A leading climate scientist whose pirated e-mails were bared for world scrutiny in the so-called “climategate” incident is making some points about the climate-change debate, and scientists’ relationship with the public, that have needed saying for some time.
Hat tip to Matt Preusch of The Oregonian for spotting one piece in The Wall Street Journal by Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia in England. Hulme also held forth in a longer and more involved column, written in conjunction with science critic-questioner Jerome Ravetz, for the BBC. (It’s also worth noting that Hulme is the author of a book I intend to find, Why We Disagree About Climate Change.)
Now, I have to say that I was taken aback by the way scientists involved in the email exchanges seem to have been trying to squelch the dissemination of data, and even schemed to block publication of science they found … sorry, can’t help myself… inconvenient.
The e-mail exchanges between prominent American and British climate researchers revealed some disturbing points about how some of the scientists involved in this field have conducted themselves.
But as I read Hulme’s piece, it came to me that he is on point about this: We are all arguing about the science of climate change, when what we ought to be arguing about is our value systems and our political inclinations.
Hulme’s WSJ article, which is fairly short, is worth a read. Here are a few passages I found most compelling:
One thing the episode has made clear is that it has become difficult to disentangle political arguments about climate policies from scientific arguments about the evidence for man-made climate change and the confidence placed in predictions of future change. The quality of both political debate and scientific practice suffers as a consequence…
The mantra becomes: Get the science right, reduce the scientific uncertainties, compel everyone to believe it. . . and we will have won. Not only is this an unrealistic view about how policy gets made, it also places much too great a burden on science, certainly on climate science with all of its struggles with complexity, contingency and uncertainty…
Science never writes closed textbooks. It does not offer us a holy scripture, infallible and complete. This is especially the case with the science of climate, a complex system of enormous scale, at every turn influenced by human contingencies. Yes, science has clearly revealed that humans are influencing global climate and will continue to do so, but we don’t know the full scale of the risks involved, nor how rapidly they will evolve, nor indeed—with clear insight—the relative roles of all the forcing agents involved at different scales…
If climategate leads to greater openness and transparency in climate science, and makes it less partisan, it will have done a good thing. It will enable science to function in the effective way it must do in public policy deliberations: Not as the place where we import all of our legitimate disagreements, but one powerful way of offering insight about how the world works and the potential consequences of different policy choices. The important arguments about political beliefs and ethical values can then take place in open and free democracies, in those public spaces we have created for political argumentation.
For a longer and even more thoughtful discussion, try the BBC piece, which gets to the heart of why — suddenly, after decades of discussion among scientists — the public is delving deeply into the science of climate change. It’s because we have this thing called the internet now. People believe they can wade through the science and make a decision themselves. That’s not a bad thing. Here’s part of the Hulme/Ravetz article’s take on that:
While there will always be a unique function for expert scientific reviewers to play in authenticating knowledge, this need not exclude other interested and motivated citizens from being active.
These demands for more openness in science are intensified by the embedding of the internet and Web 2.0 media as central features of many people’s social exchanges.
It is no longer tenable to believe that warranted and trusted scientific knowledge can come into existence inside laboratories that are hermetically sealed from such demands…
Unsettling as this may be for scientists, the combination of “post-normal science” and an internet-driven democratisation of knowledge demands a new professional and public ethos in science.
The key lesson to be learnt is that not only must scientific knowledge about climate change be publicly owned – the IPCC does a fair job of this according to its own terms – but that in the new century of digital communication and an active citizenry, the very practices of scientific enquiry must also be publicly owned.
— Robert McClure