Over the weekend I found myself fascinated by the story of a group of prominent scientists who conspired to promote the theory they supported. Their correspondence revealed how they agonised over the impact of others’ publications and reviews, planned their public commentary so that their critics would be thwarted, and worked together to raise the prominence of their theory with the public. Yes, the fascinating final episode of Darwin’s Brave New World on ABC1 delved into all of these machinations from Sir Charles Darwin and the supporters of his theory of natural selection – but while the history of one of the most important scientific theories was being presented, the actions of some modern scientists have come under scrutiny for their own apparent collusion.

Last Friday, emails and data taken from a server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit were made available to the public. News of the files quickly spread around the climate science blogosphere, and the blogs of the so-called “global warming sceptics” quickly turned their attention to finding the most incriminating evidence of scientific malpractice. For those who already viewed the science of global warming as a con being perpetrated on the world by scientists and governments with the silent assent of the media, these emails were the smoking gun they had hoped for. But are their proclamations of doom for the science of global warming valid, or is their desire to see a conspiracy stretching their arguments beyond the evidence?

Andrew Bolt’s blog serves as a prime example of how those who already denied global warming have responded. Bolt first posted news of the emails on Friday afternoon. He then began to present some of the emails that were considered most damning – in particular, Bolt and others highlighted the reference by Phil Jones to using a “trick” to “hide the decline” in a data series. He continued to update with quotes from more emails as they were discovered. By the time the hacking was confirmed by the UEA on Friday evening (Australian time), Bolt was prepared to call it “a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science”.

When Bolt resumed his blogging early on Saturday morning, he went in hard and heavy on the “warmist conspiracy”. His commenters went along with him, asserting that the scientists should be charged with treason and that any plans to introduce emissions trading should be abandoned immediately. Bolt began to broaden his attack, highlighting links to Australian government institutions such as the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology and then evaluating the news media’s response to the emails – and, not surprisingly, finding it lacking. It seems that journalists’ pesky insistence on verifying facts, attempting to place the emails in context and seeking a reaction from those involved prevented them from hastily unmasking the grand conspiracy that underpins all climate science.

As the email commentary moved into its second full day, Bolt sought to brand the conspiracy – while some bloggers went for the cliché “ClimateGate”, he encouraged his readers to be more inventive in their labelling. He also divined the true source of the leaked files – moving from describing it on Friday as a theft by hackers in which “the ethics [were] dubious” to Sunday’s statement that it was “whistleblowing, almost certainly by an insider”. This was an interesting “trick” which allowed Bolt to clear away some moral ambiguities in his own commentary and also to attack the “news outlets of the Left” who insisted on saying the information came from hackers. As he refined his own message leading into the new week, Bolt continued to criticise “the paid mainstream media” for failing to break the story, being slow to cover it, and equivocating about its implications. Even the existence of news stories that were being widely read somehow became evidence that the media was not paying the story due attention.

The frenzied weekend of posting by Andrew Bolt illustrates what the so-called sceptics would like this “scandal” to be – the unmasking of a vast conspiracy, in which the scientists have committed scientific fraud to advance their case for a theory that has been corrupted by the interests of environmental groups and government funded bodies, while the Left-leaning media has complied in promoting the global warming agenda. This purported grand conspiracy fits easily with the existing notion that the draft Copenhagen agreement is a step toward establishing a world government, that our universities and research centres are tainted by the agenda-driven funding of climate science, and that global warming is the Left’s new tool to control our society and economy.

But what do the emails actually show? Some of the claims of scientific fraud have been debunked already, and the eagerness of those mining the data to capitalise on one or two damning words has brought up red herrings that are easily explained when the message is taken in context, such as Jones’s supposedly fraudulent “trick”. This is not to suggest the emails are not potentially damaging to the reputations of their authors – for instance, they raise some serious questions about the handling of FoI requests and the integrity of some peer-review and editorial processes. Some of those issues deserve further scrutiny, and if anyone is found to have engaged in improper conduct then they will have to shoulder the consequences.

In yesterday’s Crikey email, Sinclair Davidson argued that the emails suggest “overall a pattern of poor behaviour” and that “the public, whose taxes finance that behaviour” are entitled to be displeased. I recently wrote about the importance of confidence in publicly-funded research, but I think Professor Davidson overstates the implications of these emails for confidence in the scientific process. In my view, what the emails highlight more than anything is that ego and politics continue to affect how scientists approach their work – especially when the science will itself influence politics and society. Much of what the authors discussed was about making the strongest presentation of their evidence, their concerns about the weaknesses and unexplained details in their arguments, and how to rebut the claims of their critics – many of whom, such as Andrew Bolt, have a strong public voice but draw on pseudoscientific reasoning and misrepresentation to attack the research evidence. In short, the emails suggest a clique – a small, exclusive group of like-minded experts discussing how to advance the evidence for their theory – rather than a broad conspiracy.

Proponents of a theory will discuss how to deal with the things they cannot yet explain, such as the recent slowing of global warming. Scientists might be loose, or even inappropriate, in how they talk about their critics when sending personal emails to their colleagues. And when they see serious practical and policy implications for their work, they are likely to discuss how to present a clear and coherent message to the public. The fundamental question is, do these emails discredit the scientific evidence that our understanding of human-induced climate change is based on? As much as some might like to hurry us toward that conclusion, it is not clear how these discussions by a small set of climate scientists undermine the many decades of theory and research that is the basis our current knowledge.

ELSEWHERE:Responses from RealClimate on Friday and today; Ruth Brown at Crikey’s Rooted blog; two posts at Larvatus Prodeo from Saturday and today; Tim Lambert yesterday and today; and the conspiracy theory counter-argument from Tim Blair.

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