The Great Climategate Debate

How is science conducted?

Moderator: Henry D. Jacoby

Kerry Emanuel '76, PhD '78

Judith Layzer PhD '99

Stephen Ansolabehere

Ronald G. Prinn SCD '71

Richard Lindzen

December 10, 2009
Massachussetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA

Transscript of selected parts

by Jochen Gruber

In mid-November, thousands of emails were hacked from servers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. A small fraction of them address controversial issues; how to present climate data in the most favorable light and how to combat climate skeptics, among others. The responses reported in the press have ranged from these emails being a confirmation of climate change deniers' assertions that global warming is a conspiracy and a hoax, to the whole affair being a tempest in a teapot with no relevance to the reality of global warming and the need to combat it.  

On December 10, 2009, MIT assembled a panel of experts to discuss this controversy. … The discussion was moderated by Henry D. Jacoby, and included a wide range of views on what this controversy really means for climate science, the integrity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, public perception of climate science (and scientific expertise in general), and the ongoing policy negotiations in the Congress and at Copenhagen.


Henry Jacoby, MIT, Professor of Applied Economics,  Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research,

Henry (Jake) Jacoby is Co-Director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, which is a world leader in integration of the natural and social sciences and policy analysis in application to the threat of global climate change. He is director of the design and application of the social science component of the Joint Program's Integrated Global System Model — a comprehensive research tool for analyzing potential anthropogenic climate change and its social and environmental consequences — and he is a leader of MIT research and analysis of national climate policies and the structure of the international climate regime.


From EAPS (MIT Department of Earth,  Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences)

(*) Kerry A. Emanuel (tropical meteorology and climate):

(*) Ronald G. Prinn, Atmospheric Science, director, Center for Global Change Science, co-director, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change,

(*) Richard S. Lindzen, Dynamical Meteorology, Climate: Atmospheric general circulation, hydrodynamic shear instability and nonlinear equilibration, climate feedbacks from clouds and water vapor, and tropical meteorology including the parameterization of cumulus convection.

Political scientists:

(*) Judy Layzer, Department of Urban Studies and Planning: roles of science, values, and storytelling in environmental politics

(*) Stephen Ansolabehere (MIT and Harvard) studies elections, democracy, and the mass media.

Henry Jacoby

Need to distinguish between

(*) Uncertainty about climate

(*) Uncertainty about science, state of science, scientific status, scientific standards


(*) Who is going to police science, how can science maintain its credibility, 

(*) scientists need to be more scrupulous in protecting their research standards, 

(*)As private citizens scientists are free to engage in the political and public debate. As scientists they need to be specially careful about maintaining their research standards and methods

(*) Who is going to discipline those who did wrong?

We as a society will have to increasingly deal with standards and how to protect scientists, because 

(*) more is at stake than getting the next paper published, 

(*) fight a controvery with a colleague or 

(*) trying to block someone from getting into a journal.

Ronald Prinn

5 questions to ask in this debate:

(1) Are some of the emails unprofessional? Yes.

(2) Were these people involved at (University of East Anglia (UEA) and Penn State successful in preventing publications in journals or mentions in the IPCC? No.

(3) Was the reseach at UEA critical to the case for anthropogenic climate change? No.

There are many independent lines of evidence drawn from many many public and private research centers all around the US and many countries around the world, and several independent data sets and analyses of the data sets. So UEA is not the only place doing this. Even without including data from this center the body of evidence that underlies the conclusion that most of the warming in the recent past is human caused remains robust. Your attitude to risk is relevant: My attitude is: “We have no other planet to retreat to if we are wrong.” 

(4) Has the integrity of the IPCC been compromised by these revelations? No.

The IPCC is us, the contributing scientists, ...

(hier sieht man die Identifikation mit der Arbeit, der Gruppe. Das ist ein Gegensatz zum Verstecken hinter der Gruppe) 

... plus all the published papers out there. And they ought to be studied by the IPCC authors and lead authors, and they are expected to do a good job. Drafts are produced, national and international reviewers look over these drafts. Thousands of comments on each chapter come in. We had the tedious job of answering every comment, and you couldn’t just say “This guy is an idiot, so I’ll not going to listen to him.” You had to write it down and then there were referees or editors, who were not involved in the writings of the IPCC. Their job was to check the validity of our answers, with the power of rejection. “Mr. Prinn, this is not an adequate response to Jones.” These entered the four plenary meetings. Scientists usually disagree rather than agree with each other. It is very hard to bring scientists together. It is not a monolithic process of producing. We are skeptical and want much of evidence. These processes make it very difficult for a small advocacy group to hijack the IPCC.

So, my answer to this question is “no”.

