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Challenges to doing Science in the era of Social Media
on March 23, 2015
Climate Science has become as much Politics as Science over the past twenty-five years. As a result, the arguments regarding Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) tend to raise the temperature when the AGW believers (normally Left or Liberal) and the Skeptics (often Conservatives) spar over any of the many contentious issues on the subject - be it Arctic ice thinning or the warming of the southern oceans or CO2 increase in the atmosphere or the melting of glaciers around the world. Both sides have been guilty of ad hominem attacks, alleging conspiracy theories and resorting to extremes. On the one hand, I think the Believers are guilty of fear-mongering by making dire predictions for Humanity about the future based mainly on computer models and extrapolation. On the other hand, the Skeptics are also guilty of possessing a missionary zeal in attacking the Believers with every small piece of evidence they can find to embarrass their opposition. It is in this vitiated and charged atmosphere that thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) were hacked and released on the internet for public scrutiny in 2009. The contents of many of the email exchanges showed the Climate Science community of scientists in rather dubious light, casting doubts on their professional integrity and competence. Needless to say, the Skeptics had a field day saying that their allegations of scientific manipulation and coercion on the part of the proponents of AGW have been vindicated by this episode - called `ClimateGate'. This book by the journalist Fred Pearce is one of the first books on the subject and it presents a well-documented and fair account of what really happened in Climate Gate and what its implications are for the future direction of research in this question.
The main contention of the book is that the Scientists in the eye of the storm - like Michael Mann, Phil Jones, Kevin Trenberth etc - meant well and that they did not try to hoodwink the public or act on behalf of some mega lobbies. The scientists were more guilty of omission rather than commission. He does not see a smoking gun pointing to big conspiracies or any scientific fraud. The author himself is obviously in support of the AGW theory because he says, "none of the 1,073 emails, or the 3,587 files containing documents, raw data and computer code upsets the 200-year-old science behind the "greenhouse effect". We might wish it weren't so, but the world still has a problem. A big problem".
Though I also believe that the scientists are people of integrity and honesty in general, I don't lightly dismiss the impact of the massive amount of money that seems to be involved in this whole saga. Many NGOs, the UN, major Western Governments and the Renewable Energy Sector are all big sources of funding for the support of AGW and hence, there can be a vested interest among scientists to keep looking for supporting evidence and dismissing data which are dissonant to AGW. Just as we cast doubt on the Skeptics for acting on behalf of the big fossil fuel companies, the scientists also must be subjected to greater scrutiny on this aspect of 'vested interest'. This is one issue the book does not deal with in relation to the email saga. The one other thing about the book is that it was written barely six months after the release of the emails in Nov 2009 and so one can wonder whether the author rushed to print without sufficient research. However, in the author's defence, he has been reporting on the subject for the Guardian newspaper for a couple of decades already and so a lot of the material might have come from his own past work.
One of the issues which seems to have emerged in this debate is doing Science in the modern context of Social Networking, emails and massive amount of scientific information on the internet. We find the scientists at CRU being dismissive of the rights of Skeptics like Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick to challenge the CRU scientists on Climate Science because they are just outsiders who are not scientists in the field or on the subject of Climate Science. However, Climategate shows that people like McIntyre are specialists in applied Statistics and they are able to analyze the methods used by scientists like Michael Mann and point out shortcomings in the way they have used Statistics to present the data. In some ways, the future of many areas of research could see well-informed outsiders challenging establishment scientists and asking for full disclosure of their data and methods in arriving at conclusions. The book shows that in the past twenty years, Climate scientists in the UK and the US have resisted these trends. One jarring note about the AGW believers is that they push the line that `Global Warming is settled science and a FACT and not just an opinion' and that there is consensus among scientists on this. The CRU scientists even accused the Skeptics of trying hard only to find errors in their data, methods and analysis! Even scientists at times can forget that the progress of Science has always happened only by such an approach!
In the end, the issue of the emails is not anywhere as important as the validity of the Computer models of Climate and the validity of the Forecasting method. Even scientists would admit that we do not know enough about the complexities of the interaction between the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the biosphere and the cryosphere to model them without uncertainties or errors. It is better to be more humble about our knowledge and exercise restraint in forecasting probabilities for the real world for the next hundred years.