Warning! Stormy ethics waters ahead!
Computer hackers invaded the server at the influential Climatic Research Unit at The University of East Anglia, in eastern England, and left with over a decade’s worth of correspondence between leading British and U.S. scientists, including 1,000 e-mails and 3,000 documents. The information was passed on to dozens of salivating bloggers and science-minded websites, which launched selections from the stolen material into the climate change debate just in time for the upcoming U.N. conference on the topic in Copenhagen. The emails show beyond much doubt that 1) scientists are competitive, often mean-spirited, arrogant, and egotistic; 2) scientists who are climate change advocates are contemptuous of everyone who believes otherwise, including fellow scientists. Neither of these revelations are especially newsworthy, being firmly in the “dog bites man” category.
What is newsworthy, and perhaps significant, is that many of the scientists’ comments raise questions of whether these researchers are so certain that they are right about the fact and causes of global warming that they are manipulating the data and hiding anything that might give ammunition to the hated and derided global warming skeptics. The Climatic Research Unit director, for example, told colleagues about a technique used by another scientist to ”hide the decline” in recent global temperatures. Some evidence appears to show a that global temperatures stopped rising around 1960, while other evidence shows a rise in temperatures is continuing. The director, Phil Jones wrote that new data he had just compiled employed “Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”
Other scientists described their efforts to account for the cooling the earth has seen over the last 10 years. One mused that rather than including the cooling data in an upcoming presentation, he might “cut the last few points off the filtered curve before I give the talk again as that’s trending down as a result of the end effects and the recent coldish years.” Some of the private messages suggest that pro-climate change experts believe the data is not as conclusive as the non-scientists among us, including journalists, elected officials and policy-makers, have been led to believe. In one e-mail exchange, for example, Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, expresses his frustration with the failure to explain variations in temperature, writing at one point:
“The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.”
So…“Ethics, ethics, who’s got the ethics” in the Great Climate Change E-mail Heist? Let’s see…
Not the computer hackers who stole the messages and data from the Climatic Research Unit’s server, that’s for sure. The private communications between scientists are certainly provocative, alarming or damning, depending on your point of view, but the fact that an illegal invasion of the University’s server turned up information that might have vital policy-making implications cannot retroactively justify the blatantly wrongful act. To argue otherwise is consequentialism, the seductive and invalid ethical theory that the results of an act determine its ethical status. Please note that consequentialism supports a government police force routinely breaking into private residences without cause or warrants, because its agents will sometimes discover eleven bodies in the basement, a terrorist’s dirty bomb, or the secret lair of Jack the Ripper.
The press and media outlets that publicize the stolen communications and documents are not ethical, either, though journalism’s own codes of professional ethics say otherwise. The news media’s self-sanctified role is that of an illegal information-launderer: a thief, traitor, or disloyal employee breaks laws, contracts or pledges while taking material that he or she has no right to take. Journalists, under full the protection of the First Amendment, then give the information wide publication, guaranteeing the maximum damage to the victims of the theft. Their smug justification is that “the public has a right to know.” How can the public have a “right to know” the content of stolen information that they didn’t have a right to see in the first place? Real answer: because it’s profitable and convenient for the news industry. If journalists didn’t magically turn the fruits of crime and betrayal into respectable news material, there would be far fewer thefts, hacks and leaks.
Never mind. Journalists will never stop laundering illegally obtained information. It is an unethical habit that their culture and the public has embraced and even celebrated for too long. I just wish reporters would stop expecting to be lionized for it.
The most challenging ethics question raised by the hacking is this: what do the stolen emails say about the ethics of global warming researchers? Predictably, objective answers are hard to find. Commentators and others who already accept the majority position on climate change have brushed off the e-mails as meaningless. RealClimate, a blog about climate change, actually found the released messages benign:
“…More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though. Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.”
That isn’t how the climate change skeptics see it. A blogger for The Australia Herald Sun suggested that the e-mails proved a “warmist conspiracy”:
“…the 1079 emails and 72 documents seem indeed evidence of a scandal involving most of the most prominent scientists pushing the man-made warming theory – a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science. I’ve been adding some of the most astonishing in updates below – emails suggesting conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more. If it is as it now seems, never again will “peer review” be used to shout down skeptics.”
Both extremes are motivated by bias and specific agendas, and should not be trusted. The key issue is whether global warming researchers can be trusted. It seems clear that the hacked messages show strong cause not to trust them, at least with the blind reliance of so many politicians, environmentalists, activists and Al Gore. The scientists’ egos are tied up in being “right;” their reputations depend on being “right;” their research funding depends on being “right,” or more accurately, on being perceived as being right. (We will not really know who is “right” about this issue until it is either too late or irrelevant.) Are such attitudes and needs motivations for the researchers to keep an open mind, reveal all data that could be used to challenge their conclusions, and be candid about their own doubts?
You know the answer.
The e-mails, if they don’t prove that the scientists are using fraudulent data, certainly indicate that they are not being completely candid with the public, either. That is unethical, especially when politicians and journalists who couldn’t possibly comprehend the raw data or charts and graphs that these scientists argue over still angrily compare climate-change doubters to creationists and Holocaust deniers. Climate change science is far, far more complicated than its layperson advocates acknowledge or even understand. Dissenting views, in the minority though they may be, deserve more respect.
The best outcome from the hacking and its revelations would be to force doctrinaire climate change advocates to moderate their certitude, cool their rhetoric, and give opposing views due respect (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who once said that she “saw global warming,” thus proving her absolute ignorance on the topic, should especially take note), since the experts on whom all their certainty is based aren’t quite so certain themselves. If they were, they wouldn’t have to resort to “Mike’s Nature trick,” would they?
There happens to be an excellent resource on climate change that really tries to be even-handed and fair on the issue. It is called Climate Debate Daily. I recommend it highly.