07 December 2009

Global warming and transparency in science

A couple news stories this week that got me thinking.

First, this interview on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday:

In the NPR piece, Scott Simon moderated a sort of debate between Freakonomics (and Super Freakonomics) author Steven Levitt and Peter Frumhoff of The Union of Concerned Scientists. Levitt advocates geoengineering to fight global warming in the short term while we get CO2 under control -- things like pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth. I'm personally skeptical, though a little intrigued, but Frumhoff's arguments against it were... well, fairly shocking. He started arguing that it wouldn't work, but when Levitt pushed back, he basically confessed he thought it was dangerous mostly because it would make it harder to get people behind reducing carbon emissions. In other words: talking about this will make it harder to get people to do what I want them to, so it is better to just pretend it isn't an option at all, especially as world leaders are meeting to try and agree to significant emission reductions.

In response, Levitt asked: "And if the U.S. were to meet the standards that Barack Obama has proposed, what will happen to the temperature of the Earth over the next 50 years?"

There was a long, uncomfortable pause, and then finally Frumhoff admitted: "Well, we're going to see some warming."

In other words: Carbon reduction, on any scale being talked about, will not solve the problem in the short term, while geoengineering possibly could. But we mustn't talk about it.

Now, geoengineering certainly could have lots of other negative effects as well, it seems far from a perfect fix or even a practical one -- but shouldn't we at least be having a discussions about it? We hear so much about how horrible severe global warming could be, so shouldn't we at least consider all the options, no matter how wacky they may seem? Yet the attitude taken by Frumhoff is frankly antidemocratic: don't tell people all the options in case they decide on a different option than the one we, the experts, think is best. Don't discuss the pros and cons of emission reduction vs. geoengineering, just accept as decreed that carbon emission reductions are the one true way.

Even more disturbingly anti-Democratic is this story in Science about leaked private e-mails between top climate scientists. A lot of disturbing content, most strikingly this particular quote from CRU (Climate Research Unit) Director Phil Jones referring to requests from global warming critics for a file of raw global temperature data. He wrote: "I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone." Other e-mail exchanges regarded trying to keep controversial research findings out of the 2007 IPCC report, saying "Kevin and I will keep them out somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is."

Basically, the e-mails contain various versions of the same story: Rather than releasing data that they feared could be misinterpreted, they made an effort to control the message so only information that supported their conclusions were made public.

The factual omissions revealed by these e-mail exchanges are apparently not that damaging to the actual science -- the scientists seem to have good reasoning behind drawing the conclusions they have from their data, but the choice to simply promulgate their conclusions rather than the full course of reasoning that lead to those conclusions is very disturbing -- beyond disturbing. If I, in my research in grad school, tried to hide data which didn't support my conclusions I would be kicked out of school, and rightly so: Transparency is at the very heart of science. You always present the data that supports your conclusions, AND the reasons you might possibly be wrong.

I consider myself an environmentalist, and have never considered myself a doubter of global warming, but this story has frankly shaken me. What these scientists have done is put political dogma ahead of honesty and truth. How then are we to trust them? They think, I guess, that because global warming is so serious, it is too important to debate. I feel quite the opposite: For something that important we need all the facts and all the debate we can get.


MAT kinase said...

I haven't read the email myself, but from what I've heard they don't really change anything. Supposedly the data they were trying to "suppress" was tree ring data that has been considered (in peer review journals) to be unreliable for years but that keeps being presented to back up "skeptics."

I think a lot of the worst sounding stuff was probably just sarcastic comments made between friends who were frustrated that non-scientists were telling them how to do their job. Lots of scientists, among themselves, make fun of the public's poor comprehension of "basic" stuff like evolution. If you read any specific emails that seem damning though, I'd be interested to hear about it!

Gail said...

We have a discussion in our household about how much people dislike having to change their behaviors.~~If people can be convinced that Climate Change isn't happening or that it is naturally occurring, they don't have to take responsible action. Sigh. gail

Greensparrow said...

Matt, I haven't read the actual e-mails (there are something like a 1000 of them...) but I hope to start digging into them this weekend. When I first heard about them (NPR, NY Times) they didn't seem particularly damning -- but the specifics included in the story from Science were a lot more shocking.
I agree, though, that it doesn't reveal any game-changing conclusions. I'm not doubting climate change -- just the methods being used to promote action. Hiding information to get people to do/think something is wrong -- even if what you want them to do is right.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

A scientist who lies is one of the lowest forms of life known to man -- at about the same level as a doctor who experiments on his patients without their knowledge or consent. Falsifying or repressing scientific data is an obscene betrayal of the public trust, and these people belong in the Eighth Circle of Hell. I'm sure they had the best of intentions -- but, after all, what else would you expect their road be paved with?

Does this mean global warming is bunk? Probably not -- but what bothers me is that, short of going to the trouble of becoming an expert on atmospheric science myself, I have no way of knowing. Everything I thought I knew about climate change was based on assumptions about the basic trustworthiness of the scientific community. Uncovering a nest of crooks at the heart of that community throws a lot of things into doubt.

I'm becoming increasingly sympathetic to Moldbug's theory that what is making institutional science corrupt is its unhealthy relationship with government, and that the principle of separation of church and state needs to be generalized into the separation of information and security.