The Boys Who Cried ‘Climategate’

by Bill Chameides | March 15th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 15 comments

It’s one thing to call out bad form whether of a scientist, politician, or businessman. It’s quite another to stretch the truth into a fish story.

Don’t cry “climategate” and then use innuendo, rumors, and falsehoods to advance an anti-environment agenda.

People are justifiably concerned by the partisan nature of the hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia; and scientists (among them Ralph Cicerone, the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) have issued public statements of criticism. For many others, especially those aligned in the climate skeptics’ camp, the word outrage is probably more aptly applied than concern or criticism (see here, here, and here).

Okay, outraged folks. I respect your high standards. And just in case you missed them, here are two other instances that should spark similar outrage.

Wall Street Journal Propagates Untruths

In a guest column for the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, launched a broadside against all of academia, arguing that, as its subheading sums up, “objective truth has been abandoned [in our universities] and the peer-review process gives scholars ample opportunity to reward friends and punish enemies.”

That’s pretty heady stuff. In a nation where few things seem to be working right, our universities and the peer-review process that underpins them stand out as one of our enduring success stories.

  • The American university system is the envy of the world. Students from all corners of the globe strive to come to the United States to attend our colleges and graduate schools, 13 of which rank in the top 20 of U.S. News and World Report‘s World’s Best Universities.
  • The peer-review process has been extraordinarily effective and successful in producing fundamental and groundbreaking advances; consider Einstein’s theory of relativity, Crick and Watson’s watershed paper on the structure of DNA, and nanotechnology, to name just three.

If you’re going to attack those citadels, you’d better have some strong data to back up your arguments.

So what is the prima facie evidence for Berkowitz’s case? None, other than so-called “climategate,” a loaded, media-coined term that in itself is propagating misconceptions over what happened in the hacked messages and what we should be taking away from it all.

In Berkowitz’s words, the University of East Anglia “emails revealed that scientists … around the globe deliberately distorted data to support dire global warming scenarios.”

Now, I can understand how shortly after the revelations of the e-mails that some might jump to the conclusion that statements like “use Mike’s Nature trick … to hide the decline” are evidence of malfeasance. Premature? Yes, but understandable.

But much has passed since then. Much explanation has come to light to show that such a conclusion of malfeasance is off-base. As noted on this blog last month (and in many other places, too):

  • Trick” is a term of art to indicate an elegant mathematical algorithm. Not convinced? Try doing a search on “computational trick.” I get 4,600 hits, most linking to papers with the term in their title.
  • Decline” refers to a decline in tree wood density since the 1960s, a phenomenon that is well-known and well-documented in the literature.
  • Hide” refers to a decision to produce a “tidy” graph that did not include the well-known divergence between observed temperatures and temperatures inferred from tree rings after the 1960s.

Suffice it to say, none of the investigations into the behavior of the scientists implicated by the hacked e-mails has yet to find any evidence of data distortion. (See here and here.)

So was Berkowitz’s statement a “deliberate” distortion or just the result of poor scholarship? Your call.

Fortunately for Berkowitz, he works at one of those universities (Stanford), whose practices he so bitterly condemns, and so is protected by academic freedom.

Blogosphere Overreach

Can a complete falsehood perpetrated in the blogosphere lead to public outrage and a House panel investigation? You betcha, if the falsehood resonates in the anti-environment echo chamber.

Last week, Robert Montgomery opined in his column for that “a federal strategy … could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing some of the nation’s oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters.”

This was quickly picked up by the blogosphere and amplified into a warning of an imminent attempt by the president to take the fishing rods right out of the hands of the American recreational fishing community.

One headline read “Obama’s Latest Assault on Freedom — New regulations Will Ban Sport Fishing.” (Others include: “Obama Wants to End All Fishing, Thats [sic] Right Fishing! This Is Not a Joke!” “Obama Intent on Ending Recreational Fishing in America?” “Burning Question: Is the Obama Administration Coming for Your Fishing Rod?”)

In no time flat, Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration, was hauled in front of a House panel to “reassure … the angling public.” Lubchenco’s response: “We are not proposing any blanket ban on recreational fishing.”

And what was the cause of the flap?

This is what I wonder: the administration is getting ready to issue plans for a new ocean policy to protect fisheries; you know the things that recreational fishers want protected so they can keep fishing? Is it possible that those who oppose such measures are trying to spread a false rumor to inflame the fisher community and get them to oppose a policy before it’s even issued?

In any event, ESPN Outdoors has since apologized for Montgomery’s piece, saying it should have been clearly labeled as opinion and not news. Now that’s what you call outrage.

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