Climategate and the Limits of Authority

By: FireTag
February 5, 2011

I was personally offended by the revelations of e-mails among prominent climate scientists that were leaked in late 2009 and collectively became known as Climategate. Working in supporting government policy-makers in environmental and energy policy issues for the first half of my professional life left me with a finely-honed opinion about crossing the line from science to policy. Let’s just say I’m about as comfortable with scientists pushing their scientific authority to make policy value judgments as I would be with Deacons performing ordinations.

Although the widely-perceived failure of the Copenhagen climate negotiations suppressed the political urgency of the issue — even the follow-on talks this year in Cancun attracted little attention because they did little to actually impact any economic activity — I have continued to follow Climategate post-mortem analysis to see whether the flaws in the scientific process the e-mails revealed would be fixed. With the publication of the final British House of Commons report on those analyses themselves, it’s time to draw some specific conclusions about Climategate and see what they might suggest about more general issues regarding our responses to authority figures on vital public issues — both inside and outside the church.

The center of the scandal, for those not previously keeping score, was the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at Britain’s University of East Anglica (UEA), which explains the House of Commons interest in the scandal. Although it employed data collected by scientists throughout the world, the CRU was itself one of the top repositories of modern climate information and compilations of paleo-climate proxy data. (Paleo-climates have to be estimated by things such as annual ice cores or tree rings since they can not be measured directly after the fact.)

Moreover, the small group of climate experts is fully “intermarried” as authors, co-authors, and reviewers of each other’s major papers. Although referring to the relationship as incestuous might be too strong, none of the repositories of expertise can avoid having its work contaminated if the CRU messes up.

Even more importantly, the CRU scientists and their co-authors became heavily involved in UN-sponsored reports released through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that have provided the scientific backbone for climate negotiations for about two decades. The policy-makers depend on the integrity of such advice, because they can not otherwise balance climate demands against other public policy demands for economic resources.

The e-mails raised suspicions from outside observers that CRU had, indeed, messed up, and, worse, had systemically tried to hide the fact by refusing to provide data to scientifically qualified skeptics of their conclusions, even though sharing of information was required by British law.

Journalists quickly noted e-mails that shattered any illusion of detached scientific impartiality that is held up as the ideal.  (Trust me! This is NOT unusual; scientists feel hurt when their work is criticized just like everyone else does.) The questions were whether the obvious antagonism toward skeptics — combined with pressure on scientific journal editors and discussion of  “clever tricks” and “hide the decline” — was mere ego, or rose to the level of interference with the peer review process, or even misconduct under the law,  and whether conclusions may thereby have been biased consciously or unconsciously.

As journalists explored these issues, they began to see an erosion of objectivity between the scientific conclusions, with their inherent uncertainty, and the “consensus” that simplified things for the policy-makers. For example, The Daily Telegraph produced a beautiful graphic showing what “hide the decline” was about.

Tree ring data doesn’t match other data recording modern temperatures for reasons that are not understood yet. However, the same data set is what the climate scientists were relying on to dismiss the reality of (perhaps equally) high temperatures around 1000 AD, when human CO2 emissions could not have been responsible. This issue was critical, was still being debated among the scientists themselves, but did not permit the IPCC to tell a definitive story that would motivate economic sacrifice in a Copenhagen treaty. The “hide the decline” obscured the issue by burying it in parts of the IPCC reports that the decision-makers, and the media, would not see. Figures like the heading graphic in this post, as the Telegraph graphic shows, artistically terminated the offending curve so its end would be unnoticed as it diverged from the other temperature data.

And the e-mails showed that pressure to obscure came from higher in the academic and governmental food chain than the scientists themselves.

Once that kind of thing was noticed, attention turned to the IPCC writing process more broadly, where it was quickly discovered that groups with potential conflicts of interest had been heavily involved. In fact, the top IPCC positions were unpaid and tended to attract people with strong feelings about the outcome because they were strongly concerned about the problem of warming beforehand. As noted in the New York Times, another official review panel recommended that the IPCC top positions be term-limited and paid positions in order to avoid any appearance of bias.

