Climategate 2.0: Bias in Scientific Research

November 23rd, 2011 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

Ever since the first Climategate e-mail release, the public has become increasingly aware that scientists are not unbiased. Of course, most scientists with a long enough history in their fields already knew this (I discussed the issue at length in my first book Climate Confusion), but it took the first round of Climategate e-mails to demonstrate it to the world.

The latest release (Climategate 2.0) not only reveals bias, but also some private doubts among the core scientist faithful about the scientific basis for the IPCC’s policy goals. Yet, the IPCC’s “cause” (Michael Mann’s term) appears to trump all else.

So, when the science doesn’t support The Cause, the faithful turn toward discussions of how to craft a story which minimizes doubt about the IPCC’s findings. After considerable reflection, I’m going to avoid using the term ‘conspiracy’ to describe this activity, and discuss it in terms of scientific bias.

It’s Impossible to Avoid Bias

We are all familiar with competing experts in a trial who have diametrically opposed opinions on some matter, even given the same evidence. This happens in science all the time.

Even if we have perfect measurements of Nature, scientists can still come to different conclusions about what those measurements mean in terms of cause and effect. So, biases on the part of scientists inevitably influence their opinions. The formation of a hypothesis of how nature works is always biased by the scientist’s worldview and limited amount of knowledge, as well as the limited availability of research funding from a government that has biased policy interests to preserve.

Admittedly, the existence of bias in scientific research – which is always present — does not mean the research is necessarily wrong. But as I often remind people, it’s much easier to be wrong than right in science. This is because, while the physical world works in only one way, we can dream up a myriad ways by which we think it works. And they can’t all be correct.

So, bias ends up being the enemy of the search for scientific truth because it keeps us from entertaining alternative hypotheses for how the physical world works. It increases the likelihood that our conclusions are wrong.

The IPCC’s Bias

In the case of global warming research, the alternative (non-consensus) hypothesis that some or most of the climate change we have observed is natural is the one that the IPCC must avoid at all cost. This is why the Hockey Stick was so prized: it was hailed as evidence that humans, not Nature, rule over climate change.

The Climategate 2.0 e-mails show how entrenched this bias has become among the handful of scientists who have been the most willing participants and supporters of The Cause. These scientists only rose to the top because they were willing to actively promote the IPCC’s message with their particular fields of research.

Unfortunately, there is no way to “fix” the IPCC, and there never was. The reason is that its formation over 20 years ago was to support political and energy policy goals, not to search for scientific truth. I know this not only because one of the first IPCC directors told me so, but also because it is the way the IPCC leadership behaves. If you disagree with their interpretation of climate change, you are left out of the IPCC process. They ignore or fight against any evidence which does not support their policy-driven mission, even to the point of pressuring scientific journals not to publish papers which might hurt the IPCC’s efforts.

I believe that most of the hundreds of scientists supporting the IPCC’s efforts are just playing along, assured of continued funding. In my experience, they are either: (1) true believers in The Cause; (2) think we need to get away from using fossil fuels anyway; or (3) rationalize their involvement based upon the non-zero chance of catastrophic climate change.

My Biases

I am up front about my biases: I think market forces will take care of the fact that “fossil” fuels are (probably) a limited resource. Slowly increasing scarcity will lead to higher prices, which will make alternative energy research more attractive. This is more efficient that trying to legislate new forms of energy into existence.

I also think currently proposed energy policies will cause widespread death and suffering. The IPCC not only destroys scientific objectivity and scientific progress, it also destroys lives.

Therefore, I view it as my moral duty to support the “forgotten science” of natural climate change, a class of alternative hypotheses that have all but been ignored by the IPCC and government funding agencies.

I hope I am correct that most climate change we have experienced is natural. But I also know that “hoping” doesn’t make it so. If I had new scientific evidence that human-caused climate change really was a threat to life on Earth, I would publish it. It would sure be easier to publish than evidence against.

But from everything I’ve seen, I still think Nature probably rules, and that humans (as part of nature) also have some unknown level influence on climate. We know that the existence of trees affects climate – why not the existence of humans?

Countering the Bias

Scientists are human, and so you will never remove the tendencies toward bias in scientific research. You can’t change human nature.

But you can level the playing field by supporting alternative biases.

For years John Christy and I have been advising Congress that some portion of the appropriated funds for federal agencies supporting climate change research should be mandated to support alternative hypotheses of climate change. It’s time for the pendulum to start swinging back the other way.

After all, scientists will go where the money is. If scientists are funded to find evidence of natural sources of climate change, believe me, they will find it.

If you build such a playing field, they will come.

But when only one hypothesis is allowed as the explanation for climate change (e.g. “the science is settled”), the bias becomes so thick and acrid that everyone can smell the stench. Everyone except the IPCC leadership, that is.

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