Friday, December 11, 2009

Climategate: A Mistake in Information Management

For two weeks beginning December 7 of this year, scientists and world leaders (as well as a few ignoramuses from Washington) are making their way to Copenhagen. As they struggle to find global solutions to the world-wide environmental crisis, right-wing critics in America are still nattering about some injudicious words taken out of context from emails sent years ago by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Hackers and thieves stole thousands of pages of material, selectively releasing tidbits that can be interpreted by the ill-informed to cast doubt on the enormous body of scientific knowledge supporting climate change. The timing of this sophisticated bit of intellectual terrorism—days before the largest and most important international climate summit in the history of the world—was no accident.

In his recent book, Denialism, Michael Specter says this of people who persist in disbelieving what rational and well-informed people know to be true: “they shun nuance and fear complexity.” That may be true of the consumers of misinformation; but those who manufacture it, popularize it, and profit from it are motivated by something more sinister than ignorance and fear: greed and/or the lust for power.

From what has so far been made public, it seems clear that the UEA scientists were concerned that fragmentary and incomplete information from their research could be used by climate-change deniers to overshadow conclusions based on years of good-faith scientific inquiry. Of course, that’s exactly what’s happening; ironically, however, discussion about whether and how to release these isolated facts has resulted in the whiff of a cover-up—which, in the minds of many, is enough to taint their entire body of evidence.

A favorite and very effective trick of those who manipulate public perception for financial or political gain is to find one or two instances out of many thousands and blow them out of proportion. When a gabby Acorn worker in Baltimore had a conversation with some sleazy visitors to her office that was recorded on tape, the result was an avalanche of criticism that crippled the entire organization. Besides encouraging poor people to vote (a practice that enrages many Republicans), Acorn is a community-service organization that aids the needy and homeless. When Congress cut off funding to the organization in a knee-jerk response to that one incident, things got even more desperate for thousands of people who need the kind of assistance Acorn provides.

The problem with the UEA emails is not information withheld by scientists. It’s mis-information deliberately manufactured and broadcast by people who stand to profit by public confusion. The problem for America and the world is how, in the “information age,” we can help people learn how and where to get accurate information—and whom to believe.


Sue said...

So, first: Why are people who question the prevailing "wisdom" ignoramuses?

Second, if only tidbits of the UEA research have been released, how do you know that it is misinformation?

Third, why are people condemned for questioning what the majority believe to be true when skepticism is healthy and imperative to reasonable and open discussion on any subject?

Seems to me that both sides "manipulate public perception for financial or political gain." And just getting a bunch of people together who agree does not make for "the largest and most important international . . . summit." That type of gathering requires an assembly of experts who have looked at all sides of a question and can freely debate their INTERPRETATIONS of the data to come to reasonable and realistic determinations as to causes, effects, and potential solutions.

If your point here is that some people are denying the very obvious reality of climate change, you might keep in mind that no intelligent person is denying that. Climate has always changed. What some reasonable people query is the cause of the current climate change and whether people can and/or should do anything to counteract it, That's open to discussion.

If your point is that people disagree with purported "facts" I consider that a good thing. People should question. Even the most obvious "facts" sometimes aren't what they seem upon closer review.

Six said...

Wow - this one could be the worst yet.

First - there is some speculation that it was not a 'hacker' but rather there was some sort of 'inside' source who actually leaked them - someone who perhaps was unhappy with how scientific data was being manipulated because of political motives - and too afraid to speakout and be blackballed like many others have. In some circles that could be known as as 'whistleblowers' but that title only gets assigned when the left likes what was leaked/hacked/stolen/etc. The jury is still out.

Second, you said about skeptics, "those who manufacture it, popularize it, and profit from it are motivated by something more sinister than ignorance and fear: greed and/or the lust for power." That would be my argument against the hypocrites decsending on Copenhagen in hundreds of private jets, thousands and thousands of private limos, and using untold amounts of unrenewable natural resources.

Third, you said, "it seems clear that the UEA scientists were concerned that fragmentary and incomplete information from their research could be used by climate-change deniers to overshadow conclusions based on years of good-faith scientific inquiry." Uhm... if it is scientific data, then it should ALL be made available so that it could be tested and repeated... which is not what happens with the baseline of climate data - it is closely held and 'dressed up' before being allowed to receive peer review. Go do a little more reading of the emails - they were clearly trying to hold back data that was not favorable to their position. The only thing that is clear is that they do not want to behave as scientists, rather they have come up with their conclusion and wish to hide/quite anything using just about any nefarious means necessary - sound earily reminiscent of the Catholic Church's tactics against scientists a couple hundred years ago.

Finally you cite ACORN as some sort of similar conspiracy? You make it sound like what happened at ACORN was somehow isolated to one person at one office... it was not. Go watch Jon Stewart's take on it... hilarious and accurate.

