When Science Becomes a Casualty of Politics

Getting to the root of Climategate


In the unfolding debate over "ClimateGate," the affair of the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia that offer an inconvenient peek behind the curtain of climate science, one thing is clear. Virtually every commentator's position on the issue—is this a scandal that exposes global warming as a scientific sham, or a faux scandal stoked by climate-change denial propaganda?—can be predicted by his or her politics. You can look at the byline or the publication, and predict with near-100 percent accuracy what the article will say. It is no surprise that The Wall Street Journal deplores the arrogant and dogmatic mindset of the "warmists," or that The New Republic assails the brazenness of the "deniers."

While the facts are ostensibly the same, the interpretations differ so dramatically that we might as well be talking about two different realities. For instance, when CRU director Phil Jones wrote about using "Mike's Nature trick" to "hide the decline" in temperatures in a particular period, was this an admission to manipulating and fudging temperature data? Or is this simply careless use of language that gives sinister overtones to entirely innocuous activities? Defenders of the scientists point out that "Mike's Nature trick" refers to a technique quite openly used by one of Jones' correspondents, Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann, in a 1998 article in Nature magazine, and that "hiding" the decline is simply another way to describe adjusting the data. Their critics say that the data was being manipulated, casting doubt on some of the most widely accepted calculations of temperature increases in the past 100 years.

Or take the CRU scientists' arrogance and secrecy in dealing with climate-change skeptics, deplored even by some proponents of the view that human-made global warming is a major crisis, such as British environmentalist activist George Monbiot. Were the "warmists" out to suppress dissenting views when they discussed taking steps to prevent the publication of skeptics' articles in peer-reviewed journals—or merely trying to keep junk science out of respectable venues? Were they reluctant to share their raw data because they were perpetrating a hoax, or because they felt besieged and harassed by corporate-paid "deniers" and concerned that any glitch in the data would be twisted to impugn scientific truths in the eyes of the public? Is the scientific consensus that supports man-made global warming based on solid science, or on manipulation of evidence and suppression of dissent?

I will freely admit that I don't have enough knowledge of science or familiarity with the scientific method to be able to come to a truly informed conclusion at to which version of "ClimateGate" is right. Neither, I suspect, do some 95 percent (or, more likely, 99 percent) of people who have spoken out on the issue, on either side. That means they are likely to go with their political instincts and listen to those "experts" who reflect their own preconceived opinions. Conservatives and libertarians, who see the crusade against global warming as an attack on capitalism and freedom, are very likely to think that the hacked emails are devastating to the case for human-made global warming; liberals and leftists, who see global warming denial as an attempt to protect greed and unbridled consumption, are very likely to think that the only real scandal is the deniers' shameless manipulation of public opinion in an attempt to discredit solid science.

There is no doubt that refusal to accept human-made climate change is often self-serving. But the other side has blinders and selfish motives of its own. "Going green" has turned into a vast industry in its own right—as well as a religion with its own brand of zealotry. For many, global warming is the secular equivalent of a biblical disaster sent by God to punish humankind for its errant (capitalist) ways. Those who embrace environmentalism as a faith have no interest in scientific and technological solutions to climate change—such as nuclear power—that do not include imposing drastic regulations on markets and curbs on consumption.

In theory, science should be above such motives. Yet, at the very least, the scientists who back strong measures against global warming have not objected to the alarmism, the political fanaticism, or the pseudo-spiritual drivel promoted by many of the crusaders in this cause.

Public trust is something scientists must work hard to maintain. When it comes to science and public policy, the average citizen usually has to trust scientists—whose word he or she has to take on faith almost as much as a religious believer takes the word of a priest. Once that trust is undermined, as it has been in recent years, science becomes a casualty of politics.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.