GRASPING AT STRAWS

Posted in Rants on December 10th, 2009 by Ed

From my perspective the most prominent downside to the "Climate-gate" nontroversy is the fact that every jackass internet commenter and talk radio lemming in the world will resort even more rapidly to "LOL we all know the 'data' on global warming is FAAKE!" What is more interesting to me, though, is the broader public reaction to this "news." No amount of evidence or argumentation can convince Americans to think twice about starting a war, that universal access to health insurance will actually cost less in the long run, or that cutting taxes will not solve all their problems. Yet these same people are ready to believe at the drop of a hat that climate change is a hoax, an elaborate global conspiracy, based on out-of-context quotes extracted from emails among four inconsequential scientists.

First, let's look at the words causing all the pant-shitting. This juicy quote has redneck America reaching for its revolver:

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

The "decline" in question is not in temperature – it refers to measurements of tree rings. I have no idea what that means, but it seems worth noting that this is explicitly not referring to temperature. That's kinda relevant. As for the word "trick," among my circle of social scientists that term is commonly used to describe statistical techniques, especially techniques one poorly understands. But for all I know, these "tricks" and tree ring measurements could actually contradict the global warming hypothesis. I am not exactly qualified to draw conclusions about this data. That doesn't stop most people.

Second, there is this gem:

"I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal."

Half of the editorial board of the journal in question resigned in protest of the decision to publish a global warming denialist article, about which Climate Research itself stated: "(The paper's findings) cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided in the paper. We should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication." Hmm. An editor also claimed that global warming denialists "had identified Climate Research as a journal where some editors were not as rigorous in the review process as is otherwise common." In other words, this is a shit journal, a grease trap that catches all of the detritus from the real journals in the field. Every academic discipline has a few and they are routinely denigrated as we see in this email – especially if it is known for blatantly ideology-driven editorial practices.

Third, we have:

"The other paper by MM is just garbage. […] I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

Folks, welcome to academia. Seriously. This has always happened and happens today in every field with a peer-review process. Academics are elitist, catty little bitches. Find me a field – I beg you, any field – where this scenario does not play out. Smith doesn't like Wong's work (no doubt over some petty, irrelevant methodological issue) so Smith calls Davis and Martinez and all three collude to reject Wong's paper from the conference, journal, seminar, or whatever. Being able to identify the petty assholes, narcissists, and would-be gatekeepers is half of being a successful academic…and dealing with their neuroses is the other. Whoever MM is, he/she has challenged the consensus in the field and his/her colleagues, all of whom are ready to defend their decades of published work to the death. Not exactly man bites dog in terms of newsworthiness.

Not terribly impressive "evidence" of a vast global warming conspiracy. So why are people so eager to buy it? Because Westerners, and car-centric Americans in particular, are desperate to avoid having to alter their behavior. Like a terminal cancer patient who chooses to believe in ridiculous miracle cures offered in spam emails, the average American intuitively understands that fossil fuels and habitat destruction must be having some kind of impact on the planet. Warming, cooling, whatever – all that burning coal and hazardous chemicals dumped into rivers have to be doing something. But the problem either seems too large to confront, a situation highly conducive to denialism, or this "evidence" of a hoax is the excuse people need to morally justify driving an empty Durango to the office every day.

These emails are spectacularly unspectacular. It undermines the credibility of about four scientists at a university no one in the US has ever heard of. It specifically does not undermine the entire body of climate research. There is no evidence of a hoax, no conspiracy to fabricate data, and no directives from the cabal of liberal professors and militant vegans who control the entire planet in the minds of paranoid Glenn Beck fans. Yet I'd be willing to bet that a majority of Americans will decide that the emails are in fact evidence of all of that and more. What was that line from the X-Files? Not "The truth is out there." The other one: "I want to believe."