Commentary

‘Climategate’ and the Ethics of Science

Dishonesty in science can harm people.

Over the last century science has played an ever-increasing role in the lives of all people. Science has increased life expectancy, improved our standard of living, dramatically speeded communications and made us a space-faring people, to cite only a few examples. Our ability to feed a rapidly growing global population and to make their lives easier and more productive both stem from advances in science.

The downside of the ascent of science into public life is that politics uses science that supports particular views while suppressing contrary views. The entry of science and technology into politics and public policy demands that scientists be vigilant in guarding their professional objectivity from political influence or philosophy, and to defend their science from perversion by social, religious or political agendas.

Today we are faced with both dishonest science and quasi-religious persecution of dissenting scientists who are not in agreement with social or political dogma. Acceptance of advocacy or dishonest science has become an issue in recent years.

History is replete with examples of either scientific dishonesty or interference with or absolute brutal repression of science. Bruno was burned at the stake in the inquisition, and Galileo, faced with similar circumstances, was forced to recant his observations of the universe in front of religious authorities in the 16th century.

A legal form of scientific dishonesty is the demonizing of opponents in a scientific disagreement. Rather than counter the scientific arguments, some attempt to deflect the debate by arguing that the opponents are incompetent, funded by corporations, have conflicts of interest or are harming the public welfare, demeaning their work and data in every way possible, without ever demonstrating any inaccuracy in the work. While perhaps acceptable in politics, such tactics are not acceptable in science.

A recent example of such an ad hominem attack was the attempt to silence Bjorn Lomberg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” Lomberg had devastated zealous environmentalist’s arguments that the natural world was being continually degraded by human impacts, using both data and statistics to demonstrate that the global environment was improving and that the world needed to address larger problems first, rather than expend resources on minor issues. Lomberg was castigated verbally, in the press and in tribunals. Lomberg fought back and was vindicated.

Against that historical background there is now “Climategate.” Climategate is the term used to describe the release of thousands of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU), one of the most prestigious climate data archive and modeling centers. CRU data is the basis for much of the debate about climate change. The e-mails document scientific dishonesty among the leading scientific proponents of human-induced global warming (AGW), and the major players behind the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both in England and the United States.

Examples of disclosed dishonesty include purposeful manipulation of data in support of a favored hypothesis, conspiracy to deny access to data to others (illegal under Freedom of Information actions), destruction of data, attempts to deny others access to peer review and scientific publication process, impugning the reputations of others and attempts to remove journal editors who published works that did not support AGW. While each individual act is worthy of termination from a scientific research or teaching position, the sum total of these dishonest acts is an indictment of the entire scientific process concerning climate change.

Science works by advancing a hypothesis, continually testing it, modifying as necessary, retesting, all in attempts to falsify or invalidate the hypothesis. Hypotheses that survive these tests then become accepted theories and the base from which other constructs can be developed. That is the scientific method.

An example is Plate Tectonics. Advanced seriously as “continental drift” in the early part of the 20th century, the hypothesis was tested but not established owing to a lack of information to create a rational test. There was heated debate over the hypothesis, without resolution. After World War II ended, heretofore secret military sea-floor mapping was made available to scientists, who then identified magnetic polarity reversals in stripes across the ocean floor, with age-dating that proved symmetrical spreading from mid-ocean ridges. That test confirmed seafloor spreading, continental movement and provided what is now the basis of our now integrated and unified theory of Plate Tectonics. It took 50 years and new technology to rigorously test the hypothesis. Even so, scientists still continually test the theory.

Climategate is a disaster for science in general because the combined transgressions suggest the leaders of the AGW hypothesis violated every tenet of scientific ethics for one simple reason: To prevent expert testing of the AGW hypothesis and its potential falsification.

The result has been the acceptance of the hypothesis by political and social policy entities as a reliable scientific theory, without scientific validation.

I have encountered several instances of scientific dishonesty in my career, including falsification of chemical test results, lying about progress on major interagency projects, and plagiarism. None of these instances hurt people other than the perpetrators, the costs were in time and money.

We cannot permit governmentencouraged “scientific correctness.” Eighty years ago, Lysenko’s false science, and iron control of Russian botanical science, helped starve the Russian people. Previously cited examples of dishonest science impacted fewer people, small areas and, as in Bruno’s case, were only lethal to the individual.

Climategate is different. Climategate’s ethical impact is global.

Proposed draconian measures to constrain energy use would harm poor peoples all over the globe. We have already converted much-needed food into motor fuel. Literally billions of dollars of scientific and public policy investments have been made suspect, if not worthless. Continued attempts to impose strictures on emissions of carbon dioxide are not only not useful, they are meaningless in terms of climate change while costing average Americans thousands of dollars each year.

Regardless of our social philosophies, our science must remain objective.

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About Lee Gerhard

Lee C. Gerhard
Lee C. Gerhard

Lee C. Gerhard, retired Kansas State Geologist, is past president of the AAPG Division of Environmental Geosciences and editor of AAPG Studies #47 Geological Perspectives of Global Climate Change.