In the comments section of an earlier posting I have been in discussion with a prominent former modeller (Dr. Michael Tobis) and the author of a blog on climate science (…and Then There’s Physics). My initial posting included the following line
The show me crowd looks at the “good science” and points out that many historical predictions of doom and gloom (that previously met the test of good science) have been shown to be overheated or just plain wrong.
Dr. Tobis responded by suggesting that:
I read the assertion implictly as a claim that **formal predictions** were made by in **peer reviewed articles** regarding **physical climatology** climate that have **proven false** [his emphasis].
In reading his words I can see that my language could have been cleaner in that it could be inferred that the “doom and gloom” refers only to the very distinct field of climate modelling rather than to my intended target, the more generalized field of activist scientists who have made a living predicting doom and gloom in the climate and/or human ecology fields. I am talking about well-known scientists like Dr. Paul Ehrlich who has made a career of predicting disaster 10 -15 years down the road. For a really detailed look at the general condition, I can recommend two truly excellent books by a Canadian journalist with a strongly scientific bent named Dan Gardner. His two books Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway and Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear are must reading for anyone interested in science policy and how we currently communicate science and complexity to the public. Both emphasize how important it is not to torque your message if you want an effective long-term (rather than immediate and temporary) response.
So you may ask why I concern myself with the failure of good scientists to renounce bad behaviours by activist scientists and to correct poor messaging? Well on a personal level, it is what drove me away from a trust in the peer reviewed science to my currently more nuanced (read less-trusting) mode. Essentially it was responsible for my transition from the community of “trust me” to the community of “show me”.
To recount my personal journey we start with me in the early 1990’s when I was a firmly in the “trust me” camp with regards to the field of climate change. As I have mentioned elsewhere, while a graduate student I was required to take courses in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria. Due to their location on campus (at that time they still did not have offices on the campus proper but rather outside the main science block) I was temporarily assigned desk space in an office area shared with the grad students and post-docs working on one of the first generation climate models. I drank coffee with them, drank beer with them and listened as they worked out how to take complex natural systems and convert them to computer code. This was in the mid 1990s when computer power and memory were at a premium and the models were necessarily primitive. I was impressed by the dedication and intelligence of the people working in the field. While there the professors I met were of the highest quality and unimpeachably ethical (and to my mind still are). Meanwhile in my home department I watched my professors diligently working on their role as peer-reviewers. Each peer-review took hours and showed a dedication to an unpaid and unheralded task that I found noble.
My doubts, like those of many of my colleagues, were sown in the fall of 2009 with the release of the “Climategate” emails. Like many of my colleagues I was intrigued by their release and read avidly about and into them. The best analogy I can see for before and after the Climategate email release is the perception, through the course of the movie, of the character of the Wizard from the Wizard of Oz. At the start of the movie the Wizard is a glorious figure, trusted by all and believed to be virtually omnipotent and working for the good of the people of Oz. Based on their faith in his wisdom and honour, Dorothy and her friends were willing to go on a perilous quest and take ridiculous risks. It was only when Toto pulled back the curtain to reveal the real Wizard that impressions changed. The Wizard went from being a mystical demi-god to a badly flawed man, certainly skilled and knowledgeable in his way, but flawed and human after all. At first the viewer is angered by the flaws in the Wizard and that he put the characters through such terrible ordeals for no real reason. But by the end of the film the Wizard is, to some extent, redeemed. At the conclusion he is viewed as a flawed man, no better than any other and no worse than many. Most importantly, the story taught viewers not to trust the voice from on high but to look for the man in the corner speaking into the microphone.
So how are the two related? Well I am not going to discuss “Mike’s Nature Trick” or “hide the decline” or any of the other catch-phrases that can be argued about based on their context. Rather what got to me were the (in my opinion) egregious examples of behaviour outside the norms of science:
I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!
If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.
Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise.
and the general attempt get Chris de Freitas fired from his position at the University of Auckland.
These behaviours struck at the very core of my ideas of “good science”, where information is shared, colleagues are collegial, replication is the goal and the drive exists for incremental improvements on the knowledge-base by building on the works of others. This release was a seminal moment for the burgeoning climate field and an opportunity for the leaders of the field to demonstrate their mettle. Unfortunately, instead of renouncing the bad behaviour, they ignored it, made excuses for it or condemned Toto for pulling open the curtain. I cannot condone the actions of “the hacker” but it is not possible to go back to before the curtain was opened and Oz revealed. To completely mash up my analogies, much like Nixon at Watergate, the actions of the small number of miscreants named in the Climategate emails didn’t crush my faith in the system of “good science”; rather the attempt to cover-up their actions by the people, most trusted with protecting the integrity of the system, was what drove me fully into the “show me” community.
Having seen behind the curtain, my innocence has been lost and I no longer accept appeals to authority in this field. I need to be convinced every time a new paper comes out and that convincing means releasing enough information so that work can be replicated. What seems unclear to good people like Dr. Tobis and …and Then There’s Physics is that the only way to recover from a hit like the Climategate emails is to be cleaner than clean. To form a truth and reconciliation committee to clean out the bad and highlight the good work that has been, and is being, done. Instead, the bright lights in the field have doubled-down on their bad behaviours. A prominent scientist call his academic colleagues “anti-science” and “delayers” and I read not one person challenging him on it? I hear a lot of people say that “Climategate was in 2009″ and it is time to “get over it”. But it is hard to get over something that the perpetrators won’t even admit took place? A faith once lost is hard to find again and the leaders of this field have done nothing to help me regain my faith.