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Climategate: scientists behave like humans!

Phil Jones embarrassed himself with hacked emails

Phil Jones embarrassed himself with hacked emails

Climategate, if my initial impressions are correct, is a tempest in a teacup.  But maybe it shouldn’t be.

If you haven’t been following it, the basic facts are that a bunch of scientists at East Anglia University have been exposed, through hacked emails, as having meddled with their data and tried to suppress publication of articles by scientists whose conclusions disagreed with their own.

This story has already degenerated into a typical liberal vs conservative shouting match (see, e.g., ACORN).  But unless something changes, I can’t see it having much of an effect beyond spawning a few overheated blog posts and damaging the careers of the individual scientists involved.  There have always been scientists skeptical of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), some of whom are honest and some of whom have been corrupted by oil industry financing.  President Obama is headed for Copenhagen because the political momentum behind fighting global warming — or at least, appearing to fight global warming — is large enough to survive the revelation that scientists who believe in AGW, like all other human beings, can be petty, mean, dishonest, self-interested, manipulative, and greedy.  In other words, that they’re no different from investment bankers.

Climategate does not prove that global warming is a hoax.  But it should remind us of some important facts.

Chief among these is the relationship of scientific findings to policy making.  The fact is that there has never been any settled relationship between the degree of unanimity among scientists and the need for policy change.  This is true for global warming and for virtually any other policy issue you can think of.  Scientific unanimity that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer and heart disease doesn’t compel us to ban cigarettes.  The lack of scentific agreement about the psychological effects of movie violence on children doesn’t prevent us from limiting admission to R-rated movies.

Most of our policy choices, in fact, are made on grounds that explicitly are not scientific, such as “what do the majority of the people think?”  Should we ban pit bulls to protect kids?  We decide by asking voters, not scientists.  Many questions that politicians and policymakers confront aren’t amenable to scientific answers.  (Do wider sidewalks make for a more pleasant experience for pedestrians?)  Some questions may eventually have scientific answers, but do not yet have any scientific consensus.  (How much wilderness should we set aside for grizzly bears to maintain their populations?)

The response to global warming has never been dependent upon scientists.  As soon as enough credible scientists pointed out the possibility of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), the important questions have always been political.  To the extent that those of us who think we should be doing something to change our behavior to mitigate the risks of global warming have relied upon scientific consensus, we’ve made a big mistake.  In fact, I think very few anti-global warming activists have made this mistake in their own heads.  But some have made public arguments that seem to depend on the unanimity of scientists to justify our policy proposals.

Perhaps Climategate will discipline us to take responsibility for our own political judgment.  We have judged that the possibility that AGW exists is nonzero.  We have judged that the value of not disturbing our ecosystem more than we need to, coupled with this nonzero risk, is sufficient to recommend that we change our behavior.  This judgment is informed, but not determined, by science.

Climategate, then, does matter, but not in the way that many rabid right-wingers think it does.  It doesn’t mean we should abandon our attempts to limit the production of greenhouse gases.  Instead, it means that proponents of doing something to minimize our impacts on the planet’s climate shouldn’t get lazy, pretending that their political judgments are compelled by an objective scientific consensus that has never existed.  Scientists are human, and they will frequently behave like humans, even if they argue for the right side.

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