The leaked e-mails also included source code internal documentation. That documentation caught the attention of a lot of scientists outside of the usual skeptics. The documentation demonstrated that the climate scientists, however expert they were in their own fields, were struggling to deal with a lack of expertise in other scientific fields (like statistics and computer code configuration control) that had become extraordinarily more important as the policy stakes had grown.

From a CBS News report:

“As the leaked messages, and especially the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file, found their way around technical circles, two things happened: first, programmers unaffiliated with East Anglia started taking a close look at the quality of the CRU’s code, and second, they began to feel sympathetic for anyone who had to spend three years (including working weekends) trying to make sense of code that appeared to be undocumented and buggy, while representing the core of CRU’s climate model.”

The three-year effort failed. CRU had lost control and understanding of its own computer models. The models were not necessarily incorrect, but if they were wrong, the scientists would no longer be able to know it, or to know how to correctly incorporate new discoveries about climate into the models. By default, the models were “correct” if they reproduced the results that the scientists expected, but “incorrect” when they didn’t.

No Federal agency would currently issue a contract for development, or would accept as a deliverable a scientific software product with this level of programming quality control procedures. What works as adequate in an academic environment is not adequate to underpin a major restructuring of the world’s economy.

And so, numerous authoritative bodies agreed, as would be normal scientific procedure, that the integrity of the science must be reexamined. But then a curious — well, not so curious — thing happened. The same problems of political-scientific cross currents, the inability to find reviewers disinterested in the outcome, and the lack of expertise in all relevant sciences that plagued the original work popped up in the review process, compounded by the need to finish as much as possible before Copenhagen. The reviews became a review of the integrity of the scientists and never got around to examining the integrity of the science , as a “minority” conclusion proposed for the House of Commons report made clear. This conclusion was drawn exclusively from sub-conclusions drawn earlier in the Commons report. However, with pressure for binding treaty commitments receding, and Britain’s economy threatened, the political system was prepared to move on to other matters, and left the science unexamined

Do any of the limits of the “climate priesthood” apply to the religious priesthood?

  • Are the authorities within the priesthood too ingrown to review each other’s work?
  • Do they have access to all of the relevant expertise they require?
  • Are they sufficiently transparent to inspire any confidence among the unconverted skeptics inside and outside the community?
  • Are they more willing to “move on” than to reexamine and, if necessary, rebuild on earlier understandings?
  • If any of the above are problems, are there things that can positively address their solutions?

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34 Responses to Climategate and the Limits of Authority

  1. Matt on February 5, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    A tired rehash dressed-up with some religious imagery. Scientists as deacons? What are you smoking?

    Controversial! What do you think? Thumb up 5

  2. FireTag on February 5, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    Matt:

    That part of the Word of Wisdom is one I also embrace, so I’m not smoking anything. A rehash, perhaps, but I suspect that many of the readers of this site are new to the issues.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  3. Mike S on February 5, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    This reminds me of my field of orthopedic surgery. There are always new procedures, devices, etc. People are always claiming the superiority of something over something else. There are salesmen and doctors and companies who stand to make a lot of money in royalties if I decide to use their product. Because of this, no one really believes what they say on the face of it.

    The solution – level of evidence. The lowest level is someone reporting on something they may have seen a few times or done a few times. A middle level might be looking back at how they did something at one point vs how they did something at another point, and seeing if there was a different. The highest level of evidence is reserved for a prospective study with a hypothesis ahead of time, a single variable between 2 matched groups, with independent people gathering the results who DON’T KNOW which group the patients are in. Additionally, any money for the study from any company, as well as any royalties made by anyone attached to the paper has to be listed.

    There can still be bias, but I can read the paper, look at much of the data myself, and see what hidden agenda someone might have. And in our training, we have “journal clubs” where we pick papers apart to see what seems right. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter WHO said something, but the merits have to rely on WHAT was said entirely.

