What I’ve Learned From Climategate (So Far)

Google “Climategate” you get 31 million hits. “Obama” returns 40 million. Yet mainstream media, such as the New York Times, have said little about it. The New Yorker has said nothing about it. Given so much interest, that will change.

Some of my prior beliefs — that empirical support for the view that man has caused global warming is weaker than we’re told, that bloggers are a powerful force for truth — are stronger. But here are a few things I didn’t think of until now:

1. The truth leaks out before it gushes out. Laurie David’s children’s book — its egregious mistake, her blithe dismissal of that mistake — is an example of the truth leaking out. In the Ranjit Chandra case, little facts implied he was a fraud long before this became utterly clear. An example is the claim in one of his papers (published in The Lancet!) that everyone asked agreed to be in his experiment.

2. Teaching is even better done via scandals than via stories. The number of hits for Climategate is an indication of how much people are learning from it. As I blogged earlier, they’re learning a lot about science. A mere story about science would never attract so much attention. I should think more about how to use scandals to teach stuff. When Nassim Taleb is scathing about this or that, he has the right idea. Spy was the perfect example. It taught me a lot about New York City.

3. Jane Jacobs was wrong. Or at least missed something very important. In Dark Age Ahead, her last book, she pointed to a number of disturbing signs. One was the rise of crappy science. She was quite right about that  — as scientists have become more professional they have become more status-oriented and less truth-oriented. She didn’t foresee that the Internet would be an enormously powerful corrective force, as is happening now. Climategate is a (relatively) small example of even bigger force: the rise of the power of sophisticated amateurs/hobbyists. Who, unlike professionals, with jobs and status to protect, have complete freedom. The first big example was printed non-fiction books, as I blogged earlier (which are written with great freedom, usually); but now the Internet provides another great outlet, much faster, cheaper, and more accessible than books, for independent thought.

12 Responses to “What I’ve Learned From Climategate (So Far)”

  1. Bruce G Charlton Says:

    Another corrupt science scam which has already been discredited is the supposed epidemic of ‘new variant’ Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) in the UK.

    This prion was supposed to be transferred to human from ‘mad cow’s with BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy).

    This table described the supposed-epidemic – which dominated UK public consciousness for months, with predictions of hundreds of thousands of casualties, triggered regulations which cost a fortune, caused massive changes in food consumption, killed off UK beef farming etc.

    http://www.cjd.ed.ac.uk/figures.htm

    In retrospect the most parsimonious explanation is that ‘new’ variant CJD was not new, but had previously been undetected; and what the grant-beneficiaries were describing as the start of an epidemic, was merely due to ascertaining previously undetected cases.

    On the small piece of false evidence of a ‘new’ disease which obtained from cattle, a vast superstructure of heavily funded and government-promoted nonsense and irrelevance was then erected.

    But here is the sacry bit. Even though the epidemic never happened, the bogus science has not been discredited. SOurces like Wikipdia still accept the bogus claims.

    Among the public BSE-nvCJD is either forgotten, or – in a peculiar way – remembered as if it was true, and as if (somehow) the epidemic really had happened.

    My take home message from this is much more pessimistic than Seth’s. My interpretation is that zombie science can thrive almost indefinately, and when bogus science is exposed, most people are not really interested, and apparently learn nothing from it.

    I hope that Climategate prevents Western societies from destroying the world economy and imposing authoritarian laws – but even if this happens I doubt whether anything will be learned, and the elites will simply find another bogus excuse to impose their brand of centralized state-socialism.

  2. epistemocrat Says:

    Hi Seth,

    Here is what I have learned from TigerGate:

    It’s like Climategate in that the truth leaked out and then started gushing out. This is a fracture in fractal math: there are a few small signs of snow drift, then all of the sudden, an avalanche ensues.

    Jime Rome, the sports commentator, likes to say this about these scandals in athletics:

    “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

    In the case of Tiger Woods, it turned out to be a roaring Forest Fire.

    The fire department has yet to contain it.

