So What Can We Actually Learn From Climategate?

by Bradford Plumer | July 7, 2010

Okay, next stop on the Climategate express: Earlier today, a British panel released the results of its third-party investigation into the scandal and… yup, it basically exonerated the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. You know, all the folks whose e-mails were hacked and taken out of context and offered up as Exhibit A that climate change is all a massive hoax. Turns out, there's no hoax. 

"On the specific allegations made against the behavior of C.R.U. scientists, we find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt," concluded the panel, which was led by British civil servant Muir Russell. Note that this is now the third independent panel to reach this conclusion. But it wasn't wholly positive: The panel did criticize the CRU scientists for "failing to display the proper degree of openness" in response to demands for data from their critics in the blogosphere:

An important feature of the blogosphere is the extent to which it demands openness and access to data. A failure to recognize this and to act appropriately, can lead to immense reputational damage by feeding allegations of cover up. Being part of a like minded group may provide no defence. Like it or not, this indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.

Hard to argue with that last sentence. Yes, a lot of the so-called skeptics in the blogosphere are either peddling disinformation (see: Marc Morano) or engaged in spectacularly misguided armchair science (see: Watts Up With That). But there are legitimate criticisms out there, too—Stephen McIntyre may be an amateur, but he's forced scientists to correct their work at times, and that's a good thing. Figuring out how to filter the legitimate criticism from the nonsense is difficult, but it's counterproductive to ignore the amateurs entirely. (That said, I do understand why the CRU researchers took such a sweeping defensive stance—they found themselves under attack by a large group of angry lunatics, and few scientists are ever prepared for that.)

On a related note, the Muir Russell report also has a fascinating discussion of peer review. One of the allegations against the CRU scientists, recall, is that they somehow subverted the peer-review process to exclude papers they didn't like from various journals. (For their part, the researchers claimed they were excluding papers that were scientifically shoddy.) The report notes that none of the CRU researchers behaved improperly here, but there is an interesting appendix essay written by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, who makes some good points about peer review in general.

Peer review is often assumed to be some sort of guarantor of scientific validity—plenty of people assume that if it's been published in a journal and made it past the gatekeepers, it must be right. But that's not the case. Shoddy papers do squeak by. And sometimes journal referees and editors reject important papers. There's plenty of evidence that peer review is a flawed process. What it does is help sharpen and clarify those ideas that do get published (as well as keep out obvious dreck). Still, Horton notes, it's no substitute for the broader and continuous give and take of science:

The best one might hope for the future of peer review is to be able to foster an environment of continuous critique of research papers before and after publication. Many writers on peer review have made such a proposal, yet no journal has been able to create the motivation or incentives among scientists to engage in permanent peer review. Some observers might worry that extending opportunities for criticism will only sustain maverick points-of-view. However, experience suggests that the best science would survive such intensified peer review, while the worst would find its deserved place at the margins of knowledge.

Systematic reviews like the IPCC can also do a lot to weed out weak research (even if there's been plenty of discussion about the various flaws of the IPCC process—from the fact that it grinds along much too slowly to keep up with current research, to the fact that its safeguards aren't always perfect). The broader scientific process does tend to work remarkably well—and a fairly clear picture of global warming has emerged from that long, slow back and forth—but Horton's essay is a good reminder that the individual stages can often look quite messy.

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