    I contrast this with the LDS Church. It is much more muddy. Rather than relying on the strength of an argument, they rely on the title of the person saying something. The problem is that our history is replete with church leaders being wrong.

    Elder Maxwell made a way to try to gauge the “Level of Evidence” which I quoted in a prior post. According to this, there is actually very LITTLE that is “Official”. So we are left with a hodge-podge of opinions and statements from our leaders and have to pick out which are their opinions and which are “Thus saith the Lord…” doctrines.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  4. Mike S on February 5, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    Oops. Actually addressing the questions:

    Are the authorities within the priesthood too ingrown to review each other’s work?
    Absolutely. There are reports of discussions up to the highest level, where all people have different opinions. When the highest ranked person expresses their opinion, the discussion is effectively over. The hierarchal system absolutely hold sway (at least in the LDS Church – don’t know about CofC). And people in the system, above all else, don’t want to make waves if they want to keep going “up” in the system. The people who are “yes men” are the ones chosen to more up in the hierarchy. The ones who hold and press strongly for a different opinion are simply not chosen. This creates a self-selecting atmosphere.

    Do they have access to all of the relevant expertise they require?
    I don’t know. I suppose that depends how many of the decisions are “revelation” vs things that just seem like a good idea. In interviews, it doesn’t sounds like President Hinckley had too many “revelations”, but mostly good feelings.

    Are they sufficiently transparent to inspire any confidence among the unconverted skeptics inside and outside the community?
    Absolutely not. There is no transparency whatsoever in the LDS system.

    Are they more willing to “move on” than to reexamine and, if necessary, rebuild on earlier understandings?
    Extremely rarely. This would require admitting that previous “inspired” leaders were simply wrong. It undermines current leadership. Look how many decades it took to undo Brigham Young’s institutionalized racism. Look what it would take to change the WofW to how it was revealed to and lived by Joseph Smith. These things just don’t happen.

    If any of the above are problems, are there things that can positively address their solutions?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  5. Matt on February 5, 2011 at 10:09 AM

    Have to give Mike S kudos for putting the “religious dressing-up” into proper perspective. We’ve all heard the term “lipstick on a pig” but Firetag, what you’ve done here is put some pig on the face of Science. Dashing of you.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  6. FireTag on February 5, 2011 at 10:31 AM

    Matt:

    I have no intent on putting a “pig on the face of science”, as you put it, but neither do I bow down before Science (TM), I’ve been in the energy and environmental policy game much of my adult life. I do understand a bit about how the pig gets turned into sausage.

    So, by the logic you are presenting, are you ready to unquestionably accept my superior scientific authority? :D

    After all, the “Limits of Authority” is the point of the post, because the political and economic systems are moving on from the science without evaluating the science as the inquiries were expected to do.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  7. Matt on February 5, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    I meant no logic and certainly said nothing about unquestioning Science. I’ve simply pointed out the unfortunate association you’ve drawn in this post between Science and Religion.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  8. FireTag on February 5, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    Matt:

    Please amplify.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  9. Matt on February 5, 2011 at 12:01 PM

    FireTag, the problem with amplifying a point as simple as “your back-handed attack on climate science (and science in general) with a tenuous linkage to the well understood failings of religious truth claims” is that I’d just end up repeating myself.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  10. FireTag on February 5, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    Matt:

    I remain curious as to why you assume a physicist wants to make a back-handed attack on climate science and science in general. But if you don’t want to explain, thanks for your previous comments.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  11. Dan on February 5, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    I don’t care about “Climategate.” (Climategate being the issue with the emails from one set of scientists at one university). The evidence is far too vast and too pervasive to doubt the existence of global warming. I have no problem keeping scientists on their toes to ensure they provide us as accurate information as possible. Would we only do the same with religions….what a world we would have if we could actually demand the same accountability for religious leaders (which we don’t).

