It’s like a stage full of whirling dervishes: spin left, spin right, faster, faster. What has become known as “ClimateGate” (the name itself is, of course, a piece of spin) continues to hog media time. Less than a week after email from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was hacked/pilfered/stolen (pick your spin word), the echoes have already reached the halls of the U.S. Congress. Any google/bing of the word “climategate” calls forth a totally confusing welter (like tens of millions) of conflicting commentary – and a lot of name calling.
These days would anyone take a bet that if you snatched a batch of emails from, say, the present and past two White Houses, Fox News management, or the Catholic Council of Bishops there might be some material worthy of condemnation (especially with appropriate excision of context)? In the case of CRU, the nub of the problem (assuming it can be pared down to a nub) is a possible (or apparent) cooking of data. That is, some climate data that contradicted global warming theory was willfully excluded (or ignored).
We’re all spinners now
Unless stupid or ultra naïve, most people engaged in advocacy know that you have to put the best story forward that you can. “That you can” is a key phrase. For some, it means tell the best story within the boundary of telling the truth. For others, it simply means tell the most effective story, period. There are many shades of thruthiness in between. This is all part of what we’ve come to know as ‘spin.’ It is not surprising that some, if not most, scientists who are engaged with the climate change issue are aware of the need to present the scientific results in the most effective way. After all, if the numbers are correct – and the vast majority of climate scientists think they are – then it is imperative to make the case for global warming as clear as possible. Can this lead to spin? Yes it does.
The problem of ignored or inappropriate data happens in scientific research with some frequency. Sometimes it’s inadvertent, sometimes not. That’s why checking and challenging by other scientists is an essential element of scientific enquiry. In the case of most of the disputed CRU data, some of it was already in the public domain (though not necessarily readily available); some of it was still considered ‘private’ data in ongoing research. Except for data still in collection and analysis, it all should have been available – transparent is the operative word. CRU was already controversial for its association with the ‘hockey stick’ analogy of global warming (rapid rise from a curved start); it certainly should have been more sensitive than most institutions about the need for transparency concerning data.
Part of the scientific problem is the vast scale of data relating to climate change and global warming. It is, obviously, global in scope. That means relevant data is collected on land and on sea world-wide. That’s a lot of data. Relevant data can include not only recent history, but all of human history, and most of recent geological history back to, say, a couple hundred million years ago. Gathering all this information was (and is) an immense undertaking, involving thousands of scientists and hundreds of institutions and organizations. Piecing it together to make sense of it has taken decades, and all along the way there were challenges to the data and controversy over interpretation. There still are controversies, some of which were reflected in the CRU emails.
Divide and conquer
Not surprisingly, the CRU emails kicked loose the bad apple analogy. There is an obvious eagerness to spin the story that one bad apple (CRU) makes the whole barrel (climate science) rotten. Guilt by association is another name for it. When this rhetorical trick (there’s that word, trick) is employed it usually means there’s no evidence for connecting A to BC…YZ. In this case, when science says ‘consensus’ it means that thousands of scientists and hundreds of organizations generally agree on the results, though it does not mean they agree on everything, or that everything they agree on is right. Divide and conquer becomes an obvious tactic. To point out the failings of a few scientists, or one organization, without further connecting evidence is…spin.
In all out spin, effect is everything. The idea is to move quickly beyond details in order to set the tone (doubt) and make a broad impact (global warming = fail). The people and organizations who deny global warming are good at this; many are solely constituted to amplify this approach. In general, the consensus scientific community is not good at this.
What are the realities?
One probable reality: The impact of ClimateGate won’t be as great as either side thinks it will. We will probably never know with precision what effect ClimateGate had on public opinion. Perhaps a credible poll will be taken, perhaps not. The way to bet is that most people don’t give a damn about any particular piece of climate change news. They hear so much of it and so much of it is contradictory, that they tune it out.
Another probable reality: This isn’t good for science. Climategate adds to the orchestrated background noise of anti-science and climate change denial. It’s like background music, it may go largely unnoticed but it sets the tone. Controversy, drama, and negativity (the medium of spinmeisters) are typically more effective than simple advocacy and presentation of facts (the medium of scientists).
A final reality: If global warming is real, it won’t matter what kind of spin was applied by anybody.
What this means, tragically, is that the doom-sayers may be right. We’ll need a terrible demonstration of global warming effects – like several million dead because countries are flooded by rising sea levels – before even a majority of people accept that global warming is happening and it is disastrous. Even more tragically, by the time something unambiguously terrible happens, it will be too late to do anything about it.
If you want to be cynical, it’s probably true that if and when climate change disasters happen, climate change deniers and those who blocked attempts to do something will not be held accountable in any meaningful way. There will be so much suffering and chaos that niceties of law and retribution won’t be in play. (Think that’s unlikely? How about the fallout from the current global financial crisis? True, few died, but millions of people had their lives changed for the worse. Much of what happened was a form of theft, or at least should have been argued that way in court. How many of the instigators are held accountable?)