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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 11/23/2009

Science historian reacts to hacked climate e-mails

* Damp Thanksgiving week: Full Forecast | Cruising the Atlantic *

A scandal erupted in the world of climate science late last week after anonymous hackers posted years worth of selected private email correspondence between a handful of prominent climate scientists. The emails were stolen from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit in Britain.

Climate skeptics -- those who either doubt the mainstream consensus that Earth has warmed during the past century or who doubt human influence is the primary cause of any warming -- have seized upon the contents of the emails as evidence that mainstream climate scientists have been involved in a conspiracy to block those with alternative views from publishing papers in academic journals, in addition to other allegations.

Although the personal emails do not provide any scientific evidence that would counter the scientific consensus that human emissions are altering the climate system, they are likely to be politically damaging, because they raise the appearance of impropriety in the scientific process.

In one of the messages, Phil Jones, who heads up Britain's government-run Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, alluded to a "trick" that a colleague performed to analyze historical temperature data. You can read up on the specifics of the scandal, and why that particular email may not be as shady as it sounds, here, here and here.

In order to shed some light on what this scandal may mean for the scientific community and for public perceptions of science, I have contacted several highly respected experts to seek their insight. Keep reading for my first interview (ironically, conducted via email), with Spencer Weart, a science historian with the American Institute of Physics.

Originally trained as a physicist, Weart is author of the book, "The Discovery of Global Warming," among others. I reached him while he was attending a science history conference, and he shared insights from his conversations with colleagues as well as his own observations.

Spencer Weart: My most interesting conversations were with historians who have been studying the history of the tobacco companies that did their best, and quite successfully for many years, to cover up the fact that smoking kills people by the million. Some interesting parallels, but...

Andrew Freedman: What effects do you think this will have on public perceptions of climate science and climate scientists?

SW: I don't expect this to have much impact on public perceptions of climate and climate scientists. Opinions have become so fixed that it would take serious evidence to shift a significant number of people. Since the late 1980s, just about every year and sometimes almost every month, a group of people (mostly the same ones) have exclaimed, "Now in these latest (whatever) we finally have proof that there is no need to worry about climate change!" There is a segment of the public that has believed every new claim. The rest will continue to doubt such claims in the absence of truly solid proof.

AF: What do you think this story reveals about the conduct of climate science?

SW: Back around 2000 leading climate scientists talked to each other mostly about their science--debating one another's data and analysis and negotiating travel, collaboration and other administration--and a little bit about policy. As time passed they have had to spend more and more of their time answering criticism of the scientific results already established, criticism mostly based on ignorance, fallacious reasoning, and even deliberately deceptive claims. Still more recently they have had to spend far too much of their time defending their personal reputations against ignorant or slanderous attacks.
"...we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers."
The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It's a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.
Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers. In blogs, talk radio and other new media, we are told that the warnings about future global warming issued by the national science academies, scientific societies, and governments of all the leading nations are not only mistaken, but based on a hoax, indeed a conspiracy that must involve thousands of respected researchers. Extraordinary and, frankly, weird. Climate scientists are naturally upset, exasperated, and sometimes goaded into intemperate responses... but that was already easy to see in their blogs and other writings.

AF: For a science historian such as yourself, how valuable are these emails? And what is your impression of them thus far?

SW: There would be a lot to learn if the owner of these emails (I suppose the University) would release them for analysis; for example, you could run up statistics on the types of interchanges and the structure of networks of discussion among researchers. Of course no scholar can make use of stolen material, and in particular one cannot legally or ethically quote a private message without the explicit permission of the writer.
Historians do often work with collections of letters that have been donated to archives. Typically we spend countless hours trying to understand the context; scholarly reputations have been ruined by interpretations that turned out to be mistaken. The risk of misinterpretation is far greater with emails, written so much more casually than letters. Our society is having difficulty dealing with this new form of communication. Look at last week's verdict on the Bear Sterns hedge fund managers who were accused of misleading investors. The prosecutrs based their case on a few seemingly incriminating sentences drawn from a mass of emails. When the jury saw the whole set of emails, they quickly found that there was no crime, just ordinary business chatter. From what I've seen, I expect that will be the verdict on the climate scientists' emails.

Check back here tomorrow for an interview with Thomas Crowley, a geochemist who has served as a reviewer for the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For more reaction from climate scientists, check out this post from Judith Curry at Georgia Tech, and this from the folks at the blog RealClimate (some of whom were the targets of the email hack).

The views expressed here are the author's and interview subject's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 11/23/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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