(5) Is public perception of climate science affected? Yes.

The mediability to communicate complex science right now is in my view diminished. Science writers are getting fewer. The newspapers are less able to do an evaluation based on some deep knowledge. Let’ s face it: The emails contained a lot of juicy soundbites for people who want to write stories. And they can grab soundbites from one direction or the other direction and make up a story. You don´t have to be a scientist to do that because it  is already very interesting to read those emails.

So my answer to this question is “Yes”.

(6) Can we do better? Yes.

Climate researchers -in my view- need to step back and away from the tendency for polarization. That means having mutual respect even though we have disagreement.

We need to find additional ways to communicate, not just the conclusions, but the ways in which our conclusions were reached. And that means improving the transparency about what scientific data is, what the scientific method is, and how the assessments go forward. We need to get across that in an area of science with significant uncertainty a single paper is invariably not enough. It needs many many people to go over the same issue, and finally there is consensus or a popular feeling that I think we reached a conclusion.  Critical analyses are the norm in climate science, and people have got to understand that you can’t just listen to one person. And that’s why the IPCC process is important. And it may have flaws and we can all talk about those shortcomings. We need to let people, the general population know that the peer review process is the place where science legitimately resides, not in blogs, not in opinion pieces that go into newspapers. Those you get them from both directions, and that should not be the source of information.

So, can we do better? My answer is a resounding “Yes”!

Discussion with audience

59 minutes into the session

Time count: 1:08:29

Kerry Emanuel: Scientists disagree, and they should. But there is a very lopsided nature of this. Whatever we do, out there are interests with lots and lots of money at stake who are much much more powerful than we are. And some of us will be manipulated into serving their interests, others will have their views distorted,. That´s a big worry for me.

Question: data have been distroyed:

Time count: 1:15:11

Judy Layzer: we need to provide the public with at least some of the tools to deal with this complex issue [of climate change]. 

Richard Linzden: Even ordinary citizens have to learn enough about this to judge for themselves. They are not going to be guided.

The real competition to greenhouse gases is natural internal variability. That’s what makes the signal to noise ratio such that there is an argument of attribution. 

Stephen Ansolabehere: Public attitudes about this issue have been moving in the last decade. Whether it is nice and rational is hard to say for sure. Most of the debate so far has been behind closed doors and is now going public. The public is responding to public debate. Scientists do have to take stands, are going to be pulled into the public debate in a way they have never been pulled into the public domain. But it is also the case that scientists need to figure out their own ethics in this domain and how to maintain the independence of their research and protect their research, research standards in a world where there are  more and  more questions raised about their objectivity, their resources (where they get their money). And as you take stands you are essentially holding up a lightning rod, and expect to be hit.

Kerry Emanuel: It is absolutely essential that data be available and transparent.  I think any scientist would say that. It’s a real tragedy that some of the data sets that the East Anglia people relied on aren’t made public. But I want to be very clear about who the villains are there, because I have tackled this problem in a completely different context, ordinary weather forcasting. The naughty people here are the Europeans, frankly, who decided some years ago that they could make money from selling environmental data. Now this country, one of the great benefits of this country and most other civilized countries is that we regard environmental data as a public good. As the tax payers paid for it, they get it. The Europeans sell their data, not all of it. When East Anglia contracted to get that some data set (I have heard it is only one percent of what they have) they had to sign a contract with the people whom they provided the data that they would not provide it to a third party. That it’s wrong and they shouldn’t have signed it, and the people who have that data now should never have asked them to. That’s all got to change. It’s a little bit different from a conspirancy to withhold the data, at least on the part of East Anglia it’s the case. As far as I understand it the data sets were lost. It hasn’t been shown that the data were deliberately destroyed.

Question: I wonder whether scientists can be motivated by money, personal gain. What about governments?

Time count: 1:25:29

Richard Linzden: You are talking about incentive structures and there are tons of incentive structures. For scientists, I think without any poor behaviour at all: When President H.W. Bush increased funding from 170 millions to over 2 billion a year that suggests that this is a problem well to preserve rather than. We are always loaded with incentive structures and we live with them. The miracle to me is in some respects that we behave as well as we do under those circumstances. 

Related Links

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science, Science 7 May 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5979, pp. 689 - 690

Over 250 of the nation's top scientists have joined together to denounce political intimidation of climate researchers as "McCarthy-like" tactics; they call for immediate action to address the causes of climate change. (Stanford Report, May 12, 2010, "Scientists decry political assaults on climate researchers.")

"We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial - scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That's what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of "well-established theories" and are often spoken of as "facts."

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today's organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend. ..."

polar bears on iceberg
Source, CREDIT: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic/Getty Images

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Jochen Gruber