Climate Gate – Hoax or Hype or… Meh?

So recently a reader asked me about the Climate-gate controversy. You know it’s a good media shitstorm when they put the suffix “gate” on it.

Ah, nothing warms a skeptical heart like a good old artificial controversy. I like to use the term “manufactroversy,” myself.

But let us back up a moment to get some perspective. Without it we’ll just be wandering in internet fog, shrilly shouting insults and demanding the impossible. Let’s go back to a foggier, smokier time. That time is the mid 1950s, when the relationship of cigarettes to lung cancer was just being realized.

Science had been done to it. And the industry funded Tobacco Institute knew just who to call: Public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, the grand-daddy of all PR firms. And they got the founder, John Hill, as their go-to guy. In 1963, a memo containing this line crossed his desk.

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy .

They haven’t gone back since. Anyone hear of teaching the controversy?

But let’s travel through time again, this time to a point where the smoke in the air is a different kind of smoke. 1974. CFCs have just been implicated for causing a hole in the ozone layer.

So who did the polluters turn to? Why, Hill & Knowlton! They launched a strategic assault on science that seems familiar. You can get details here or just stay on the page and read the highlights.

-Launch a public relations campaign disputing the evidence.

– Predict dire economic consequences, and ignore the cost benefits.

– Use non-peer reviewed scientific publications or industry-funded scientists who don’t publish original peer-reviewed scientific work to support your point of view.

– Trumpet discredited scientific studies and myths supporting your point of view as scientific fact.

– Point to the substantial scientific uncertainty, and the certainty of economic loss if immediate action is taken.

– Use data from a local area to support your views, and ignore the global evidence.

– Disparage scientists, saying they are playing up uncertain predictions of doom in order to get research funding.

– Disparage environmentalists, claiming they are hyping environmental problems in order to further their ideological goals.

– Complain that it is unfair to require regulatory action in the U.S., as it would put the nation at an economic disadvantage compared to the rest of the world.

– Claim that more research is needed before action should be taken.

– Argue that it is less expensive to live with the effects.

Now keep in mind – this is all for CFC regulation – not climate change! The whole global warming thing is still 10 years away. But you can see the playbook lined out in front of you.

Lest you think that the CFC strategy was lost, here’s a reminder from the diabolical Frank Luntz, the man who does not say what he means, because words are just noise that people assign meaning to.

Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate. . . . The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science’’ (emphasis in original).

As an aside; let’s assume that climate change was fake. A hoax. What then? What have we done? Just what are they so worried about? Electric cars? Reductions in air pollution? Clean, walkable cities? More trees? My guess is that the real worry here is the worry of a reduction in profit from oil companies – and it’s not like they’re going to go out of business. The claims of “it’s all a ploy for socialism and global governance” sound suspiciously familiar: groups like the John Birch Society and others made the same calls about CFC regulation.

Climate change is also the target of a similar PR campaign. I snagged some of the ICE (Information Council for the Environment) documents and item number one on the fuel industry TODO list is “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).”

So what does this have to do with the hacked emails thing? Getting to it, don’t worry.

These emails were leaked on the verge of the Copenhagen summit (not a summit for chewing tobacco users) and the usual suspects have jumped on them like pyromaniacs at a flamethrower clearinghouse sale that’s already on fire. If you want to read a better written article, you can just click here. But mine has more jokes.

Reading more and more of these emails and the reactions to them, you begin to wonder exactly how everyone got their knickers in a wad. First off – having stolen thousands of emails, this is the extent of the incrimination? A handful of comments on statistical tricks? Scientists being catty?

People play tricks with statistics all the time. You have two different data sets in two different formats or methodologies, you have to play a trick on them. You want to draw a regression analysis? That’s a statistical “trick.”

