The Real Meaning of Those Stolen Climate Emails


The pilfering of email correspondence among climate scientists from a major climate center in Britain two weeks ago has grown into a very public controversy unimaginatively dubbed “Climategate.” Some of the emails revealed those scientists scoffing at (but also fearful of) climate skeptics — to the point of wanting to block publication of some scientific papers that might feed that skepticism. Unsurprisingly, climate skeptics have seized upon this as evidence that the threat of climate change is overstated.

Let’s put things in perspective. First, science has a strong tradition of objective transparency. Research is subjected to independent peer-review before publication, and methods and results must be reported in a way that allows others to replicate and verify the work. Ideally, the data are also shared so that science can build upon science.

But that doesn’t mean that scientists — the people behind the science — are emotionless eggheads without personal passion and commitment to their work. The emails revealed that scientists can be derisive — even vindictive — toward their critics. The portrayal the correspondence paints is not a very flattering one.

But this certainly isn’t the first time that science has gotten competitive, scientists have gotten personal, and intense disagreement has spilled into the news.

For instance, marine ecologist Boris Worm published a paper in 2006 that predicted the world’s commercial fish stocks would all collapse by 2048. Ray Hilborn, a fisheries biologist (yes, there’s a difference between that and being a marine ecologist), called the forecasts “mind-boggling stupid” and accused Worm of putting social cause before scientific rigor.

This “fish war” made for sensational science news. But it wasn’t halfway the most interesting story that came out of the controversy. Instead of entrenching into diametrically opposed camps, Worm and Hilborn joined forces to re-examine the data and reconcile their different perspectives. The result was better science about both the risks of overfishing and the ability of fisheries to be sustainably managed.

So, back to the current brouhaha over hacked emails in which climate skeptics are slinging a fresh quiver of arrows at defensive climate scientists. It is easy to imagine these already entrenched camps digging their ideological trenches even deeper.

But maybe, just maybe, some brave individuals will take a lesson from Worm and Hilborn and stop making it about “us” and “them.” Do science as science should be done. Put the data on table. Examine it from different perspectives. Seek new insight that can help society make critical decisions about climate change. Pursue higher standards of scientific objectivity and transparency.

Climate change is such a monumental issue. Near-terms costs of action must be weighed against long-terms risks of inaction, both of which will have profound economic, social, and ecological implications. People will inevitably take sides —  even scientists. Only time will tell who was “right” and who was “wrong.” Everyone should agree, though, that they want to take positions based not on emotion, but on the best possible science.

(Image credit: MikeBlogs/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. THANK YOU, Jonathon, for responding to and writing about this “gate” so eloquently!

  2. The Nature Conservancy should examine if it is presneting the “best possible science”, too. Their website continues to claim that it is a “FACT” that climate change is linked to stronger hurricanes. Not only is that not a “FACT”, it isn’t even a widely accepted opinion.

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