graph was faulty and could not prove a sharp recent rise in temperature. And the Siberian tree rings turned out to have been cherry-picked (they werent cherry trees, though) to fit a premature conclusion, while most of the rest in the area told a different story. So the war was on.
Now an enterprising hacker, unknown as of this moment, has released e-mails to and from the people at East Anglia which show some fairly surprising and dismaying unscientific behavior, dripping contempt for the scientists skeptical of the warming alarm and showing what appear to be attempts to manipulate data to yield a desired result. The unguarded, but now disclosed, ad hominem insults perhaps show the natural nastiness of academics whose theories, representing hard work and deep convictions, are challenged. It becomes personal. Maybe we can chalk that up to original sin. Whats really serious is the perversion of the methods of science to yield a result above all challenge. The CRU repeatedly refused Freedom-of-Information requests from other scientists for its data set. Jones and his colleagues discussed ways to manipulate figures and graphs to make the temperature record prove the anthropogenic-global-warming thesis. He even proposed organizing boycotts of journals that dared to publish anything that would undermine that thesis. And now all this shoddy academic, scientific behavior is on the public record, racing around the internet.
Not surprisingly, important voices in the UK and elsewhere are calling for a formal investigation of the scandal. Of course it will be hard to agree on the make-up of an investigating panel, since the sides do not trust each other to be neutral and objective. (Lord) Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, is prominent among those calling for the investigation, but he is a well-known climate skeptic. (Sir) John Houghton, first chair of the UNs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an equally prominent advocate on the other side, says he wont support any investigation because the people calling for it are all biased. The University, deeply embarrassed, says it wont wait for that but will finally publish the withheld data for all to see. But theres this problem: the original data have been destroyed, and only the massaged, interpreted set is left which of course the skeptics dont trust.
We might shrug this matter off as just scientists behaving badly except for the fact that the IPCC has based its massive program on their work and is calling for policies of emissions reduction which will wreck the worlds economies, all in the name of their elusive goal of stopping the temperature rise (which at the moment has stopped all by itself anyway). Our Congress is among many around the world where these policies are being seriously debated. If this current scandal should create serious doubt about the scientific basis of such advocacy, we may expect the political fate of climate bills to be even more doubtful than it is now.