Scientist explains why climate scientists talk trash

Dr Peter Watts, a PhD biologist and a hell of a science fiction writer, talks about what it means that a bunch of climate scientists
Science doesn't work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven't any of these guys ever heard of "peer review"?

There's this myth in wide circulation: rational, emotionless Vulcans in white coats, plumbing the secrets of the universe, their Scientific Methods unsullied by bias or emotionalism. Most people know it's a myth, of course; they subscribe to a more nuanced view in which scientists are as petty and vain and human as anyone (and as egotistical as any therapist or financier), people who use scientific methodology to tamp down their human imperfections and manage some approximation of objectivity.

But that's a myth too. The fact is, we are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment. We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. The best we can do-- the best science can do-- is make sure that at least, we get to choose among competing biases.

That's how science works. It's not a hippie love-in; it's rugby. Every time you put out a paper, the guy you pissed off at last year's Houston conference is gonna be laying in wait. Every time you think you've made a breakthrough, that asshole supervisor who told you you needed more data will be standing ready to shoot it down. You want to know how the Human Genome Project finished so far ahead of schedule? Because it was the Human Genome projects, two competing teams locked in bitter rivalry, one led by J. Craig Venter, one by Francis Collins -- and from what I hear, those guys did not like each other at all.

Because As We All Know, The Green Party Runs the World. (via Charlie Stross)


  1. Haha, that’s so f*cking true. A single PhD student can swear more than the entire Curd-Turkish crew of tank ship playing poker.

  2. So from now on, all the PhD’s in the hard sciences forever renounce any claim to be smarter or geekishly cooler than the people who have degrees in sociology or literature?

  3. yeah, this is a reality… but there’s also the fact that scientists (artists, writers, theorists, sociologists, etc, etc, etc) also value community, fair play, and pluralistic, subjective perspectives. it’s not just one way or the other. peer review is not just for tearing down the competition or laying it wait for them. graduate orals or review critiques aren’t just for the older generation to gate-keep and rip on the young whipper-snappers coming up. internal struggles over approach or procedure are necessary to quality in any effort. these processes do actually have a point beyond merely enabling jackasses.

    yes, we’re assholes. we’re also altruistic and hopeful. we believe the best and the worst about one another. these characteristics are just as much part of what it means to be human (and do science or any human endeavor) as it is to be backstabbing and spiteful. to be conflicted about being conflicted is fundamentally human. to try to better our natures (and our data sets) is, too.

  4. I’m seriously not getting the double standard here: when lawyers/Big Content types/politicians spin, it’s bad, mmkay. But if climate scientists do so, it’s all good, because their hearts are in the right place?

    I’m with Monbiot on this one — (paraphrasing) If you’re going to lecture the world on how to do the right thing, you’ve got to do the right thing yourself. Which means scientists, especially in a field as field with policy implications as climate science, have got to be more transparent and open than what they’ve done so far.

    Here’s the thing: anyone who’s done computer-based simulation/modelling knows that it’s all too easy to tweak your conclusions towards preconceived notions (whether deliberately or accidentally). Crichton pointed this out in his “Did aliens cause global warming” and argued for greater scientific discipline and was promptly ripped a new asshole by critics (Crichton didn’t help matters by going completely OTT in the ridiculous “State of Fear”). Now the chickens are coming home to roost. First it was the Yamal dataset, but it was dismissed as incidental. Then it’s $God-knows-what with these CRU emails, and tomorrow it could be some graph in New Zealand that got a mention on Google News.

    Three words to get out of this mess: Open Source Science. Open up the data sets, open up the models, let anyone who’s interested play with the raw data. Many eyeballs will only improve the rigor and maturity of the discipline.

  5. This is why you don’t need “privatization.” I’d rather scientists compete to be the best, than the mediocre ones bending over to get money.

  6. No comments on the topic itself, but I just recently finished rereading Blindsight for the… fourth time, I think? One of my favorite books and one I’d never have discovered (and bought) if he didn’t post it free online and BoingBoing carried a story about that.

