The war on the weather

One conclusion appears to me inescapable from the scandal engulfing the most famous names in British and US climatology, after dissemination of hacked documents originating in the East Anglia University Climatic Research Unit.  The behavior of the individuals involved is shocking only if one considers them scientists – that is, inquirers after truth.

But they weren’t scientists, in any sense of the word.  They were bureaucrats, occupying various perches in government, academic, or multinational establishments.  From that perspective, their actions make perfect sense.  The CRU clique and their American comrades manipulated information to promote their pet policies.  These policies, if implemented, would make their positions better funded and more powerful.  That may be unethical behavior for scientists, but it’s what bureaucrats do for a living.

The bureaucratization of science has gone largely unremarked, but was analyzed in this remarkably prescient paper by Henry Bauer, professor emeritus of Chemistry and Science Studies at Virginia Tech.  The paper was published in 2004, but describes with great accuracy the pathologies revealed in the CRU scandal.

According to Bauer, the tidal wave of money from government, foundations, and multinational groups have utterly transformed what we still call modern science.  Individual researchers have been replaced by corporate entities serving government or commercial masters.

Centralized funding and centralized decision-making make science more bureaucratic and less an activity of independent, self-motivated truth-seekers.  Science attracts careerists instead of curiosity-driven idealists.  Universities and individuals are encouraged to view scientific research as a cash cow to bring in money as “indirect costs” for all sorts of purposes, instead of seeking funds for doing good science.

The symptoms of this change are familiar to anyone who has perused the hacked emails from the CRU.  Minority views are squelched by the science bureaucrats, and rarely penetrate to the public arena.  The peer review system is corrupted and on occasion abandoned, as “the costs of research and the need for teams of cooperating specialists have made it increasingly difficult to find reviewers who are both directly knowledgeable and also disinterested.”  Often the “only competent reviewers” turn out to be collaborators.  The output of this corrupt process, increasingly, is fraudulent data.

Bureaucratized science gives rise to to “knowledge monopolies” and “research cartels,” funded and fronted by organizations like the IPCC, UNAIDS, the NIH, and the WHO.  Source data gets lost in a shell game of “models” and adjustments of actual counts, which invariably show the problem in which the bureaucrats specialize – AIDS, swine flu, climate change – to be in a state of crisis, hence requiring increased attention and funding.  Press releases by the IPCC or the WHO, which have not been peer reviewed, are eagerly swallowed and echoed by mainstream media, which loves nothing so much as a good disaster story.

In fact, the cozy relationship between science journalism and the science bureaucrats deserves close examination.  The haughty skepticism, bordering on cynicism, which the media applies on an everyday basis to elected officials is wholly lacking in its coverage of scientific topics.  Journalists crave access; the bureaucrats are gate-keepers; so we have emails that show the CRU climatologists discussing “Andy,” the NYT science correspondent, as one would talk of a colleague and ally.

Investigative reporting on organizational science, Bauer observes, is nonexistent.

The upshot is that policy makers and the public generally do not realize that there is doubt about, indeed evidence against, some theories almost universally viewed as true, about issues of enormous public import:  global warming; healthy diet, heart disease risk-factors, and appropriate medication; HIV/AIDS; gene therapy; stem cells; and more.

Another consequence, not mentioned by Bauer, is the stampede of celebrities – entertainers, artists, ex-politicians – rushing to embrace these “theories” and strike a pose against, say, cholesterol or carbon dioxide.

I find it fascinating, and bizarre, that in an era of almost excessive openness, the institutions and persons responsible for conducting scientific research have moved in the opposite direction – toward what Karl Popper would have called “tribalism.”  But  Bauer’s thesis explains the secrecy and inquisitorial ruthlessness of the CRU group, no less than the unscientific hash that is their computer model.

If there is a war against the weather, secrets must be kept, and casualties are unavoidable.  That appears to be the mindset of the climatology bureaucrats.

In the age of the internet, the solution strikes me as relatively simple.  Science, as Popper remarked, is the most open and self-critical of human activities.  Require that every research program with a policy aspect – and that would be pretty much all – post its source data and its modeling programs on the Web.  Then let the wisdom of the crowds do its thing.

UPDATE:  Mike Hulme, a climatologist working at – wait for it – the East Anglia University CRU, agrees with my characterization of the climate bureaucrats’ behavior as tribal:

The tribalism that some of the leaked emails display is something more usually associated with social organization within primitive cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science.

7 Responses to The war on the weather

  1. Koert J. says:

    “Require that every research program with a policy aspect – and that would be pretty much all – post its source data and its modeling programs on the Web. Then let the wisdom of the crowds do its thing.”

    That’s a terrible idea. How larger the crowd, how more stupidity you get. I believe scientists themselves can work this thing out.

    • They can still do that – and more convincingly, if all interested parties share the same information. What’s to lose?

    • AL says:

      This is not always true. In fact, crowds of individuals who (this is an essential premise) maintain their own individual viewpoint are remarkably prescient at eg forecasting election results, price changes in various sectors, even the number of grains in a jar. Apparently you have not read the Wisdom of Crowds. Anyhow, if you want to know election outcomes before they transpire betting sites are a good reference.

  2. davidc says:

    From my experience in universities it started with the call for universities to be “relevant”. It’s hard to mount a convincing case aainst this call, but the problem is, who decides what is relevant? Well, if someone gives you money whatever you are doing must be relevant to them. So, “relevant” soon became “income generating” and what you say flows from there.

  3. […] Shoot-fire, it’s not like there was any money in it, right big Al?!  Or a reason to contrive a bureaucratic-media alliance posing as science? […]

  4. WestWright says:

    I love that the facts are with the Sceptics and the LIES are all with the Alarmist and their toddies, the Media/Hollywood Freaks/CrapScientist

  5. Brian H says:

    Money talks (and walks): the “Carbon Exchange” price of CO2 offsets has dropped from $9/ton to 10¢ in 8 months.

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