Socialist Worker

What's really behind 'Climate-gate'?

by John Parrington
Issue No. 2189

Scientists studying climate change are taking quite a battering.

In November last year, emails hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) appeared to show scientists suppressing research findings that contradicted their ideas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has admitted to making some mistakes in its reports.

These revelations lie behind a recent BBC poll indicating that 25 percent of people now say they do not believe in global warming, compared to just 15 percent last November. So can climatologists be trusted? And if so, what is the truth of the situation?

The first and most important thing to say is that all the “revelations” have little affect on the scientific case for man-made climate change.

There is overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gases are increasing, causing average global temperatures to rise. This is leading to the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels and more incidents of extreme weather like floods and hurricanes.

The evidence is based on thousands of studies carried out not only by climatologists but also scientists studying oceans, forests and glaciers and the plants and animals that inhabit them.

But if this is the case, why is climate science in its current predicament?

The recent allegations are particularly damaging because they contradict the idealised view many people have of science.

According to this view, scientists are disinterested observers of reality, and reliable sources of information.

To some extent this view is justified, because it is based upon science’s constant need for verification. For a scientific finding to be taken seriously, it must be published in such detail that other scientists can reproduce it.

Moreover, scientists must submit their work to be scrutinised in what is known as the “peer-review process”. Acting anonymously, reviewers can decide that a scientist needs to produce more evidence, or even reject a study if they deem it scientifically flawed.

Bias

The UEA scientists stand accused of highlighting data that best fit their hypotheses about the natural world, and showing bias during the peer-review process.

Scientific hypotheses are representations of reality, but they remain only approximations.

It is always the case that some findings will illustrate them better than others, and scientists may highlight data accordingly.

The question of whether a scientist has overstepped the limits in their selectivity is partly what verification by others is all about.

As for the peer-review process, it is a very powerful tool but it can be open to abuse, particularly under the competitive pressures of capitalism.

Publishing a paper in a prestigious journal such as Nature can be the deciding factor in getting that much needed research grant or university tenure.

The vast majority of peer-reviews are probably conducted fairly. But competition means there is some truth to stories about reviewers rejecting papers that support a rival hypothesis, or delaying a paper while they replicate the findings and publish them elsewhere.

None of this excuses the UEA scientists. But it does mean that their behaviour is not so different from that of many other scientists around the world.

The reason they are treated differently is because shady organisations and individuals funded by multinationals—and maybe even some governments—will use dirty tricks to discredit the case for global warming.

It may be tempting for climatologists to retreat into further secrecy.

The only real answer is proper transparency, along with awareness that the stakes are so high that this is not simply a scientific debate.

It is a battle in which the future of humanity is at stake.

John Parrington is a scientist and lecturer at the University of Oxford


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Tue 16 Feb 2010, 18:13 GMT
Issue No. 2189
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