    Whether we’re the cause of the earth warming up or not, I also don’t care. However, in terms of the responsibility God has given us to be wise stewards over the planet in which we reside, following the counsel given by scientists makes good sense to me.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  12. FireTag on February 5, 2011 at 10:52 PM

    Dan:

    Part of the issue — and I hope you did pick this up from what I wrote — is that there are many kind of scientists that needed to be involved in the process, but weren’t. So there is no “the scientific community” reaching consensus. There were a lot of scientists trusting a sub-specialty to be producing accurate work and then ASSUMING the results for their own work in, say, international relations. EVERY scientific sector has to do the job right or no one can get the policy right, even assuming there are no greedy people trying to turn the policy to their own advantage.

    As I noted here

    http://thefirestillburning.wordpress.com/2009/09/26/being-prophetic-someday/

    even BEFORE Climategate, the models that we are relying on, AND HAVE STILL NOT REVALIDATED, were ALSO predicting that no change in lifestyle we make could stop the temperature rise above “safe” levels without collapsing the political and economic system far earlier.

    This month we’re seeing rises in food prices producing a tsunami rushing across the political landscape of the Muslim World. However fragile the climate may be, the political and economic systems of the world are even more fragile, and their dangers more immediate.

    THAT is what killed the climate negotiations.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  13. Mike S on February 5, 2011 at 11:05 PM

    I think there is a lot that ties these topics together. Both science and religion are based upon making assumptions based on incomplete data. Once someone in some sort of authority expresses something based on this, it is kind of taken as a baseline. Others build on this entire systems and observations and etc.

    Examples: Because religion institutionalized the thought that the earth was the center of the universe, it was really hard for them to change this even as more information around the church suggested that was wrong.

    Another example: Even though Joseph Smith ordained a black man to the priesthood, Brigham Young institutionalized the racism prevalent in his time. This got more and more layers until 100 years later you have McConkie coming up with all sorts of doctrinal explanations for this. It took a lot to go back and challenge the erroneous underlying assumptions.

    So, it is prevalent in science and religion.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  14. Dan on February 6, 2011 at 5:43 AM

    Firetag,

    I don’t need scientists to dictate to me what I see from the numbers myself. The earth is warming up whether we’re the cause of it or not. Trying to find the errors scientists make is the same as trying to find errors in what a religious person says and does. I don’t mind it because I prefer scientists to give us the best data they possibly can.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  15. FireTag on February 6, 2011 at 9:34 AM

    Dan:

    I actually hit the “like” button on your last comment. The earth warmed, but it has warmed before, and it has cooled. The scientists are supposed to help us understand why it’s happening and what the consequences will be; otherwise we can go back to sacrificing virgins or slaughtering emperors like humanity has done during past climate crises.

    “The best data they possibly can”, in the context of advising governments DOES have known best practices, especially at economy-changing levels. It’s the failure to adopt and follow such practices as the issue moved out of an academic backwater into public importance that so annoys me.

    It isn’t just about cuddley polar bear cubs. Getting the policy wrong on EITHER side — too much focus on emissions at the expense of the economy, or too little — can increase the loss of human life over the next generation all over the planet.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  16. Mark D. on February 6, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    Climategate being the issue with the emails from one set of scientists at one university

    On the contrary, the emails were between all the prominent pro-AGW climate scientists in the world. There were a number of scandals revealed in those emails, the most damning of which is a threat to redefine a scientific journal out of “the peer reviewed literature” if it published any more papers that didn’t take the AGW party line.

    The problem here is that these folks are on a political crusade. Real science succeeds best when there is back and forth between advocates of different theories. Where these guys want to suppress the other side to the point where even experts can’t read it.