Personally - I hate that we are still using oil in the quantities that we do today. What's even more wrong is the US continued reliance on coal, and the refusal to build more nuclear plants like our Western Euro friends. But the fact is that there is still a lot of 'theory' behind the causes of global warming - what is currently causing it, or rather why it has not happened as rapidly as computer models and hockey-stick charts consistently prove to be inaccurate.

Idna said...

Jane, I wonder why you take this so personally? Why do you jump to the immediate conclusion that the information in the emails was "misinterpreted?" Are you interested in the TRUTH about the science or about the politics of it? If you want truth, then why not really examine what was said and why.

For years, "denier scientists" as you would like to call them, have complained of being systematically silenced and defunded if they showed findings different from the politically correct line about climate. They are shunned and not allowed to debate this important issue. The emails would show that this silencing has been going on.

As far as being "motivated by greed and lust for power" ... that's exactly what seems to be the motivation FOR the hysteria about global warming.

Let's take a look at where all this started, shall we? Back in the 1950's, a scientist named Roger Revelle and his assistant came up with the theory linking CO2 and the greenhouse effect and the warming of temperatures.

One of the students Revelle had at Harvard in the 60's was a bloke by the name of Al Gore. Gore was so impressed with this theory that as we see, he is still making his living off of it. (And not a bad
living, at that! $100million so far? Did you say something about greed?)

But I digress. By 1988, Revelle was having major second thoughts about whether carbon dioxide was a significant greenhouse gas. He wrote letters to two Congressmen about it. And in 1991 he co-authored a report for the new science magazine Cosmos in which he expressed his strong doubts about global warming and urged more research before any remedial action was taken.

So the person who started this who ball of wax about CO2 rolling
realized that it was a false alarm and the science was flawed before he died. Naturally, Gore claimed that Revelle had become senile and ignored what he said.

Climate changes all the time. It has constantly changed throughout the life of this planet. To now claim that we need to stop it seems a bit nonsensical. We need to take politics out of Science. We need to look at ALL scientific findings. Let the debates begin.

Citizen Jane said...

Six, thanks for the reference to the Jon Stewart video. I did watch it. I think really smart comedians can sometimes educate people about certain political or cultural realities, but frankly, I find Jon Stewart hard to watch. He yells, his tone is sarcastic, and the constant "bleeps" are distracting.

What puzzles me is that people who know me and my interests very often recommend that I watch Jon Stewart. What am I missing?

Regarding Acorn. First, it's an umbrella organization that supports many small organizations that help real people in many ways. I first saw reference to their work in inner cities, where they were helping community schools with critical problems, from the need to after-school programs for kids to asbestos and rats.

I say again, with offices in five countries and over 100 U.S. cities, Acorn cannot rationally be judged by one or two (or even three or four) motormouths with poor judgment.

Idna said...

The main subject of the original post was Climategate. It has now changed into ACORN. There is a lot to be discussed about this shady organization, but I'd still like to hear how one can justify the hiding of scientific findings, deleting emails so that the Freedom of Information Act doesn't uncover them and the refusal to acknowlege opposing scientific findings because they don't "prove" your original theory.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Idna,

Here's a good article on the subject of "Climategate," which also references a number of others:

Did you happen to take Thomas L. Friedman up on his offer to read the first two chapters of "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" free of charge? Friedman doesn't try to convince anyone about the causes and effects of global climate change; rather, he shows how "green" technology is in everyone's best interest, greenhouse gases or no greenhouse gases. I highly recommend the book.

Idna said...

Yes, I did read the two chapters of Friedman's book. Seemed to me somewhat of a cursory overview of a lot of different subjects. It seems to be little more than a journalistic opinion piece. He is neither an economist nor a scientist. Judging from his superficial treatment of the economic meltdown, I don't put much credence in his "climate" arguments.

So I will not be buying Mr. Friedman's book ... however, I did buy the biography of Ayn Rand that you alerted us to in a previous post. So thanks for that info.

Here's an interesting article that "follows the money" and makes clear just how much climate scientists' professional fortunes became tied to the notion of climate catastrophe. The Economics of Climate Change -

I found this quote from the London Telegraph quite interesting in a hipocritical kind of way:

Majken Friss Jorgensen, managing director of Copenhagen's biggest limousine company reckons that between her and her rivals the total number of limos in Copenhagen next week has already broken the 1,200 barrier. The French alone rang up on Thursday and ordered another 42. "We haven't got enough limos in the country to fulfill the demand," she says. "We're having to drive them in hundreds of miles from Germany and Sweden."

And the total number of electric cars or hybrids among that number? "Five," says Ms Jorgensen.

And these are the people who are in fear for the life of the planet? Don't think for a minute that Copenhagen is about anything else than politics and spreading the wealth around.

Idna said...

I checked the link I just posted and it is cut off. I'm going to try this. Might work, might not:
The Economics of Climate Change