The war on the weather

November 29, 2009

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  Individual researchers have been replaced by corporate entities serving government or commercial masters.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.

Malthusians breed like rabbits

November 27, 2009

The lesson of the scandal at the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit is that doomsday can be good to some people.  If you own the franchise, you set the terms for Judgment Day:  you can demand money, respect, and obedience, for starters.  Best of all, you get to tell people how disgusting their behavior has been, and how they’d better clean up their act, if they want to avoid the fiery pit.

Since medieval times, doomsday has been wielded as a weapon of persuasion and control.  At the present moment, the global warmers have unquestionably pushed their particular version to the heights of celebrity – but another group has a more durable track record, and may still be here long after the CRU climatologists and their brethren have been booed off the stage.

These are the overpopulation worriers – or Malthusians, as Brendan O’Neill, in this hilarious article for spiked, calls them.  The thing about Malthusians is, they keep reproducing.  O’Neill cites prophets of overpopulation disaster going back to 200 AD, and they turn up again and again, all the way to that embodiment of the wacky Seventies, Paul Ehrlich (“hundreds of millions will starve to death”).

Another thing about the Malthusians is that they are always wrong.  Not just sometimes – always.

The extent of their wrongness cannot be overstated. They have continually claimed that too many people will lead to increased hunger and destitution, yet the precise opposite has happened: world population has risen exponentially over the past 40 years and in the same period a great many people’s living standards and life expectancies have improved enormously. Even in the Third World there has been improvement – not nearly enough, of course, but improvement nonetheless. The lesson of history seems to be that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have made new cities, more resources, more things, and seem to have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies.

Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: ‘This time it’s definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!’

O’Neill lists the reasons for such unconquerable wrongness.  Malthusians, he writes, always underestimate society’s ability to adapt.  They misunderstand the marketplace, and believe that resources are “fixed, finite things.”  He goes on:

And the third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met.

We don’t merely use up finite resources; we create infinite ideas and possibilities. The 6.7billion people on Earth have not raped and destroyed this planet, we have humanised it.

Behind the Malthusian doomsday O’Neill discerns a “deeply held misanthropy” veiled by scientific talk.  This, I believe, is true of today’s global warming advocates, and of all the voices of doom I have heard in my lifetime.  It isn’t that they are wrong:  it’s that they think something is horribly wrong with us.  Factual correctness is besides the point.  Controlling us and fixing us is the goal.  That, not scientific accuracy, is what they expect  the doomsday franchise to deliver.

Go read it all.  It’s funny because it’s true.

Scientists aren’t science – and science isn’t a method

November 25, 2009

A thoughtful commenter to my post on the hacked emails of climate scientists from the East Anglia CRU heard, in my tone, “contempt for those who might attempt to use their knowledge and insight to direct human events.”  It wasn’t intended.  I don’t feel contempt for science or its practitioners.  But my unceasing admiration for science as an enterprise is matched by a perception of its fragility – let me say it bluntly:  its mortality.

The science of classical antiquity was the greatest collection of human knowledge before the rise of modern science.  It died.  It was entombed under the wreckage of the Roman Empire.  How can the cumulative intellectual achievement of a thousand years perish?  We know conditions changed.  Untutored Germans lorded over the empire’s populations.  Poverty, insecurity, and ignorance afflicted ever more lives.

The requisite behaviors for classical science were lost.  The fragile threads of its working traditions snapped.  It died.  Once dead, it would take a historical miracle to bring science back:  a resurrection, a Renaissance.

Today we consider ourselves invulnerable to such a catastrophic fall from grace.  There are no barbarians at the gates.  Education is near universal.  Classical science, we imagine, was only the childhood of knowledge, while in our day the human race has attained the age of reason.

We invest our scientists with enormous prestige because we believe them to personify the universal reach of science, and we feel confident our science is immune to decline because it rests on an infallible, almost magical, method.  Yet neither of these beliefs is true.  Scientists are merely workers in a knowledge profession, and no more embody science than an ambulance-chaser embodies the majesty of the law.

Modern science, like its classical ancestor, is a tradition, a set of culturally evolved  behaviors and human relations – many methods have been found in this tradition, but virtually none of any practical use to the scientist.  Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in medicine, wrote:

Science, broadly considered, is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon; yet the methodology that had presumably made it so, when propounded by learned laymen, is not attended to by scientists, and when propounded by scientists is a misrepresentation of what they do.  Only a minority of scientists have received instruction in scientific methodology, and those that have done seem to be no better off.

Which brings me back to those appalling emails and documents from the climate professionals at the CRU, and to the attempt of the latter – in the words of my commenter – to use their knowledge and insight to direct human affairs.