  7. “talks about what it means that a bunch of climate scientists”…what. It seems that there should be more to this sentence.

  8. This reminds me a lot of Quine’s views on the philosophy of science. It’s tough to be honest about the day-to-day methodology of scientists and the advancement of human knowledge, and yet retain enough optimism to want to continue the process.

  9. OK, but a few things.

    I don’t know a single scientist (and I know a lot of scientists) who doesn’t think something is wrong with the way science works, from the “peer review” process (which people mistakenly believe ends when three scientists with a conflict of interest have told Nature your paper shouldn’t be published because it doesn’t support their work—-may arXiv be the end of this) to the common practice of publishing laughably long arcane papers that no one will read and that milk the “X in the presence of Y is correlated with an increase in Z” effect for all its worth just for the sake of having a publication, to the fact that every paper is signed by seven people most of whom could not explain anything in it and at least one of whom has probably not even read it, to the corrupt funding process, to the system of handing out awards, to the hilarious impossibility of tenure, to what is basically the miserable office-politics-riddled academic feudal life. The poor scientist in moments of mad fantasy may imagine a world in which open-minded peers entertain any possibility before discarding it, up to and including the possibility that their theories may be wrong, and researchers were allowed to spend their time researching instead of wondering how on earth they’ll get their next grant.

    In other words, just because this is the way science is actually carried out does not mean we should be happy about it. If you find out the way your sausage is made involves grinding up sawdust and diseased rats, should you simply shrug and say, “Oh well! Guess that’s how sausage is really made!” (In case you were wondering, the answer is No, you should not.)

    Jerkdom is not, in fact, a prerequisite for science, though it’s often a substitute for imagination. Look in the correspondence of the great scientists; are they *all* mean? Maybe Feynman was sometimes a jerk, but he was open to possibilities. Linus Pauling was open to possibilities. Einstein was open to possibilities. Science is a creative endeavor. To say merely that boys will be boys when they exhibit mafia behavior is delusional. Yes, Venter breathing down the neck of the grand consortium was the reason they finished ahead of schedule, for fear of being beaten by a private enterprise. It was good of Venter to chase them. But please note the major difference in this example: these climate scientists whose emails were leaked were collaborating to *prevent* competition by refusing to share their data. Their snarkiness was actually whinging about people who wanted to review them. Yes, scientists should be hard on each other, by all means. That’s the point. These climate scientists destroyed data and selectively refused to honor Freedom of Information Act requests specifically because, if one can say this about global warming researchers, they couldn’t stand the heat in the kitchen. They wanted to avoid scrutiny and marginalize those who wanted to scrutinize them. And that should not be science as usual, even if it sadly is.

    1. When we’re talking about data in this particular case, can we please make clear whether we’re talking about the scientific data about climate change and the data that is not, e.g. internal emails. Because without that clarification it really looks like deliberate obfuscation to confuse the two.

      There are two different issues associated with the two different lots of data. The scientific datasets are bound by various different understandings about confidentiality with the originators of those datasets. On something as big as climate change, this is clearly not a satisfactory situation, but it has arisen as a result of the number of different sources, not as a result of conspiracy. There are moves going on in the scientific community to ease this situation, because it interferes with the ability to do research.

      The deletion of email data was a daft response to a flood of vexatious FOI requests for the scientific data, some of which is published and is freely available to anyone who can be bothered to do a simple search anyway. This was the wrong way to deal with this, and those involved will probably get spanked for it. But in the end, it’s a relatively minor offence, and it is mischievous in the extreme to conflate it with the (fictional) deletion of scientific data.

      1. Because without that clarification it really looks like deliberate obfuscation to confuse the two.

        If it quacks like a duck…

  10. Ok. I imagine the most dramatic position possible is to ignore any contribution ever made by CRU. Does this alter any fundamental conclusions? The answer is no. In other words, these leaked details of the science at one institution have nothing to do with climate change or climate change policy. So, can we carry on with reality? I am sure the less than 100 people in the world affected by “climategate” will figure something out for themselves?

