Climate Wars: Global Warming, ClimateGate, Web 2.0 and Grey Power

The Revenge of the Codgers?

By Rick Jelliffe
March 1, 2010

The UK newspaper The Guardian has a really useful long 12-part series Climate Wars. I don't think anyone wanting to get up to speed on the so-called Climate Wars could find a better introduction, given the controversy, and without having to buy in to every statement there of course.

(The journalist author Fred Pearce has been covering the climate change area for many years, and has a book The Last Generation, How Nature will take her revenge for Climate Change which apparently takes the line that we should be looking at tipping points rather than gradual change when considering the effects of greenhouse gases. )

Pearce summarizes his view that In many ways, ...(this)... is a Shakespearean tragedy of misunderstood motives. He is scathing about professional sceptics and the media:

(from How the 'climategate' scandal is bogus and based on climate sceptics' lies: Almost all the media and political discussion about the hacked climate emails has been based on soundbites publicised by professional sceptics and their blogs. In many cases, these have been taken out of ­context and twisted to mean something they were never intended to. ... If those journalists had read even a few words beyond the soundbites, they would have realised that they were often being fed lies.

And, somewhat less scathingly:

(from Climate scientists contradicted spirit of openness by rejecting information requests: The emails reveal repeated and ­systematic attempts ... to block FoI requests from climate sceptics who wanted access to emails, documents and data. These moves were not only contrary to the spirit of ­scientific openness, but according to the government body that administers the FoI legislation were "not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation".

But the emails also reveal deep and understandable frustration among the scientists at the huge amount of time and energy they were being asked to give up to deal with the requests. This was particularly galling as the sceptics making the requests were, in the scientists' eyes, more interested in picking holes in their analyses to suit an anti-global warming agenda than advancing human knowledge.

Along the way we have some interesting side points: should private emails be subject to Freedom of Information enquiries? "Our private inter-collegial discussion is just that - PRIVATE ... submitting to these demands undermines the wider scientific ­expectation of personal confidentiality ... none of us should submit to these requests." Indeed, is it prudent or possible to never joke or ventilate or use hyperbole or idiom even in private emails, if these could be used against you?

Revenge of the Codgers?

For readers of O'Reilly, the Guardian article has another interesting aspect. They have discovered the miracle of hypertext and allow interested parties to annotate passages they take issue with. Very sensible. I don't know that this is officially Web 2.0 (an editor has to approve, with no exposure of unapproved entries etc), but it is certainly a step towards using Web 1.0 better! :-)

But the most interesting part comment is this (though note this):

Many have accused McIntyre, Keenan and others of being hired hands of corporations out to fight climate change legislation. The Guardian has found no evidence of that. Instead, they appear to be an unanticipated outpost of the rise of "grey power", retired numerate professionals with time on their hands, an obsessive streak in their heads and a cause to pursue.

Will Web 2.0 really be The Revenge of the Codgers?

Now I understand that sometimes codgers have a point. Indeed I grew up with the mythology of the brave amateur battling an inhospitable establishment of scientists who would no recognize anyone outside the group: in my case it was my beloved Grandfather, who took a post-retirement interest in Ancient Metrology (i.e. ancient measurements) and found common units used in megalithic sites around the world. He wondered how replication of a rule would be technically feasible, and came up with a system based on a simple pendulum and the distance between some planets at a certain time. Despite encouragement from one Oxbridge professor, he felt his work was excluded from serious discussion since he was not a trained archeologist. Writing at the same time as von Danekin's rubbish undoubtedly has something to do with the academic climate too. I was pleased to find, a few score years later (and when staying at a Cambridge college for an XML conference) that the idea had resurfaced by some credible academics.

So I don't rule out that external audits or ideas may be valuable, not at all. And, indeed, I suspect that the challenge to science is to figure out how to harness the grey power in effective and productive ways. There is an incredible amount of energy, passion and insight available in Grey Power. (I have mentioned before that standards review is one area which can benefit from Grey Power as well.)

The Double Whammy

So we have a double whammy: first, Web 1.0 has provided access to information to large new groups of amateurs, but no effective forums for allowing scientists to harness this power (in this case, Grey Power to a great extent) in any Web 2.0 style, they get struck, frustrated and cranky in some cases, at pseudo-scientific websites, demanding to be auditors: the scientists haven't see this as a resource to be tapped or managed, but a distraction from normal scientific progress using peer-reviewed literature. Second, within science itself has come an increasing movement since 1995 on reproducible research which emphasizes that all the whole computational environment for a paper should be available as a shrink-wrap, push-button deliverable accompanying a paper. This is way more than Science or Nature apparently require, but looks like being the way of the future.

Contrast it with the reality as seen by the scientists:

(from Part 8:) ... researchers should give enough data and information on their sources and methods so that those "who are scientifically capable can do their own brand of replication work, but that does not extend to personal computer codes with all their undocumented sub-routines etc."

Even so, he felt "it would be odious requirement [sic] to have scientists document every line of [computer] code so outsiders could just apply them instantly. Not only is this an intellectual property issue, but it would dramatically reduce our productivity since we are not in the business of producing software products for general consumption and have no resources to do so."

I like the reproducible research ideal. Especially for controversial or complex research. And I think it fits in with modern ideas of good software engineering. However, I think we need recognize we are on a cusp between a generation of research which was organized around course-grain replication and a new generation which will harness uninvited collaborators though fine-grained reproduction: I am much more indulgent towards Jones et al's efforts to prevent vexatious FoI claims than Pearce is. I think a lot of these issues always come down to budgets.

So even though I think the climate sceptics contain more than traces of nuts, my current take-home message from the Climate Wars is that Grey Power, Web 2.0 and Reproducible Research are a potent and exciting package that the mainstream climate scientists need to figure out how to embrace, harness and ride.

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