Of course, any evidence that someone is massaging the evidence in order to get it to achieve a desired result – which is entirely possible from the content of these emails – should be seriously investigated by someone with access to all the records and emails. There’s a sober analysis of the affair on Neurologica where Steven Novella goes through the possible downside of this for both sides: If those who are on the fence about global warming see the ranting and fuming by the hardcore – and then the emails turn into yet another media “kerfluffle” then the extreme ends of both sides lose face. In other words, the only possible situation that will arise from this is – public confusion over climate change science, a movement towards a muddled middle.

I’d wager that the stakes are much higher for real scientists than for industrial apologists and the “hey it’s complex so let’s not do anything” crowd (which, sadly, James Randi threw himself into recently, creating a skeptic-blog brick-shitstorm). I never quite understood the logic behind this line of reasoning – if you agree that climate is complex and we don’t therefore understand it, then if you think we should just keep pumping C02 into the air – then you’re trusting to some unknown global C02 sink that you don’t know exists.

Less troubling to me, are the bits where the scientists in question talk about the peer reviewed literature. Your professional reputation as a scientist depends in no small part about the quality of the journals you publish in. Refusing to publish (and recommending others not to do so) in a journal is (from what I’ve managed to gather) very normal and widespread – you can’t have all your articles in Nature, but you don’t want all of them in Medical Hypothesis, either.

While many bloggers have said that we should have all scientists in these fields simply make all their research data public (you can add me to the pile) there is a slight problem: Some of this data is not free. Private companies collect it and store it and format it, and you pay for the access. Making all of the derived data free cuts them from their funding, and their impetus to collect and maintain this data. Are there workarounds? Sure – and more openness in the research community is a grand idea, it’s just not one that will happen overnight.

One thing it would do is free up time and money for researchers to comply constantly with FOI (Freedom of Information) requests from those who want to see the information. It is illegal for them not to comply with these requests (with certain exceptions) and this is the most serious allegation against the climatologists, in my mind. Of course, you can be harassed by these – all it would take would be a handful of dedicated activists to take a serious chunk out of man hours. Putting the information on the web beforehand seems a reasonable response. I doubt these scientists have much to hide. Of course, getting it all there in the first place, in a format people can actually access – that might prove to be more trouble than simply complying with dozens of FOI requests.

Overall, it is really hard to see what is going on with these emails; they’re just snatched fragments of ether, devoid of the proper context. You could be seeing people doing honest statistical analysis, trying to correlate tree ring and ice core and weather station data. You could be seeing some serious institutional fraud.

There are problems with tree ring data (some sets of it, anyway) that don’t quite match up to regular temperature data. Rather than assuming that, therefore, all of global warming is a hoax, it might do people good to understand why this is. Of course, people are already working on that. The “fix the decline” comment refers to this, I believe – the data for tree rings past a certain point was divergent from mechanical measurements. This has been called the “divergence problem,” and points to an interesting research avenue. Since we have more accurate measurements for recent climate than tree rings, there is a fast way for climate researcher to handle this. You can use non-divergent tree ring samples (apparently high altitude alpine forests are more divergent) or you can use another dataset to “hide the decline,” since it’s not a real decline (unless you trust trees more than thermometers).

A lot of this debate seems to be driven by the arrogance of ignorance – the “not all the data is in, therefore nothing is happening” variety of argument. So how do good skeptics like Randi (and, once upon a time, Micheal Shermer) get dragged in?

Blame the media. You can blame them for anything, it turns out! Science journalism is in what you might generously call “shambles,” or you could compare it to Afghanistan, but you’d piss off the Afghans. So when they trumpet doom and gloom and propose solutions from all over, any seasoned skeptic is going to have all alarms blasting. Throw in a handful of politicized scientists on both sides, a climate of doubt, and a guy who doesn’t get the science (sorry Randi, but one look at your blog post says so) and there you go.

The problem is this: Doubters of anthropogenic global warming invariably bring up something non-human to explain global warming (since it is hard to deny). Previous explanations I’ve heard include the heat island effect (temperature measurements taken near cities are higher than those in rural areas) the sunspot cycle, solar energy output, albedo, and others. To assume that professional climatologists don’t realize these things, and yet just carelessly pump out studies ignoring such facts – this is a nice example of the arrogance afforded by ignorance.