  11. I see people complaining about a supposed double standard being applied to climate scientist w.r.t. bakers or politicians. This doesn’t make any sense, because competing to improve understanding of nature, which is no private property and cannot be kept for one self, has nothing to do with competing to gain power or scam people off their money.

    Being successful in ones job is not a sign of blessing, think of a very successful bank robber or, if you a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, a right wing abortion surgeon.

  12. Peter Watts implies that the bickering and backstabbing in the recent email disclosures are a good thing.

    But science usually works better than this. Though it is true that all scientists gossip and complain about peer review, science is usually more cooperative than rugby. Rugby is a zero sum game. Science is usually a positive sum game, where each team’s discovery advances that team’s interest in part and the collective interest of all competing teams in part.

    There a couple reasons why the climate scientist’s emails showed more bickering and backstabbing than usual. Climate science is more intertwined with partisan politics than most science is, and the future of civilization is at stake. I think those folks are playing a rougher ballgame than scientists usually play.

    In contrast with Peter Watts, with hindsight I think they would all have scored better if they had played a more fastidiously high-minded game.

  13. As a working scientist, I can vouch for all this being the exception rather than the rule. Truly surprising new findings really do make scientific competitors bury biases in peer review.

  14. I completely agree that the disagreements and uncertainty between scientists shown in those emails is perfectly normal and healthy.

    What is then astounding is that they can then turn a united face to the rest of the world and say “the science is settled” and “anyone who has doubts is the equivalent of a Holocaust denier”.

    1. It’s not the possession of doubts that is often condemned by any responsible scientist, but the denial of existing evidence. If you say, “I have doubts because I don’t understand x, y & z,” then that’s completely understandable and invites people to explain what x, y & z are all about. But if you say, “Volcanoes make more CO2 than humans, CO2 doesn’t cause global warming, glaciers aren’t melting, cosmic rays cause global warming, there is no global warming, it’s caused by natural fluctuations in sunspots, etc,” in any combination, none of which are supported by the evidence, then you’re not a skeptic or a doubter, but a denialist, and there’s precious little reason why anyone should choose to engage with you.

      1. How can you be so sure that none of those are supported by evidence?

        I’ve heard scientists tell me unequivocally that all the glaciers are shrinking, and yet I happen to know that the one closest to me *was* shrinking from the 40’s but has been growing since 1984 and is now longer than at any time since the mid 50’s. I don’t have the time or funding to check all the rest, but it would not surprise me to learn that it’s not the only one. How many are there growing? I don’t know, but I’m now reluctant to trust what that lot at CRU and their friends tell me.

        I don’t know whether sunspots have any effect, but it is pretty interesting that the current cooling (which is admitted in those leaked emails) comes at a time of low sunspot activity not seen since the 1850’s when we had the “little ice age”. That certainly seems worthy of a bit of research rather than a priori dismissal.

        I suspect a lot of those “fringe” theories might get a closer look now, and proven one way or the other. I can’t see how that is a bad thing.

        1. I don’t have the time or funding to check out all the rest [..]

          It takes just a few seconds and no money at all to type “glaciers melting” into Google and click the first link. And if you have time to read this blog, then you have the time to read the article that link takes you to.

          It’s comfortable to latch onto one factoid and not look any further, but it isn’t skepticism or doubt, it is straight-up denialism. If you refuse to look at the evidence that’s there in the open for anyone to read, then you are denying reality, there’s no way around it. If you aren’t open to anything anyone tells you that might disturb your comfortable existence, then why should anyone not dismiss you? Why should anyone want to talk or listen to you?

  15. An interesting exercise would be to substitute ‘climate change research’ with ‘parapsychology research’ in the ‘Climategate’ controversy. Would be interesting to see if people would defend the scientists involved for their methods…

  16. Cut and pasted from Reuters –

    Sen. Inhofe, meanwhile, lauded the timing of the incident.

    “The interesting part of this is it’s happening right before Copenhagen. And, so, the timing couldn’t be better. Whoever is on the ball in Great Britain, their timing was good,” he said.

