The controversy surrounding the stolen emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit continues to swirl, but it's important to see the issue within the context in which scientific discovery occurs. That process underscores the importance of collective knowledge, more than single discoveries, and the role of the Scientific Method in continually challenging orthodoxy.
Last week Professor Phil Jones, director of the Unit, stepped down from his position at the research facility pending the outcome of an independent investigation into charges that data about global warming had been manipulated. Earlier this week one of the world's leading authorities on climate change dismissed the controversial emails as simply colleagues "letting off steam" and re-affirmed his confidence in the Unit's research.
Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), went on to tell CNN that there was simply no way that any manipulated data from the Unit could have made it into the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, the most authoritative report on climate change. "There are so many checks and balances in the processes and procedures that we follow at the IPCC, there is not one iota of possibility that something like this would happen."
Despite the obvious embarrassment and turmoil caused by the emails, the scientific process is not dependent on any one set of research data. Even as Professor Jones stands by his data, the scientific process is structured to challenge new discoveries.
Articles are peer-reviewed before they're published in scientific journals. Checks and balances are commonplace, and a wide range of evidence and scholarly sources are relied upon. As Professor Jones told the Guardian:
"That the world is warming is based on a range of sources: not only temperature records but other indicators such as sea-level rise, glacier retreat and less Arctic sea ice. Our global temperature series tallies with those of other, completely independent, groups of scientists working for NASA and the National Climate Data Centre in the United States, among others. Even if you were to ignore our findings, theirs show the same results."
Moreover, the most convincing argument for anthropogenic influence in global climate change is based on hard physics, i.e. carbon dioxide does absorb long-wave radiation in the lab and in the atmosphere, and warmed air does allow evaporation of water to put more water vapor into the atmosphere, which is also a greenhouse gas that in turn substantially expands the initial warming that CO2 provides.
Global climate change is real. There's no getting around that fact. The earth's atmosphere today contains roughly three times the carbon dioxide (CO2) than it did at the start of the Industrial Revolution about 250 years ago. Here are some additional, irrefutable facts:
• The East Antarctic ice sheet was reasonably stable, but a satellite survey shows that it is losing around 57 billion tons of ice a year;
• Bristlecone pines have grown faster in the past 50 years than at any time in the last 3.7 millennia - an effect of climate change;
• The Greenland ice sheet is losing its mass faster than in previous years and making an increasing contribution to sea level rise;
• The last time CO2 levels in earth's atmosphere were this high was 15 million years ago.
Outside the realm of pure mathematics, all "facts" are approximations, but scientifically verified facts are painstakingly arrived at through the Scientific Method. At its most basic, this method involves: seeing and measuring things, developing ideas and drawing implications about those things, and then rigorously testing those ideas and implications.
Employing the Scientific Method to explain the natural world is a precise and demanding job, and there's no better way. It is becoming even more demanding every year, as the relatively "simple" problems of the past are solved, allowing us to face ever more complex challenges.
With climate research we now understand a lot about the mechanisms of everyday weather - high and low pressure zones, cold fronts, el niños and the like. But there is so much that we still don't understand about the exponentially more difficult problem of predicting how earth's entire climate will behave over time.
Complex science problems like this require teams of researchers. Mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists, climatologists, biologists, chemists and researchers from many other disciplines increasingly are drawn together and must learn to communicate, commiserate and debate across their traditional boundaries. This process was clearly going on with the East Anglia unit, as they attempted to reconcile various data sets, which is a very legitimate process.
In earlier times, these messy scientific conversations would have taken place down at the local pub, and the resulting cocktail-napkin doodles would have been tossed in the trash. Today we wrestle with the increasingly difficult task of getting an accurate intellectual fix on the most complex properties of nature, while electronic communications both increase the ease of interaction and intellectual dialogue and preserve a record for later release by hackers at politically expedient moments.
But in the end the Scientific Method wins out. Even if there had been actual intent to defraud in the East Anglia affair, it would have been uncovered quickly by rival scientists. Given the broad outlines of the climate problem we face, and the fact that our current understanding is formed from many independent and tested sources, using the East Anglia incident to indict all climate-change research amounts to little more than a propaganda ploy.
James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation (www.rescorp.org.).