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The Climate E-mails and the Politics of Science 

Ivan Kenneally

For years, the left has spun the debate over global warming in the starkest Manichean terms. Those who disagree with the scientific and policy orthodoxy have been maligned as greedy capitalists bent on raping the earth of its natural resources for cheap material gain; they have been cast as the benighted enemies of reason itself. Efforts to publicly challenge the science behind global warming have too often resulted in professional and political character assassination. To be skeptical about the fashionable scientific and policy platform aggressively advocated by the mainstream media and self-indulgently championed by the Hollywood elite is nothing less than an “assault on reason,” to borrow Al Gore’s hyperbolic rhetoric. In predictably technocratic fashion, the left has claimed its own peculiar position as the only scientifically legitimate one — everything else reduces to craven interest, manifest dishonesty, or antiquarian faith.

However, maintaining this self-serving narrative just got a lot harder. In the last few days, the cause of climate alarmism took a big hit when more than a thousand e-mails exchanged by scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) suddenly surfaced online. These e-mails were published by the computer hackers who apparently stole them, a crime that should be investigated and prosecuted. But notwithstanding the e-mails’ route to publication, their actual content is extraordinary. These behind-the-scenes discussions among leading global-warming exponents are remarkable both in their candor and in their sheer contempt for scientific objectivity. There can be little doubt after even a casual perusal that the scientific case for global warming and the policy that springs from it are based upon a volatile combination of political ideology, unapologetic mendacity, and simmering contempt for even the best-intentioned disagreement. Especially in anticipation of the major climate summit taking place in Copenhagen next month, the significance of this explosive disclosure is hard to underestimate. According to climatologist Patrick J. Michaels, “This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud.”

The evidence of scientific dishonesty supplied by these communications is so copious it’s hard to know where to begin an attempt to describe them. Many of the e-mails brazenly discuss the manipulation of scientific data either to provide the appearance of greater support for global warming science or to undermine the claims of skeptics. For example, CRU scholar Timothy J. Osborn explicitly describes how data can be reconfigured so that evidence of an apparent cooling period disappears. His colleague Tom Wigley discusses recasting the data on sea-surface temperatures so that the results seem considerably warmer but also scientifically plausible. The director of CRU, Phil Jones, brags about his use of eminent climatologist Michael Mann’s “Nature trick” which deliberately confuses scientific data to “hide the decline” in current temperatures.

Other e-mails openly encourage the suppression of data that could prove difficult to repudiate. Michael Mann provides strategic advice on how to deal with a journal, Geophysical Research Letters, that seems to be open to publishing views that dissent from climate orthodoxy. In an e-mail to Phil Jones, Mann also expresses his desire to “contain” the very inconvenient truth of the Medieval Warm Period, so important in overthrowing Mann’s classic “Hockey Stick” model of anthropogenic warming, even though he admits they don’t have an appropriate model to do that legitimately.

Public spokesmen for the global warming agenda constantly claim a near-universal consensus within the scientific community supporting their position, but these private exchanges often reveal serious personal reservations regarding what they really know and how confident they are in the statistical models they rely upon. In an e-mail to several prominent climate scientists (including Mann and Jones), Kevin E. Trenberth, one of the leading contributors to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, offers this confession: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.” In another e-mail, Trenberth admits climatologists have a limited understanding of where our energy ultimately goes, what the effects of cloud formation might have on the entire issue, and expresses doubts about the efficacy of geoengineering to provide any substantive relief, again saying that the gaps in the scientific knowledge amount to “a travesty.” All of this a far cry from the strident claims about unimpeachable evidence and demonstrable theory that usually emanates from these quarters.

Perhaps the most damning e-mails concern CRU deputy director Keith Briffa’s analysis of the diameter of tree rings in Yamal, Siberia. That research is a major evidentiary pillar in support of twentieth-century global warming and it helped resurrect Michael Mann’s “Hockey Stick” graph of global warming. The scientist largely responsible for challenging Mann’s work, Steve McIntyre, turned his attention to Briffa’s resurrection of it and accused him of cherry-picking samples that would confirm his politically desirable hypothesis.

The response to McIntyre’s work revealed in the CRU e-mails shows a breathtaking pattern of ideological rigidity and academic fraudulence that is simultaneously egregious and casually self-satisfied. First, it becomes clear that the global warming crowd, in particular Mann and Osborn, are quick to dismiss McIntyre’s work as “not legitimate science” even before reviewing his studies. Their initial reflex is not to scrutinize McIntyre’s analysis or to reconsider their own entrenched positions but rather to respond with a kind of angry, territorial protectiveness. Then they collectively identify someone who could, in fact, “shed light on McIntyre’s criticisms of Yamal” but choose not to contact him because he “can be rather a loose cannon.” Another scientist who might have helped clarify the Yamal situation is dismissed by Mann for being “not as predictable as we’d like.” Unquestioning loyalty to a political platform is understood to be the precondition of scientific authenticity.

Even worse, in response to the charge that Briffa’s work is difficult to verify because he withholds key data from the published study, Tom Wigley actually issues a justification of the practice:

And the issue of withholding data is still a hot potato, one that affects both you [Phil Jones] and Keith [Briffa] (and Mann). Yes, there are reasons — but many good scientists appear to be unsympathetic to these. The trouble here is that withholding data looks like hiding something, and hiding means (in some eyes) that it is bogus science that is being hidden.

Wigley provides no discussion at all regarding what would count as an appropriate reason for concealing data, or what benefit this could bring to the scientific community at large. One is left to wonder if the justification for hiding information is political rather than scientific. Mann seems unconcerned that any of these issues will resonate with a friendly media: “Fortunately,” he wrote to a New York Times reporter, “the prestige press doesn’t fall for this sort of stuff, right?”

In his “Memorandum on Scientific Integrity” from earlier this year, President Obama stated that it is the function of “science and the scientific process” to “inform and guide” his administration on virtually every issue from health care to national security. This came on the heels of his promise in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place,” and his boast that his administration will “base” its “public policies on the soundest science,” indicating that the proper relation between politics and science subordinates the former to the latter. The classic concern about science — that it might become dangerously liberated from moral or political guidance — is not what concerns President Obama in his memorandum and speeches. Rather, he worries about the suppression or politicization of unambiguous scientific fact. If the president’s words are taken at face value, his administration should seriously reconsider its enthusiastic embrace of aggressive climate legislation, since the CRU e-mails reveal a political appropriation of science instead of a science liberated from political pressure.

Hillary Clinton famously remarked that during the Bush years it was “open season on open inquiry,” rehashing the familiar charge that a faith-based obscurantism dogmatically dismissed not only the claims of legitimate science, but also the very claims of reason itself. President Obama has stayed true to the liberal posture that whatever policy he happens to advocate is the only one substantiated by empirical science. However, it has become increasingly clear that the president’s claim to rigorously adhere to a science of politics — a science that provides unprejudiced information upon which he can craft sound policy — has been overtaken by a politics of science — the crass and Procrustean transformation of whatever data is available into further confirmation of his own ideological commitments. Australian writer Andrew Bolt has suggested that the CRU e-mail leak is a “scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science.” But the greater scandal may be that the United States and the rest of the world are considering enacting energy-restrictive and economy-damaging climate policies based on ideological distortions of scientific fact.


Ivan Kenneally is an assistant professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is writing a book on technocracy in American politics.

Ivan Kenneally, "The Climate E-mails and the Politics of Science," TheNewAtlantis.com, November 24, 2009.