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Mann Bites Dog: Why ‘Climategate’ Was Newsworthy

Article

Mark Boslough

Volume 34.2, March / April 2010

When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.

—John D. Bogart

As evidence for human-caused climate change has mounted, global warming denialists have responded by blaming the messengers. Climate researchers have endured abuse by bloggers, editorial writers, Fox News pundits, and radio talk show hosts who have called them liars and vilified them as frauds. The attacks had become increasingly vile as the past decade, the hottest in human history, came to an end. Angry activists have called for firings and criminal investigations, and some prominent scientists have received physical threats.

Politicians have also gotten into the act. In 2005, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) referred to global warming as the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) sent a harassing letter to Michael Mann (now a professor at Pennsylvania State University) and his coauthors of the famous “hockey stick” paleoclimate paper, demanding that they drop everything to provide him with extensive documentation about what he claimed were “methodological flaws and data errors” in their work.

Denialists have attempted to call the science into question by writing articles that include fabricated data. They’ve improperly graphed data using tricks to hide evidence that contradicts their beliefs. They chronically misrepresent the careful published work of scientists, distorting all logic and meaning in an organized misinformation campaign. To an uncritical media and gullible non-scientists, this ongoing conflict has had the intended effect: it gives the appearance of a scientific controversy and seems to contradict climate researchers who have stated that the scientific debate over the reality of human-caused climate change is over (statements that have been distorted by denialists to imply the ridiculous claim that in all respects “the science is settled”).

Science, however, has ground rules. Those who don’t follow the rules are entitled to their opinions but cannot legitimately claim to be participating in a scientific debate. One rule that must be followed for scientific results to be accepted is that they must be subjected to review and published in a scholarly scientific journal. This is a necessary but insufficient condition (nobody is compelled to accept the conclusions of a paper just because it has been refereed).

This rule is not intended to create a “high priesthood” of scientists or keep others from participating. On the contrary, the culture of science welcomes dissent and encourages contrarians to publish their ideas so they can be subjected to the same scrutiny that is applied to conventional thought.

Peer review is designed to screen out material that is demonstrably wrong, flawed, illogical, or fabricated. Non-specialists are not always able to quickly spot errors in a highly technical piece of work, so experts are recruited to make sure any mistakes are corrected and necessary documentation is provided before the science is published.

The first thing I do when I read an editorial or blog entry is check to see if the supposed science has been published in scientific literature. If not, I don’t see why I should bother to read what nobody could be bothered to put through scientific peer review. My reasoning is not that such material is necessarily wrong, but without any scientific review I have no assurance that anyone has checked to see if the equations are right, data sources correctly cited, figures properly attributed, or other workers’ conclusions fairly represented.

The global warming debate continues, at least among the science-challenged. The calculation of the mass of CO2 produced from burning a gallon of gasoline was the subject of a recent vigorous disagreement on the letters page of our local newspaper. This is a question that a decent high school chemistry student should be able to answer, but the highly opinionated letter writers were not able to resolve their differences, despite the fact that reaction stoichiometry is indisputably settled science.

Likewise, a competent high school physics student understands how the so-called greenhouse effect works and that conservation of energy is also settled science. It has been known for over a hundred years that adding CO2 to the atmosphere increases its infrared opacity, and when this happens, more energy from sunlight enters Earth’s atmosphere than escapes. The atmosphere must heat up on average. There is no scientific debate about this fact, and nobody has ever published a “zero-warming” theory to explain how it could be otherwise.

There is, however, a healthy, open, honest, and active scientific debate in the peer-reviewed scientific literature about the degree of climate change. The best scientific estimate of the amount of warming (when CO2 levels double, which is likely to happen this century) is about 3°C. There are scientists who disagree—some think it’s higher and some lower—and have published the basis for their disagreement.

Having lost the scientific debate, denialists have now resorted to hacking into a computer system and stealing private correspondence to distract those who prefer controversy to science. To those of us in the scientific community, it came as no surprise that researchers who had endured personal attacks had trouble rising above the fray. But the harsh tone of some messages by Mann and others caught the attention of the voyeurs who read them precisely because they were in sharp contrast to the way scientists usually speak in public. The attempts to force editors not to publish papers critical of the scientists and suggestions to boycott journals were inappropriate and unsuccessful (journal editors resisted pressure and published the papers anyway). They also were not unusual—certainly not beneath those in the opposite camp. And even though the widely reported “trick” used to “hide the decline” was legitimate (using real temperatures instead of a faulty tree-ring proxy to represent the temperature record), it sounded like something denialists would do, so it was assumed to be crooked.

The very fact that Climategate was newsworthy is evidence that reporters hold scientists to a much higher standard than they hold denialists, even if they won’t admit it in their quest to report a controversy.

Mark Boslough

Mark Boslough is a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories and adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico. His work on comet and asteroid impacts has been the subject of many recent TV documentaries and magazine articles. He believes that the impact risk—at its core—is primarily a climate-change risk, and he has turned his attention to climate change as a looming national security threat. The opinions expressed here are his own.