Inside Opinion

What's on the minds of Tacoma News Tribune editorial writers

NOTICE: Inside Opinion has moved.

With the launch of our new website, we've moved Inside Opinion.
Visit the new section.

Climate change science doesn’t need idea police

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 23, 2009 at 7:42 pm |
November 23, 2009 5:45 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

A formidable majority of atmospheric scientists believe that planet Earth is slowly heating up and that human industry bears much of the blame. That’s good reason to worry about global warming and do something to stop it.

It’s not good reason to suppress the views of scientists who challenge the majority view. Science could hardly survive without its contrarians and skeptics.

The Do Something camp was thrown on the defensive a few days ago after anonymous hackers released thousands of e-mails and other documents that – at first blush – put some researchers in a nasty light. Stolen from a British university, the messages point to deliberate efforts to shut up dissenting scientists, even cripple their careers.

In one exchange, the director of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit talks about keeping papers from two skeptics out of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the pre-eminent scientific forum on global warming.

“I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report,” wrote Phil Jones to Michael Mann of Penn State. “Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is.”

Translation: Before we’ll tolerate dissent that meets the ground rules for scientific publication, we’ll change the ground rules.

In another exchange, Mann apparently wrote Jones, “Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.”

Translation: If the scientific journal won’t stop publishing the skeptics, we’ll threaten to kill the journal.

A relative handful of damning communications between a relative handful of researchers don’t make global warming a “hoax,” as some are claiming. They do illustrate how ruthlessly a scientific orthodoxy can be enforced when monumental international agreements hang in the balance.

Science is often a messy business. The data often don’t lend themselves to instant judgments. Conclusions often depend less on obvious fact than on educated guesses, well-founded assumptions and carefully written but imperfect computer models. All that is especially true when predicting the behavior of a phenomenon as complex as the planet’s entire atmosphere.

Rather than try to explain that complexity to the presumably simple-minded public, at least some want to draw a black-and-white, all-skeptics-are-idiots picture of the controversy. But when scientists start treating the contrarians among them as fools and heretics, what the public sees is insecurity, fear of engaging opposing arguments – and simple-mindedness.

Weighing in at 157 megabytes, the hacked documents are so extensive that it will take weeks to put them all in perspective. For the sake of curtailing greenhouse gases, we hope it turns out that the enforcers of orthodoxy were few and ignored.

*
The News Tribune now uses Facebook commenting on selected blogs. See editor's column for more details. Commenters are expected to abide by terms of service for Facebook as well as commenting rules for thenewstribune.com. Report violators to webmaster@thenewstribune.com.