    Cheers,

    Brent

  3. Mike Kenny Says:

    Climategate has made me consider that perhaps I really shouldn’t think of anyone as especially worth listening to (I can listen to them, but not give them special privilege) unless they make public predictions that happen to be true at a useful rate.

    Does anyone happen to know how well climatologists do in making predictions?

  4. Neil Baxter Says:

    What I found most interesting in regard to climategate, is that in my local paper, The Vancouver Province, the only reports on Climategate were Opinions on the editorial pages, whereas reports of imminent environmental collapse were news items spread liberally through all of the news sections of the paper, therefore presumably, factual. Now surely such speculative fiction as imminent environmental collapse is at best opinion, and reports on the contents of emails admitted by the sender to be genuine are ‘news’, ie factual – an odd perversion, indeed.

    As an aside. I think there is not a scientist alive who would not do well to read Socrates (the father of induction, according to Aristotle), then Aristotle (not for his particular assertions, but for his method), then Francis Bacon for his works on induction and the scientific method, which should be followed up by a good course on ethics on the virtues of honesty and integrity. What surely has failed here, is all of the above. What is being vindicated is capitalism – as is it applies to the market for ideas – through its proxy, the Internet.

  5. Mark Says:

    There have been studies on the bias that occurs when corporations fund studies:

    http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/8/4/9/7/p184976_index.html

    I wonder if anyone has looked into bias in research where there are no such backers, but where the result that the study reaches could affect ones status in ones group, ones chances for tenure, the number of parties one is invited to, the chance of group ostracization, and so on.

    It seems to me that if I were in a field connected to global warming, and I was doing research that seemed to be coming to results that were counter to the mainstream, I’d just try to find some other area to do research in that my skills qualified me for.

  6. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    When I Google “climategate”, I get 30.7 million hits. When I Google “climate”, I get only 20.9 million. That doesn’t quite make sense.

  7. HPTNS Says:

    Look at the writings of Aynsley Kellow, a professor of politics, with a science background, at the University of Tasmania in Australia, for a discussion of how international scientific communities trade status amongst participants and how the rise of the internet has made peer review a reduced force for self correction. In particular his 2007 book discusses all of this in the context of AGW. This book was quite prescient.

  8. seth Says:

    Thanks, HPTNS.

  9. PhysicstDave Says:

    Bruce G. Charlton wrote:
    > I hope that Climategate prevents Western societies from destroying the world economy and imposing authoritarian laws – but even if this happens I doubt whether anything will be learned, and the elites will simply find another bogus excuse to impose their brand of centralized state-socialism.

    Thirty years ago, we would never have heard about Climategate at all.

    Times have changed – the “power elite” is losing its grip.

    Look – Seth is over in China (if his personal bio is up-to-date), and yet he is hosting this discussion!

    Revealing on multiple levels: he’s in “Communist” (AKA “New Capitalist”) China, and he’s communicating with us from half-way around the world. (Even if he is currently back in the States, my general point stands about a radically-changed world.)

    Oh, the power elite will fight like a rabid dog, but I think its days are numbered.

    Dave

  10. PhysicstDave Says:

    Mike Kenny wrote:
    >Climategate has made me consider that perhaps I really shouldn’t think of anyone as especially worth listening to (I can listen to them, but not give them special privilege) unless they make public predictions that happen to be true at a useful rate.

    What you’ve described is the scientific method.

    And scientists, even climate “scientists” are supposed to follow it.

    The real scandal here isn’t the snarky, infantile behavior of the CRU Team. The real scandal is “scientists,” not just at CRU, who seem utterly ignorant of the scientific method.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  11. The New Aristocracy « Anthny Says:

    [...] Seth Roberts says: [...]

  12. Jim N. Says:

    Regarding Jane Jacobs, it seems a bit dramatic to lead your paragraph with “Jane Jacobs was wrong” when all you’re really saying is that she failed to predict the trajectory of a technology that was still pretty new when she turned 80. Not trying to be overly-critical, but the woman was quite a force for good in the world.