Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Climategate and academic accountability

Due to inadequate computer security, 156 megabytes of embarrassing emails by the leading British climate research unit have surfaced in an incident now called “Climategate.” This is reminiscent of the embarrassing Bill Gates emails about crushing competitors (or Richard Nixon and his tapes): people will make sure that there are no records of dishonest behavior, rather than ending the behavior.

However, it seems unlikely to significantly change the debate over anthropogenic global warming, as pundits, politicians and the public will filter the news through their existing biases. Those who believe in AGW will say the issues are minor or isolated, while skeptics will say it proves a vast left-wing conspiracy. (This also sounds a lot like 1974).

Critics point to snippets in which researchers talk about cherry picking data, exaggerating claims, padding results. Although many of these things seem like a bad idea, there are a lot of gray areas and such exaggeration happens in many scientific endeavors. As economics blogger Meg McArdle notes, “ it means we need to be less romantic about the practice of science.”

However, one passage should be setting off alarm bells in every research university in the world. A March 2003 email by Prof. Michael Mann of Penn State — quoted by the Wall Street Journal — advocates a blacklist against an existing journal:

In fact, Mike McCracken first pointed out this article to me, and he and I have discussed this a bit. I've cc'd Mike in on this as well, and I've included Peck too. I told Mike that I believed our only choice was to ignore this paper. They've already achieved what they wanted—the claim of a peer-reviewed paper. There is nothing we can do about that now, but the last thing we want to do is bring attention to this paper, which will be ignored by the community on the whole...

There have been several papers by Pat Michaels, as well as the Soon & Baliunas paper, that couldn't get published in a reputable journal. This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the "peer-reviewed literature". Obviously, they found a solution to that--take over a journal!

So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering "Climate Research" as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board...
The 2003 paper, written by Willie Soon of Harvard and Sallie Baliunas of the Mount WIlson Observatory, questions whether the 20th century is the warmest of the past 2000 years. (According to objective measures, Climate Research is ranked 29 out of 48 meteorology journals — which would mean it’s reputable but not prestigious.)

This is not how science is supposed to be conducted. You might disagree with other interpretations of the data, but the way you win is by producing better studies. You don’t blacklist journals — for contributions or citations — because they sometimes print contrary points of view. The process of science is supposed to be about the evidence, so trying to destroy the careers of those who disagree with you is beyond the pale.

This makes clear that at least some of the researchers are no longer conducting scientific research — in search of the truth — but only want evidence that supports their position. Is this because their reputations will suffer? Is this because they are part of a social movement? I have no direct knowledge either way.

Legitimate institutions apply the rules equally to friends and enemies, as captured by the old saying “rule of law, not of men.” If the academic institutions valued their legitimacy, they would reprimand those intent on violating the norms of scientific research. Since the Royal Meteorological Society and American Meteorology Society are strongly lobbying for political action to reverse global warming, this would require criticizing those whose beliefs they share.

Absent strong external pressure, institutions are notably reluctant to admit their own failings. The institutions (like any under attack) will probably ignore the controversy and hope it goes away. I think this will work: unlike Nixon’s efforts at stonewalling, there are no Woodward and Bernstein dogging every lead in this scandal.

Odds are, the professional societies will close ranks rather than sanction clear ethical violations. The offenders will continue to be rewarded with journal publications and generous government support for their research.

Free markets and free societies depend on feedback mechanisms to catch and deter transgressions. Failures of accountability in academia reinforce a pattern that I’ve observed over the past decade: non-profit institutions are less accountable than companies, because there are no shareholders who can throw the bums out after they’ve flown a plane into the side of a mountain.

1 comment:

Joel West said...

When I was in meteorology, we always would have saved our original data in case a new approach came along for processing it, e.g. time series smoothing. But from the Sunday Times, Nov. 29 comes this revelation:

SCIENTISTS at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based.

It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.

The UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was forced to reveal the loss following requests for the data under Freedom of Information legislation.

The data were gathered from weather stations around the world and then adjusted to take account of variables in the way they were collected. The revised figures were kept, but the originals — stored on paper and magnetic tape — were dumped to save space when the CRU moved to a new building.

In a statement on its website, the CRU said: “We do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.”

The CRU is the world’s leading centre for reconstructing past climate and temperatures. Climate change sceptics have long been keen to examine exactly how its data were compiled. That is now impossible.

Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at Colorado University, discovered data had been lost when he asked for original records. “The CRU is basically saying, ‘Trust us’. So much for settling questions and resolving debates with science,” he said.