Friday, April 16, 2010

East Anglia Scientists Exonerated by Inquiry

By ilkerender - flickr -
The inquiry led by Lord Oxburgh found that there was no evidence of scientific malfeasance in the actions of the East Anglia Climate Research Center (CRU). Professor David Hand, another member of the inquiry, said that the CRU scientists were to be commended for high-lighting the degrees of uncertainty in their results.

This result was after an extensive inquiry covering 20 years of CRU's work, done by an independent panel - in fact Lord Oxburgh is a former head of Shell. If there had actually been a climate-gate, a smoking gun, it would have been found - but none was.

Oxburgh commented that the scientists were ill-prepared for the limelight they were placed under, and that if anything they were naive in their handling of the exposure. The panel also commented that while newer statistical methods could have been used its doubtful this would have changed the results.

Claims that they manipulated data or tried to hide facts have been destroyed. Those claims - generated by a disgraceful smear campaign unfolding from some stolen emails - provided by persons unknown - have done their damage to the climate change effort that had been galvanized throughout the world by the IPCC report. Now that the claims made by those in possession of the emails have been shown to be false, its sadly the case that the speeding comet of climate change still heads toward our earth and the advice of scientists on how to fix the problem has been foiled by the dirty tricks brigade.

We already know - as discussed in previous articles on this blog - that the oil companies and others are quite capable of mounting bogus conferences and using other tricks from the arsenal of fake science employed by the tobacco companies while they fought against the scientific evidence that smoking kills. Who was behind those stolen emails? We'll likely never know, but we do know who benefits don't we.

Of course the sensationalist headlines timed perfectly for the world climate summit in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 will not be retracted.

All this is part of a general retrograde anti-scientific trend amongst not just our politicians, but society at large with the result that television shock-jocks, right wing fundamentalist preachers and peddlers of magic crystals and horoscope readings are to be trusted more than science. This is at the core of our ghastly treatment of third world countries when it comes to vaccines and other urgent medical aid, and also to the role of genetically modified foods in curing world hunger - eloquently discussed in a recent talk by Michael Specter.

I will name this science denial. We have a word for it: ignorance. Wilful ignorance. Its the ignorance of the idiocracy, and its the ignorance of pseudo-science and fundamentalist religions, that spout tripe such as new earth creationism.

Science has error-bars - well understood measures of how significant scientific evidence is, and how much confidence we can have in it. This is the "uncertainty" referred to by the inquiry panel, and highlighted by CRU in its report to the IPCC. When the scientists of CRU and then of the IPCC interpreted the data for their reports it is the sum total of centuries of experience in the scientific research that they relied apon. So called "uncertainty" is just grist to the scientific mill - once the error terms are quantified, scientific judgements can be made with great confidence.

Like the issue of the Himalayan glaciers non-scientists grasp hold of a few words and figures and due to lack of scientific expertise leap to conclusions that they are ill-qualified to make.

Its like a doctor telling a 45 year old man that he has 3 years to live, and instead it is discovered a mistake has been made and he has 6 years to live instead. Listen to the advice our doctors and professors are giving us - they are the only hope we have. The message is that the Himalayan glaciers are under imminent threat - we had better make good use of the extra time that any incorrect figures may have given us. If we say "you were wrong" to the scientists and believe that allows us to sit on our hands we are completely missing the point of their warnings.

Climate change remains as dire as it always was - we cannot keep doing what we have been doing and expect the world we leave for future generations to look like the one we inherited.

But even more importantly we cannot live in a world where progress on medicines, health, food, transport and in fact the quality of life of all, is held back by ignorance.