Climategate: A crisis of science or communication?

A version of this post previously appeared in The Mark News (click here)

The past few weeks have offered a cornucopia of scandals: allegations of Canada’s complicity in the torture of Afghans; the arrest of top officials at the Toronto Humane Society on charges of animal cruelty; Tiger Woods’s run-in with a fire hydrant at the end of his own driveway.

But in terms of its global political and economic impact, one story stands above all others: “Climategate.”

This was the story about how an unidentified computer hacker stole upwards of 4,000 documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK, the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming. These illegally obtained materials consisted mostly of personal email correspondence between CRU scientists and their international collaborators. They were first posted to a Russian web server and quickly circulated around the world.

Although the email correspondence has been de-contextualized by climate change skeptics to maximize the political impact, the messages are still very damaging. One excerpt suggests that the world’s most trusted climate science experts conducted a methodological “trick” to amplify the severity of projected global warming; another suggests there were efforts to systematically delete evidence that could undermine the established scientific paradigm; and a third suggests that leading climate scientists attempted to control the peer review process by bullying at least one journal editor who was willing to publish research challenging the scientific consensus about climate change. As the Guardian newspaper columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot acknowledged, “some of the messages require no spin to make them look bad.”

In very little time critics of the CRU seized upon the documents, claiming they offer unambiguous “proof“ of a vast conspiracy by the climate science establishment, which, if you believe the skeptics, had apparently been working in consort with the UN, George Soros, environmental NGOs, Al Gore, the “left wing” media, Hollywood, and several thousand climate scientists around the world to execute an elaborately conceived carbon-based tax grab. “An Inconvenient Hoax,” reported the Examiner.com. “The skeptics are vindicated,” opined one conservative Canadian columnist. “Botch after botch after botch,” said another. Not surprisingly “Climategate” has become the focus of countless news columns, op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, and several radio call-in shows. It’s been a hot topic on Twitter; it provided grist for The Daily Show; and there is even a Facebook Fan Page.

I want to suggest that “Climategate” is important not just because it sheds light on the politicization of climate science. It is important because it brings the human and normative elements of science front and centre and illustrates the central role of communication in scientific debates.

Pierre Bourdieu famously wrote that “scandal, in the form of revelation by the [media] of an ethical transgression by an eminent personality, underlines the rule of devotion to the general interest, in other words, disinterestedness, which is required of all individuals designated to be the official incarnation of the group.” For Bourdieu, a scandal was a breach of expectation: just as we expect our law enforcement officials to police fairly, and our physicians to “do no harm,” we expect scientists to operate independently of the social world. The problem, however, is that scientific facts can never be fully divorced from their social and political contexts. The key question we must confront, therefore, is whether the context for climate change research has become so overtly politicized that it has damaged the way scientists interact—with the media, the public, and each other.

With this problem in mind, it is worth reflecting, as my colleague Chris Russill has done, on the work of climatologist Steven Schneider, who argued that climate scientists have been forced into a “double ethical bind.” Schneider believes that the image we have of science as an overly technical endeavour compromises its potential to mobilize necessary political and public actions. He argues that scientists ought to make an impact on the world outside of their labs, especially when their research deals with issue of human and planetary survival. Yet to do so, they must not only be excellent researchers—they must also be convincing communicators.

The problem with this recommendation is that the world of public communication demands a very different set of core competencies from the world of climate science: effective oratory skills, an ability to make a persuasive case with image and metaphor, an intuitive sense about how to drive the media agenda by mastering the machinations of its ecology. These are not skills easily acquired and can place enormous pressure onto scientists, particularly when their research is under constant political scrutiny and sits in the crosshairs of a well funded and relentless contrarian movement that has taken aggressively to the airwaves, that appears to be influencing the screening agendas of the film festival circuit, and which continues to burn up the blogosphere.

In the face of what must be monumental institutional pressure, CRU director Phil Jones was forced to step down from his post pending the outcome of a university investigation. Michael Mann, the Penn State University paleoclimatologist famous for originating the infamous “hockey stick graph” is reportedly also under investigation by his employer. Their international colleagues, for the most part, have gone silent. Supportive journalists, bloggers, environmental activists, political figures, and others with a stake in the issue are in damage control mode, forced into playing defense yet continuing to press the case that the overwhelming majority of scientists, policy-makers, and almost every government in the world acknowledges the probability that the planet is warming and will continue to do so because of human activity, and that it is our moral, economic, and political imperative to do so something about it now.

Ultimately, the CRU is not facing a crisis of science, but a crisis of communication. Such communicative “stumbling” has, seemingly, provided a new opportunity to the global warming skeptics to advance their central message, that the science is junk because the scientists can’t be trusted. Importantly, this does not mean that the skeptics’ frame is empirically adequate. It simply means that the interpretive labour involved in reconciling the gap between this message and our mediated experiences has been reduced. Given the high stakes of the Copenhagen talks beginning next week, and the importance of achieving an international agreement, this is a crisis that will be resolved only through a sincere explanation of what happened and a promise to never let it happen again. Until this occurs, the strength of the scientific argument for anthropogenic global warming will continue to come under attack.

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3 Comments

Filed under climate change, Crisis Communication

3 responses to “Climategate: A crisis of science or communication?

  1. don hagan

    My question: Has there been cyclical climate change over gelologic time i.e. ice ages followed by warming periods prior to human occupation of the earth? Have those changes been even more dramatic than any which have occurred since man’s time on earth? If so, give it a rest!

  2. Josh Greenberg

    Mr. Hagan:

    I appreciate your response. My post does not make a scientific argument – then again, neither does yours.

    Tempted as I am to respond to rhetorical questions, I’ll simply point you to a more conclusive scientific argument:

    http://www.copenhagendiagnosis.org/

    I’m under no illusion you will read or seriously consider that argument.

    The reason I make the case that Climategate (or Swifthack, as others have appropriately called it) is not a science crisis is because that would require a credible alternative scientific paradigm, not a dubious one that rests on the premise of weather variability. The scientific community and virtually every government on the planet (OK, except for the province of Alberta and now Saudi Arabia) is in agreement on this one.

    It does, however, raise important questions about communicating complex science to non-specialists.

  3. Wise answer Josh! I appreciate your cool way to deal with the non-specialists guild.
    Among these, it is interesting the way some of the climate change prophets are using the GCM results to irresponsibly scare people. Both extremes are not only inconvenient but pretty dangerous because the academia, being communication-challenged, is wasting time dealing with them.
    A balanced, healthy skeptical approach to the subject, like yours, is more productive in the long run.
    JC

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