    (and why doesn’t the closing tag for blockquote appear to do anything visible?)
    Hmm, that looks like the smoking gun of conspiracy to me…. you heard it here – Inhofe is masterminding (err, not really the right word I guess) the whole thing. Criminal activities for political gain.

  17. Yes, science is a rough-and-tumble occupation. Scientists are only human, and they get to be snarky and unobjective like other humans. But what makes it science is that they get to be criticized for being snarky, and their biases examined.

    I’m reminded of my extreme free-market friends who respond to any call for a boycott of a company that has been behaving badly with, “There’s no need, the free market will take care of it.” But of course, boycotts and other consumer actions are part of a free market. The free market isn’t some magical force, an invisible hand. It’s millions of individuals making considered choices, including the choice not to patronize businesses for any number of reasons. Stop making those choices, or prevent them from being made, and you no longer have a market.

    Science isn’t a force either. It’s a process that requires participation. And part of that process is the close examination of data, processes, and even the personalities and motives involved. Trying to dismiss such questions with, “This is just the way scientists are” is as detrimental to science as “That’s just the way corporations are” is to the free market. Both statements are true, but they are trivial truths. Neither obligates us to overlook the way they are.

  18. “We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. ”

    If that’d be true, then no thesis or research would find the unexpected. After a long time stumbling against walls, I found during my thesis a lot of unexpected stuff that changed a lot of what we thought about our subject. It really killed some biases here. Trying to shake our biases and find what is true is precisely what science is about.

  19. I feel the need to defend my nerd Vulcan fetish and remember everyone here of the Vulcan martial prowess, such as the Vulcan nerve pinch, most certainly evolved from bitter scientific disputes in the past(future?ouch).

  20. How about that Iraq War? Where a few people took incomplete intelligence and manufactured consent to force people into a war?

    That was for “a good cause”. Who didn’t want to see Saddam disposed and the Iraqi people free?

    Perceived intentions is not an excuse for malfeasance.

    I would hope that fellow scientists in other fields would take a more critical look at what is going on. Being wrong about global warming threatens to drag public perception of science into the gutter. Do we want science to be viewed with the same contempt as lawyers and politicians? Something we can ill afford going into the future.

  21. What’s with the white coats? I remember in a previous job, a team of PR people coming around to teach us about speaking to the media. They seriously suggested we ought to be wearing white coats if we wanted to be taken seriously. We were computer scientists. This was about as silly to us as suggesting we would not be taken seriously as detectives unless we wore deerstalker hats.

    Doesn’t the public discriminate at all? I have only worn a white coat when I was likely to get something icky down myself, and in which case it did not remain white for long; or when using a lathe or something like that. If we stuck a gorilla in a white suit, would it be a scientist?

    Listen to the awful truth, people: SCIENCE IS MADE OF PEOPLE!


  22. The most damaging part of the release were not some of the trash talking emails, that’s a bit of a red herring. I mean, saying that it’s “in a way good” that a popular AGW skeptic died is perfectly understandable.

    The most damaging parts concern the computer code. Both some code itself that was released, as well as lengthy emails from the programmer “Harry,” talking about the shoddiness of the data and the programming under it used to make the projections, both of which have never been released for public review. Unhandled exceptions, formula results being out of the possible range not stopping the program, commenting indicating falsification of results, duplicate and incomplete data, etc.

    The various posts I have read poo-pooing these leaks don’t seem to mention this aspect at all…

    1. Actually did read through much of that file.
      Sounds like an emotional type giving an off the cuff play by play on specific technical issues with one of the databases. Lot of exclamation marks. Reading through, it, couldn’t you imagine an emotional sort upset about having to do frustrating extra work calling the whole thing shitty and worthless? Even if he didn’t mean it was all shitty and worthless? Really reads more like scratch notes than a formal analysis. If he fixed the glitches, he might have continued his notations in a different file, but we wouldn’t really know that on info based on stolen files.

