The Philosopher's Eye

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The Scientific Method

“It’s Sunday evening, I’ve worked all weekend, and just when I thought it was done I’m hitting yet another problem that’s based on the hopeless state of our databases. There is no uniform data integrity, it’s just a catalogue of issues that continues to grow as they’re found.”

This email, one of many stolen from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, gives us reason to reflect on the scientific method and the (all-too) human researchers that might (or might not) use it.  For climate change skeptics, such as Patrick Michaels, a Cato fellow and former Virginia state climatologist, these emails constitute “not a smoking gun” but “a mushroom cloud” indicating fraud and deception.  For others, these emails are just evidence of “smug groupthink” or “locker room talk between scientists.”

Among the emails was one sent by Phil Jones, the director of CRU (who has since stepped down for an independent investigation), in which he says, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”  Skeptics were quick to complain; surely hiding one set of data (showing temperature decrease) by replacing it with another set of data (showing temperature increase) is bad science!  In 2004, before these emails were made public, but five years after Jones referred to “Mike’s Nature Trick,” Michael Mann, the very “Mike” of “Mike’s Nature trick,” harshly criticized a climate skeptic for accusing him of using such grafted data: “No researchers in this field have ever, to our knowledge, ‘grafted the thermometer record onto’ any reconstruction. It is somewhat disappointing to find this specious claim (which we usually find originating from industry-funded climate disinformation Web sites) appearing in this forum.”

Nevertheless, according to Jones, the skeptics were wrong to complain about the grafting and Mann was wrong to deny its use.  The “trick” merely consisted of replacing tree-ring data with direct-temperature-readings.  Since there were no thermometers in 1000AD, scientists use an amalgam of different techniques to determine what the temperature was likely to have been (including measurements of tree-rings, ice cores, and lake sediments).  These techniques yield temperature estimates for 1000AD through the present.  However, the estimates from 1960 disagree with the results of the more accurate, direct measurements.  Jones claims, “CRU has not sought to hide the decline. Indeed, CRU has published a number of articles that both illustrate, and discuss the implications of, this recent tree-ring decline, including the article that is listed in the legend of the WMO Statement figure. It is because of this trend in these tree-ring data that we know does not represent temperature change that I only show this series up to 1960 in the WMO Statement.”  In short, the period between 1960 and the present, the tree-ring data indicated a temperature drop while direct-readings indicated a temperature increase.  Since the direct-readings are the more accurate gauge of temperature, the tree-ring data for that period was thrown out.

This all seems reasonable enough.  The scientists were just using the best data they had for the period (even if they failed to identify different sources on the widely publicized graph).  However, undoubtedly due to the highly politicized nature of climate change research, many scientists feel attacked and defensive.  Several emails refer disparagingly to the climate change skeptics and discuss ways to retaliate against those who question their work or journals that publish critical articles.  Some discuss ways of preventing the public from accessing their raw data (note, however, that over 95% of CRU’s raw data from the last few years is publicly available).  Scientists, especially those working in politically charged fields, would do well to review the objectivity and openness that are essential for the successful practice of science.

Related Articles:

Rationality Disputes – Psychology and Epistemology

By Patrick Rysiew , University of Victoria(Vol. 3, October 2008)
Philosophy Compass

One comment on “The Scientific Method

  1. Mark Drumm
    January 12, 2010

    Redistribution of wealth will not cool the earth. Dinosaurs came and went without humans, as did many hot and cold periods witnessed by geological evidence. Our real weather data is less than 200 years old, and the earth is how old? To assume MMGW is like a 1 day-old-baby telling an adult how to invest money. Ridiculous-follow the money and you will understand why MMGW is so popular a theory-because it pays!

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2009 by in Viewpoint and tagged , , , , , , .

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