01 December 2010

Climate Science is not like every other discipline

The Economist: Babbage | After Climategate and Copenhagen: The shadow of climategate

A lot—lots, indeed—of science would look just the same if its privacy were similarly breached (and many other areas of human endeavour would look as bad or worse);
I have to disagree.

I can only speak for AI, but our field would not look anything like this if you grabbed a bunch of files off of our department servers.

I have no delusions that me and my colleagues are saints. Plenty of our science is influenced by personal relationships, and preferences, and biases. I still hold a grudge against Minksy and Papert for the role they played in pushing Artificial Neural Networks out of favor in the 70s and 80s. And of course there's always The Third Reviewer.

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But our business still doesn't rise to the level of the duplicitous sophistry of East Anglia's CRU, and that's because our field is less political. There aren't trillions of dollars of public policy riding on our finding and opinions and expressions. People far and wide haven't staked their reputations, world views, and personal identities on what the results of our inquiries are.

People have linked, or tried to link, every single facet of human behavior to climate change.* This makes the stakes of climatology extremely high psychologically.

The researchers in my department have at most a chunk of their personal reputation and funding on the line. If they make mistakes they lose some prestige and they may have a marginally harder time winning grants and getting published in the future.  (Depending on how they are wrong and how wrong they are, and how they position their research program in the future.)

The people in climate research have the hopes and dreams and entire world views of everyone who drives a Prius in their hands.  If they turn out to be making mistakes then the entire UN-backed edifice is as risk of crashing down.

* I suspect this is unique in human intellectual history. I can't think of any other academic discipline (except maybe theology?) whose questions and answers outsiders so thoroughly staked their identities on. Academics always link their work to whatever the popular cause is -- look at all the people who suddenly found that their research had applications to counter-terrorism is 2002 -- but the way people have personally invested in climate change is astounding to me.

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