“Climategate” and the Social Validation of Knowledge

Recent evidence that prominent climate scientists have tried to intimidate academic journals into not publishing papers submitted by “climate change” skeptics have caused a major brouhaha in the ongoing political battle over global warming. At least some of the scientists in question certainly seem to have put ideology above the search for truth. The effort to keep skeptical articles out of academic journals also raises the issue of whether the academic “consensus” supporting global warming theory is genuine, or a product of systematic exclusion of dissenting voices.

I lack relevant scientific expertise on global warming, so I don’t have anything useful to say about the scientific issues involved. The question I want to address is what impact these revelations should have on our views of the global warming issue. If, unlike me, you have enough expertise in climate science to assess the scientific literature for yourself, I don’t think “Climategate” should have any impact on your views at all. You can read the mainstream literature, as well as the skeptics’ writings (which certainly exist in print, even if the Climategate culprits have kept some of them out of peer-reviewed journals) and make an informed decision for yourself.

Most of us, however, lack expertise on climate issues. And our knowledge of complex issues we don’t have personal expertise on is largely based on social validation. For example, I think that Einsteinian physics is generally more correct than Newtonian physics, even though I know very little about either. Why? Because that’s the overwhelming consensus of professional physicists, and I have no reason to believe that their conclusions should be discounted as biased or otherwise driven by considerations other than truth-seeking. My views of climate science were (and are) based on similar considerations. I thought that global warming was probably a genuine and serious problem because that is what the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists seem to believe, and I generally didn’t doubt their objectivity.

At the very least, the Climategate revelations should weaken our confidence in the above conclusion. At least some of the prominent scholars in the field seem driven at least in part by ideology, and willing to use intimidation to keep contrarian views from being published, even if the articles in question meet normal peer review standards. Absent such tactics, it’s possible that more contrarian research would be published in professional journals and the consensus in the field would be less firm. To be completely clear, I don’t think that either ideological motivation or even intimidation tactics prove that these scientists’ views are wrong. Their research should be assessed on its own merits, irrespective of their motivations for conducting it. However, these things should affect the degree to which we defer to their conclusions merely based on their authority as disinterested experts.

At the same time, it’s important not to overstate the case. I don’t think we have anywhere near enough evidence to show that the academic consensus on global warming is completely bogus, or even close to it. Nor has it been proven that all or most prominent scientific supporters of global warming theory are as unethical as those exposed in this scandal.

On balance, therefore, I still think that global warming exists and is a genuinely serious problem. But I am marginally less confident in holding that view than I was before. If we see more revelations of this kind, I will be less confident still.

Unfortunately the debate over Climategate among laypeople is likely to be heavily influenced by political ignorance and irrationality, especially the tendency to overvalue any information that confirms one’s preexisting views and downplay or ignore anything that cuts the other way. Thus, global warming supporters are likely to claim that Climategate proves nothing at all, while skeptics will trumpet it as justification for rejecting mainstream climate research altogether. Both temptations should be resisted, though I’m not optimistic they will be.

UPDATE: I should note, as some commenters have, that the risk of ideological or self-interested bias increases when there are important policy issues and huge amounts of funding at stake. Thus, climate scientists are more likely to be biased than, say, theoretical mathematicians. In this case, the funding bias seems to cut in favor of concluding that global warming is a major problem, because governments are more likely to fund research into a major issue than one that is minor or nonexistent. The bias need not take the form of scientists deliberately shading their results in order to increase funding. But it could result in subconscious rationalization of self-interest in decisions on how to structure their research, decisions on how to interpret results and, so on. That said, I don’t think we have anywhere close to sufficient proof of such bias to simply discount the dominant scientific view of global warming.