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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Climate science's PR disaster Add to ...

Steve McIntyre is a mild-mannered Toronto businessman who dabbles in statistics as a hobby. But to some climate scientists, he's Public Enemy No.1. They mention him often in their e-mails and try to make sure his criticisms of their work aren't published. "They're really showing a siege mentality," he says.

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Mr. McIntyre is a bit player in a scandal that has swept the world of climate science like a mighty hurricane. It features leading scientists who, to the conspiratorially minded, seem to be colluding to manipulate data, withhold information, delete records and stifle dissent. "The worst scientific scandal of our generation," declared one opinion writer in the Telegraph. Not quite. But the so-called "Climategate" affair - thousands of hacked e-mails made public on the eve of the Copenhagen convention - gives a pile of ammunition to those who believe global warming is a giant boondoggle.

The damaging e-mails were hacked from the servers of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. Its temperature databases provide much of the case for global warming. Some of them appear pretty damning. One says, "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." Another refers to a "trick" that can be used to "hide the decline" in temperature. One from Phil Jones, the centre's director, says, "I will be e-mailing the journal to tell them I'm having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor."

Even sympathizers concede the e-mails are a PR disaster. "It isn't worth pretending that this isn't a major blow," wrote well-known British environmentalist George Monbiot, who's making an appearance this evening in Toronto.

"Climategate" brings a long-running and very bitter battle into the open. On one side are the "warmists," characterized by their opponents as true believers who manipulate the science to make it look as if the world is about to end. On the other side are the "denialists," who, backed by Big Oil billions, are out to prove that global warming is a hoax. Both sides accuse the other of dirty tricks.

Mr. McIntyre, a semi-retired mining executive with a math background, claims he belongs to neither camp. "I'm an anarchist," he says. If so, he sure knows how to lob bombs. He has sought to discredit the data underlying the famous " hockey stick" (the temperature graph that shows global temperatures suddenly spiking up after centuries of being flat) and has taken a run at tree-ring data. He even found a technical error that forced NASA to revise its claim that 1998 was the warmest year on record in the United States. (It was 1934.)

Some climate scientists dismiss him as a nut - but a dangerous one. "Michael Mann [the scientist behind the 'hockey stick']accuses me of scientific fraud," says Mr. McIntyre. "He says I'm on the same payroll as the other deniers."

For us ordinary mortals, when it comes to climate change, "objective science" can be awfully hard to find. As a few dismayed scientists point out, the real issue is not whether the University of East Anglia torques its temperature records. It's the effort to suppress research you don't like. "What has been noticeably absent so far in the Climategate discussion is a public reaffirmation by climate researchers of our basic research values: the rigours of the scientific method (including reproducibility), research integrity and ethics, open minds, and critical thinking," American climate scientist Judith Curry wrote. She figures the damage inflicted by this affair on the credibility of climate research "is likely to be significant."

Academic spats, name-calling, data-massaging and cozy peer review by friends are not exactly rare in the world of science. You'll find them anywhere that careers, reputations and resources are on the line. The difference is we are not usually asked to wager billions on the findings. Given the stakes, it's hard not to conclude that climate science is too important to be left to scientists.

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