The CRU workers vandalized the traditions of science with abandon, for reasons that may have been idealistic, ideological, or simply venal.  It’s impossible to say, and it doesn’t matter.  They wanted to direct human affairs, and to that end they persecuted those who contradicted their findings, corrupted the peer review process, flattered journalists, concealed and deleted data, in fact hid their proceedings behind the veil of the temple of science, from which they emerged, now and then, to prophesy doom.

The stakes are immense.  In the lead articles of its November issue, the Scientific American endorsed an initial investment in green technologies of $100 trillion over 20 years.  To achieve this, our present political and economic systems would have to be scrapped and new structures put in place, with scientists directing from the top – assuming, in my terms, guardianship over the human race.

What makes critics barking mad, of course, is the evidence from the CRU documents, which demonstrates without a shred of doubt these particular science professionals weren’t relying on their knowledge or insight.  Seduced by the immensity of the prize, they systematically obscured their knowledge.  They fudged, and they cheated.

This is evident from their reaction to the decline in global temperatures over the last decade.  In public, the CRU climatologists argued with some vehemence that global warming will be a calamity for our species.  In private, they were horrified when warming stopped in 1998, and conjured methodological “tricks” to conceal this fact – enshrined in the notorious phrase, “hide the decline.”  Such duplicity effectively rules out idealism as their motive.

But there’s another aspect of the scandal which I find even more troubling, though it has received less attention:  the damage done to science, to the scientific tradition.  At the CRU, as in medieval theology, the answer was known.  Virtuosity was demonstrated in the various techniques for reaching the one answer.  This approach soon pollutes and confuses the fact-seeking mind:  reality, after all, has now become an obstacle to be surmounted.  The hacked documents from the CRU betray a disorientation, a bizarre loss of coherence, which is humorous on the surface but frightening in its implications.

The commented software code in the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file – described as the “core of CRU’s climate model” – reads like something out of Through the Looking Glass. Facts mean what climatologists say they mean.  We realize immediately, on looking at the arbitrary muddle of the code, why the CRU imposed such secrecy.  The alternative, we now see, was to fall from the pinnacle of professional prestige to the depths of ridicule and contempt.

The file calls to mind some epigone in the dim twilight of the Roman Empire, copying a copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest, introducing more errors with each version, growing irretrievably divorced from the spirit of inquiry which sustained classical science.

I don’t really believe mad scientists are going to take over the world.  But I do worry about arrogant, irresponsible professionals tearing away at the fabric of social relations which keeps modern science alive.  If science was merely a method, there would be no harm done:  we would just go back to the book, find the formula, and start over. Unfortunately, science is craft, behavior, tradition, and once these are forgotten science can be lost.

I worry that my children’s generation will stand on the edge of a chasm darkened by ignorance and zealotry.  It adds a deeper, sadder meaning to the phrase, “hide the decline.”

Where blogging takes guts

November 23, 2009

I blog because I want to, and suffer no consequences.  The epic crisis in my blogging career was the long march from Radio Userland to WordPress.  It took less than an hour to accomplish.

That isn’t the way everywhere.  The Cuban blogmother, Yoani Sanchez, was heaved through a car window and roughed up by regime thugs for describing her life, in all its totalitarian weirdness, on her blog.

Yoani’s husband, Reinaldo Escobar, is a former journalist and now also a blogger – his blog’s name translates as “From here.”  Here is a dangerous place to blog from.  After the  assault on his wife, he published a post (all in Spanish) showing a photo of one of Yoani’s attackers, and “challenging” him to meet in a designated place in downtown Havana on 20 November.  Escobar said he didn’t want a duel, only an discussion about had had been done to Yoani, and he added that he would bring witnesses.

The consequences can be seen in Escobar’s next post, and are chatted up all over the lively Cuban blogosphere.  Yoani’s attacker never turned up.  Instead, a regime-organized mob marched to the assigned spot and proceeded to pound on Escobar – much the same experience that befell Yoani.  Escobar’s friends, including many fellow-bloggers, acted as a “shield” for him, he writes, and shared in the beating.  They took a video of the “repudiation” march, in which one can discern security types hulking over the throng, which keeps chanting, “The streets belong to Fidel.”  This is not about power to the people.

Two possible conclusions can be drawn from this episode.

One is that, in Cuba, dissidence is life-threatening, and idealistic bloggers who pretend to freedom of expression will be crushed without mercy.  The evidence to support this assessment is growing every day.

The second is that the regime is terrified of even the most virtual deviation from total subservience.  They arranged for some 400 people to leave their work, rustled up a rumba band, marched the whole crew to the spot Escobar had assigned, and threw them against a solitary blogger and his friends.  That’s a big investment.  The Cuban security apparatus, we can be sure, reads the native bloggers avidly, and is frightened of their free ways.

