12/18/2009 02:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Toonblog: Lord of the Climategate

Sometime a few millennia ago, a trove of private e-mails were stolen from the East Anglia University Climate Research Unit, or CRU, and made public to great controversy. Several senior researchers angrily vented in what they thought was a private forum about the deniers that bedeviled them for years, and the problems that arise whilst doing a difficult job. They then very unwisely discussed the possibility of refusing to give data to those same deniers since it would be distorted and used to sow doubt. Not brilliant, but then we don't pay these guys to do PR.


By now, any rational person paying attention to "Climategate" has realized there's nothing to it. Check this site if you need further debunking. But there is one part of this mess that is particularly worrisome, in a Lord of The Flies kind of way.

Generally, new scientific ideas are written up and submitted to professional journals. In order to be published, any paper must be vetted by a system known as peer review. Gate keeping sucks, as any night-clubber can tell you, but peer review is considered essential to academic quality. It prevents irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, personal views and tinfoil hat theories from being disseminated as legitimate.

Or at least it did, until the Wall Street Journal got ahold of one of those digital letters in which Phil Jones and Michael Mann were bitching about the bouncer. The two top flight climatologists discussed blackballing a journal called Climate Research because it published a paper claiming that "the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium." Sounds dodgy, and sure enough the Wall Streeters stopped bagging Al Gore long enough to screech, "Censorship!" Here's a portion of what they said:

According to this privileged group, [the CRU scientists], only those whose work has been published in select scientific journals, after having gone through the "peer-review" process, can be relied on to critique the science. And sure enough, any challenges from critics outside this clique are dismissed and disparaged.

Firstly, it's not just "this privileged group." As outlined above, peer review is a global standard, whether you put it in sneer quotes or not. Secondly, yes, only other scientists can and should review scientific work. Who do they want to do it? Plumbers? Third, the paper in question, written by two astrophysicists, Willie Soon and Sallie Balinas, was refuted by 13 of the scientists cited in it. Half the editorial board resigned in protest after the paper was published, and the editor of Climate Research apologized. So, Mann and Jones weren't censoring, but rather objecting to the publication of an obviously flawed paper while worrying that the entire journal had been taken over by the deniers. A little paranoid maybe, but death threats will do that to a person.

Those debating Global Warming include scientists and their allies, semi-reasonable skeptics, and tinfoil hat deniers. But now a new player has popped up that we might call Neo-Luddites, and the WSJ nonsense is a prime example of them. Like the Luddites of old, these folks are not content with simply rejecting science. Instead, they work to destroy it by employing an anti-science screed profoundly damaging to the very base of our technological civilization. Old school deniers previously attacked specific scientific findings. Neo-Luddites gleefully attack the very institution of science itself, claiming that science is incapable of producing a truthful answer because its institutions are irredeemably corrupt.

The Journal's article makes it sound as if there is only one group of scientists, one set of reviewers and one magazine, and they are all evil drinking buddies. They further insinuate that anyone and everyone should be published without being vetted. Besides confusing the First Amendment with empirical data, the Journal is opening a particularly nasty Pandora's Box. If climatology can be attacked this way, why not biology, or medical science? Whatever is not wanted can be hounded out.

That is not only dangerously wrong, it's downright lunacy, but then that's at the core of all this schmeck. Driven out of their minds by the mere possibility Copenhagen might produce something meaningful, (insert bout of bitter laughter here), deniers worldwide have warped into analogs of Golding's unstable schoolboys, worshiping the crudest forms of power and sharpening a stick at both ends for any nasty rationalists who might spoil the party by attempting ignition of a critical rescue fire.

Let's hope the ship shows up soon.