    It has been well said that global warmism is this greatest “intellectual aberration of our time”. AGW is a nice theory completely unsubstantiated by any actual evidence that would distinguish it from any of a number of other viable causes of moderate climate change. In fact most of the evidence for about ten years now has tended to disprove AGW rather than confirm it. CO2 levels are rising as before, but surface temperatures are statistically level. All the AGW models predicted otherwise, all the AGW models were wrong.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  17. Mike S on February 6, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    Perhaps the scientists were just following the philosophy of not presenting something just because it’s true, but only if it is faith promoting towards their cause.

    It’s happened before.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 6, 2011 at 11:32 AM

    Here in Texas I could have used a little global warming myself the past week …

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  19. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 6, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    http://www.worldclimatereport.com/index.php/2008/12/17/recent-temperature-trends-in-context/ is an excellent post on the numbers as of 2008.

    But getting back to the OP’s point, which had nothing to do with whether or not the global warming group was right (or if there is another explanation of why they get two growing seasons in Greenland) … instead it had to do with the methodology that was used and the flaws.

    The gospel can be true, yet have flaws in the execution and methodology that could be improved upon, understood, and considered.

    Which makes the parallel all the more interesting.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  20. FireTag on February 6, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    Ethesis:

    Thanks for the link. If only we could do detailed statistical analysis on religious issues, we’d probably find a lot of surprises, too.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  21. Mike S on February 6, 2011 at 10:37 PM

    #20 FireTag

    I think we’d be quite surprised if we did a statistical analysis on religion. My theory is that, on a practical day-to-day basis, at least 95% of what any religion teaches would be essentially identical (ie. don’t steal, be faithful, etc). The bits and pieces that distinguish religions are the crux. But I think we would find A LOT more in common than most people suspect.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  22. Mike S on February 6, 2011 at 10:40 PM

    Ethesis:

    Great link, by the way.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  23. Paul on February 7, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    Fascinating post, FireTag. Thanks for this. The climate debate intrigues me, but I don’t have the training to interpret the data myself, so I rely on the “scientific community” in the way I rely on my ecclesiatical leadership in some ways, so I think your comparison is interesting.

    Of course for the most faithful believer, the difference is that revelation is a possibility in the case of ecclesiastical leadership (Mike S’s standard claim about the many errors made over time notwithstanding).

    Therefore, I’m not sure the same level of transparency is expected or required (by the faithful) in church matters, particularly since individuals have the promise of personal confirmation. I’m not sure the church leaders are too concerned about convincing outside skeptics. (I still remember the Time article from 1977 or 1978 in which President Kimball was cast in a rather negative light. At the time I was glad to be serving my mission in Germany where Time wasn’t widely read — not that the absence of the article made any difference in the difficulty of the work there.)

    All that said, I think that there are examples (as cited by Mike S) that signal a willingness to move on rather than re-examine. But it’s hard to say, given the lack of transparency. Certainly the recent McKay and Kimball biographies give more insight than we’ve had.

    Mike S (21) — I don’t know that we’d be so surprised at the commonality among religions; I would expect considerable overlap.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  24. FireTag on February 7, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    Paul:

    I think “convincing the skeptic” in the religious context certainly encompasses issues of membership retention and expansion.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  25. Paul on February 7, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    FireTag, fair point, though I guess I’d characterize the missionary effort differently. But you’re probably spot on as far as activation / retention is concerned.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  26. Val on February 10, 2011 at 1:58 PM

    “Let’s just say I’m about as comfortable with scientists pushing their scientific authority to make policy value judgments as I would be with Deacons performing ordinations.”

    I sincerely wish that scientists had any hold over policy value judgments. If scientists are really so influential, then why do only 28% of public school biology classes teach evolution?

    It is not scientists pushing the “policy value judgments” in America. It’s clergy. Your entire argument, from the first paragraph is an anti-intellectual strawman.

    We have FAR too much skepticism towards science already. We need less, not more.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  27. FireTag on February 10, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    Val:

    The general inability of American public school systems to teach even decent math skills, let alone biology, is a post topic beyond the scope of this one.

