Notes on a climate-research scandal

What happens when the entire scientific basis for global warming is discredited?

The responses to the leaked emails from the climate-change research centre at the University of East Anglia typically come in two modes. First, there’s the deliberate pose of high-minded innocence (“I’m shocked that scientists would behave this way”). Second, there’s the heavy sigh of the world-weary cynic (“How could anyone be shocked that scientists would behave this way?”).  James Taranto of the WSJ is an example of the former;  Colleague Cosh’s post is an example of the latter.

I’m not super-comfortable with either pose. It strikes me (this is an ungainly analogy but you can sort of see where I’m going) as no different from the two schoolboys who find out the high school princess they worship from afar is sleeping around. “I can’t believe she’s a whore”, says one. “I always knew she was a whore,” says the other. They don’t agree on anything except that the object of their eternal frustration is, indeed, a whore.  And so it is with wondrous glee that both the innocents and the cynics have come to discover that a group of climate researchers have been revealed as nothing but scientific prostitutes, selling their brains to eco-pornographers like Al Gore and David Suzuki.

There are two main issues here, the political and sociological questions (of both the internal politics of academia, and how academia relates to politics) and the substantive question of what it all means for the facts about the climate. I’m more qualified to talk about the first set of questions than the second.

Science is shot through with cultural framing, institutional constraints, personality conflicts, status-seeking, political infighting, and every other bias you can name. That’s why there is a long-standing and respectable research tradition looking into the anthropology and sociology of science, the aim of which is to articulate the social conditions under which scientific truths are generated. The left has traditionally paid a lot more attention to this research than has the right (which has usually denigrated this research as “relativism”), and it is interesting now to see the tables turned somewhat. (Note to young academics out there: Here’s your PhD thesis.)

That said, what is coming out of the East Anglia email archives seems pretty damning, and suggests a drunk-on-Kool-Aid level of intellectual paranoia and moral self-righteousness that goes far beyond what you’d experience at the typical faculty meeting. Assuming that these scientists did not set out, at the beginning of their careers, to blacklist their colleagues, deliberately squelch the search for truth, and engage in egregious professional dishonesty, it invites the question of how things got to this point. Again (I’m thinking in pairs this morning), I can think of two main reasons.

The first, external factor is the Us-vs-Them Manicheanism that infects the climate change debate. From the moment it came to widespread public attention almost two decades ago, global warming was seized upon by radical green groups, neoMalthusians, anti-consumerist activists, and Unabomber-esque malcontents who saw it as the ideal vehicle to drive their pre-existing political and economic views into the mainstream. We’d better adopt small-scale, local, low-impact lifestyles, or the world is going to collapse and we’ll end up living small-scale, local, low-impact lifestyles. I’ve written, critically, about this phenomenon here.

This has led to a highly antagonistic public dynamic: “They” want to destroy the Earth, says one side. No, “They” want to destroy capitalism, says the other. Both sides are guilty, I think, of stridently and dishonestly exaggerating the consequences of the other side’s position. I don’t think that climate change is going to have anything close to the apocalyptic effects its most vocal proponents (if that is the right word) say it will. But nor do I think that meeting our Kyoto obligations would have bombed our economy back to the stone age (a point our own Colleague Coyne made repeatedly, to little impact).  The upshot, anyway, is that not a lot of room was left for reasonable debate, negotiation, and compromise.

A second factor underlying the East Anglia emails might be the internal dynamics of scientific research. The snarky saying about academic disagreements is that they are so vicious because the stakes are so low. That’s not true. The reason academic debates are so vicious is because the stakes are zero-sum: Academia is a status economy, and where one person gains someone else must lose.

Take highly intelligent and ambitious people, put them in a zero-sum marketplace where the potential reward is, literally, saving the world, and what do you get? A bunch of people who want to be Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow. The pernicious spiral of group polarization takes over, where a group of people talking almost entirely amongst themselves end up holding positions far more radical and extreme than the ones with which they began.

So much for academia. Where does this leave climate change research? Some see this as not a smoking gun but a smoking mushroom cloud that has left the entire global warming agenda in ruins. That is, “Climategate” discredits the entire scientific basis for the global warming thesis.

I’m not ready to go that far. I’m inclined to side with Tyler Cowen on this: the substantive issues remain more or less as they were. Not because I don’t think the emails are a scandal, but because I think that unlike a similar scandal in, say, the humanities, there is a real world out there pushing back against and constraining ideology.

What this means from a policy angle, though, is that we should probably give up on trying to solve climate change by eliminating its causes (e.g. via international emissions-reduction agreements). There is little public support in the US or Canada for a major carbon-tax or cap-and-trade regime, and this will only drain what support there is.  Instead, our best bet might be to prepare to deal with the effects of climate change (we’re an adaptable species, after all) while working very hard toward new technologies that will someday make the entire debate seem as quaint as the old concerns about manure mountains in Manhattan.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.