The heat is on – Climategate as a peek into scientific controversies

Remember the previous -gate? Not the current one with the leaking cables, but the other one with the climate scientists who got their internal communication leaked to the internet, sparking fierce debate on the possible ideological bias of climate research? That’s right: it’s time to come back to Climategate. Two of my colleagues here at the institute, Tomas Moe Skjølsvold (blog here) and Marianne Ryghaug, have gone through the e-mails that were leaked and looked at what it says about the way a community of researchers relates to the outside world. How do they prepare for criticism, and how do they resolve disputes over methodology?

The article is published here in International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, paywalled, and the abstract is as follows:

This article analyses 1,073 e-mails that were hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in November 2009. The incident was popularly dubbed ‘Climategate’, indicating that the e-mails reveal a scientific scandal. Here we analyse them differently. Rather than objecting to the exchanges based on some idea about proper scientific conduct, we see them as a rare glimpse into a situation where scientists collectively prepare for participation in heated controversy, with much focus on methodology. This allows us to study how scientists communicate informally about framing propositions of facts in the best possible way. Through the eyes of science and technology studies, the e-mails provide an opportunity to study communication as part of science in the making across disciplines and laboratories. Analysed as ‘written conversation’ the e-mails provide information about processes of consensus formation through ‘agonistic evaluations’ of other scientists’ work and persuasion of others to support one’s own work. Also, the e-mails contain judgements about other groups and individual scientists. Consensus-forming appeared as a precarious activity. Controversies could be quite resilient in the course of this decade-long exchange, probably reflecting the complexity of the methodological challenges involved.

Using science and technology studies theory, they look at the e-mails that deal with what they call “politics of publication”, the process of publication in scientific journals. One of the findings they highlight is that the climate scientists seem to be well aware of the possibly controversial results they are publishing, and spend a lot of time both preparing to defend themselves and reflexively discussing how it will be received. Another is that there is significant internal discussion over methodology and especially the worth of different proxy measures of temperatures.

Together this shows that there is little reason to believe that there is an international, evil conspiracy of climate scientists trying to scare the public into accepting higher taxes and restrictions on our freedom-loving lifestyles, ultimately leading to socialism and by extension gulag. Rather, we see a group of people convinced that their data is telling them something but worried that it might be read the “wrong” way.

The article is written with clear sympathies towards the climate scientists, and the authors are careful not to quote from e-mails that were marked as “confidential” from the scientists. While this is a decision that needs to be carefully considered (it is not unreasonable to assume that “confidential” material is more likely to hide ugly truths than more mundane stuff), I think it is a correct one. We need to counter the tendency to read everything in the worst possible light, and respecting others doesn’t have to get in the way of striving for truth.

Noting that I am of course not neutral, considering I know the authors, I think the article is well-written and interesting, and impressively sourced considering how new the material is. If there was anything I wondered about with it it’s that the central theoretical texts being used here are a bit dated (the Latour, Knorr Cetina and Collins stuff is from the 80s, the Shackley stuff ten years fresher). Maybe little work has been done on such matters since then? If that is the case then this article is even more important for dealing with these matters.

Ryghaug, M., & Skjølsvold, T. (2010). The Global Warming of Climate Science: Climategate and the Construction of Scientific Facts International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 24 (3), 287-307 DOI: 10.1080/02698595.2010.522411

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for reading and comenting, Henrik! To follow up on your question about the use of dated theoretic (but very empirically guided, I would add) texts, I guess our focus was on what could be considered classics in laboratory studies and ethographies of science. And, most of these were as you point out published in the 80′s (I think someone has described that as a “wave”). That being said there are some exceptions, like the contribution of Amanda Rees (2009), and some of the explicitly climate related stuff that we draw on which are also newer (post 2000-stuff). Alot of this seems very theoretically influenced by the 80′s stuff, however, so while I’m sure we could have come up with some newer empirical studies, it feels like we’re on pretty solid ground theoretically.

  2. [...] Check out Henrik Karlstrøms coments on the article over at his blog! Tags: Climate, Science Category: Uncategorized You can follow any responses to this entry [...]

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