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Climategate Redux

Recent science scandal sheds some light on another climate-science non-scandal.

The Green Grok

By Bill Chameides

Recent science scandal sheds some light on another climate-science non-scandal.

Last week featured two stories about science: one, a disturbing case of scientific misconduct, and the other, a quiet denouement to the story about inaccuracies in the latest climate report by a leading U.N. panel of climate scientists. Neither appeared to receive the same kind of attention as the media frenzy that ensued from climategate last fall and winter. But there is something important to glean from them, so let's take a look.

IPCC Denouement

Climategate, you will recall, was born in November 2009, when a trove of e-mails between climate scientists stored on a server at the University of East Anglia were hacked and posted for all to see. At about the same time, revelations that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2007 report on the state of climate science contained a few factual errors added fuel to the fire. (More background here.)

The e-mail messages and the few, relatively minor errors uncovered in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report were an embarrassment: the e-mails revealed a less-than-collegial attitude among the involved scientists toward climate skeptics, and errors in any report are ... well, embarrassing.

For some in the climate-skeptic community, the incident was proof that the science of anthropogenic climate change really was a hoax: nothing but a pile of falsified data and analyses trumped up by climate scientists united together in a huge conspiracy bent on either furthering some anti-American political and economic agenda or in a plot to trick government agencies to fund their research or both and maybe more.

In response to these concerns, relevant universities and organizations, including the IPCC itself, launched a host of investigations and reviews. All such studies have failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing, scientific fraud, or unethical behavior. (See this related post for more on the investigations and the media's role in climategate.)

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal previewed the findings of another look into the procedures and processes of the IPCC. That report was officially released today by the InterAcademy Council, a body of scientists from national science academies around the world representing the preeminent scientific minds in their respective nations -- in a sense, the ultimate authority on all things scientific. (See my previous post on the InterAcademy Council.) I and I suspect many of my colleagues have been looking forward to this report as the final statement on the IPCC.

Turns out, the InterAcademy's findings are far from sensational -- much like earlier related climategate studies, no findings of misconduct; only recommendations that the organization:

Pretty ho hum in the these days of "in your face" news and discourse, so I guess it's not all that surprising that stories like this (and the retraction by the Sunday Times of London of an inaccurate report by the paper of an inaccuracy in the IPCC report) will receive little or no play. (NPR's On the Media did an entire show this weekend on how inaccuracies in published news reports can have a much more lasting impression on the public than the corrections to those inaccuracies.)

And while we have one more report by a group of independent scientists failing to find any evidence of wrongdoing, I can pretty confidently predict one group will remain unmoved: the group that's convinced itself that the whole climate change thing is a huge conspiracy foisted on the public by a cabal of climate scientists. For these folks I recommend the other story about scientific misconduct in the news last week.

Scientific Misconduct at Harvard

On August 10, the Boston Globe broke the story that after three years of investigation, Harvard University found that Marc Hauser, a prominent researcher and author in evolutionary psychology at Harvard, committed eight instances of scientific misconduct, three of which have already appeared in published papers. Hauser has not admitted to any wrongdoing, but has issued a statement apologizing for "significant mistakes."

Harvard has not detailed what, if any, disciplinary action it will take against Hauser, who is currently on leave (however the university has acknowledged Hauser will be teaching two courses this academic year at Harvard's extension school). In a statement e-mailed to Harvard faculty about the Hauser findings, Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, noted that legal action may be forthcoming from the federal government, given that federal funds supported Hauser's lab work.

The Parallels

So what, you might wonder, has the Hauser debacle to do with climategate? I can think of two.

Much like climate science, the subject of Hauser's work -- the role of evolutionary biology as the progenitor of human morality -- often gets entrained into the culture-war debates that seem to consume our nation.

And for that reason, the subject of scientific misconduct is especially relevant. I guess one might point at the Hauser episode as confirmation that all so-called liberal-minded scientists just can't help fudging the data when it comes to socially charged issues like evolution and climate change. But such a conclusion would be wrong. Just the opposite's true. The "bad apple" exception proves the rule that the scientific and academic community can police itself. Here's why.

Hauser's fraudulent behavior was not discovered by some outside whistle-blower or e-mail-hacking-wannabe-science-police. On the contrary, questions were first raised in the literature by Hauser's own peers, and the scandal was then blown open by Hauser's own graduate students who felt that Hauser was cooking the books and did not want to be part of it.

Here we have a case where a single investigator could not keep his own graduate students from blowing the whistle on misconduct. And a case where the home institution -- Harvard University, the very bastion of academe no less -- acted on the report of the lowly whistle-blowers and launched a thorough investigation of a faculty heavyweight. And somehow, some in the climate-skeptic camp would have us believe that the whole climate science community, involving hundreds of scientists and all their graduate students and technicians, have been falsifying data and no one, not even a single student or technician, has come forward with a substantive and actionable complaint.

No way.

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Climategate Redux