      I’ve been pretty derogatory about IE, Word, Windows, excel, though I still rely on them pretty heavily. MIT people have “I hate this fucking place” as an unofficial campus slogan, but still harbor fondness and pride for it. If that’s the most damning document, then I’m unconvinced.

  23. whats the harm in being a rational, emotionless vulcan in a white lab coat?

    i always appreciated that science was based on collaboration and logic, the field you’re describing sounds less secular and more religious. i fell in love with science because it IS so black and white. people may disagree with findings, but the burden of proof has a tendency to smooth these things out.

    that’s not to say science is absent from conspiracy and human error, but i believe its less severe than this article paints it. and the last thing people should do (especially the insane religious sects) is suspect scientific findings because it is soo human.

  24. This is NOT just bickering among scientists!!!

    Read the emails, some of them talk about how to SHUT OUT COMPETING VIEWS in the PEER REVIEW process!!! That is NOT how good science works. That is how GROUP THINK works!

    Also, read the comments in some of the code. It becomes quite clear that at least some “scientists” selectively choose, interpreted and altered data. These same “scientists” DELETED the f*&^ing original data and then ignored FOI requests and deleted at least some emails.

    They should LOOSE THEIR JOBS.

    Any true Climate Change or AGW scientist should be crystal clear with what their data and methodology are. Also, we need to get the scientists who were run out of their jobs and shut out of the debate back into before we can really consider spending trillions of dollars in scammy smelling Carbon Trading schemes- smells to me like another Fed bubble.

  25. You know, Millikan selected data carefully when he released the results of his oil drop experiment, and he never published the rest. Somehow, science survived.

    I think the reason is that whether or not they had his measurements, other physicists could make their own. It’s too bad no climatologists outside Anglia have been doing anything for the last decade or so, or their results wouldn’t be so important.

    But scientists don’t need to be asses for it to work. I think it’s better when they’re polite: “We regret having to disagree with our learned colleagues, but unfortunately their methodology was so poor that no valid conclusions can be drawn from their work, and it is puzzling how such elementary misunderstandings could be produced by such qualified researchers.”

  26. That well-known liberal, Dr. Henry Kissinger, once said that the reason that academic infighting was so vicious was that the stakes were so low. It’s still true even if the stakes are higher…

  27. Antinous, I used caps to draw people’s eyes to my relevant points. You used them, as you later mentioned, just to be snarky. There is a difference.

    The fact of the matter is that Cory and Boing Boing have been reinforcing the US mainstream media’s position that this leak is a non-issue. In reality this data leak calls into question the spending of trillions of dollars and the emergence of “global governance”. I hope you can see why I wish to draw attention to points not represented widely elsewhere.

    Unfortunately, Cory and BB commentors have largely failed to note that the data sets which have “settled” the “science” of AGW switched between two different sets of data! One part of the data, before 1960, includes proxy tree ring data. The other part, with the dangerous looking (and completely fraudulent) “Hockey Stick” graph… that part throws out the tree ring data because it doesn’t agree with actual temperatures. This is part of the code comments I mentioned. Its not so much part of the snarky emails, but rather the rest of the data leak.

    If the tree ring data really is so good that the “scientists” at CRU used it legitimately to make up proxy data for the past, why is now so poor that it must be thrown out for the past 4-5 decades? And if there is a reason backed by actual science, why not be upfront about it, rather than silently seeking to “hide the decline”?

    This tree-ring proxy data has been used by dozens of, maybe even hundreds of, other studies. Along with the academic disempowerment of those who disagreed with the CRU crew, it is largely this absurd proxy data usage which has “settled the science”.

    Perhaps now you can be snarky about my use of quotation marks to signify incredulity towards certain marked terms.

    1. I mentioned snarkiness, not Antinuous. From the AGW side, I feel entirely to much MSM attention has been paid to the scientific acumen of Inhofe and Barton and other representatives of the coal/oil industry. I’m not sure if those two even acknowledge the earth is over 5,000 years old.

