Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Flap over climate e-mails shows one thing for sure: Researchers need to have more transparency

The blogosphere and talk radio have been abuzz with debates from both sides of the argument over global warming since more than 1,000 emails and 2,000 other documents were stolen from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in the United Kingdom two weeks ago. Many on the right have argued the e-mails represent clear evidence of a conspiracy among climate scientists to cover up the holes in global-warming agruments, and many on the left classify the e-mails as dealing with relatively insignificant elements of climate research.

Either way, significant damage appears to have been done to the public perception of global warming advocates, conservative columnist Kim Strassel writes for The Wall Street Journal, and she has evidence to back her up: George Monbiot, a U.K. writer who has been among the fiercest warming alarmists, recently wrote, "It's no use pretending that this isn't a major blow," adding that the documents "could scarcely be more damaging." Strassel notes that Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, a global-warming denier, has described the e-mails as the final nail in the coffin of cap-and-trade, the proposd system for limiting greenhous-gas emissions.

On the other side, Andrew Freedman of The Washington Post has three interviews, here, here and here, with prominent scientific figures who mostly downplay the effect of the e-mails on the future of climate change research. The controversy has at least claimed one scientist: Phil Jones, one of the e-mailers in question, has stepped down from his director role of the Climate Research Unit while an independent investigation is completed, Juliet Eilperin of the Post reports.

The most critical e-mails seem to center on attempts to silence conflicting views within the pro-global warming side of the scientific community. Judith Curry, the chair of School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a strong believer in global warming, has called for increased transparency in the field in light of the stolen e-mails. "If climate science is to uphold core research values and be credible to public, we need to respond to any critique of data or methodology that emerges from analysis by other scientists," she wrote in an open letter published by Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times. "Ignoring skeptics coming from outside the field is inappropriate." (Read more)

Curry argues that climate scientists should do more to engage their detractors in an effort to improve public perception of their research. Most of the research data from the climate scientists in the emails is already made public, but selective publishing by the hackers has not really added to transparency. Climategate, as the e-mail scandal is being called, has probably affected the public perception of climate science, but it seems to us that Curry's suggestion of more transparency in how research is conducted, and how scientific journals select articles, is one way to tackle the problem.

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette has a good roundup of commentary and analysis here.

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