13 December 2009

Clive Crook on Climate Science and Public Trust

Clive Crook is an extremely thoughtful columnist and commentator on American politics. In the Financial Times today he has a smart piece on climate science and public trust. Here is an excerpt:
Any fair-minded person would regard those [CRU email] exchanges as raising questions. On the face of it, these are not the standards one expects of science. Nor is this just any science. The work of these researchers is being used to press the case for economic policies with colossal adjustment costs. Plainly, the highest standards of intellectual honesty and openness are called for. The e-mails do not attest to such standards.

Yet how did the establishment respond? It said that this is how science is done in the real world. Initially, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defended the scientists and played down the significance of their correspondence. Al Gore said he had not read the e-mails (they were stolen, for heaven’s sake) and that they were reassuring.

When, inexplicably, that did not quell the scandal, the climate-science establishment argued that even if CRU’s work was excluded from consideration, plenty of other evidence supported its findings. Maybe so, thinks the fair-minded voter. But the independence of other big research groups is not entirely clear. In any case, many scientists had just called the e-mailers exemplars of best practice. Why should one expect other researchers’ standards to be any different?

Which leaves smearing the doubters as opponents of science itself. They are either stupid or evil; “flat-earthers” or “deniers” (akin, that is, to Holocaust deniers). Supporters of the consensus no doubt lap this up. The voters who need to be convinced are less likely to. On the whole, people object to being called ignorant or evil. That is not how you bring them round.

Here is how Crook ends his piece:

Once scientists are engaged as advocates, science is in trouble. Like intelligence agencies fitting the facts to the policy, they are no longer to be trusted. The IPCC may be serving a righteous cause, but it is not the honest broker this process needs. It has made itself a political agency – at times, a propaganda unit. All this, the public can see.

For the sake of their own credibility, scientists should maintain a cautious distance from politics, and those who take up politics should not expect the deference to disinterested scholars they would otherwise deserve.

Governments should be honest and base their case for action on what they know – that is, on a balance of probabilities, not on exaggerated certainties. The public, they will find, can cope. Voters are not fools.

Read the whole column here.