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Boffins May Be Illegal

[For those of us who have no clue what a "boffin" is, the following definition is provided as a courtesy, and because now you know a new word: "boffins are scientists, engineers, and other people engaged in technical or scientific research ... The word 'boffin' can also be used to refer to any particularly clever person. The closest American equivalent is "egghead"]

THE Climategate scandal continues to unfold. The thousands of emails leaked to the internet from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia reveal a tight-knit, influential group of scientists whose attitude to their profession is, to say the least, distorted.

pope-al-goreIt seems that a religious belief in disastrous climate change has destroyed their common sense and their appreciation of what is the appropriate way to carry out research.

Climategate may at least demonstrate that the concept of a scientific consensus with regard to global warming is nonsense. There may indeed be thousands of scientists contributing to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but on any particular aspect of the overall story all have to rely on the word of the few scientists who are directly involved. And when the particular aspect concerns experimental data on which the whole story rests, the data purporting to show the world is getting warmer, then the consensus argument is indeed on shaky ground.

On the evidence so far, there is not much doubt that the group of scientists linked to the CRU has behaved fairly badly. Any individual email from the Climategate pile may be explained and excused as a stupid mistake of the time, but when all are taken together it seems obvious enough that there have been lots of violations of what might be called the scientific code. The most glaring examples concern efforts to keep basic sets of data out of the hands of people who may not be sympathetic to the official story about the disastrous nature of global warming. This, when the CRU is specifically paid to collate the data gathered by national meteorological services across the world, and to make the data available to outside scientists to check and to use.

In any event, the CRU information is covered by environmental information regulations that specifically require public bodies in Britain to make their data progressively available to the public by electronic means that are easily accessible.

So the ducking and weaving in the face of reasonable requests for CRU data by outside scientists and indeed in the face of Freedom of Information requests by those same outside scientists may not be just bad scientific form. It may be illegal. Which makes the lukewarm reaction to Climategate by the great and powerful of the scientific establishment even more difficult to swallow. The journal Nature, for instance, has this to say: "If there are benefits to the email theft, one [of those benefits] is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts."

Let us ignore the fact that even a prestigious journal such as Nature is happy to label scientific scepticism as the work of "denialists", which is good evidence that the CRU disease has spread far and wide into the general science community. Prior to Climategate, there were probably fewer than a dozen FOI demands to CRU. There would have been no need even for those if the information had been made available when it was first requested.

I said recently in my book The Climate Caper that most scientists simply cannot believe that their colleagues would deliberately oversell a scientific conclusion for the benefit of a political cause. Dishonesty of that nature would fly in the face of everything that the rather idealistic typical scientist has been taught about his profession.

Perhaps Climategate will provide a medium for introducing typical scientists to the real world and perhaps as well it will re-introduce them to the idea that scepticism is the basis of the profession.
Garth Paltridge is an atmospheric physicist and former chief research scientist with the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research. His book The Climate Caper is published by Connor Court.


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