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Copenhagen Special: Climategate and the tragic consequences of breaching scientific trust

62C34-iglooClive Crook is such a calm, sensible, non-ideological voice, that if you ever get him really upset, you’re in deep trouble.  And he could hardly contain himself at his blog at the Atlantic on Climategate, in which some climate scientists engaged in censorship and cover-ups:

The closed-mindedness of these supposed men of science, their willingness to go to any lengths to defend a preconceived message, is surprising even to me. The stink of intellectual corruption is overpowering.

Clive is also hard on the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who saw no problems of bias, even when contributing scientists said about studies they didn’t like: they “will keep them out {of the IPCC report} somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

One problem that Clive points out is that some climate scientists don’t know that much about statistics and show little interest in consulting statisticians even while they are basing their finding on statistical analysis. The Wegman report on the “Hockey Stick” controversy has this amazing summary:

It is important to note the isolation of the paleoclimate community; even though they rely heavily on statistical methods they do not seem to be interacting with the statistical community.

Once the real statisticians looked, one “Hockey Stick” result fell apart: the conclusion that

the decade of the 1990s was the hottest decade of the millennium and that 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium cannot be supported by {the} analysis.

Clive considers some of the reactions to his blog in a subsequent post, and is unyielding:

Once scientists set out to mislead the public, they can no longer expect to be trusted. End of story.

So is Clive a climate “denialist”? Or am I a “denialist” by featuring this story on the opening day of Copenhagen?

That such questions are even on the table is itself a symptom of the problem. A less balanced but still insightful piece by George Will in Sunday’s Washington Post complains bitterly about this. Part of the problem is the real “denialists,” who DO ignore science — but scientific dishonesty is not exactly a confidence-building response.

The analogy that got me interested in Climategate is of course with social science in development, where the problem is vastly worse. Advocacy on global poverty distorts everything from the data to the econometrics, as this blog frequently complains, so that credibility of development social scientists is sinking to dangerously low levels. It’s so bad that there is never a “Povertygate” scandal, because “Povertygate” is the norm rather than the exception.

What’s most tragic about both climate and poverty advocates engaging in censorship and distortion is that, while it might help advocacy in the short run at the expense of science, it destroys both advocacy and science in the long run. It’s infeasible for every individual to independently do their own research to verify problems and proposed solutions, so they have to trust the professional, full-time researchers. As Clive understood, if those researchers destroy that trust, then even honest advocacy becomes increasingly impossible, which means solutions become increasingly impossible.

Since any meaningful agreement on emissions at Copenhagen is about as likely as igloos in the Sahara, maybe the delegates could pass a resolution in defense of responsible criticism?

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  1. Bill, what’s most sad about the advocates and censors is that by stifling real debate the people who will suffer in the long run are the poor. They tend to bear the brunt of most of the mistakes we policy wonks make.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 1:56 am | Permalink
  2. To see other possible examples of the manipulation of climate change data, I suggest you go to the following web site In particular, see “Is the US Temperature Data Reliable” , “The Sceptics Handbook”, and “12 Facts about Global Climate Change That You Won’t Read in the Popular Press”

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  3. roger wrote:

    You asked. Of course you are a denialist. Easterly, Crook and Will – such strong advocates of climate change before, o woe, some emails were stolen that proved preciselly nothing. But of course, since it proved precisely nothing, the only way to make this vacuous charge stick is to engage in the usual sleight of hand analogies. It is “just like” developmental economics, where, I understand, you have a meager grasp of the issues. I’m impressed! Nice way to change the subject while making it look like you are engaged in sad but grave dissent from those terrible, terrible climatologists.
    Next, you should turn your attention to the propaganda being spread about the innocent tobacco industry. Correlation is not causation – that’s always a nice slogan.
    Anyway, it is nice to see that the usual suspects align just as one suspected they woulld. . Since the CO2 problem concerns the seizure of the atmosphere by the advanced industrial economies, and since your career is dedicated to keeping those economies well ahead of the third world, which you work hard to impoverish – what a career! – denialism fits your portfolio quite well. You should definitely take it up. I especially like the idea that the data showing that the 90s was the hottest decade up to that point “fell apart.” That is one of the funniest things ever. Do give us more of your “proofs” – I’m sure that evolutionary myth, after coming under the withering fire of your intellect, will also fall apart.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  4. Michael Clemens wrote:

    @roger: What a fascinating comment. You 1) assert that the emails prove nothing, without explaining how you came to that conclusion, 2) sarcastically say there is no analogy to development economics, without explaining how development economics differs, 3) assert that anyone who has the tiniest doubt about the statistical ability of paleoclimatologists is just like someone who questions the sound statistics behind the tobacco-cancer link, without explaining why, and 4) assert that Bill Easterly works hard to impoverish developing countries, which is obvious to few people besides yourself.