    However, when people hired me to advise government at state and Federal levels, I assure you it was because of my physics degrees, not my priesthood card.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  28. Val on February 11, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    Only if you want to make it about the entire education system, Firetag.

    I’d prefer to stay on topic, which I thought was the authority of scientific figures in our society. Which, I think my example illustrates pretty relevantly in the scope of this discussion.

    I don’t think 62% of math teachers are refusing to teach quadrilateral triangles based on moral objections, do you?

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  29. FireTag on February 11, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    Since you didn’t source your statistic on biology classes, or provide reference in the statistic itself to “clergy” being the cause, it is difficult to discuss the issue. What portion of biology classes consist of material to which evolution is relevant? Does “biology” in the sample include subfields like anatomy, health, nutrition, etc.? After all, only about 10% of my college physics courses included relativity. Too many other things to study.

    I believe evolution is a far broader principle, and more fundamental to the nature of God, than people on either the sectarian or secular sides of the issue imagine.

    I also think that WE scientists — and I emphasize the “WE” — deserve respect as experts when we show ourselves willing to explain the methods and reasoning openly to our critics, not when we demean their right to criticize.

    Pretty much all of the postmortem studies that were the subject of the OP stressed how the lack of transparency by the scientific community contributed to the problems.

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  30. Val on February 11, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110127141657.htm

    All your points are addressed in the article. The number is perfectly legimate, current as you can get, completely horrifying, and I believe completely negates your entire argument.

    The “policy” is very clear on the teaching of evolution (it’s illegal to teach anything but) and it just doesn’t matter. Our society puts religion first, science second, and policies can be damned (if the policies managed to escape with any science in them in the first place).

    And if this is how we educate our children, I hardly see how the cycle will stop perpetuating itself.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  31. FireTag on February 11, 2011 at 1:49 PM

    Val:

    Your source says NOTHING about clergy, says that twice as many teachers teach evolution as creationism and that 60% of teachers are cautious about avoiding controversy.

    BOTTOM LINE: Teachers avoid controversy. About ANY topic in which they do not have a strong interest or knowledge background. Period. You’ll find that behavior in any institution, be it ward, bureaucracy, or family dinner party.

    I assure you that if equilateral triangles were still important to class and power systems, a majority of people would be hesitant to mention them.

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  32. Val on February 11, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    FireTag,

    I agree with everything you just said.

    And you basically made my points for me.

    Ask yourself: why is it controversial? Why is science controversial but math isn’t?

    You’re halfway to finishing my point. Just go ahead and answer those questions and you’re there.

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  33. FireTag on February 11, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Science is controversial when it becomes entangled with political power systems. The controversy is exactly the same when, for example, Larry Summers, dared to suggest there was solid evidence that differences in aptitude and interest, not discrimination, explained the positioning of women in college. What RELIGIOUS power structure did Summers offend?

    The Climate community got themselves entangled in high-stakes political and economic power games. That was what made BOTH sides entrenched and unwilling to give heed to science. That is why my OP stressed the importance of that sharp line in which the science advisor MUST insulate himself or herself from policy recommendations that could involve conflict of interest.

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  34. Jon on February 18, 2011 at 6:28 AM

    Thank goodness not everyone bows down to the god of science and authority. If that were the case I’m sure doctors would still not be washing their hands. My wife is really into the birthing subject and comes back all the time with doctors practicing one method when the science says it’s completely wrong. It’s amazing how much politics are involved.

    The Corbett Report has an interesting report on climate change and what is causing it. http://www.corbettreport.com/interview-288-dr-tim-ball/

    Personally, if politics are involved I don’t trust it. I also don’t trust what a company will say about their products. So where does that leave me? I have to trust my own intuition, God, and see what the masses are doing to determine what is right. I know most of the time I won’t have a definitive “this is right and that is wrong” experience.

    So how does this relate to the religion questions? It just means that when leaders say something I use the same methods and hope that I’m not too far off base to reality.

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