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Michael Gerson / December 11, 2009

The Scientific War on Science

WASHINGTON – An e-mail from my conscience: Reviewing your assorted botches during the past year, consider this one. In May, you mocked: “It is possible that climate change skeptics – the dominant Republican voices – have uncovered a vast scientific delusion, like the belief in phlogiston or phrenology. But … this seems unlikely.” In light of the incriminating e-mails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit of East Anglia University shouldn’t you reconsider? Not since you pronounced “Jon & Kate Plus 8” a tribute to “normality and innocence” has your judgment been so poor.

My answer: Well, you’ve got me on Jon and Kate. But the hacked climate e-mails reveal a scandal, not a hoax. Even if every question raised in these e-mails were conceded, the cumulative case for global climate disruption would be strong. The evidence is found, not only in East Anglian computers, but in changing crop zones, declining species, melting ice sheets and glaciers, thinning sea ice and rising sea levels. No other scientific theory explains these changes as well as global warming related to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Over millennia, the climate shifts in natural cycles. But we seem to be increasing the pace of change so rapidly that plants, animals and humans may not be able to adequately adjust.

The claim of recent global cooling is deceptive. It is true that 2008 was cooler than 1998. But 1998 was the hottest year recorded since the advent of reliable records in the 1800s, while 2008 was the ninth hottest. Despite yearly variations, the overall trend goes in one direction. All 10 of the hottest years on record have come since 1997.

But the hacked e-mails are not irrelevant. They reveal another sort of warming – an overheated academic world in which hard science melts into politics.

Some prominent climate scientists involved in these e-mail exchanges have clearly abandoned a profession for a cause. They appear to exaggerate their public certainty on disputed issues, shade the presentation of information for political effect, tamper with the peer-review process, resist reasonable requests for supporting data and urge the destruction of e-mails to avoid embarrassment. Other scientists in these e-mail chains resist these abuses. But the dominant voices are ideological. The attitude seems to be: Insiders can question, if they don’t go too far. Outsiders who threaten the movement are “idiots.”

This attitude is demonstrated, not only by private e-mails, but also by the public reaction of prominent scientists to those e-mails. They show “scientists at work.” They are “pretty innocuous.” They are “understandable and mostly excusable.” “We are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment.” This “kind of language and kidding goes on verbally all the time.” Criticism is based merely on “ignorance” and critics have “more screws loose than the Space Shuttle Challenger.” It is the scientific equivalent of discounting Watergate as a “second-rate burglary.”

Climate scientists are clearly accustomed to deference. It is a community coddled by global elites, extensively funded by governments, celebrated by Hollywood and honored with international prizes.

But outside the Copenhagen bubble, the field of climate science is deep in a crisis of professional credibility, which many scientists seem too insular to recognize. Fifty-nine percent of Americans now believe it is at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research to prop up global warming claims. If the practices at East Anglia are dismissed as “scientists at work,” skepticism will rise as surely as temperatures.

It often goes unnoticed how much we rely on the self-enforced standards of professions – journalists who bury their biases to report the news, judges who suspend their own views to enforce the law. If we view these professionals as politically motivated, we no longer trust the information or judgments they provide.

This professional objectivity is precisely what the hacked e-mails call into question. Some of these scientists are merely activists, deeply invested in a predetermined outcome. They assume that political change is the goal; the scientific enterprise is the means – like a political ad or a campaign speech. But without trust in disinterested, scientific judgments on climate, most non-scientists will resist costly, speculative, legislative actions. When the experts become advocates, no one believes the experts or listens to the advocates.

It is an irony of the first order. Having accused others of a “war on science,” it is climate scientists who are assaulting the authority of science more effectively than anyone else.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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