Coverup caused the heat in Climategate scandalCanada
Small errors of fact, boorish behaviour, and excessive secrecy: These are the main criticisms that have persisted as one investigation after another has released its findings on Climategate. There is an important lesson in this affair, but the lesson is
Climategate is the name widely used for the scandal which followed after more than 1,000 email messages were stolen from the climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, in England, last November.
The texts were later posted on the Internet, and some of them seemed to suggest a deliberate manipulation of climate-measurement data. The resulting storm of controversy included many loud voices suggesting that the whole climate change concept was merely a hoax.
Coming as it did just weeks before the much-anticipated United Nations climate change conference at Copenhagen, this affair might, many believe, have helped derail the conference and, in the longer term, have given governments political cover for slowing down or stalling action on climate change.
But the latest report, by a panel headed by Muir Russell, former principal of the University of Glasgow, echoed the findings of earlier studies into the academic integrity and data legitimacy of the researchers involved; it found nothing to bring the scientists rigour and honesty into doubt. By extension, these studies affirm the scientific rigour of the related climate-change warnings.
So one conclusion here is that climate change is not going away. It would be lovely if this risk could be disproven, but wishful thinking will not solve this problem.
The bigger conclusion, for scientists and bureaucrats, is that secrecy can be wrong and dreadfully damaging. Russell condemned what he described as a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness.
Russell singled out Phil Jones, the CRU chief, for urging his fellow scientists to delete emails that might encourage climate skeptics. Jones also showed a tendency to answer the wrong question or to give a partial answer to inquiries he received under British access-to information laws.
But ultimately the investigations have backed the climate scientists. Even the most extreme climate-change skeptic should now be prepared to abandon the hoax hypothesis. Theres a lot we do not know about whats happening to the climate, and theories can be wrong, but the data that are piling up are honest data.
The batten-down-the-hatches reaction of some scientists to the deniers zeal has done science a grave disservice. When research has policy implications, theres a responsibility to make the data public. Despite the scientists better judgment, such debates must be left open to the participation of those less informed than they.
Its rare that scientific debate becomes so controversial, so political. But climate change is not an issue like any other. Scientists have to accept heightened, sometimes hostile interest from outside their clan. Thats the price of doing research, in the age of the Internet, on a subject so meaningful for everyone.
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