Unexpectedly Intriguing!
30 November 2009

Today we're catching up with the controversy surround the e-mails and other documentation that were exposed in what has become known in the blogosphere as Climategate, although we're going to take a different tack than the kind of sensational discussion that has taken place elsewhere. Or at least as much as we can given the nature of the scandal.

Instead, we're going to apply our guide to identifying whether a given field is a legitimate field of scientific study or if it the field in question qualifies as being "junk science" or a "pseudoscience" to the information that was revealed in the public exposure of the Climatic Research Unit's (CRU) previously shielded e-mails and data. We're going to go line by line through our guide to see if the conduct and practices of the scientists involved in the scandal qualifies as science, pseudoscience, or if no such determination can be made with the available evidence.

In practice this exercise is a kind of high-level quality audit, where each negative indication would communicate a need to perform a much more detailed audit within the identified category. This kind of exercise will also provide an overall impression of the level of quality and integrity of the CRU's products and processes, with an increasing number of negative indications corresponding to an increasingly negative perception of that overall level of quality and integrity.

Let's get started....

Checklist for Identifying "Junk" or "Pseudo" Science
Aspect Science Pseudoscience Applicability to "Climategate" Is It Pseudoscience?
Goals The primary goal of science is to achieve a more complete and more unified understanding of the physical world. Pseudosciences are more likely to be driven by ideological, cultural or commercial (money-making) goals. Ideological, cultural and commercial factors would all seem to be driving modern climate science. While we certainly see all three factors in evidence in former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's advocacy on the issue of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), the Climategate documents suggest that money exerts a strong motivating influence upon the conduct of the climate scientists involved, while others would confirm ideological motives, which is evident in the apparent coordination with political advocacy groups on the release of information to the public. Checked as Pseudoscience
Progress Most scientific fields are the subjects of intense research which result in the continual expansion of knowledge in the discipline. Pseudoscientific fields generally evolve very little after being first established. What small amount of research and experimentation that is carried out is generally done more to justify the belief than to extend it. Here, many Climategate documents indicate a very strong effort on the part of several leading climate scientists to conduct research and analysis with the sole purpose of supporting their contention of the so-called "hockey-stick" effect in AGW theory, where global temperatures are presumed to have risen rapidly in the last years of the twentieth century. Checked as Pseudoscience
Challenges Scientists in legitimate fields of study commonly seek out counterexamples or findings that appear to be inconsistent with accepted theories. A challenge to accepted dogma in the pseudosciences is often considered a hostile act, if not heresy, which leads to bitter disputes or even schisms. The documents clearly indicate that climate scientists implicated in the Climategate scandal fall strongly in the "Pseudoscience" category, with at least one e-mail communicating the author's fear that one scientist would "react strongly" to contradictory data given their "very thin skin." Others indicate a strong desire to "beat the crap" out of a particular skeptic. And that's not even considering the public calls by some prominent climate scientists for trials of the skeptics criticizing their work for "high crimes against humanity." Checked as Pseudoscience
Inconsistencies Observations or data that are not consistent with current scientific understanding generate intense interest for additional study among scientists. Original observations and data are made accessible to all interested parties to support this effort. Observations of data that are not consistent with established beliefs tend to be ignored or actively suppressed. Original observations and data are often difficult to obtain from pseudoscience practitioners, and is often just anecdotal. The Climategate documents clearly indicate that evidence contradicting the outcomes predicted by AGW theory was actively suppressed or manipulated to produce a desired outcome. (In one notable case, to "hide the decline" actually observed in global temperatures in recent years.) Also remarkable is the exceptionally poor quality of the data and models maintained by the CRU, including apparent manipulations and "tricks" to create desired outcomes, such as the "hockey-stick" trajectory for global temperatures in multiple datasets or the apparent destruction of the original raw data used as the basis of the climate scientists work. Checked as Pseudoscience
Models Using observations backed by experimental results, scientists create models that may be used to anticipate outcomes in the real world. The success of these models is continually challenged with new observations and their effectiveness in anticipating outcomes is thoroughly documented. Pseudosciences create models to anticipate real world outcomes, but place little emphasis on documenting the forecasting performance of their models, or even in making the methodology used in the models accessible to others. There have been chronic issues with outside researchers not being able to obtain data from the climate scientists involved in the Climategate scandal, with the Climategate documents strongly suggesting a conspiracy from the involved climate scientists to obstruct the release of information subject to outsider requests made through the Freedom of Information Act. Checked as Pseudoscience
Falsifiability Science is a process in which each principle must be tested in the crucible of experience and remains subject to being questioned or rejected at any time. In other words, the principles of a true science are always open to challenge and can logically be shown to be false if not backed by observation and experience. The major principals and tenets of a pseudoscience cannot be tested or challenged in a similar manner and are therefore unlikely to ever be altered or shown to be wrong. The alleged obstruction of the release of information we've noted above would suggest that the climate scientists involved in the Climategate scandal are not willing to subject their work to the analysis needed to demonstrate that their findings are valid or false, or if a determination in either direction cannot be made with the available evidence. As such, the alleged obstruction would automatically fail our test for the falsifiability of their data and observations. Checked as Pseudoscience
Merit Scientific ideas and concepts must stand or fall on their own merits, based on existing knowledge and evidence. These ideas and concepts may be created or challenged by anyone with a basic understanding of general scientific principles, without regard to their standing within a particular field. Pseudoscientific concepts tend to be shaped by individual egos and personalities, almost always by individuals who are not in contact with mainstream science. They often invoke authority (a famous name for example, or perhaps an impressive sounding organization) for support. The Climategate documents strongly suggest that the involved climate scientists abused their authority and connections to deter or suppress challenges made through the peer review process of various scientific journals, whose findings would contradict their preferred conclusions and outcomes. Checked as Pseudoscience
Clarity Scientific explanations must be stated in clear, unambiguous terms. Pseudoscientific explanations tend to be vague and ambiguous, often invoking scientific terms in dubious contexts. This category would apply to the presentation of findings to individuals or groups outside the circle of the climate scientists involved. As the Climategate documents reflect internal communications, no determination of whether the identifying characteristics of a pseudoscience are present can be made. Unchecked as Pseudoscience
Precision If numbers are presented in support of a scientific explanation, they must be stated with the precision and accuracy required by their level of significance as determined by known measurement error in the data from which are derived, neither more nor less. Pseudoscience practitioners will often present numbers with a level of precision and accuracy that exceeds that supported by the known accuracy of real world data in order to give the appearance of greater validity for their claims. This category would apply to the presentation of findings to individuals or groups outside the circle of the climate scientists involved. As the Climategate documents reflect internal communications, no determination of whether the identifying characteristics of a pseudoscience are present can be made. Unchecked as Pseudoscience