      I also missed the emails that explained how the scientists tampered with the ice core samples, faked the geologic evidence for more CO2 in the atmosphere now then in the past few , faked the increased methane and C02 and N2O levels, showed how they made it appear that ice caps were melting and ocean levels rising faster than last century, faked the average glaciers shrinking, and the unprecedented low level of snow cover worldwide.
      No evidence has come forward to challenge any of the data or conclusions, including the cute emails. Yes, some data is not ready for prime time, and doesn’t make it into every paper. Not fraud, just you can’t always talk every data point in every paper. The phrase “hide the decline” has been explained, if you want to, google for it.
      If you think desire for “global governance” is behind it, I have to shake my head. We’re (I’m American) the most powerful country in the world. The US has the most firepower and terrorism as an excuse for kicking ass, taking names. Do you honestly think that a secret conspiracy to rule the world is going to devote energy to making sure kids recycle and turn the water off when brushing teeth, or is it going to do the same damn thing every other would be would conquerer has ever done, rule through fear, thuggery and murder? Going green means ulimately we’ll be more efficient and longer lasting as a nation in power, but short term it’ll mean a large investment of capital in non-warmongering industries. It’d at least delay the expansion of the US empire. How is this going to let Al Gore or Obama rule the world? What’s the model for it happening? The green route is just not a cost effective way to do this. “War on Terror” worked for the last bozo, we could’ve just stuck with that if we were gearing for global governance.

  28. I just don’t understand how any educated person can merely shrug their shoulders and say, “Eh, this doesn’t ‘disprove global warming.'”

    If this were to happen in any other field that has such a large effect on our economy and well-being, you would be up in arms about investigating these people. Be it politicians, lawyers, CEO’s, doctors or drug companies.

    So, while these emails are relatively benign in the grand scheme of things, they paint a poor picture of a handful of people that seem to be above reproach and wield considerable power. At the VERY LEAST, our world would be made a better place if we shone a light on their work and allay any fears. Otherwise, you merely play into the hands of the hardcore denialists that take doubt and secrecy and twist it into moving minds.

    This is scientific tribalism in it’s worst form. What a shame that one of the most important topics of our time has become so poisoned by polarization and politics that we can not even discuss it like adults.

  29. Sorry Snig and Antinous, I misread who wrote that bit, my bad. I was busy cooking on my new wood-burning cook stove in an off-grid cabin (50% recycled lumber mostly completed) that uses about as much electricity (made 95% with photovoltaic panels) in a year as Al Gore’s home does in a day. Its not all so automated as a microwave though, it takes some getting used to. Anyway, my mistake.

    I used to be dead set convinced of global warming. Then it stopped warming, they renamed it, they shut “deniers” out of the debate and I learned that the original raw data CRU used had been deleted due supposed lack of hard-drive space- only the “smoothed” data was available. I stopped believing and started noticing the absurd amount of money around AGW and how all other environmental concerns are being thrown out of the window.

    1. I agree with you that other environmental policies are given bizarrely short shrift based on their importance.
      I also think if the organized effort to slow global warming is stopped, now other green effort has a chance. Which is not evidence for or against AGW, but likely politically true. As someone who sounds like they’re outside a lot, (you sound different than the other oil executives) do you really not see examples of change happening around you? It doesn’t seem that subtle to me.

    2. Thebes,

      You’re just a lean, mean meme machine. ALL CAPS, “scare” “quotes” and now the Al Gore’s house meme and the off-the-grid meme in one sentence.

  30. As excuses for deliberate fraud and suppression of dissent go — I assume that’s what this is — this one is incredibly lame.

    Irreducible or quirky is fine. Those aren’t the same as dishonest. And what we’re talking about, when we tell the truth about the leaked emails and botched code, is purposeful, indisputable, flagrant, and stupid dishonesty.

    Those who continue to believe in the theories regarding manmade global warming ought to shun these bastards and go back to square one. Embracing and defending liars makes one doubt your own credibility.

  31. I love how many people think that evidence of wrongdoing from one set of proponents for a position automatically invalidates all other proponents of that position, regardless of whether any wrongdoing was committed by those other proponents.

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