Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


For those who haven't heard yet, one of the 800 pound gorillas in the global warming debate, the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was recently hacked. Over 1,000 e-mails and even more related documents were absconded with and publicly released. The university and CRU are trying to play off the e-mails and documents as harmless exchanges of ideas, while climate skeptics are convinced that they pretty much discredit the whole concept of global warming. They have been referred to as, "not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud" and "quite breathtaking". Defenders and attackers break down pretty much along pre-determined lines, though there are a few exceptions. Most notably, George Monbiot, a well-known environmentalist, has admitted that the e-mails could "scarcely be more damaging".

Of course, what would this whole story be without my scientifically unsound punditry? So, here goes. There is little doubt that CRU scientists engaged in thuggish behavior. E-mails show attempts to circumvent a FOIA request, cherry-picking data, and most importantly, pressure on peer-reviewed journals that dare to publish papers sceptical of global warming from the very same people who base their rejection of skeptics on their lack of published papers. At the very least, the scientists involved in the most egregious acts should find themselves discredited, embarrassed, and jobless. However, just as I would reject someone arguing that private hypocrisy from a politician invalidates their political arguments, private thuggery from a scientist does little to invalidate otherwise trustworthy scientific data. One can be a thug and a lout, and yet still be right.

The much more interesting aspect of all of this will be the code that was leaked. Global warming alarm is based on models of future climate shifts derived largely from historical data. The only alternative way of assessing its validity would be to sit around and see if we all fry, which has certain inherent drawbacks. However, this means that the level of concern we should display hinges in large part on the reliability of these models. Climate scientists have resisted making their models and data available for public assessment at every opportunity, which does not inspire much confidence. Now that CRU's data has been made available despite their best attempts to protect it, scores of interested geeks are pouring over the models and the data. Their conclusions will take time, but will be far more revealing than anecdotes about the bad behavior of a few scientific bullies.

P.S. In case it needs to be made clear, the hackers obviously did something wrong, and if caught should be prosecuted under the applicable statues. But just as the thuggish behavior of these scientists isn't conclusive evidence of bad scientific results, the illegal behavior of the hackers shouldn't invalidate what they have uncovered.