The big topic-of-the-moment is the hacked stash of emails from a major climate research group. The whole climate change discussion is one of those “no upside” topics that I try to stay out of, but I have some thoughts and comments about issues surrounding the email incident. These are largely based on reactions to yesterday’s posts by Derek Lowe and Coby Beck, so if you’re looking for something to read to understand what I’m talking about, those are the two.
The unifying thing in all of these is the intersection of science and politics. Most of what’s described is normal scientific behavior– not admirable behavior, but pretty typical. What blows this into a scandal is the fact that the scientific issues involved are politically contentious, with money and power at stake. The whole episode should serve as a cautionary tale for scientists in general, not just those working on currently contentious issues, showing that we need to take some lessons from professionals in the “real world” regarding how we conduct our business.
Derek spends a fair amount of time talking about issues around the peer review of climate science articles, citing emails about what journals papers should be sent to, and which ones avoided. The obvious immediate association for me was to the case of Einstein vs. the Physical Review, where he huffily withdrew a paper after his one encounter with modern-style peer review. Of course, there are plenty of other examples of chicanery associated with reviewing of papers– pretty much every working scientist has at least a couple of second-hand anecdotes about this sort of thing.
Anecdotes about people trying to get editorial boards of journals changed for political reasons, as may have happened here, are much rarer. This is probably due to the fact that very few working scientists have the clout to attempt such a thing, but I’m sure it does happen. I can understand the motivation, given that peer reviewed publications are used as a means of counting coup in the larger political arguments about climate change, but it’s still… let’s go with “unseemly.” I tend to mostly agree with Derek’s inclination to “err on the side of “Publish and be damned”, preferring to let the scientific literature sort itself out as ideas are evaluated and experiments are reproduced.” Back-channel maneuvering to scuttle papers from people you consider kooks is not a good thing, no matter how noble your cause.
Derek also brings up issues about the complex and un- to poorly-documented code used to work with climate data, which immediately brought to mind Greg Wilson’s talk at the Science21 workshop (mocro-live-blogging). Wilson at one point said that most scientists use such shoddy documentation procedures that he would wager most of them could not reproduce the analysis in their published papers. Depending on how many sig figs you want to count as “reproduced,” I tend to believe him. The folks at the CRU haven’t done anything particularly wrong by the normal standards of science, but it’s another area where scientists in general could stand to improve their behavior quite a bit.
(Says the guy who just spent a bunch of time riffling through the pages of books to find the receipts he needs for travel reimbursement…)
Of course, the biggest issue of the whole thing is the question of deleting emails. Derek cites this message in particular, which is fairly appalling. Not so much because of the request itself, but because the sender was so unbelievably stupid as to put it in an email in the first place. I’m only married to a lawyer, but even I know that there are things you do not put in writing, ever.
Coby Beck tries to wave it off as insignificant, but that one message is enough to justify the sender stepping down pending investigation of the matter. Not for any scientific reason, but because it’s astoundingly stupid to send an email requesting the deletion of emails that you think might be subject to a freedom of information request. If you’re dumb enough to put that in an email– in 2008, for God’s sake– you deserve to lose your job.
And that brings me around to the comment of Beck’s that I really want to respond to, which is near the end of his post, responding to George Monbiot’s comment that:
The handling of this crisis suggests that nothing has been learnt by climate scientists in this country from 20 years of assaults on their discipline. They appear to have no idea what they’re up against or how to confront it. Their opponents might be scumbags, but their media strategy is exemplary.
Monbiot is probably quite right, these guys do have little to no idea what to do. But it is an entirely unreasonable expectation that they should. People do not generally choose to be PhD researchers because they are good at, or interested in, dealing with mass media and public perceptions.
That’s almost charmingly naive, but this is not an issue where we can afford naivete. And, as Monbiot notes, this has been a politically charged area of science for at least two decades. Anybody in the field has had more than ample warning that they need to pick up some people skills, because mass media and public perceptions are going to be hugely important. You can’t hide behind “I’m just a nerdy scientist” any more. If you really don’t have anybody in your lab with communications skills– which I highly doubt, by the way– then hire somebody who does.
This is why, as much as they piss people off, people like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet are important. This whole sordid affair is a textbook example of why scientists need to start learning about how to deal with the mass media and public perceptions. This could’ve been avoided if the people involved had half a clue about what they were doing. The belief that science is somehow above (or at least apart from) petty issues of perception and communication leads directly to this sort of catastrophe.