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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Arthur Smith: The nothing that was Climategate

The nothing that was Climategate

by Arthur Smith, Not Spaghetti blog, November 16, 2010
Joe Romm has an excellent perspective on the last year, since "Climategate" -- focusing on the developments in the science of climate that make our situation only that much more alarming. The real story of "Climategate" is not the frank discussions between climate scientists revealed in stolen emails, and at least so far not the Watergate-like computer break-in whose perpetrators and sponsors have still not been revealed (though I am sure one day that will prove a very interesting story). As Romm emphasizes, the real tragedy of "Climategate" is the media circus that chased this shiny new conflict-driven nothing of a story when there were far, far more momentous issues regarding the reality of climate at hand. If even one of the 9 scientific claims of the past year reviewed by Romm holds up under further research -- and in my judgment very likely at least 4 or 5 of these, possibly 7 or 8, are real -- the future for my children will be a far less happy place than I had anticipated even just a year ago.
Andy Revkin's coverage of the climate email hack at the NY Times (for example, this early Dot Earth post) was an unfortunate example of the herd mentality among journalists on the subject -- I've gone back and forth myself on whether Revkin was to some extent responsible for leading the herd. It was around that time I decided his "Dot Earth" blog, which largely launched my interest in climate science, was just not worth my time any more. But even the usually science-friendly George Monbiot thought what was revealed by the emails was serious. Other than the possibly illegal freedom-of-information suppression request by a flustered Phil Jones (who I'd never heard of before), it was not, as Monbiot later confessed.
The strongest lingering widespread meme raised by "Climategate" seems to be along the line of climate scientists being cliquish and "mean"-- saying nasty things about their critics. But all of science is like that "under the covers"; science is a relentlessly tough intellectual endeavor, and scientists don't waste their time being polite to people who they see as wrong. I work for research journals and see communications between scientists criticizing one another on their science, day after day; a lot of this seems very harsh, some hardly the dispassionate image we have of the objective scientist. I looked through a random sample of such commentary recently, selecting a few relatively generic comments (i.e., leaving out the criticisms that were very specific to a particular piece of scientific work) and have posted them below -- if the climategate e-mails seem overly harsh, well, we get just as bad day in, day out, around here!
Sample comments from referees (some of the papers commented on went on to be published, some not -- so far):
This paper is beyond salvaging.
The revised manuscript and the authors' reply to my report contain arguments which are clearly unphysical.
Perhaps the authors' misconception on fundamental xxxx physics is most clearly seen in their reply to my previous comments.
Equation (x) looks very suspicious and I would not trust it at all.
I have the impression that the authors do not want to explain anything.
I disagree that this somewhat trivial manipulation of xxx presented in this paper solves any important existing problem.
It is difficult for me to review the scientific merits of this work dispassionately, because I find the verbatim reproduction of sentences from other work (in the introduction) to be rather distasteful.
The paper must be thoroughly rewritten before its scientific content could be assessed. The English is indeed extremely poor, and several sentences in the text seem meaningless.
I tend to think that Author did not want to understand my main remark. In the Comment attached one can find how to obtain all Author's results in a single line.
This paper is based on very artificial and perhaps even ill-defined conceptual distinctions and terms, which furthermore seem to be quite unrelated to the proposed model.
I feel that this paper is conceptually too vague or inconsistent to be acceptable for publication.
The authors present the results of their alleged calculations of xxxxxx. My main impression of the paper is that the authors do not quite know what they are doing. The paper is incoherently written. Most importantly the text and the Figs xxx (i.e. the results) are not consistent and the results do not make much sense.
Harsh? That's pointed criticism based on the opinions of expert reviewers. Much of it questions motives and competence. And this is just a random sample -- I've seen much worse on occasion.
There really was nothing interesting about science to be found in the "climategate" controversy. Now, whodunnit? That would be a useful journalistic pursuit.

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