Post-Climategate

Being in part an outlet for off-the-cuff comment and opinion, I can afford on this website the indulgence of a little political hyperbole. Some of my friends and associates don’t like it, with scientists, science writers and PRs among them. Blogs, they say, are unrepresentative of both informed public debate and wider public opinion, and serve only to debase the debate. This is partly true, and yesterday’s post on Phil Jones and “Climategate” is a case in point.

This site tends to attract on average around 200 unique visitors per day. Few of the more regular readers leave comments, and of those who do comment, many do so only following political satire or culture-related posts. That said, the posts which attract the most visitors are science and science-policy related. These days I tend not to cross-post my journalistic work. This is mainly for contractual reasons, but also as reportage doesn’t sit well with comment under the same byline.

As for my reaction to the Nature editorial on “Climategate”, I knew exactly what effect it would have once the Googling bloggers had discovered the post. I’m entirely comfortable with what I wrote, despite the distraction from work today of having to deal with WordPress emails requesting that I moderate comments from angry climate sceptics and deniers, some of whom insist that they are the victims in this affair. Bless!

Anyways, to more serious matters…

Alongside the interview with Phil Jones, Nature published a thoughtful editorial, which included the following…

“Take the name Climategate itself. The ‘gate’ suffix, now routinely applied to the most mundane controversies, is as trite as it is predictable. At the height of the controversy, senior figures called for journalists not to use the word, which they argued lent false seriousness to far-fetched claims of research skulduggery and corruption. That reaction alone helps to explain the sluggish response of the science establishment a year ago to the allegations made against their colleagues and their profession. One lesson that must be taken from Climategate is that scientists do not get to define the terms by which others see them and their place in society. This journal has already warned that climate scientists have to accept that they are in a street fight. They should expect a few low blows. The key is to learn which punches to roll with and which to block and counter.”

For scientists who have little or no experience of public political debate, and no interest in the so often pointless nonsense that pervades the blogosphere, this street fighting to which Nature refers is a distressing business, and a distraction from proper work. The scientific peer review process can be bad-tempered enough as it is, even in relatively uncontroversial subjects. To the shitstorm of Climategate, the reaction from some scientists is the kind of behaviour criticised by boards of inquiry tasked with investigating the claims of sceptics and deniers, and also the “Nature” editorial writer, among others.

“The official inquiry into the e-mail affair concluded that such robust exchanges were typical in science. But many non-scientists were still unconvinced. They hold peer review as a revered gold standard of scientific excellence, not to be questioned or used as an opportunity to be rude about academic rivals, even in private. Why? Researchers may routinely complain about the shortcomings of peer review to other scientists, but they often unite behind it in the face of criticism from outside the scientific sphere. That a study has been through peer review is used too often as a universal defence of its quality. If more scientists were more forthcoming about the flaws in their quality-control system, then commentators and the wider public may have been more willing to accept that scientists engaged in it do not always act as the public would expect.”

That is going a little too far, as scientists routinely question and criticise peer-reviewed papers. The system is not infallible, but it is fairly robust, and no-one has come up with a better form of quality control for scientific research.

That said, the point being made by the Nature editorial writer is apposite. As a research physicist I was involved in a few nasty peer review spats, but thankfully none of these degenerated into the kind of personal abuse typical of online political discourse. I and my colleagues would never have dreamed of divulging the details of our debates to the wider world, lest we be seen as acting like normal human beings. Arrogant? Yes, and with no buts. That culture has to change.