“ClimateGate“1 is now a couple of weeks old. The theft and release of private emails between climatologists has sparked any number of editorials, which either celebrate the exposure of these world-shaking emails or insist that the whole thing is much ado about nothing. (Just this morning, Paul Krugman weighed in on the latter side.) I want to avoid debate on climate change, and instead focus on the peer-review process, as described in these emails. At least one email argued for changing how a particular journal was regarded in the scientific community.
In a 2003 response to an email complaining about a paper in the journal “Climate Research” which questioned assertions that the 20th century was abnormally warm, Dr. [Michael] Mann [of Penn State] wrote, “I think we have to stop considering ‘Climate Research’ as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.”
Dr. Mann said Monday that he didn’t think there was anything wrong in telling his colleagues that “we shouldn’t be publishing in a journal that’s activist.”
In academia, peer-review is the currency of the realm, and it’s disturbing to see an alleged manipulation of that system. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, a climatologist who has gained a reputation for engaging climate change skeptics, has written that “climate tribalism” could seriously damage the scientific process and the public voice of scientists, even when criticisms aren’t based in science.
In summary, the problem [of scientific tribalism] seems to be that the circling of the wagons strategy developed by small groups of climate researchers in response to the politically motivated attacks against climate science are now being used against other climate researchers and the more technical blogs (e.g. Climateaudit, Lucia, etc). Particularly on a topic of such great public relevance, scientists need to consider carefully skeptical arguments and either rebut them or learn from them. Trying to suppress them or discredit the skeptical researcher or blogger is not an ethical strategy and one that will backfire in the long run.
When careers, funding, reputation, and, let’s face it, power are at stake, we shouldn’t be surprised that people take ethical shortcuts to defend their turf. (This cuts both ways: Mann’s email is fishy, but illegally hacking into a computer and stealing data is even fishier.) Considering that climate change has an additional factor – i.e. the possible end of civilization! – we should expect a certain level of “street fighting.” I’m surprised there haven’t been fistfights.
We’ve seen similar incidents in that other arena of controversial science: evolution. (Richard Sternberg comes to mind.) I’ve heard conflicting positions from Christian biologists – not about evolution, ID, creationism, etc., but about the purpose and practice of peer-reviewed research. Several scientists have said to me that, if someone could clearly demonstrate that Darwin was wrong, they would be heralded as the, well, Darwin of our age – the genius who overturns our understanding of the universe and brings in the next paradigm. It would be the greatest scientific discovery in decades, so why would they want to hide their light under a bushel? Other scientists have told me the exact opposite: they can’t even express the smallest skepticism of Darwinism, because their career would effectively be over at that moment.
Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi would not be surprised at “ClimateGate.” Kuhn would say that this is a classic example of paradigmatic thinking. Of course climate change skeptics will be harassed by other scientists, because their ideas lie outside the current scientific paradigm. Polanyi, meanwhile, would note that no scientific research is objective, and that all scientists will bring their personal commitments into their research, whether they acknowledge it or not. And, because politics are personal, personal relationships will affect which scientific research gets a hearing and which does not. I tend to agree with those ideas.
So then, back to my original question: How should a Christian navigate these deep waters of academic politics? If the inherent quality of your research and ideas are not enough, then what’s next? How should our faith in God affect our approach?