02 December 2009

When Nature Attacks

Nature has an very strong editorial out about the CRU emails. I'd go so far as to say that it is the most strongly written Nature editorial that I have ever seen, it is just seething in anger:

The e-mail archives stolen last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, have been greeted by the climate-change-denialist fringe as a propaganda windfall (see page 551). To these denialists, the scientists' scathing remarks about certain controversial palaeoclimate reconstructions qualify as the proverbial 'smoking gun': proof that mainstream climate researchers have systematically conspired to suppress evidence contradicting their doctrine that humans are warming the globe.

This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.

Nature sees the climate scientists as having done nothing wrong, and expresses hope that the release of the emails will show to the world the endless harassment that climate scientists must put up with:
If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden.

The e-mail theft also highlights how difficult it can be for climate researchers to follow the canons of scientific openness, which require them to make public the data on which they base their conclusions.
And Nature has already decided that so far there is nothing of much concern in the emails warranting a further or deeper look:

The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers' own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a 'trick' — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature's policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.

The UEA responded too slowly to the eruption of coverage in the media, but deserves credit for now being publicly supportive of the integrity of its scientists while also holding an independent investigation of its researchers' compliance with Britain's freedom of information requirements (see http://go.nature.com/zRBXRP).

In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

The strong editorial is of course expected as Nature is a very public face of the scientific community and its editors probably feel (and actually have) a responsibility to defend their community. But Nature needs to also be careful as its over-the-top tone and unrelenting defense of the scientists in the emails does not jibe with either much of public opinion or many of the views expressed by scholars (including this one) about the significance of the emails.

I have received several emails from scientists none too happy with the tone of Nature's editorial. Here is an excerpt from one:
I find, as a scientist, the latest Nature Editorial highly offensive with its tone and repeated use of the word "denialist".
"The theft highlights the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers."
Although I'm not a US citizen, I find it completely out of bounds to Nature to take a stand on US politics in a manner like this:
"This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill."
I wish you could do a post about this.
One consequence of the emails will be to open up new fault lines within the scientific community as issues that have percolated below the surface emerge now that the ground has shifted. Nature and the broader scientific community needs to tread carefully in taking sides on issues that there is a wide diversity of opinion on within its own community as well as among the broader public. Nature would do well to distinguish a defense of science from a defense of a few individual scientists.