I won’t waste time condemning the tyranny in Havana.  Others, better placed, have done so recently, and in any case the anti-Escobar thugs stand condemned out of their own mouth.

But I do wish to honor the courage of these bloggers, with Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar at the forefront, who quietly defy brutal tyrants, and stand in the way of the violent mob.  They are pilgrims for freedom, and their behavior – unlike that of any of us in the US blogosphere – appears truly epic in its conflicts and perils.

May they reach safe harbor at the end of their journey.

Photo: AP

When scientists assume the missionary position

November 21, 2009

Human beings, we accept, always fall short of the ideal.  Politicians are rarely statesmen, and the lives of great artists seldom approach the majesty of their creations.  The same is true of scientists:  they too are human, and possess their share vanity and ambition.  It would be too much to expect that they embody the disinterested ideals of science.

Maybe this accounts for some of the information, hacked illegally and made available on the Web, that has leaked out of the Hadley Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia.  The picture that emerges is of a cabal of scientists who are very interested indeed:  to advance the faith in global warming, to punish those who disagree, to obtain funding for their pet projects.  Possibly, science, like making sausages, isn’t something that outsiders should observe from the factory floor.

But there’s another possibility, which seems to me more likely.  The tone from the hacked emails is a familiar one:  that of the rationalist confronting the superstitious mob.  There are the few who know, and the many who don’t.  The little group of Ascended Ones at the Hadley CRU kept a close watch on where the boundary lay, warning one another about fellow scientists judged to be “a rather loose cannon” or “not as predictable as we’d like.”  Inquiring journalists were  told to listen to them alone, and treat all critics  as fools.

The rationalist pattern hasn’t changed since Plato wrote the Republic.  First, the muddle of human life is abstracted into a formula.  Then the formula is turned back as a standard for life, and – given that we always fall short of the ideal – life fails the test.  Finally, the gap between the formula and reality exasperates the rationalist, who discerns vast conspiracies by evil forces to frustrate the marriage of humanity and perfection.

The formula in this case was of course global warming, and the superior minds at the CRU were deep into conspiracies and counter-conspiracies to destroy the skeptics and convert the dim but powerful public.  These scientists had abandoned science to do politics.  More:  they had become pitchmen, party hacks, missionaries who knew the answer before they looked at the data.  The level of hypocrisy,  deception, and self-righteousness in their emails would make any of the Mad Men blush.

Two consequences can follow from the revelations coming out of the Hadley CRU.  When scientists assume the missionary position, it’s science that gets ravaged.  Ordinary people, in their sensible way, might decide that only a sick enterprise would embrace such deceitful, manipulative characters.  Such a loss of confidence would have an incalculable effect on our health and well-being.

Or we will learn that scientists aren’t science, and we will refuse to be hectored and bullied by them into changing our laws, economic system, and daily lives to accommodate their enthusiasms.  Scientists are workers in the field of knowledge.  There is honor in that.  But they are not our political guardians, and we will treat them like the plain citizens they are.

That would make this an important episode in the liberation of the twenty-first century from false prophets and self-righteous zealots.

Smallness, writ large

November 20, 2009

I probably make fun of the Europeans too often – but what the heck, they make such an easy target.  They don’t marry, they can’t reproduce, they don’t trust their own people to govern themselves but they want to give citizen rights to the hairier primates.  They roast cars on holidays.  Their social adventures resemble nothing so much as – well, a French farce.

Also, they look funny.

Sorry. . .  The two magnificent exemplars of humanity shown above are the new president and foreign affairs minister of the European Council.  These are not just new incumbents – they occupy newly minted positions.  They were not elected, even by apes.  They represent no party or stream of public opinion.  Nobody knows why they ended up where they did, or what they are supposed to do now they are there.

The EU Constitution called for a president and a foreign minister – but that went down in flames way back in 2005.  Mistakes were made:  the French and the Danes were allowed a vote on the matter.  The constitution, an ugly bloated thing, was given a facelift and a girdle, and renamed the Lisbon Treaty.  It almost failed as well, when the Irish voted it down.  Luckily the Irish were allowed to vote again until they got it right.

For reasons nobody can account for, big names sought the presidency.  Tony Blair, for one – he was rejected because any big name who wanted this job was perceived to be nutters.  The defeat of Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar, on the other hand, probably had something to do with his mustache.

The winner is a Belgian whose name is Herman Van Rompuy.  No, really.  Herman Van Rompuy is the president of Europe.  One can learn about him here.  He appears happily innocent of convictions, but skilled in the art of nailing majestic-sounding title plates outside his office:  a member of the Euro-elite in good standing, in other words.

