So, unless you’re living under a rock or are only getting your news from the mainstream media, you may already be familiar with ClimateGate. If you haven’t, in a nutshell, a bunch of e-mails stolen (or possibly leaked) from the University at East Anglia in the UK reveal a major pattern of lying, obfuscation and data fudging that casts a huge shadow over the entire theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming. This is not a small scandal either. East Anglia casts a disproportionate shadow over climate research and their findings make up a huge chunk of the data on which the work the UN’s IPCC and other climate scientists relied on to come to the conclusion that global warming is a huge threat that needs trillions of dollars and a complete realignment of the world’s economic and political systems to address.
Or maybe not.
Now I’m not a climate scientist or a statistician or even a computer scientist. That will immediately bring out cries from global warming’s true believers that I am therefore not qualified to comment on this issue and should therefore shut up. This completely ignores the fact that most of those doing the yelling are also not scientists and are no more qualified to comment on this than I am. There is however, one area in which I believe I am an expert — in geeks and geek culture and it was my knowledge of geeks that started sending up red flags on this issue a number of years ago.
One of the first red flags came when I first heard the phrase “computer models” offered as proof that AGW was happening. My first thought at the time was that I hoped that the climate model that these scientists were using was better than SimEarth, one of the forgotten “Sim” games created by Will Wright and Maxis back in the ’90s. The game modeled the Earth and the evolution of life based on James Havelock’s “Gaia” theory and allowed the player model various climactic and geological developments to build whatever sort of Earth one wanted.
As it turns out, the leaked emails reveal that the programs these scientists were using may actually have been worse predictors than SimEarth. According to the leaked e-mails — especially the Harry_Readme.txt programmer comments file — the code in these climate models was abominable. It was so bad that these guys were essentially making stuff up as they went along to make the climate models do what they wanted them to do — and sometimes to just make them work at all. They really were playing SimEarth and a lot of grandstanding politicians, glory-seeking scientists and radical environmentalists looking for their “emergency” went along for the ride.
What really set me off on the climate models was everything I read about how getting data sets impossible because the scientists in question did everything they could to hide the raw data and the details of the climate models they were using from skeptics. These were people who did everything they could to subvert the very peer-review process that is supposed to insure that science is reliable. That betrays everything that geeks usually stand for. I know geeks. Geeks welcome skeptical inquiry. Geeks are very into the whole “radical honesty” thing. I know plenty of engineers in the gaming biz and one of the most important lessons any PR person learns is “Don’t let engineers without media training talk to the media.” Otherwise your programmer will tell a journalist just how crappy your latest game is turning out. Scientists, like engineers, are geeks and it’s this welcoming attitude toward skepticism that’s supposed keeps the wheels of scientific research turning.
Global Warming was different. The more this issue dominated the media and government policy, the more red flags started going up. Calling skeptics “denialists” (subliminally bringing up the spectre of of Holocaust deniers). Demonizing those who question conventional wisdom on Global Warming. Burying, ignoring or evading questions that even a lay person could see poke serious holes in the AGW theory. Claiming that the science was “settled” when a growing body of evidence (including the statements of obviously reputable scientists) says it isn’t. Ignoring the work of statisticians (climate science places enormous weight on statistics) who said that the numbers of global warming just didn’t add up. Global Warming started to look more and more like a flame war on a gaming forum. Too many people had too much invested in global warming being real to ever admit that they might be wrong — and billions of dollars and a tremendous amount of political power are much better motivators than being right about which Final Fantasy was the best.
Finally comes this piece of news — much of the raw data that’s supposed to underlie these climate models was destroyed by the scientists involved. To go back to my SimEarth example, this is rather like dumping the source code and expecting everyone to just believe what comes out on the screen. It’s no longer just about the climate science — it’s about what was revealed about the statistical methods and coding methods of the scientists involved. There are a lot more geeks in those disciplines than compromised scientists and as people with expertise really begin to dig into these emails and the trail of tainted data spreads across the work of climate scientists around the world, it may at least bring some sense of balance back into something that was beginning to take on the disturbing overtones of a new secular religion with Al Gore as its high priest.
As for me, I’m still a Global Warming skeptic. I don’t know that it’s happening, I don’t know that it’s not. But I do know a few things. I know that if global warming isn’t real, these guys deserve to be in jail because we may have just avoided a huge waste of time, money aqnd energy into solving the wrong environmental disaster when we really do have environmental issues to deal with. That’s always been my response to people who ask me “How could you be against cleaning up the environment?” I’m not. I consider myself a conservationist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold. If there is no global warming, we were about to destroy our way of life for a lie that might not even help with real environmental problems.
If it is real, these guys deserve to be shot. They’ve given environmentalism and the process of scientific peer review a black eye from which it may take decades to recover all while global warming really does wipe out our world. This is a real issue and our decisions have real consequences and we need better data than can be generated from a 20-year old video game.