It’s official, there’s no consensus on climate change

(Jul. 10, 2010) A panel criticizes the Climategate scientists for being defensive and unhelpful, for withholding data, for providing misleading information, for having been “blinded … to the possibility of merit” in the claims of their critics.

‘Panel in Britain clears scientists of misconduct allegations in ‘Climate-gate’,” read the Washington Post headline, one of many describing a vindication of the Climategate scientists at East Anglia University’s Climatic Research Unit in the U.K. Other press outlets saw the panel’s finding differently: “Clouds of doubt still hang over climate scientists,” the Calgary Herald’s headline stated.

The conflicting takes by the press are understandable. The British panellists, established by East Anglia University, saw too little evidence to declare the Climategate scientists at CRU guilty on most counts, and they saw too much to be always confident of their innocence.

But here’s another take on the same report, and another headline, that almost all newspapers would agree to: “Panel recognizes that the science is not settled on climate change.”

The panel’s weighty 160-page report, The Independent Climate Change Emails Review, deals overwhelmingly with one theme: How best to conduct a scientific debate? The report does not attempt to judge whether the Climategate scientists were right or wrong on the science; it judges the behaviour of the scientists and of the Climatic Research Unit that they worked at, and then suggests reforms for the scientific establishment as a whole, in effect using Climategate as a case history.

The 160-page document assesses how the Climategate scientists behaved when confronted with controversies that they had among themselves, such as whether they truly believed that we’re living in times of unprecedented warmth. The document also assesses how the Climategate scientists behaved in their disagreements with top scientists in the skeptic camp, and how they behaved when they had controversies with non-scientists.

The report, in other words, dissects the nature of the scientific debate over global warming — the word “debate” appears more than 50 times in the report. “In its successive assessment reports, the IPCC has sought to achieve a scientific consensus, but many continue to challenge the basis of its work and its conclusions, it states. The IPCC’s failure to establish a consensus led to a debate that “became highly polarized in websites, journals and conferences across the world. As a result, the work conducted by CRU became the focus of intense scrutiny and challenge, with multiple demands from both fellow scientists and laymen for background information and data.”

The global warming debate, the report makes clear, is real and legitimate, conducted by respectable parties who have every right to challenge the science and to hold the climate science establishment accountable.

The panellists criticize the Climategate scientists for being defensive and unhelpful, for withholding data, for providing misleading information, for hiding behind claims of peer review science, for having been “blinded … to the possibility of merit” in the claims of their critics, for needlessly exacerbating antagonism among the parties through their behaviour, and even for breaking the law. The conduct of the Climategate scientists, the panellists decided, not only brought them and their university into disrepute, but it also harmed the cause of science.

“Public trust in science depends on an inherent culture of honesty, rigour and transparency,” the panelists decided, adding that “an open culture will also lead to the best science.”

Most of all, the report provides a blueprint for acting honourably in the Age of the Internet, stressing “the importance of capturing the range of viewpoints” by being open and helpful rather than defensive and obstructionist. “Like it or not,” it says, “this indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.”

Lawrence Solomon, Financial Post, Jul. 10, 2010

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