Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Does Climategate Have to Do With O.J. Simpson?

Clive Crook offers an incisive post on on the Climategate controversy.

Crook writes:


I admire expertise, and scientific expertise especially; like any intelligent citizen I am willing to defer to it. But that puts a great obligation on science. The people whose instinct is to respect and admire science should be the ones most disturbed by these revelations. The scientists have let them down, and made the anti-science crowd look wise. That is outrageous.

. . .

Can I read these emails and feel that the scientists involved deserve to be trusted? No, I cannot. These people are willing to subvert the very methods--notably, peer review--that underwrite the integrity of their discipline. Is this really business as usual in science these days?

I can't seem to escape a bizarre mental association here: Crook's point strikes me as remarkably similar to O.J. Simpson's court defense in the mid-1990s.

Let me explain . . .

From the outset, there was an enormous amount of DNA evidence piled up against O.J. Simpson. The prosecution assumed that no reasonable juror would be able to dispute the hard science. After all, Simpson's blood was found at the scene of the crime.

As the Simpson case unfolded, however, it became clear that Mark Fuhrman -- the detective who had compiled most of the inculpatory evidence -- was not an objective authority. Furhman was, in fact, deeply racist and highly unprofessional. He also later copped to perjury. The defense argued that if Fuhramn could not be trusted -- if his apparent racial bias had undermined his credibility -- then all the evidence that he'd produced should be rejected.

This seems like a sensible argument to me. So, if climate scientists at the IPCC aren't credible -- if they've become so wedded to the cause that they've abandoned objectivity -- why should we continue to believe the evidence that they present?

As Simpson's lawyers rightly pointed out, you cannot divorce the evidence from the evidence-gatherers . . . .

4 comments:

petpluto said...

Why have you succumbed to planting "gate" after a controversy?! You hurt me, deep inside!!! Watergate wasn't a "gate" because it happened near water; it was named such because it happened at the Watergate hotel! It was one word! GAH!!! (Large pet peeve right there, if you couldn't tell; also, the newfound "monies" instead of the both singular and plural use of "money". I flip out at that too.)

I see a different parallel between this and the OJ case. The OJ case was one of the first major cases to hinge on DNA evidence, and a lot of the testimony was science-rific, which was dry and hard to understand, and thus easier to see as something to not put one's faith in. I don't know if, today, having someone like Mark Fuhrman at the scene (if the case went to trial) would equal acquital because of the faith juries now have in DNA evidence (which, actually makes convictions in cases with insubstantial or no DNA evidence that much harder to sufficiently prosecute). I think the same basic thing is happening in terms of climate change data. Because the general public has seen and continues to see the data and the explanation behind climate change theories as negotiable or "just" a theory, and because it goes against what they see in their own lives (cold summers, etc), they're more likely to use incidents such as this to reinforce the idea that the data is not true, and they were right. If scientific inquiry were less of a "well, that's what you believe" thing to begin with, it may be easier to discredit these particular scientists without discrediting the whole branch of the science they work within.

mikhailbakunin said...

You're right -- "gate" doesn't make sense. But that's what everyone is calling it, so I just went for convenience.

(But "monies" totally is the plural of money. If you're talking about two different currencies, you call them "two different monies," not "two different money.")

I suspect part of the reason juries now have too much faith in DNA is that shows like CSI and Justice Files constantly reinforce the notion that forensic evidence is easily accessible, and provides concrete proof of guilt. I think it's bad that juries react this way.

Science is supposed to be objective and transparent. But these emails suggest that a number of well-established scientists working at the IPCC -- the very center of climate research -- are committed to a particular theory. In fact, they're so committed that they've refused to allow the details of their analysis to be peer-reviewed because they're afraid that their analysis may be criticized.

According to the emails, these scientists actually deleted some raw data, and erased other incriminating emails that were subject to freedom-of-information laws. They also worked actively to discredit a journal that was critical of their work. That isn't science; it's advocacy.

And I think that is an important point because those who deny global warming are typically dismissed as "advocates" who shouldn't be trusted.

petpluto said...

You're right -- "gate" doesn't make sense. But that's what everyone is calling it, so I just went for convenience.

Oh, so if everyone else were jumping off a cliff, you would too?
;-D

(But "monies" totally is the plural of money. If you're talking about two different currencies, you call them "two different monies," not "two different money.")

I would say, "two different kinds of money" in the currency situation, but that's really a stylistic thing. No, I mean when someone has a twenty dollar bill and a ten dollar bill and describes that (or loose change, all American) as "monies". It's money!

I think that is an important point because those who deny global warming are typically dismissed as "advocates" who shouldn't be trusted.

I don't disagree - though I do think those who deny global warming are not to be trusted (mostly because the most prominent of which seem to be committed to protecting companies and systems that contribute to global warming). I just think there is a two-pronged problem abounding, and one of those problems is the trend for science to be considered negotiable, and for it to be considered a belief. Instead of throwing out this as evidence global warming is debunked, it should be used as evidence that these particular scientists working within global warming research are tainted. Just like if someone manipulated DNA evidence, that person should be seen as being untrustworthy, but DNA evidence as a whole should still be seen as a sound principle. So, I don't disagree with your assessment of the OJ trial, but I do think that there is another parallel to be made in regard to how we respond to the base science, and whether or not we regard that science to be trustworthy or not separate from the scientists who work within that field of study.

mikhailbakunin said...

Instead of throwing out this as evidence global warming is debunked, it should be used as evidence that these particular scientists working within global warming research are tainted. Just like if someone manipulated DNA evidence, that person should be seen as being untrustworthy, but DNA evidence as a whole should still be seen as a sound principle.

I don't totally disagree. I'm also troubled by the idea that science is negotiable.

But your comparison isn't quite fair. It would be as if the person who was trying to prove that DNA exists had been fudging the facts and using unscientific practices. That's a bit different.