Thursday, December 31, 2009

Post # 6: Science, Ethics, and the Global Climate Debate

I don't know about you, but I'm growing increasingly frustrated with the global warming debate and the global climate research community. And not for the reasons you might expect.

We are faced with a suite of challenges stemming from global patterns of population distribution and growth, natural resource distribution and utilization, the global economy, and a wide range of related geo-political issues. I take very seriously my personal, and our collective responsibility as stewards of this planet to be informed and act responsibly with regard to these challenges. This requires that I (a) know the relevant facts, and (b) understand the implications of these facts. The careful application of the Scientific Method (yes, the one we learned in grade school) is critical to understanding many of these challenges. Science is, after all, a search for truth. Wherever it leads. And remember – a hypothesis that cannot be negated by experiment is not a scientific hypothesis, but a statement of faith. It cannot be acted upon by the Scientific Method. (That doesn't mean it's wrong - just that we may have no way of really knowing for certain.)

It is with this in mind that I find revelations such as the recent one regarding allegations of misconduct by leading climate researchers at the University of East Anglia so troubling (see for example:, and I spent several hours over the Thanksgiving holidays investigating all of this for myself. (By the way, there's an absolutely fascinating analysis of these emails at The more I learned, the more troubled I became. Analyses by reputable scientists such as McIntyre and McKitrick (see only added to my angst.

All scientists of good conscience should condem conduct such as that alleged to have occurred at East Anglia. A zero-tolerance attitude is in order here. Too much is at stake. To the extent these allegations are proven valid, they cast a serious shadow over the climate debate. A prudent person SHOULD ask questions such as, "To what extent is the behavior of these researchers endemic to larger sections of the climate community?". How do we know which analyses have been corrupted? Which data sets have been selectively altered? Which dissenting voices have been quieted?

It's critical to note that even if all the allegations about ethical misconduct are valid, this does not automatically invalidate the IPCC global warming claims. It certainly does suggest, however, that we have a legitimate basis for questioning the accuracy and objectivity of the IPCC analysis.

As a research engineer and scientist in the energy field, I find many aspects of the climate debate fascinating.

So where does this leave us? Well, it appears to me the "consensus" on global warming as expressed by the IPCC is eroding - or at least deconvolving into a cluster of "mini-consensus" camps characterized as:
  1. Those who believe global warming is real, threatens human society and life as we know it, and human activity is a major causal mechanism
  2. Those who believe global warming is real, threatens human society and life as we know it, and human activity has little to do with it
  3. Those who do not know if global warming is real or significant if it is real, and don't feel we understand it well enough to know the causality
  4. Those who believe global warming is not a significant threat and worry we are over-reacting.
Where am I on this issue? I feel more carbon in the atmosphere is not a good thing. But if I had to choose a camp, I guess I'm (uncomfortably) in Camp 3. I believe we need to recommit ourselves to the Scientific Method – more science, more and better data, better simulations (with greatly improved model validation), and ruthless peer review in an open and professionally-skeptic environment. There should be no room for "political correctness" in the pursuit of science. In the mean time, the climate community would be well-served to be more transparent about its epistemology. But that's a topic for another day...



  1. As soon as the debate is categorised in terms of 'deniers' and 'warmists' scientific debate exits, and political polemic enters.
    Attemps to dismiss the e-mails son't wash.
    When the data is called into question, and the integrity of those providing it, it needs checking thoroughly without preconceptions.

  2. Thanks for the comment Dave. As you correctly note, integrity is everything - in our personal and professional lives. The East Anglia episode should be a clarion call for some serious introspection within the climate community - and really for all of us in the broader science community as well. Cheers, and Happy New Year! Sherrell