Bishop Hill has a summary of the contents of a number of the more damning documents released so far and Watts Up With That? reports that someone has set up a search engine for all the e-mails. And if you're a fan of threats of violence, jail, professional career destruction and murder made by leading climate scientists and their supporters against their skeptics, Climate Depot has a nice summary of some of the more prominent ones of recent years. Finally, we believe Willis Eschenbach captures the real essence of the problem with the climate scientists involved in the scandal - their near absolute lack of transparency.

As for our checklist, we find that the so-called field of climate science as practiced by the individuals whose e-mails and data were apparently left exposed on the computer server that also hosts their organization's web site has far more in common with pseudoscience than with real science.

We should note that we would expect even legitimate sciences to have one or two boxes checked if we used this checklist to audit their work-in-process. However, since we've checked nearly all of the boxes in our pseudoscience checklist for the climate scientists involved in the scandal, which includes more than just those of the CRU, that raises a clear red flag that their work and findings should be treated with extreme suspicion, as the checklist indicates that their integrity is compromised. Their work must now either be viewed at best as the inferior result of a highly corrupt and flawed scientific process, or at worst, as outright fraud not to be used as the basis for any public policy decision.

As David St. Lawrence observes, the Climategate scandal perhaps represents the most systematic, top-down misconduct in a scientific field since the 40-year long Piltdown Man hoax corrupted the field of paleontology.

Oh, and for our money, this is perhaps the most interesting of the e-mails, mainly since the chain of discussion captures much of the debate on climate change while also highlighting the mindset of the climate scientists involved in the scandal.


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