    In short, @roger, your comment demonstrates how little interest you have in evidence or explanation, and how much interest you have in ad hominem attacks — precisely the same traits you loathe in “denialists”.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  5. George wrote:

    I almost agree with this.

    But the hackers retrieved thirteen years of data and emails, and pulled out a very small number of quotes. They were likely to have been paid, and we don’t know by whom. This blog often talks of political economy and incentives – certainly, many people stand to benefit from a failed Copenhagen in the short, medium and long-run. I wonder what climate warriors would find if they had the resources/inclination to hack the various “deniers”/oil companies (etc.) computers and trawl through decades of what was said there. We wont find out of course – UEA doesn’t have the inclination, and Exxon’s (etc.) internet security systems are, its safe to say, rather less penetrable.

    To be honest, I’d be fearful if someone wanted to devote the time and resources to hacking my emails and pulling out the top 5 most scandalous passages.

    If the litmus test for what makes a fair, scientific case, is that any institution (of the many thousands) sharing the thoughts of or producing the research for the “winning” side must not have said a single controversial thing in private for at least a decade, and must be subject to far greater scrutiny than the other, the a bad outcome is more likely, however strong the evidence is.

    If this is the case then there is little point in any of us attempting to fight any large, profitable and damaging corporate agendas, whether they relate to climate change, pharmaceutical integrity, bank bailouts, etc.

    I find it strange that this isn’t acknowledged here.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  6. John wrote:

    Most of these hacked emails we see floating around are mostly just out of context quotes and the only thing they prove is that these climate change researchers are.. human. And researchers. They use lab speak and are terrified that other researchers will steal their data and take credit for their work. Just like in any other field.

    Sure it’s ugly and there is a serious lack of professionalism but if these same emails came from a different field, would be have the same media circus? probably not.

    And for the examples you use concerning the “hockey graph” and the Wegman report:

    This is troubling since you are using one quote of a report that was widely criticized. It should also be mentioned that fixing some “errors” that the report demands does not change general shape of the graph. The fact that the report done by the National Research Concil (at the request of the US Congress) is not mentioned is not mentioned at all is troubling also since it does not come to the same conclusions as the Wegman report. But it wouldn’t be convinient to use it now would it?

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  7. John wrote:

    For some reason, the last part of my comment has a formating error. Sorry about that, it should not be in green. I was talking about the part where: “Once the real statisticians looked, one “Hockey Stick” result fell apart: “

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  8. John
    The “fudge factor” used by the CRU in their source code does change the general nature of their graph. Also the CRU edited the data after 1960 in a way that is highly questionable. See
    There may be global warming. For sure, the CRU breached scientific trust.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Word_Bandit wrote:

    It’s not intellectual corruption, because the academy’s above the fray of the everyday,.

    Unlike so many commoners, the intellectual elite, in both the humanities and the sciences believes its own mythology of being apolitical and working for the greater good.

    As a “New Age” teacher says, “everybody lies, just don’t believe your own lies,” a.k.a b.s.

    Seems many in the academy have conned themselves into believing that they’re above intellectual honesty,, given the greater good.

    But this intellectual dishonesty and sense of entitlement goes directly to much of our cultural wars, and why the left just doesn’t get why the right doesn’t get it.

    Both are mired in mythologies, the left claiming the mythology of empiricism (half the picture); the right cleaves to the mythology of values (half the picture). Neither side seeing beyond their own mythology of privilege.

    This is of course a grossly oversimplified analysis, deserving of a book; hopefully, point made if roughly.

    In other words, the elites believe their own b.s. as much as the right wing nuts cases do, and thus behaves in similar dishonest fashion.

    The New York Times is no stranger to this behavior, either.

    Apologies for editorial oversights, as always.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  10. Lauren wrote:

    Talk (rather than implementation) of unethical behavior in private e-mails does not in any way affect the scientific consensus on human induced global warming. You say part of the problem is that readers might wonder if you or Clive Crook are ‘denialists’ (i.e. – don’t believe the above statement). Here is a quote from the Clive Crook piece:

    “There is far more of a problem here for the consensus view than Megan and ordinarily reliable commentators like The Economist acknowledge.”

    Why would someone who isn’t a denialist attack the consensus view (based on the work of many, many scientists) because of a couple comments written in the private e-mails of two or three individuals.? A denialist isn’t only someone who denies science, but also someone who uses science to support personal gain. Obviously there are many people in politics and industry who have much to gain from exploiting this event to weaken the argument for urgent action on the climate change issue.