As beautiful counter examples to standard arguments arise, those who want to keep things as they are have less and less to work with. And that brings us to where we are today, hacked emails and a great sound and fury, signifying very little.

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4 responses to “Climate Gate – Hoax or Hype or… Meh?

  1. wow awesome article. is there any hard evidence linking hill & knowlton or frank luntz or oil companies to the climategate leak? that would be pretty damning. the john birch society is rife with libertarian conspiracy crackpots who will oppose any kind of reasonable regulation. the conspiracy stuff is thrown in as a red herring meanwhile serious environmental issues like overpopulation and climate change take a backseat in the media. people dont get it and are resisting something that is in their own best interest like other landmarks in scientific progress. global warming is a fact and something needs to be done globally like the name says. with CFCs we did something to correct it and now its fine. this climate problem is bigger than that so it will take more to correct it like carbon taxation and productivity management what the summit was about. this is the only solution. good job on pointing out deniers want to include other factors like solar activity as affecting planetary climate. james randi is trying to play it safe by sitting on the fence “alas scientists are human” lol! yeah dude which is why we have a scientific process which establishes the truth. loser. sorry randi you screwed up on this one get real http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8388485.stm with climategate if all the hacked info is real its like people discovering what goes on in the kitchen at any given chain restaurant kitchen staff swear and spill things. taken out of context things can mean anything but as long as you dont know about it and get your food you dont care. lay people should leave science to the scientists because most prolly arent smart enough to get it anyway or and will screw things up for all of us

  2. jacksonskepticalsociety

    Well, scientists get interested, make mistakes, get politicized, and get really attached to their ideas. They are human and make mistakes. That doesn’t mean that they’re always wrong, either.

    As for H&Ks involvement in the global warming denial game, they haven’t been caught red-handed with sweet memos like the ones on tobacco and CFCs, but those weren’t found until years after the fact. Other companies founded the ICE and the ClimateCitizen groups – most oil companies have in-house PR these days, anyhow, more than capable of doing jobs like this. They’ve spent a lot of money on lobbying, of course.

    They have taken on some big, undisclosed projects for a lot of oil companies. And they’ve taken on a lot of pro bono work for environmental groups and rainforest reserves and that sort of thing. They’re slick.

    As for “lay people should leave science to the scientists because most prolly arent smart enough to get it anyway or and will screw things up for all of us” – science isn’t done by lay people anyhow – but the influencing of policy based on science IS done by laypeople. I can’t imagine it being any other way, but I just wish more of those laypeople were up to date on the issues and fewer of them were paid lobbyists with bad ideas and big sacks of cash.

    I think that’s obviously whats happened at the climate summit. We got a lot of highly profitable and questionable “cap n’ trade” and carbon exchange ideas.

    Oh well. You get what you pay for. Remember laypeople: Keep readin’ books.

  3. “I think that’s obviously whats happened at the climate summit. We got a lot of highly profitable and questionable “cap n’ trade” and carbon exchange ideas.”……… questionable how? do you think these ideas should be unprofitable? tell us how would you get the private sector on board. think about it. this needs to get done. and regulation needs funding which would otherwise be meaningless. they’re meeting again in mexico city because everyone was too stubborn and nothing got done. as for lay people dont get me wrong were on the same page trust me. it would actually be easier if the scientific community also directed said policy. get rid of the middle man right?

  4. Hello there, Happy April Fool’s Day!!!

    A drummer, sick of all the drummer jokes, decides to change his instrument.
    After some thought, he decides on the accordion. So he goes to the music store and says to the owner, “I’d like to look at the accordions, please.”
    The owner gestures to a shelf in the corner and says, “All our accordions are over there.”
    After browsing, the drummer says, “I think I’d like the big red one in the corner.”
    The store owner looks at him and says, “You’re a drummer, aren’t you?”
    The drummer, crestfallen, says, “How did you know?”
    The store owner says, “That ‘big red accordion’ is the radiator.”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!

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