Climate of concern

To hear some folks tell it, including White House officials, the e-mail controversy now known as “Climategate” is just a tempest in a teapot.

Except it’s not. It raises serious questions about objective scientific inquiry, as well as the lengths some scientists will go to try to protect their conclusions and silence their critics.

More evidence of the seriousness of the matter came Wednesday when one of the leading scientists involved in the controversy, Penn State Professor Michael Mann, began distancing himself from his colleague, Professor Phil Jones of East Anglica University in Great Britain. Mann said he could not justify Jones’ request that Mann get rid of certain e-mails before outsiders could see them.

The controversy began when thousands of e-mails sent among top climate scientists around the world were made public last month by an unknown leaker. The e-mails came from Jones’ Climate Research Unit at East Anglica, a unit the United Nations and others have depended upon for climate-change research.

It’s important to note that the e-mails don’t disprove the theory of human-caused global warming, although a number of skeptics have made that claim.

The e-mails do show that some scientists apparently manipulated data to try to — as Jones put it — “hide the decline” in global temperatures that didn’t fit with what scientists were projecting.

The e-mails also provide a glimpse of complicated computer models that frustrated programmers and made them repeatedly adjust the data entered in order to obtain the outcomes sought.

And, perhaps worst of all, the e-mails show evidence of a concerted effort by leading climate scientists to silence critics, bully journals that printed dissenting views and withhold data from those seeking to double-check their work.

The East Anglica CRU has now acknowledged that it disposed of untold amounts of raw data that it used to build much of its analysis of global warming. What is left is so-called “enhanced data,” which other scientists cannot test for accuracy without the raw data on which it is based.

Jones has temporarily stepped down as director of the CRU while his university conducts an investigation of his actions. Mann’s comments Wednesday came in the wake of that action, although he also said he didn’t believe Jones or any other leading scientists had manipulated data.

But Mann’s own actions are now being investigated by Penn State. And, in one of the most controversial leaked e-mails, discussing a so-called “trick” of commingling two different types of data to produce stronger evidence of a warming trend, Jones appears to credit Mann with developing that trick.

There’s likely to be a good deal more finger-pointing and bureaucratic blood-letting over Climategate, and there should be. Critical policy decisions may be made from Copenhagen to Washington based on the research these scientists produced.

This is not just a teapot tempest. Policy makers need to be sure the science they rely on is sound. Dissenters must have the right to analyze data and challenge conclusions. Valid science will stand up to skeptics’ scrutiny. And scientists must be objective researchers, not advocates for a particular political viewpoint.


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