    Scientists are also people, and sometimes people act unethically, particularly within the private domain of personal e-mail. I think the scariest thing about this whole situation is that people will doubt the climate change consensus (a robust hypothesis based on well-established observations and inferences – Keleman) due to behavior that is not a normal part of scientific debate.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  11. William Easterly wrote:

    Lauren, OK, if you are afraid people will doubt “due to behavior that is not a normal part of scientific debate,” why isn’t the proper response to denounce that behavior and remove any grounds for doubt?

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  12. Lauren wrote:

    I agree with you that such behavior should be denounced, and thus can agree with most of what is written in your blog entry above. However, I felt that the Clive Cook piece went beyond an appropriate critique of this behavior, extending the actions of a few to the larger community of climate change scientists. Because “denialists’ (and I don’t think you are one) have made this such a sensitive issue, I think we must be careful to define clear boundaries between the inappropriate behavior of a few people and the more general integrity of climate change research.

    On a separate note, I just wanted to say that while I don’t always agree with everything written on this blog, much of what I have read of the past months has been truly thought provoking. As an undergrad taking a course on global public health and development this semester, I do appreciate Aid Watch as a forum for educated and open discussion on many of the topics I have been learning about in class.

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  13. djbtak wrote:

    The trouble with this post is the sleight of hand in moving from the physical to the social sciences. There is no “scientific trust” in the social sciences that counts for much. There are advocacy coalitions adopting to different degrees the methodological rhetoric of truth. This has been demonstrated by (ironically) social scientists too many times to count, but the vast majority of economists fail to do what scientists should do and read/respond to serious academic work on underlying principles (we get Sokalism and complaints of distortion instead). Putting the burden of proof on those working for a better world to conform to values that aren’t even properly held among the shining paladins of neutrality seems a bit misplaced. And uneasily reminiscent of the colonial paradigm, especially when it is almost always white guys complaining about it (the Walby/Harding debate in Signs is paradigmatic however).

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  14. francis wrote:

    Since journal editors will never publish papers that shows no significant results, researchers seeking tenure will do their best to find significant results to get their work published. Therefore, we ought to rethink what is publisheable and what is not

    Posted December 7, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  15. Btok wrote:
    While readying speeches about how the middle class will be forced to lower their living standards, pay higher taxes on all forms of travel, and make personal sacrifices in order to save the planet from the alleged menace of CO2 Copenhagen globalists will be relaxing on the 140 extra private jets that are being forced to drop off attendees in Copenhagen and then fly back to other airports and even other countries just to park due to the lack of spaces.
    Elitists will scoff scallops foie gras and sculpted caviar wedges while lecturing the general public about how eating meat is harming the earth.
    And while the climate crooks wag their finger at you for having the audacity to own an SUV, they will be running up a bill of over $200 million dollars, and guess who is going to be picking up the tab?
    “According to an analysis by the Taxpayer’s Alliance a conservative cost of Copenhagen is £130million.
    It includes £6.3million on flights, £20million on hotels and £3.3million on food,reports the Daily Mail.
    “The figure also includes the salaries for delegates and the contribution from the Danish government of £37 million. Most of the money will come from taxpayers.” Summits of this size are routinely accompanied by a huge spike in the sex trade in whatever city they happen to be taking place. While servants of the global elite and their masters lecture us about our moral imperatives half of them are out committing adultery on a nightly basis during the same global conferences at which they habitually pose with righteous indignation. Make sure you have plenty of vomit bags on standby the thugs couldn’t care less about the environment they want to tax you out of existence for breathing!
    Check out what Government is doing behind your back at:
    Email Prime Minister Harper of Canada and request he not sign the Copenhagen Treaty causing Canadians to lose our Sovereignty at:
    Protest he inaccurate Climate Change measurements that are being used to Proclaim the Copenhagen

    Posted December 8, 2009 at 2:05 am | Permalink
  16. Stephen Jones wrote:

    The lesson to be learned is never to use email for in-jokes or irony. Of the particular articles involved in the ‘keep them out’ comment, one was atrocious and has had more rejections than the most jilted of old maids, and there’s no evidence the other had the least merit to be included.

    As for the raw data it will still be available where it was taken. What happened apparently was that there was a move of buildings, and the data, all of which was on paper and took up immense space, was junked in the move because there was nowhere to put it, it had served its purpose, and the originals were presumed to be still available at the climate stations that had sent them.

    Posted December 8, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  17. Robert Tulip wrote:

    The debate is do the ends justify the means.

