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January 18, 2005

Scientific Integrity on Display

Today, Hurricane research scientist Dr. Chris Landsea has resigned from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As he writes in this open letter:

I am withdrawing because I have come to view the part of the IPCC to which my expertise is relevant as having become politicized. In addition, when I have raised my concerns to the IPCC leadership, their response was simply to dismiss my concerns.

Readers of this blog are well aware of the costs that some scientists, who become unpopular in their fields, must sometimes bear. Now, I'm not saying that this is the situation that Dr. Landsea finds himself in, but I'm most curious to see what awaits him in the future for I'm not at all reassured by the record of integrity within the climate research community. Their most glaring failure was how they handled the Lomborg Affair.

You don't have to take sides on the Global Warming debate (and I hope the comments don't degenerate into a pro/con debate on Global Warming) to acknowledge that the personal attacks, threats of lawsuits, academic star chambers, and limiting of debate were all shameful tactics.

Among the most scathing of the attacks on Lomborg was an 11-page editorial in the January 2002 edition of Scientific American. With the rather high-handed title "Science Defends itself Against the Skeptical Environmentalist" the editorial declared the book a "failure" and invited four prominent environmentalists to do their worst to discredit Lomborg and his analysis.

Scientific American did not give Lomborg any opportunity to respond to his critics, even though they gave him a copy of the editorial before it went to press. They said they would give Lomborg one page in a future edition to reply to 11 pages of full-on attack. Lomborg's response was to publish the text of the Scientific American article on his own website and to intersperse it with a detailed response to every point raised by his critics. Scientific American then threatened to sue Lomborg over copyright. In response to my complaint Scientific American wrote "This is an infringement of our copyright and interferes with our business of selling the article." Does Scientific American really think that they will lose readership because Lomborg has posted a response to a publication that is already off the newsstands? I believe they acted out of political motivation and are purposefully stifling Lomborg's efforts to defend himself.

Lomborg's full refutation of the Scientifican American charges are hosted on Greenpeace founder Dr. Patrick Moore's website (click on the bottom of the link page to read how, after he departed, he was targeted as an eco-judas by his Greenpeace co-founders.)

We shouldn't take Dr. Landsea's position as a refutation of the science that's conducted by his fellow scientists nor as an endorsement of the discipline's bÍte noire, Dr. Michael Crichton, but with Dr. Landsea's claim of the politicization of Climate Science I can't help but think about Crichton's charge:

The 1995 IPCC draft report said, "Any claims of positive detection of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced." It also said, "No study to date has positively attributed all or part of observed climate changes to anthropogenic causes." Those statements were removed, and in their place appeared: "The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on climate."

What is clear, however, is that on this issue, science and policy have become inextricably mixed to the point where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate them out. It is possible for an outside observer to ask serious questions about the conduct of investigations into global warming, such as whether we are taking appropriate steps to improve the quality of our observational data records, whether we are systematically obtaining the information that will clarify existing uncertainties, whether we have any organized disinterested mechanism to direct research in this contentious area.

The answer to all these questions is no. We don't.

It is precisely Chricton's claims of politicization, and now Landsea's confirmation of same, that bolster the skepticism of the critics of Global Warming, and it is when we see PR tactics coming front and center, which is the heart of Landsea's concern, and on display in this press release from the Soon & Baliunas fracas, that neutral observers sit-up and take notice.

A group of leading climate scientists has reaffirmed the "robust consensus view" emerging from the peer reviewed literature that the warmth experienced on at least a hemispheric scale in the late 20th century was an anomaly in the previous millennium and that human activity likely played an important role in causing it. In so doing, they refuted recent claims that the warmth of recent decades was not unprecedented in the context of the past thousand years.

I still remember reading that press release and wondering when the act of reaffirmation became equated with refutation. It is these types of tactics and overstepping that lead me to be more skeptical, though not rejecting, to pronoucements concerning Global Warming than I am of almost any other field of science. The politics and overstatement of science are front and center in the community, and critics have noticed this, and now a man of integrity has chosen not to associate himself with such tactics. He could have played gotcha, bided his time, and given IPCC enough rope to really hang themselves in public but instead he chose to not tarnish his reputation by prolonging his association with IPCC and implicitly condoning their politicization of Climate Science. To Dr. Landsea I say bravo and I hope that you can continue to conduct and publish your research without hindrance but as Chris Mooney has noted the politicization of science is a troubling trend and I'm wondering if an honest man can maintain his reputation and still prosper. Chris is writing specifically about the Bush Administration's brazen attempt to pervert the peer review process (here is more background) but my concerns are focused on peer networks and funding agencies, both comprised of Landsea's colleagues, which may not look kindly on someone they perceive as an apostate and I'm sure many of us will be watching to see whether Dr. Landsea will suffer any consequences for his efforts to maintain his honor.

Posted by TangoMan at 10:35 PM