What’s it all mean? Well… first of all, if this is legit, it does not really prove outright fraud, at least not from what I have seen so far.
What it does show is scientific politicking, scientific infighting, attempts to outflank one's scientific opponents, etc. And, the most recent news does suggest carelessness bordering on scientific incompetence (the researchers have, it seems, lost their original data, which means that other scientists cannot check their calculations but merely must accept them on faith. “Faith” is not a good basis for science.). A couple of scientists from within the climate-change establishment have had the honesty to concede that “Climategate” does show that there are real problems with the attitudes and procedures followed by the pro-global-warming camp.
Contrary to what many members of the news media and the public seem to think, all this is not, alas, behavior that is actually that unusual among scientists (who are, after all, simply human beings). Most scientists are not coolly objective, Vulcan-like pursuers of abstract truth: I speak from rather painful personal observations here. On the contrary, most scientists have fairly large egos, are eager to defend their own pet theories, often bear grudges against their scientific opponents, etc. A few (not the majority, happily) are outright liars. And, truth be told, a significant number of scientists are incompetents.
Does this mean that the theory of evolution is just a fairy tale pushed by scientists with an anti-religious agenda, that the theory of relativity is just a left-wing conspiracy imposed by those who shared Einstein’s political views, etc.?
Well… no. Over the long run, things balance out. In fact, they balance out largely because of the combative nature of scientists. As an adolescent, I myself thought I had found an error in Einstein’s theory of relativity. Alas, all I had actually found was a lack of clarity in the particular book I had been studying.
But… I would still love to achieve everlasting fame by showing Einstein was wrong, by showing that quantum mechanics is mistaken, etc. Most scientists have similar desires. The eagerness of the young whipper-snappers to prove that their elders got it all wrong does, almost always, correct scientific errors in the long run.
In the long run – that is the key. A century from now, the global-warming issue should all be nicely sorted out: present personal and political animosities will have been long since forgotten, and good science will have triumphed.
In the long run – but not yet.
I’ve been following the issue of global climate modeling since the late ‘60s. I’m not a climate modeler myself, but I do understand the underlying physics, the basic issues involved in computer modeling, etc.
And, I can testify that we are still in the “shake-out” period, when politicking, personal feuding, and the sheer difficulty of the scientific research make it impossible to really see what the final result will be.
Let me be clear: I am nearly certain that the earth is warmer than it otherwise would have been because of the massive amount of CO2 we humans have dumped into the atmosphere.
But… exactly how much warmer? Is it even possible that the globe is entering a natural cooling period and that we need the anthropogenic CO2 simply to maintain a stable climate?
No one really knows.
So, don’t take the current “scandal” as a sign that global warming is a monstrous conspiracy tied to the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, etc.
But do take it as a sign that scientists are human beings, that it takes a long time to get the right answer to complicated questions, and that the real issue concerning global warming – how big a problem will it really be for human beings? – is still unanswered.
And, discuss the whole thing with your kids – this is an excellent chance to see how science is really done, to see all the uncertainties, personal conflicts, and grand debates involved in the process of scientific research, and, ultimately, over the next few decades, to see how everything will be sorted out in the end.
If you want intelligent, informed, non-political introductions to some of the scientific difficulties involved in climate change modeling, try reading Patrick Michaels' book, published earlier this year, Climate of Extremes and S. Fred Singer's book, published in an updated edition last year, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years.
Please note: I am not suggesting that Michaels or Singer has all the right answers; I am merely suggesting that they show, contrary to what the scientific illiterates who anchor the network news claim, that the scientific debate is not yet over. The biggest problem in the global-climate debate is the extraordinary ignorance combined with unspeakable arrogance of the mainstream media on this subject – and I am including “conservative” pundits as well as “liberals.” The American people need to learn to stop listening to blowhards – whether Rush Limbaugh or Al Gore – who have no idea what they are talking about (cf. Gore's recent comment about the temperature of the earth's core).
Also see my post from early September discussing the fact that there apparently are simple technological fixes to global warming if it does turn out to be a problem, technological fixes almost never mentioned by the mainstream media.
UPDATE: In the comments, silvermine posted a link to a site with some interesting insights see the November 21-30, 2009 posts specifically.