    I would have to say yes and no.

    Yes, the debate with denialists is primarily political rather than factual, so it is understandable that Hadley scientists reject denialist views on political grounds.

    The ‘no’ case is more complex. The means in this case included acceptance of sloppy scientific and statistical standards in the name of the glorious end of saving the planet. The dudgeon over the hockey stick seems confected to me, but the debate raises important questions of collegiality and honesty.

    My own opinion is that we need to focus on new technology, with algae for biofuel the most promising. The Copenhagen economic debate about how to send price signals to stop pollution is far too slow and politically difficult as a method to stop global warming.

    I actually agree with Jeffrey Sachs on this:

    “New technologies are the only way to tackle climate change… Rapid economic growth and climate change mitigation cannot go together as long as we stick to current technologies… policy makers must focus on technological changes right now, rather than on economic measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. These changes require upfront public R and D funding, especially for demonstration projects, plus a supportive regulatory environment.”
    Jeffrey D. Sachs
    Director of the Earth Institute
    speaking at Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, February 2008

    Posted December 8, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink
  18. George wrote:

    Here’s what the “other side” have been up to in terms of scientific distortion:

    Of course, whether we should “race to the bottom” in terms of scientific integrity, in terms of delivering our intended outcome, a world protected against the real dangers of climate change in a cost-effective manner, is a matter for debate.

    IMHO, more balance in the original post would add to the argument made in the blog.

    The same commentator attacking UEA:

    Posted December 9, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  19. Stephen Jones wrote:

    I actually agree with Jeffrey Sachs on this:

    So Sachs is in favour of an expensive hi-tech western imposed from the top solution. What a surprise.

    If you asked Sachs the cure for constipation he’d probably recommend nitroglycerin.

    Posted December 11, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  20. Per Kurowski wrote:

    It sure sounds like some good old styled navel gazing too me. That some scientists “cheated”? Why not? Anyone stupid enough to believe that all of them will be completely honest in their proceedings, or that some or many of them will not be captured by some special interests, should immediately be taken away from the if there is and what to do with climate change decision making process.

    Just like the financial regulators who thought that they could leave everything in the hands of some capital requirements based on risk and some credit rating agencies to measure that risk, should be taken out of the regulatory process because they have proven themselves to be too gullible, too innocent and too naïve.

    Posted December 13, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  21. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Re Sachs, constipation and nitroglycerin, please have a step back and consider the climate reality.

    As I understand it from the recent McKinsey Climate Report, a full (but politically impossible) Copenhagen agreement would result in the world achieving dangerous CO2 levels of 500 parts per million about five years later than under business as usual, ie in 2030 with a fully effective Copenhagen Treaty rather than in 2025 if we just ignore the problem and hope it will go away.

    This ‘five year’ estimate of how much time a full Copenhagen agreement could buy for the planet is just my calculation from data. I would appreciate if others could check it.

    I have yet to see how the Copenhagen tax proposals will actually reduce the CO2 level, as opposed to slowing its increase. The ‘market signals’ approach is a lot of fuss for no result – a pack of emperors in the nude.

    There are two parameters, total atmospheric CO2 levels and human emissions. If we cannot reduce human emissions then we should look at direct action to reduce the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, as Australia’s Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has proposed.

    I have proposed a method to achieve this goal by large scale planetary engineering, covering up to 0.1% of the world ocean with polymer bags to produce algae for fuel, food and fertilizer. With such economies of scale the world could rapidly and profitably solve the security problems for climate, food and fuel. To date my efforts to obtain peer review of this proposal have foundered, I assume because it is too large scale and transformative.

    The old left-right polarity is causing gridlock on new technology. Leftists see climate change as an opportunity to expand the state through a big new tax. They do not like people like me who hope to make a lot of money from fixing the world climate by private enterprise. On the right, denialism and fear of transformative innovation combine to produce the cynical response “if it would work some one would have done it already”.

    Stephen Jones (comment above) says “Sachs is in favour of an expensive hi-tech western imposed from the top solution”. The fact is nothing else is going to save the planet from catastrophic global warming. We have to learn to turn on a dime. In any case, ocean based algae production will not be expensive as it will pay for itself through global economic transformation of energy and food markets.

    Scaling up algae production in the ocean is the only realistic scalable way to remove carbon from the air in the volumes needed to stabilise the world climate.

    As Tim Flannery comments in the New York Review of Books at ,

    “that the pursuit of biofuels will lead to more land clearance and a diminution of our food supply….is certainly not true of more advanced techniques that derive biofuels from algae.”

    Posted December 15, 2009 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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