The foreign minister is a Labor baroness from the UK.  No doubt she’s an egalitarian aristocrat, and unlike Herman Van Rompuy she already has her title.  So there’s that.  While, being a baroness, she has never held elective office, one Euro-parliamentarian has stoutly defended her character as “reassuringly dull.”

One need only look on their faces to see the future of Europe.  It’s small in a big way.  These people embody a vision of Europe as a larger Switzerland, a mega-Belgium, a colossal old folks’ home.  Their political philosophy is a kind of narcolepsy.  Excitement in any form would make them keel over.

Historians of the future will wonder how the continent that gave us Luther and Columbus – and more recently, Churchill and De Gaulle – could produce, at the end, only a diminishing series of Herman Van Rompuys all in a row.

In praise of convention

November 19, 2009

The human animal is a creature of habit.  We follow well-worn behavioral paths, because they make life simpler and easier.  If I were to project constant spontaneity and originality into every moment, I would achieve the definition of lunacy.

When a community embraces some habit over time and across large populations, it becomes a convention.  Both mean performing some action in a way that feels right, but a convention is shared:  it has a social dimension lacking in purely personal habits.  The shared feeling of rightness has been a powerful driver of human behavior.  It seems to develop in early childhood, and it commands obedience to the end of life.

Like habits, conventions simplify daily existence.  If each of us had to learn from scratch an original way to speak, write, play the piano, or drive a car, our progress would be stuck at the amoeba level.  Conventions thus liberate far more than they constrain.  They open wide the city gates so we can enter into our culture, manipulate its tools, and see farther, because we stand, like Newton, on the shoulders of giants.

Much more than habits, conventions relay information:  about persons, places, or actions.

Consider the bizarre convention we call sports.  If I observe a man in cap, hose, and a single leather glove, I know he’s a baseball player.  If I’m sitting in a bleacher with a crowd of thousands, looking down on a diamond-shaped field, I know I’m in a ballpark – and certain specific behaviors are expected, like drinking beer and screaming at the umpire.  And I also know the home team conventionally wears white, the visitors gray – clues about whom to cheer for.

Similar patterns can be found in politics, love, sex, art, friendship, even (as we shall see) morality.  Most of what makes life worth living is conventional.

Because convention is grounded in public opinion, it naturally evolves.  When I started work, men were expected to wear suits.  Today, we wear “business casual,” which is, in fact, tightly regimented attire:  dress shirt, dress pants, no necktie.  In my office, however, managers still all wear ties – like home whites, clues about whom to root for.

Contradictory or confused conventions usually signal social distress.  Women invariably used to wear skirts or dresses at the office.  Today, unlike men, their work attire is all over the place.  Some may see in this a liberation, but I believe it reveals a profound uncertainty about women’s expectations for themselves.

Americans tend to scorn convention as shallow and conformist.  We claim to prefer originality, individualism, depth of self-expression.  Our heroes are loners and rebels.  The problem is that these qualities, to be intelligible, must be delivered in some conventional form.

To the extent that there’s any reality to the American craving for being real, it’s a shared affection for a certain kind of style.  Style binds sublime ideals to trivial objects in an active display of rightness:  it’s the poetry which brings the prose of convention to life.  The American style is spare, lean, ornery, and solitary; and we each asssume this style, more or less successfully, by trial and error, study and rehearsal, never by an outburst of personal expression.

Every convention originates in an ideology:  a moral structure, if you will.  In their totality, and when style is added to the equation, conventions drive us toward a moral ideal, a sort of perfect person – the brave warrior, the good father, the public-minded citizen – even as they wall us off from outsiders, the gentile and the barbarian.

In Jordan, Bedouins and Palestinians wear identical checkered headgear:  one is red, the other black.  In Spain, as late as the civil war ladies in the city wore hats, but peasant women wore shawls.  Conventions help to distinguish us from them in the public sphere no less than the baseball field.

I can’t see how any moral ideal can become human behavior without a convention intervening.  Even if one internalized an ideal in some wholly original way, that would not be communicable unless it became conventional.  This is certainly true of behaviors necessary to a pluralistic community, which ultimately rest on persuasion and public opinion.

But it is also true in spades of those ideals based on revealed religion.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam – the very names conjure a wealth of rituals and conventions that affirm the faith and right behavior.

The God of the Torah, of the Gospels and the Koran, not only approved of convention but commanded many:   no doubt he knows, much better than we do, that the good life begins not with a flash of insight or an existential crisis, but with shared habits pushing us inch by inch toward perfection.