Saturday, November 28, 2009


Is it just me, or is it kind of ridiculous the way every scandal in American politics is eventually referred to as something-gate?

For those of you that don't keep up with every little thing to happen in climate politics, somebody hacked into the servers of a climate research group the other week, and released an archive containing selected portions of the past 10 years of their email correspondence, and probably some other stuff too. Naturally, people were able to find all sorts of embarrassing stuff in there. The most talked-about email is one referring to a "trick" somebody used to combine two data sets, back in 1999 - this obviously proves that the entire field of climate research is a hoax, to hear people talk about it.

I won't be talking about any of the specifics of the leaked data, though, because I can't look at the source data in good conscience. Breaking into somebody's servers and putting over a decade of correspondence online for somebody's rivals to pore over is beyond reprehensible. It's especially bad in this case, when the rivals in question are playing politics and have very low standards for proof.

One particular issue that keeps cropping up is the removal of context. People will go and cherry-pick quotes (here is a recent and out-of-mainstream example), and somebody will eventually point out that the code in question only applied to one graph that was only used for "cover art". It's easy, when you're looking at correspondence over a span of many years, to find quotes that look bad out of context - but what does that actually prove?

Let's be miserly to the researchers here. Let's assume that some of these quotes really are as bad as they look out-of-context, that there really is a massive conspiracy to rewrite the data, which is somehow only evident in a few snippets. Even assuming the worst, what does this prove? This is only correspondence for a single institution, which is competing with several other groups - and yet the results all still point in the same direction. Should we posit that every group working on climate science is in cahoots, and engaged in a massive conspiracy? What scares me about this is that many people would say that we should.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but here's the impression I get watching the climate change debate. First, there are serious researchers, who (generally) agree that climate change is probably happening, and do actual work to figure out the extent of it. Second, there are the "green" cheerleaders on the political left, who say mostly inane, common-sensical things about global warming, and push for specific political/technical solutions (looking at you, Al Gore). Their hearts are generally in the right places, except for the ones that are only on this team because they've found a way to make a profit (I'm watching you, Al Gore).

Then there's the anti-global-warming crowd, made up of both right-wing political types and people reacting against the second group, who seem content to take random potshots at the first two groups indiscriminately, cry about conspiracies, and (like all conspiracy theorists) don't really care about having a consistent response to the people doing actual science. It's telling that there are almost no climate scientists in this group. (Members of this group will respond: "because of the conspiracy!", and thus prove my point.) This group is especially irritating to me, because they tend to be very anti-scientist.

Seriously, though - hacking people maliciously is bad enough, but calling it Whatevergate is just awful.

1 comment:

Æther said...

It's even more awful when you consider that the -gate suffix is a modern addition to our language. The horror! Like all proper etymology, I prefer mine aged to perfection over the course of a couple thousand years. Besides, it only makes more people think ill of Nixon and further forget any good he did with détente.