Thursday, December 03, 2009

Forging science in the CRUcible

I should probably be burned alive for the title pun, but never mind that.  I've neglected to write about a story that broke before Thanksgiving, but I feel compelled to finally do so.  I don't really have a good link to a "summary" of the whole story, but you probably don't have to look very far if you just google "Climategate."  (Ugh.  Can we please get away from adding "gate" to word to name a controversy?  It's just silly, people.)

Edit:  Ah, I have such little imagination.  Here's one from the Times of UK, and here's one AEI.

Here's what I can recall from memory:

A few weeks ago, some computers purportedly hacked at the East Anglia (that's England) Climate Research Unit and a vast array of information leaked onto the internet.  Email, data, modeling programs and algorithms . . . it was a treasure trove of information.  Analysis of the leaked information has led people to conclude that life at CRU was fishy at best and fraudulent at worst.  The emails indicated that the scientists there were purposely avoiding FOIA requests for their data (which they are required to give, since they receive American grant money), spiking the research of colleagues who published research that rejects anthropogenic global warming, and manipulating their data to hide trends which contradicts the AGW hypothesis.  As this has been coming to light and calls have been made for investigations, CRU has admitted to destroying data.

Altogether, that's bad.  It's very counter-intuitive to how the scientific process is supposed to work.  You might want to say that this isn't that big of a deal because this is only one place, and in general peer review is supposed to root out bad science and bad scientists.  One problem is that apparently the CRU crew were big players in the AGW scheme, playing big parts in collaborations such as the IPCC.  Additionally, it seems that a lot of secondary work is based off of what CRU produces, so if they manipulate their data or produce faulty read-outs, those errors may be multiplied down the road.

Of course, you'll want to read about it yourself.  Some people are debating about the implications for the veracity of the AGW hypothesis altogether.  I'll save my thoughts on that for another post.  Instead, I'd wanted a chance to link to this Wall Street Journal opinion piece saying that the credibility of science is on the line because of this.

I sympathize with a lot of his main point.  The general public is scientifically illiterate in ways that make me uncomfortable sometimes.  Combine that with the fervent, political way in which AGW has been presented to them, and the sudden development that bigwigs up top are putting down the answers that they want and then saying the dog ate their homework, well, I can see how that might lower the general trust in that field specifically and the sciences as a whole.

Still, I'm reminded of another time that big players were found to have falsified their data in a highly controversial field.  It wasn't too long ago that a Korean scientist was found to have forged data related to embryonic stem cell research.  It's unfortunate that I don't remember either his name or the consequences of his shenanigans, but I do remember writing about it on this blog.  My point being that, despite his actions sullying the "respectability" of the field, that area of research has continued onward.

Of course, the two topics are only similar in that there was scientific fraud being committed.  That doesn't make this a bad example, but it does mean that we'll have to wait and see how this plays out.  This could very well be the turning point at which AGW stops being the "consensus" position and politicians stop trying to implement catastrophic economic policies based on the word of over-zealous scientists.  Or it might change absolutely nothing, with a few empty words spoken about how good it is to pick out the bad eggs but that the science is still sound, settled, and must be acted upon with all haste. 

I'm hoping it's the former.  Time will tell.