Global warming in the hot seat

Scientists have lost the public’s trust. They need to earn it back.

In November 2009, hackers released of thousands of confidential e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia. Although the e-mails did not reveal scientific fraud or the fabrication of scientific evidence (as recently concluded in a partial decision by an internal review board) they did suggest that researchers at the CRU had become partisan in their support of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Given the considerable politicization of climate change science, it is hard not to sympathize with the researchers quoted in the e-mails. Scientists, by virtue of their technical know-how, are often forced to act not only as researchers, but also as the public defenders of their research, responsible for translating their findings and converting scientific consensus into public consensus. It is difficult to integrate the scientific method, which pursues the truth through a process of hypothesis and experimentation, with political processes, which are adversarial in nature and pursue the truth through the clash of opposing viewpoints. Acting as a researcher is fundamentally different from acting as an intermediary to laymen. This dual role is dangerous, and on display in the e-mails is a failure to disassociate the scientist’s role as advocate from his role as researcher.

Some of the activities revealed in the e-mails are decidedly unscientific. Attempting to delete records so that they remain hidden from a Freedom of Information Act request falls well outside the bounds of acceptable. For the scientists in question, their only saving grace seems to be that they failed in their attempt. But most of the activities revealed in the e-mails fall within a gray area of scientific conduct. Choosing to represent a data set in a given way could be done as a matter of convenient presentation, or as a deliberate means of encouraging a desired, but unsupported, conclusion. Blacklisting a research journal or criticizing a peer-reviewed paper may result from personal bias, or a legitimate belief that the journal or paper is poor.

It is in this gray area that politicized science is most troublesome. A clear violation, such as deleting data, can be policed. But we must continue to rely on the discretion of scientists to perform peer review and filter data for public consumption.

There is a temptation on the part of scientists to take their position for granted. But while it may be true that the scientist’s role as medium between technical data and layperson understanding is established by default — the scientist is the only one who has the expertise to perform such a role — public trust of the scientist in that role is not automatically given; it must be earned. There must be faith that scientists are not tipping the scales of research so as to make it easier to advocate a particular position. Though they have not committed fraud, the researchers at CRU have shown themselves unworthy of that trust.

This is unfortunate, because the climate debate is now entering a phase where that trust is needed most. The policy question at hand is not whether global warming exists, but the extent to which it should be mitigated. We are not faced with an either-or ultimatum, but rather a spectrum of possible actions. Should we implement a carbon tax, we would like to know whether the price of carbon should be $20 per ton or $40. Should we implement a cap-and-trade system, we would like to know how many permits should be allowed. To make such policy decisions, we need to understand not only the science of climate change, but also its economics, the costs and benefits of reducing carbon emissions. The first-stab attempts at such estimates have been deliberately manipulated to produce politically desired results. The Stern Review, for example, monkeyed around with the parameters surrounding time discounting to give greater weight to the harm caused by global warming. Future reports may prove less biased than Stern’s, but will still face the daunting task of having to justify the use of a particular set of parameters.

This fight is contentious enough without mistrust of the underlying science being added to the mix. We face a long and difficult debate that requires not only the resolution of many difficult scientific questions, but also the reconciliation of the different risk profiles, long-term discounting rates, and equality preferences of many heterogeneous constituencies, not all of whom will ultimately benefit from carbon mitigation. If we are to succeed, we must take every action to ensure that climate research does not unfairly quash dissenting views. In the case of CRU, we must remove any researcher who attempted to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act. For other research units, such as ours at MIT, we must take care to foster a research environment that is tolerant of dissent and does not institutionalize a prejudice against climate change skepticism. That may seem unfair, especially when others do not constrain themselves to follow the same rules. But if science is going to effectively support policy, that is the standard we must hold ourselves to.