Saga of an Ethics Train Wreck: Climate Change Science

For those of you with an open mind: Der Spiegel has posted an exhaustively researched and remarkably even-handed explanation of how the clash of policymakers’ time-tables, advocates, researchers and an immensely complex area of science has the climate change issue confused beyond easy repairing. Its saga shows a true ethics train wreck, beginning with scientists compromising their credibility and objectivity by allying themselves with environmental advocates. Opponents of global warming used deceptive tactics to minimize the significance of legitimate research results, the media and politicians hyped results beyond their actual meaning, and then pro-climate change researchers compromised their own integrity by adopting unethical practices of their own. This process has been ongoing, and deteriorating, for almost a decade.

What is clear from the article is that climate change data has never been and can never be as unequivocal as political advocates like Al Gore have claimed, and these very claims of certainty have warped the debate and made legitimate, open and honest scientific inquiry all but impossible. The politicizing of the issue has endangered objectivity as well as credibility, as scientists allowed themselves to be dragged into policy debates, where they did not belong, and policy-makers adopted scientific conclusions that they were not qualified, nor sufficiently unbiased, to make. All this has followed because scientists did not take proper care to remain neutral in a difficult area with obvious polarizing potential.

You should read the whole piece, but here is an excerpt, to the conclusion:

Sociologist Peter Weingart believes that the damage could be irreparable. “A loss of credibility is the biggest risk inherent in scientific communication,” he said, adding that trust can only be regained through complete transparency.

The two sides became increasingly hostile toward one another. They debated about whom they could trust, who was a part of their “team” — and who among them might secretly be a skeptic. All those who were between the two extremes or even tried to maintain links with both sides soon found themselves under suspicion.

Immense public scrutiny made life extremely difficult for the scientists. On May 2, 2001, paleoclimatologist Edward Cook of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory complained in an e-mail: “This global change stuff is so politicized by both sides of the issue that it is difficult to do the science in a dispassionate environment.” The need to summarize complex findings for a UN report appears only to have exacerbated the problem. “I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same,” Keith Briffa wrote in 2007. Max Planck researcher Martin Claussen says too much emphasis was put on consensus in an attempt to satisfy politicians’ demands. And even scientists are not always interested solely in the actual truth of the matter. Weingart notes that public debate is mostly “only superficially about enlightenment.” Rather, it is more about “deciding on and resolving conflicts through general social agreement.” That’s why it helps to present unambiguous findings…

However, it seems all but impossible to provide conclusive proof in climate research. Scientific philosopher Silvio Funtovicz foresaw this dilemma as early as 1990. He described climate research as a “postnormal science.” On account of its high complexity, he said it was subject to great uncertainty while, at the same time, harboring huge risks.

The experts therefore face a dilemma: They have little chance of giving the right advice. If they don’t sound the alarm, they are accused of not fulfilling their moral obligations. However, alarmist predictions are criticized if the predicted changes fail to materialize quickly.

Climatological findings will probably remain ambiguous even if further progress is made. Weingart says it’s now up to scientists and society to learn to come to terms with this. In particular, he warns, politicians must understand that there is no such thing as clear results. ” Politicians should stop listening to scientists who promise simple answers,” Weingart says.

This has implications for policy makers, scientists, environmentalists, and the media. For scientists, it suggests that  humility is overdue, and they should stop using their expertise for advocacy, and begin using it to find the truth, wherever the facts may lead. To policy-makers and environmentalists, it shows how much harm has been caused by using half-truths and bullying tactics to avoid admitting how complicated the data and research is. It may seem easier to pass legislation by lying about the certainty of research and using scare tactics, but in the end this makes serious policy initiatives impossible, because it diminishes trust and feeds skepticism. The media must stop trying to squeeze climate science into typical news packages, because this promotes over-simplification and misunderstanding.

Honesty, competence, objectivity, prudence, responsibility, humility, and candor. The solution to global warming begins with a commitment to ethical values, on all sides.

One thought on “Saga of an Ethics Train Wreck: Climate Change Science

  1. This sad saga demonstrates almost all of the current, dangerous trends in science.

    Trend #1. Supremecy of Applied vs. Basic Research.

    The balance between funding for applied vs basic research shifts over time like a pendulum, it is now far to the applied research side. Applied research funding demands results. Those who give ‘proper’ results get more funding, those who don’t, don’t. The new ‘climate science’ has been funded to find that global warming is an urgent, dangerous threat. Those who report this get funding, those who don’t lose funding and no longer are climate researchers.

    #2 Collaborative vs competitive science

    Science has traditionally been competitive in nature rather than collaborative. Different researchers race to ‘scoop’ each other, discredit each other, and find new interpretations of data. This is responsible for the generally self-correcting nature of science. If you are a wrong, someone can make a career out of proving that you are wrong. In this new ‘climate science’ politicians demanded consensus. The only real way to get the type of consensus they wanted was to define orthodoxy and purge climate science of the unorthodox by means of Trend #1.
    The worst part of this collaborative ‘science’ is that it allowed one man to be in almost complete control of vital data. The data everyone else relied upon to do their research was entrusted to an untrustworthy man.

    Trend #3. Allowing people to hide data.

    Because of the new “collaborative” nature of climate science, the CRU was apparently the only group in the world with all of the world’s temperature data. They would not publish the raw data or explain what they did to the raw data to get the finished data. The fact that this was allowed is incredible. The fact that it could be published at all without such a description and full release of the supplementary data is beyond belief. The analysis of the source code comments for the program used by CRU shows outright scientific fraud, not just some honest disagreements about how to interpret the data. The out and out replaced all temperature data that they didn’t like with data they fabricated and they didn’t notify anyone that they did it.

    Overall, the analysis shows that a small group of dishonest ‘true believers’ was allowed to have a stranglehold on the climate data. They then manipulated this data and disseminated the altered data without allowing anyone else to see the raw files, lest they discover the deception. This fact was discovered, then whitewashed over by the politicians because the result was exactly what they commissioned.

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/30/crugate_analysis/

    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2009/11/23/the-code.html

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