Comments on blogs and in the media about the contents of a large number of private emails stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, have questioned both the validity of the key findings of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) and the integrity of its authors. IPCC WGI condemns the illegal act which led to private emails being posted on the Internet and firmly stands by the findings of the AR4 and by the community of researchers worldwide whose professional standards and careful scientific work over many years have provided the basis for these conclusions.The key finding of IPCC AR4, “The warming in the climate system is unequivocal [...] “, is based on measurements made by many independent institutions worldwide that demonstrate significant changes on land, in the atmosphere, the ocean and in the ice-covered areas of the Earth. Through further, independent scientific work involving statistical methods and a range of different climate models, these changes have been detected as significant deviations from natural climate variability and have been attributed to the increase of greenhouse gases.The body of evidence is the result of the careful and painstaking work of hundreds of scientists worldwide. The internal consistency from multiple lines of evidence strongly supports the work of the scientific community, including those individuals singled out in these email exchanges, many of whom have dedicated their time and effort to develop these findings in teams of Lead Authors within the production of the series of IPCC Assessment Reports during the past 20 years.- from the IPCC Working Group I Statement on the Stolen East Anglia Climate Emails
Now that the furore over these emails has largely boiled over--taking with it any possibility of a US cap-and-trade bill--it is time to think about what this scandal meant on a deeper level. The emails were, unquestionably, important: they provided climate-change skeptics with apparent evidence of the conspiracy that they had always contended was behind global warming research. The fact that the vast majority of the correspondence appears to be clearly innocent is immaterial. The very circumstances of their release--their "theft" or "leaking," characterizations that have tremendous political implications in our information age--provided the frame that was necessary for their content to be interpreted as sensational.
In other words, the email scandal was first and foremost a problem of media and communication: communication between scientists, between scientists and the public, between the public and influential organs of opinion on both sides. That is why the reaction of the skeptics' opponents has been so disappointing and ineffective--and why I'd like to consider it on this blog. Almost all of the various statements and rebuttals to "Climategate," however qualified their author, have centered on two basic claims: a) stealing the emails was immoral and b) you people don't understand the scientific process; this is how science works, and discussions of data presentation and comments on submitted articles sound arbitrary and conspiratorial because they are in reality comprehensible only by insiders.
Claim a), of course, amounts to little more than spitting into the wind. Practically any scandal that forms as a result of the leakage or exposure of private or classified material gets much of its power and media appeal from the voyeuristic, vaguely transgressive opportunity it provides to look at the private lives of other people or organizations. This private life inevitably proves to be really quite ordinary--but this only makes the need to manufacture the scandal more pressing. It's the hiddenness, not the scandalousness, that attracts media attention; condemning this as immoral is therefore bound to be counterproductive.
But the problems with claim b) are even more serious, because they reveal an unwillingness or inability to understand the roots of climate change skepticism (along with many other phenomena, such as anti-vaccination activism). They are founded in a deep-seated feeling that science is an expertise-driven, inaccessible domain which produces truth only on its own terms and is categorically unwilling to examine or admit to bias and error. Though the skeptics are probably wrong, this view is not too far from the truth. Responses like claim b), of course, only strengthen opposition founded on such beliefs: any appeal that rests on the internal standards of the scientific community is, to the skeptic, an argument against the infallibility of scientific knowledge.
As a aspiring historian of science--I mean this in a self-deprecating kind of way--I would have recommended a diametrically opposite tack. The email leaks do not need to be defended against or indignantly condemned. Rather, they present the general public with a glimpse into how science is really made, by living people with problems that need to be solved, with communication mishaps and professional aspirations. A university department, these emails show, is not so different from any other workplace. The results it produces should be looked at in the same way. If the mythos of the expert community is destroyed, it is that much harder for the rhetorical stance of the skeptics to gain ground. But first, of course, the problem must be seen as a rhetorical one. As long as "anti-skeptics" cling to their obsession with scientific consensus and consensually-generated facts, scandals like Climategate will continue to cripple their political advocacy.