Even those who cannot explain the difference between weather and climate assume they are nonetheless qualified to comment on the debate over anthropogenic climate change, which is a result of human activities. Climategate is the unflattering term used to describe the uproar that followed the hacking and leaking of e-mails exchanged among many climate change scientists. Several criticisms directed at the scientists involved have, as we say, “gone viral.” In no particular order, let us briefly review four of them – all of which are invalid, in my opinion.
First, data were changed or manipulated to appear better than they were, that is, “fudged.” Scientists know that one’s professional reputation, which is based on personal integrity, is all-important, and must be protected zealously. Yes, there have been and will be scientists who try to game the system, but most of us are acutely aware that if we get caught falsifying data, our professional reputation is ruined and our career as a scientist is usually over. We make numerous mistakes but few are deliberate. There is simply too much at stake.
Second, some scientists allegedly cheated in another way. Non-scientists seldom understand the jargon that scientists use among themselves. E-mails among friends and colleagues, particularly when hacked, are particularly vulnerable to being misinterpreted. Case in point: One scientist referred to a “trick, which critics assumed was cheating, used to summarize different sources of data so they can be compared with each other – an entirely reasonable and acceptable approach. I do not know the details of that e-mail, but having wrestled with similar problems in handling data, my guess (and that is exactly what it is) is that the “trick” was probably one of several statistical methods that scientists use in dealing with large numbers of data from many different sources. This is a significant point. Climatic data taken over the relatively short time since the Industrial Revolution began – and the beginning of pollution caused by burning fossil fuels on a large scale – are supplemented by data from “proxies” such as tree rings, rings in cross sections of skeletons from reef-forming corals, the nature of sediments in the marine environment, skeletons (”tests”) of microscopic marine organisms, fossils of tropical organisms in Antarctica, and ice cores from the Greenland Ice Sheet. All are indirect but important clues about climate changes during earth’s past.
Third, cronyism is rampant. Quid pro quo: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Or, “I’ll support your manuscript, application for research funding, and so on, if you support mine.” It seldom works this way. When a manuscript is submitted to the most reputable journals, which mandate peer review, the reviewers chosen to pass judgment on the manuscript are very familiar with the ins and outs of the research, and often compete with the author(s) for both journal space and research grants. They are not going to give any ground where critiques are concerned. Most scientists learn this very quickly and, after being stung by criticisms of their manuscripts, learn to become their own worst critic before even submitting those manuscripts or applications for research grants. Think “rivals,” not “cronies.”
Fourth, obsessive secrecy kept data from the public. Climategate scientists were accused of being reluctant to share their data and observations. Up to a point that is correct. Scientists are unwilling to release data and conclusions until they are reasonably certain that these are valid. Most of us protect our research, particularly in its early stages, by publishing a short abstract or presenting a brief talk at a recognized scientific meeting. Usually the first investigator to present even preliminary research on a specific topic publicly, often while the research is ongoing, receives the credit for breakthroughs and discoveries. What appears to be secrecy is no more than protecting one’s research until it has reached a stopping point and the final report is published. That “secrecy” is entirely legitimate.