Climate Change and Jesus in a Burnt Toast

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Critics of climate change gleefully point to hacked emails originating from British scientists at the University of East Anglia that purportedly provide evidence of climatologists manipulating data to mask a decline in global temperatures.  Global warming skeptics believe they have proof now that climate change is a liberal plot.  They do not, and the phenomenon of climate change remains sadly robust in spite of a few misinterpreted emails.

Looking to the purloined emails to prove climate change is a hoax is like citing proof that God exists because his image appeared on burnt toast.  The “evidence” cited is nothing but fiction in both cases.  Shakespeare must have had in mind these emails when he drafted “Much Ado About Nothing.”  A tempest in a teapot also comes to mind.  If not so sad, we could find Senator James Inhofe (R – Okla.) oddly amusing as he cites the East Anglia electronic exchange as “evidence” to support his view that climate change is not real, but ignores the solid evidence provided in thousands of pages of expert reports proving the reality of global warming.  We would be hard pressed to find a worst case of selective evidence bias.

Supposedly the most damning of the stolen emails is an exchange between Professor Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia and Professor Mike Mann at Penn State.  What causes apoplexy among the deniers is the following from Jones:  “…the “trick of adding in the real temps to each series … to hide the decline [in temperature].”  Note that Jones is talking about adding in real temperatures; what he is referencing is how to best fit actual data to various models.  Nothing more sinister than that, but easy to take out of context if so motivated.  Also, the word “trick” interpreted by critics to mean “deception” is commonly used in science in an entirely different context.  A good trick simply implies an elegant shortcut to manage large data sets with no loss of data integrity; or to solve previously complex equations with a simple unifying one.  Einstein’s trick was to combine space and time into a single framework.  The use of trick here does not imply a grand conspiracy among scientists in black helicopters working furiously to dupe the public. 

The real trick, as implying deception, would be what the Bush Administration did routinely on the issue of climate change.  For example, Bush officials tried to suppress the use of a well-established 1000-year temperature record, instead substituting an analysis that supported the administration’s position in an official report issued by the EPA.  The White House Council on Environmental Quality censored, and then ceased publication of, a USDA brochure recommending steps that farmers could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Where was Inhofe blowing indignation at these tricks?

But even more outrageous to the Flat Earth Society is the fact that one scientist referred to climate skeptics as “idiots” in his email.  We can forgive him this sin of appellation given how frustrated this scientist would be staring at incontrovertible evidence that is questioned on political rather than scientific grounds.  I am sure a geneticist might be tempted to resort to name calling too if a segment of the public, with senatorial assistance, questioned the data that proved DNA to be our genetic code.   

The stolen emails are nothing but a behind-the-stage look at a few Scientists Gone Wild; in spite of the white coats, scientists are people too, and they say dumb things some times when frustrated just like the rest of us.  That in no way undermines the strength of 2500 scientists  from 166 countries who conclude unambiguously that climate change is real and caused by human activity.  Deniers have no basis on which to claim skepticism if they have not themselves analyzed, and are themselves not qualified to evaluate, the reams of data generated by the climatologists from around the world.  To do so implies that the deniers know more than and have greater expertise than professional climatologists.  That is in fact idiotic.  In every field but climate change we defer to specialists who know more than us; we do not challenge physicists when they find a new subatomic particle and accuse them of a vast conspiracy; we would not be qualified to evaluate the data spewing from a high-energy collider.    Nor are most people qualified to analyze climate data.  And nobody has offered a reasonable explanation of what motivation scientists could possibly have in fabricating this elaborate story.  The scientists who could prove everybody else wrong would be first in line for a Nobel Prize; the competition is stiff to prove climate change wrong, not to collude in some bizarre cover up. But the data are overwhelming in their support of the conclusion that human activity is causing our climate to change.

To believe that dumping 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year would have no impact is a form of collective insanity.  I hope no aliens are watching this debate because we are embarrassing ourselves as a species.