There’s been quite a buzz lately about a series of emails, stolen from the server of a major climate research center, which are alleged to show conclusively that the theory of man-made global warming is a “lie”. This is said to give credence to people who are “skeptics” about the theory, and as usual the debate is being had in terms of whether or not the warming theory is correct. I think this is a mistake; instead of talking about a debate over a single theory, I think we should speak in terms of two competing theories, and also look at whether or not there is sufficient evidence for the anti-warming theory. The emails do cast some doubt on the first theory; however; they don’t offer any conclusive evidence of the second theory, which I will detail momentarily.
First, however, a caveat: I am not qualified to judge climate science. I have read a few books on the topic, but am not sufficiently well-trained to understand the science of climatology inside and out, and decide which theories are best supported. In my defense, this is pretty high level stuff and I’m willing to bet that the majority of people are not particularly literate in climatology; which means that a lot of the people speaking very authoritatively about global warming on the Internet, for or against, are talking out of their asses. This probably stems from the way that every discussion is framed in the media (for or against, left or right), which seems to structure how people think about these issues. So, for the record, I’m not coming down on the side of the “warming” theory, which I'm not entirely convinced about; I'm just expressing my disbelief in the “anti-warming” conspiracy theory, which I am not at all convinced by.
I am not going to say conclusively which theory is most accurate, however I will say that the warming theorists have offered considerably more evidence to support their theory, although probably not as conclusively as some people believe. That theory, as I understand it is as follows: A. human beings have pumped a massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere over the last two centuries or so (which is undoubtedly true); B. this should cause the overall temperatures of the earth to increase by the greenhouse effect; and C. indeed, global temperatures have risen in recent years; D. therefore A was significant in causing C. This is the “warming” theory to the best of my knowledge.
The alternate theory is often expressed by a grab-bag of criticisms: the earth might not really be warming or not over the entire globe, or it could be due to other causes (particularly solar flares); it might be irreversible, or reversing, or unstoppable, or not happening at all. This is referred to as “skepticism”; but it’s really a number of articulations of a second theory: that a majority of scientists in a particular field have (knowingly or unknowingly) perpetuated a massive and unprecedented worldwide fraud, and have been joined in this fraud (knowingly or unknowingly) by the world’s politicians, due to their own arrogance, lust for power, stupidity, or political leanings. As a commenter on the Economist put it, “The scientists made up this global warming lie to take our cars.”
Because the second thesis is seldom analyzed (only denied outright), the “skeptics” have never had to answer for the fact that they’ve so far been unable to proffer any conclusive evidence for that theory. Where are the climate scientists who have admitted to this massive worldwide conspiracy out of guilt or shame? Why hasn’t anyone accidentally spilled the beans? (More on that in a second) How have so many independent researchers measured changes in the physical environment? Have they been misled and the physical environment is not changing in the way they are measuring? Why did the northern section of this country (Canada) pick now to melt? Melting icecaps, the highest recorded temperatures in history in numerous independent locations, “desertification” in huge swaths of China, not to mention the really weird weather here at least; what’s causing all of this if the climatologists are lying?
The stolen emails have been offered as evidence of the massive worldwide fraud. The media has yet to point out that they do no such thing. Here's a video that explains that a bit more entertainingly than I can:
Now, as for those emails. In the first place, we’re asked to understand that the individuals who stole this organization’s electronic property did so in the disinterested pursuit of truth, and to forgive the fact that stealing people’s mail is usually seen as immoral, dishonest, and borderline psychotic. Fine. Next we’re asked to believe that a group of anonymous citizens who are known only for this massive theft posted these emails to a Russian server without altering them in any way. After all, they’re thieves and criminals; so, of course, they’re not liars.
There are approximately 3,000 emails, which supposedly show these fraudulent scientists speaking off the record. Thus far, no one who has read the emails has claimed that there is a single email in which a scientist explicitly speaks about their massive worldwide fraud. Nothing like, “Hey, I think they’re onto our massive worldwide fraud.” Instead, there are a handful of emails that, if you read between the lines, are supposed to refer in an oblique way to the conspiracy. Let’s just take that on good faith, eh?
Well, now I’ve read these cherry picked emails and the claim is bullshit. What they do seem to show, and I’ll be as specific in my words as possible here, is that some climatologists, feeling that they are under attack (by the people who are attacking them) have sought, in some situations, to make their models seem more conclusive than they really are in order to circle the wagons. Secondly, they seem to have tried to keep the anti-warming theorists out of the discussion because they don’t take them seriously as scientific thinkers. In other words, a consensus mentality seems to have formed, perhaps too early.
But that's pretty inconclusive. Note also that the emails seek to ostracize the anti-warmers because they are not thought to be serious scientists; not because they’re feared to be onto the conspiracy. The climatologists don’t take them seriously; instead, they think the anti-warmers are acting in bad faith in an attempt to destroy their careers and their field of inquiry. Which, of course, they are. And maybe that's a bit elitist of these scientists, but it's a far cry from massive fraud.
Now, this consensus mentality, which I’ve seen in the humanities at times, is not healthy for scientific inquiry. An ideal response to these stolen emails would be to create as much transparency in the climate sciences as possible. And, in fact, some of the emails talk about just this- getting all the available data into the public domain so people can test it out. I’ve not heard that mentioned often. And, also, a heck of a lot of the data is readily available in the public domain, although it seems to generally be beyond the ken of the "skeptics".
Scientific inquiry requires openness and good faith. Intellectual life cannot continue without doubt. Bunker mentalities close people off to data that could strengthen their work. While it’s understandable that scientists would be opposed to the people who argue that they’re frauds, the only right answer is to explain over and over again why those people are full of shit. And I think they are. I've been open minded when it comes to these people. Over the last year, I've read their arguments and the responses of climate scientists and, frankly, the anti-warming argument keeps collapsing into conspiracy theory nonsense. Maybe the global warming theory is not as conclusive as Al Gore would like; but the anti-warming theory is borderline ridiculous.
As for the anti-warming theorists, at some point people need to ask them why they’ve repeatedly over hyped what thin and inconclusive evidence they’ve offered for their theory. If climate scientists are to be doubted about a theory for which they’ve offered overwhelming evidence, why should we be credulous towards a group of people whose ‘evidence’ has so often collapsed when exposed to the light of day? In the last two years, they’ve claimed to have the “smoking gun” for their theory month after month and, when they’re proven wrong, yet again, the anti-warmers have simply moved on to grasping at the next straw in line. This time, a handful of fishy but inconclusive emails is said to disprove an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence; while proving a massive worldwide conspiracy is taking place. I’m skeptical.
As for genuine skepticism about the specifics of global warming, I'm skeptical there too! Scientists are generally skeptical! Scepticism (or skepticism- speculation or doubt) is central to intellectual life. But, with the anti-warming people, the word “skeptic” is misleading because these people are completely sold, hook-line-and-sinker, on a theory with little evidence in support of it. They seem to have even less understanding of the science than I do; and in fact seem to believe that doesn’t matter; after all, they’re just “skeptics”. They seem more like true believers. Let's just say that I’m pretty skeptical about the things they take on faith.