The nothing that was Climategate

Joe Romm has an excellent perspective on the last year, since "Climategate" - focusing on the developments in the science of climate that make our situation only that much more alarming. The real story of "Climategate" is not the frank discussions between climate scientists revealed in stolen emails, and at least so far not the Watergate-like computer break-in whose perpetrators and sponsors have still not been revealed (though I am sure one day that will prove a very interesting story). As Romm emphasizes, the real tragedy of "Climategate" is the media circus that chased this shiny new conflict-driven nothing of a story when there were far, far more momentous issues regarding the reality of climate at hand. If even one of the 9 scientific claims of the past year reviewed by Romm holds up under further research - and in my judgment very likely at least 4 or 5 of these, possibly 7 or 8, are real - the future for my children will be a far less happy place than I had anticipated even just a year ago.

Andy Revkin's coverage of the climate email hack at the NY Times, for example this early Dot Earth post, was an unfortunate example of the herd mentality among journalists on the subject - I've gone back and forth myself on whether Revkin was to some extent responsible for leading the herd. It was around that time I decided his "Dot Earth" blog, which largely launched my interest in climate science, was just not worth my time any more. But even the usually science-friendly George Monbiot thought what was revealed by the emails was serious. Other than the possibly illegal freedom-of-information suppression request by a flustered Phil Jones (who I'd never heard of before), it was not, as Monbiot later confessed.

The strongest lingering widespread meme raised by "Climategate" seems to be along the line of climate scientists being cliquish and "mean", saying nasty things about their critics. But all of science is like that "under the covers" - science is a relentlessly tough intellectual endeavor, and scientists don't waste their time being polite to people who they see as wrong. I work for research journals and see communications between scientists criticizing one another on their science day after day; a lot of this seems very harsh, some hardly the dispassionate image we have of the objective scientist. I looked through a random sample of such commentary recently, selecting a few relatively generic comments (i.e. leaving out the criticisms that were very specific to a particular piece of scientific work) and have posted them below - if the climategate emails seem overly harsh, well, we get just as bad day in, day out, around here!

Sample comments from referees (some of the papers commented on went on to be published, some not (so far)):

This paper is beyond salvaging.

The revised manuscript and the authors' reply to my report contain arguments which are clearly unphysical.

Perhaps the authors' misconception on fundamental xxxx physics is most clearly seen in their reply to my previous comments

Equation (x) looks very suspicious and I would not trust it at all.

I have the impression that the authors do not want to explain anything.

I disagree that this somewhat trivial manipulation of xxx presented in this paper solves any important existing problem

It is difficult for me to review the scientific merits of this work dispassionately, because I find the verbatim reproduction of sentences from other work (in the introduction) to be rather distasteful.

The paper must be thoroughly rewritten before its scientific content could be assessed. The English is indeed extremely poor, and several sentences in the text seem meaningless.

I tend to think that Author did not want to understand my main remark. In the Comment attached one can find how to obtain all Author's results in a single line.

This paper is based on very artificial and perhaps even ill-defined conceptual distinctions and terms, which furthermore seem to be quite unrelated to the proposed model.

I feel that this paper is conceptually too vague or inconsistent to be acceptable for publication.

The authors present the results of their alleged calculations of xxxxxx. My main impression of the paper is that the authors do not quite know what they are doing. The paper is incoherently written. Most importantly the text and the Figs xxx (i.e. the results) are not consistent and the results do not make much sense.

Harsh? That's pointed criticism based on the opinions of expert reviewers. Much of it questions motives and competence. And this is just a random sample - I've seen much worse on occasion.

There really was nothing interesting about science to be found in the "climategate" controversy. Now, whodunnit? That would be a useful journalistic pursuit.

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Yup. Peter Watts put it,

Yup.

Peter Watts put it, "Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it. And it does that at least partly fueled by our pettiness and our rivalries. Science is alchemy: it turns shit into gold. Keep that in mind the next time some blogger decries the ill manners of a bunch of climate scientists under continual siege by forces with vastly deeper pockets and much louder megaphones." -- http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=886
That was chosen as one of the “50 Best Science Blogging Posts of the Year” -- http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=1002

Heck, even some of the things

Heck, even some of the things that make it into print can be pretty harsh...Here is the final sentence from a comment on a paper in Physical Review Letters ( http://prl.aps.org.ezproxy.rit.edu/abstract/PRL/v65/i2/p270_1 ) that I still remember from our grad school days: "The results of McCarten et al. thus contribute nothing new to the controversy over weak vs. strong pinning" (which is basically what their whole paper was addressing). What is even more harsh is once one knows the back-story about it, being that this comment about a paper from the research group of a young assistant professor was written by that young assistant professor's own PhD advisor! Apparently, they had a little bit of a falling out, but I still remember being rather surprised that PRL allowed that last editorializing sentence to get into print without being toned down!

Actually, I once went to a math conference and was talking to one of the mathematicians about his impressions from having gone to a conference in materials science...and he was amazed at how adversarial it was, much more so than in math. We thought that the main difference was probably the different nature of the approaches, with math being deductive while science is inductive. Thus, arguments about whether a particular proof is correct tend to get settled rather quickly, whereas, for example, arguments about the nature of and theoretical understanding of high T_C superconductivity can labor on for decades with no appreciable convergence of the different sides in the debate!