Over the last few days a debate has taken place in the comments on this website, the core of its being that the paper on measuring global temperature I had referred to was an example of ‘conspiracy theory’. Those who thought so seemed to equate ‘dishonesty’, a term used from time to time in the paper, with ‘conspiracy’. I didn’t think that was reasonable, and this post is devoted to the difference, and what can fairly be said about the status of climate science with respect to these two terms.
‘Conspiracy’ is simpler to deal with than ‘dishonesty’ so I’ll discuss it first. My Shorter OED defines ‘conspiracy’ as ‘a combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose’. You will find people in the blogosphere talking about climate scientists as though they were conspirators, but I think that is far-fetched, and usually unnecessary. There is a useful bon mot from the public service, ‘if you have to choose between a conspiracy and a stuff-up, choose the stuff-up every time’. In the climate science case, ‘if you have to choose between a conspiracy and groupthink, choose groupthink every time.’
Having said that, there is no doubt that there was a group of climate scientists who referred to themselves as ‘The Team’ (they may still do so), and behaved in what I would have called a conspiratorial way. You can read about them in Climategate. The CRUtape letters by Mosher and Fuller. They united to prevent papers critical of their own being published, did their successful best to have sacked a journal editor who did not do as they wished, and did all this in secrecy. It was the release of their emails that gave their deeds away. Was what they did an example of ‘an unlawful purpose’? No, but it was underhand and grubby, and not at all consistent with the established tenets of natural science, where peer review is there to ensure that what is published in the journals has passed through an ethical and impartial system.
In 2010 Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard published a short essay in Science that ended with the hope that the IPCC had learned its lesson and would become more generally accountable. She also said this:
The sciences represented by IPCC Working Group I do not share common principles for such basic tasks as visualizing data, interpreting anomalies, representing uncertainty, data-sharing, or public disclosure. That such disparate communities have come to agree on the causes, size, and scope of the climate problem, through iterative rounds of assessment, may be taken as strong evidence of reliability. At the same time, the very fact that judgment has been integrated across many fields leaves climate science vulnerable to charges of groupthink and inappropriate concealment of uncertainties.
I do not think that her hope has been realised. But I don’t see a ‘conspiracy’ in the IPCC, any more than I do in the way entities like the NOAA are currently putting out reports that are plainly in line with President Obama’s crusade on global warming, or that Agenda 21 is being associated with ‘climate change’ in the UN. It may be the case that NOAA is greatly weakening its reputation for honest presentation of climate data by doing what it is currently doing, but it is not behaving conspiratorially. Nor can I see any sign of sceptics doing so. They are not a united set of people anyway.
‘Dishonesty’ is altogether more slippery a term, because there is no established standard for ‘honesty’ in science, other than the expectation that presented data have not been faked. What we have, for the most part, are exhortations, from people like Richard Feynman and Karl Popper, to the effect that a scientist ought to be her own severest critic, because the easiest person to fool is oneself. The general standard in journals is that all the necessary data and working out are either in the paper or readily available. The peer-review system is supposed to weed out shoddy and careless work, but much peer review seems to be slight. Since to review any paper properly takes time and energy, and these are resources in short supply for most academics, that is not surprising.
The most obvious example of what is commonly called intellectual dishonesty is Dr Mann’s ‘hide the decline’ device on the ‘hockey stick’ graph, where a set of proxies used to estimate global temperatures up to the present was replaced by thermometer temperatures in the recent period. Why not? you might ask. Aren’t they better than the proxies? Yes, they are. But the proxies actually showed a cooling for the recent period, and that suggests that the proxies are not very reliable indicators of past temperatures either. In short, the graph meant nothing. If all this is new to you, then listen to Professor Richard Muller of Berkeley explain it all here. He is someone who thinks that the world is warming and that human beings have had something to do with it. (As it happens, so do I, but I doubt that we can be sure humans have had much to do with it.)
Now Dr Mann has indignantly denied that he has done anything wrong, and indeed he is in the process of suing someone who has called his work fraudulent. More, he writes again and again proclaiming that the world is in crisis over ‘climate change’ and that, in summary, everyone who disagrees with him is a denier or ignorant or a stooge for big oil. Plainly, he does not think that he has been dishonest. In commercial matters a court would be given the job of determining ‘dishonesty’ in a transaction. And despite a recent suggestion that there should be an International Court to deal with the facts about ‘climate change’, there is no current process for adjudicating on such issues.
That means that we are all free to decide what we think. I am on the side of Feynman and Popper. One needs to look critically at one’s own work. Because I am a data-grubber, and think that measurements are important, and that the processes for measuring are even more important, I think that entities that have the task of presenting basic data to the public, as the result of public expenditure for that purpose, have an obligation to do so as scrupulously as possible, and not to ‘spin’ the outcome to suit the purposes of the current government. In Australia I think the ABS does that very well. I am much less confident about the Bureau of Meteorology.
As to the IPCC, its charter obliges it to look not at climate change — all the factors that go to influence the various climates of the planet — but at ‘climate change’ — the effect of human activity on climate. The IPCC cannot be faulted for disregarding natural variability or, rather, for not starting with natural variability and then looking at human influences. Its charter is its defence. It can’t be said to be ‘dishonest’ in doing what it does, at least in my judgment. But I can nonetheless argue, and I do, that its approach to climate is consequently one-eyed and inclined to error.
Professor Muller says, in his little talk, that he would not take seriously any papers written by those who were associated with the ‘hide the decline’ graph. And I agree. They cannot be trusted. Trust is vital in all this. I don’t think that the IPCC is dishonest. But I do not think it can be trusted. Following Jasanoff, above, I think that there is far too much concealment of uncertainties. And if people go on writing papers in which they don’t even consider the other possibilities with respect to their argument, I don’t trust their work much either.