12 December 2011

Ward vs. Pielke: Round XVI

Just over a week ago the FT published Bob Ward's latest letter to the editor.  In it, Ward spins the UEA emails as "simply" showing scientists frustrated with the irrationality of politics. Ward writes:
So the hacked emails simply provide a snapshot of the frustrations that many scientists experience when they interact with the public debate and the media and find that arguments are framed not on the basis of the strength of the evidence presented, but instead on the rhetorical skill of the protagonists.
Ward is either uninformed or purposely employing some "rhetorical skill" as he is misrepresenting what the emails actually say.

In a letter published on Saturday in the FT I respond:
From Prof Roger Pielke.

Sir, Bob Ward’s letter (December 3) explains that the unauthorised publication of emails from the University of East Anglia “simply” shows scientists expressing frustration at the irrationality of political debates. Unfortunately, the emails cannot be explained away so innocently. For instance, one exchange shows two lead authors of the 2007 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conspiring to keep peer-reviewed research that I had led from being cited in their chapter on extreme events. Our work had challenged their views on the subject of hurricanes and climate change.

This exchange, and others, revealed scientists in influential positions exhibiting an unhealthy orientation toward influencing political debates as well as making decisions about science based on rather petty academic rivalries. Of course, such dynamics are always a risk when science meets politics, which is why major scientific assessments are, in principle, designed to minimise the outsized influence of a small clique of contributors.

As Christopher Caldwell (“Why Climategate is a catastrophe for good science”, November 26) explained in the column to which Mr Ward was responding, trust in science is a matter of the credibility and legitimacy of scientific organisations that represent the authority of science in public settings. Denial of the troubling issues raised by the emails – as Mr Ward has done – will not make the problems of the IPCC go away, much less contribute to renewed trust in the institutions of climate science.

Roger Pielke, Jr, Professor, Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, US
Ward, who serves as a spin doctor for the climate science community, does not seem to realize that if you are caught out in public saying things that are demonstrably untrue, then your credibility will suffer. Even though Ward is a PR official at LSE, his statements reflect poorly on the Grantham Institute which employs him and the climate science community more generally.

Do the folks who routinely adopt an approach based on heavy spin really take the public for fools? It is a bad strategy to take, as the public is far smarter than they are often given credit.