ClimateGate, Christianity, and Politics

Fighting over the climate

Fighting over the climate” rel=”wp-prettyPhoto

No, not those politics. I’m talking about the real stuff: academic politics. How should Christians navigate the deep waters of academic politics?

Photo by Marshall Astor via Flickr

ClimateGate1 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?

“ClimateGate”? Really? Watergate is almost 40 years old. Do we really have no other way of expressing the idea of scandal? What about Climate Dome? Crédit Climatier?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Micheal Hickerson commented on December 7, 2009 Reply

    In the same neighborhood, but on a very different street, Tim Stafford started a new series today called “Why We Should Admire Scientists.” Here’s the first post.

    Dave Snoke commented on December 11, 2009 Reply

    I was going to write an essay with very similar thoughts, but you beat me to it. For those who haven’t seen the story, here is the latest:
    There seem to be some real ethical breaches of data manipulation.

    I have indeed seen a complete disconnect between the stated aim of science to entertain all doubts, vs. the reality of tribalism that works to destroy the careers of dissenters on favored issues. It is absolutely clear that if you express doubts about any key aspect of Darwinism, your career will be over (young scientists: I strongly recommend that if you do have doubts, that you keep these to yourself until after you have tenure, or be open to changing careers– which maybe more people should be open to.)

    I have also seen similar things with less high stakes in other areas, such as the “selling” of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and nanoscience as the next big thing.

    The common thread seems to me to be this: scientists and academics typically feel that that public is too dumb to deal with evidence for and against a position, and so feel that the public must be spoon fed only evidence for it. Thus, a scientist might be convinced that a position is correct (e.g. global warming) on the basis that, say, 70% of the evidence supports it, while 30% seems to disagree. But they feel that to say that there is any evidence against would confuse the poor public, and so they feel they must publicly say that no one disagrees and all the data are consistent. This always backfires. The public learns about the opposite side, and instead of having a good lesson in balancing different types of evidence, the public instead gets a lesson in how scientists are not to be trusted.

    Many scientists say that we must not allow any questioning of Darwinism, or global warming, because to do so would encourage “anti-science” elements and undermine respect for science in society. It seems to me the opposite is true. By conveying that all scientists think alike and any who dissent will be torpedoed, the public gets the impression that science is entirely political and not truth-based at all. This recent scandal regarding global warming has done more to destroy the image of science in society than anything I can think of in recent memory. Conservative talk radio is awash with talk about how scientists are all just inventing things for their own political ends. Previous famous examples of Darwinist manipulation of data have given the same impression.

    The bottom line for me is that as scientists we should respect the public more, and assume that they are in fact able to deal with weighing evidence. If you know there is evidence against your position, be up front about it, and allow that some people may not be as convinced as you are. The same is true in apologetics. I would rather tell people about the various arguments against the Bible, e.g. higher criticism, competing texts, etc. than to try to convey that there is not one possible doubt about the Scriptures. On the whole, these competing claims do not dissuade me from being a Christian, but I need to allow people to decide for themselves.

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