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Climategate's guerrilla warriors: pesky foes or careful watchdogs? Add to ...

Much remains murky about the scandal dubbed Climategate, which involves the release last fall of e-mails leaked or stolen from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Initial accounts focused on e-mails that seemed to show scientists deliberately distorting research to make the danger of global warming appear worse than it is. Others have suggested this could be a misreading of the e-mails, most of which, though not all, simply suggest working professionals wrangling over contentious issues and occasionally slagging their critics.

The question of scientific misconduct is still under investigation at East Anglia. But what's clear is that the scandal - one of the biggest to hit the science community in the past decade - wouldn't still be hanging so heavily over climate-change researchers if it weren't for bloggers such as Stephen McIntyre.

A Toronto-based retired mining executive who has emerged as a uniquely polarizing figure in one of our era's most contentious issues, Mr. McIntyre has been an outspoken critic of the CRU's research on his blog, Climate Audit, and has launched countless freedom-of-information requests for data used by its scientists. He likes to speculate that the Climategate e-mails were released by a whistleblower unhappy at the research unit's intransigence over making data public. That may or may not be true, but whoever got hold of the e-mails and made them public clearly kept a close eye on Mr. McIntyre's struggles with the CRU, which form a strong theme in the leaked e-mails.

Many reveal researchers bristling at the armchair scientist's criticism. One e-mail, written by Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, called Mr. McIntyre "the self-appointed Joe McCarthy of climate science." Another referred to him as a "bozo." But Mr. McIntyre doesn't mind the criticism: His website is now getting a million hits a month, double what it got before Climategate.

In the wake of the scandal, blogs that question the reality of man-made global warming have surged in public attention, leading new readers to websites such as Wattsupwiththat.com (run by weatherman Anthony Watts) and climatedepot.com (run by conservative activist Marc Morano). The sites' rising popularity, and the growing influence they appear to wield in shaping public debate, is deeply worrying to the scientific community.

"There has been a transition in the way people get their news over the last decade or so, from the traditional print media to online sources of news," says Michael Mann, one of the key researchers behind the now-famous "hockey stick" graph (which shows the temperature of the Earth steeply rising in the 20th century after a long period of stability - data hotly disputed by the online skeptics, although accepted by the scientific community).

"I think the climate-change-denial movement has recognized that transition was taking place and has really invested a lot of effort and resources in creating this huge infrastructure of online disinformation. And I think it is a challenge for legitimate news organizations to compete with that massive disinformation network."

Science journalist Chris Mooney, co-author of the 2009 book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, calls the Internet a "complete Wild, Wild West for scientific information."

Mr. Mooney thinks the belief in the reality of man-made global warming, which is the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, is losing ground in public opinion because of these blogs. "It's a drumming," he laments. "If it's a football game, it would be 56-0."

AN EPIC GAME OF NITPICKING

The major climate-change-skeptic blogs have distinct identities. Mr. Morano's Climate Depot is a ramshackle aggregator site, gathering together news links from around the world, often putting a partisan spin on them. A former producer for the Rush Limbaugh television show and informal adviser to Republican Senator James Inhofe, Mr. Marino has strong ties to the American conservative movement.

Climate Depot's tabloid style was captured in a headline earlier this week: "The Jig is Up! Climategate U-turn as Phil Jones admits: There has been no global warming since 1995." The spin applied to the story, about a media interview with the former director of the CRU, was picked up by news outlets and columnists around the world. But it distorted Prof. Jones's comments, which actually indicated that a short-term warming trend appears to exist at levels "quite close" to scientifically significant. And Prof. Jones stressed that statistically significant trends are much more likely to be detected over longer periods. "The fact that there is almost 95 per cent certainty about the rise from 1995 to 2009 means that it is likely," he said.

In keeping with his background as a weatherman, Mr. Watts's website focuses on the nitty-gritty of measuring temperatures. As one of the signature issues of his blog, Mr. Watts has focused on meteorological stations, arguing that they were often misplaced - positioned in areas where temperatures were artificially high, such as asphalt parking lots. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responded to this critique by calculating temperatures minus Mr. Watts's list of objectionable stations. Ironically, the new data showed a slight rise in temperatures.

As distinct from Mr. Morano's conservative populism and Mr. Watts's focus on the weather, Mr. McIntyre's Climate Audit is the most highbrow of the climate skeptic blogs. Even Mr. Mooney acknowledges that Mr. McInytre is "more scientifically inclined" than his peers. Climate Audit is regarded by many as the best of all the climate-skeptic blogs, the one richest in detailed technical arguments and most attentive to the rules of science and evidence.

To his many fans, Mr. McIntyre is a sterling example of a citizen-scientist, an amateur who was able to poke holes in a too-quickly constructed consensus. But to his critics, who include some of the most eminent names in climate science, he casts a very different image, as a gifted pest whose scattershot criticisms indiscriminately mix a few valid points with a larger body of half-truths, a potent concoction that produces much confusion but little benefit.

After working for years in the mining industry, Mr. McIntyre, 62, came to the climate-science debate in 2002 when he became suspicious of the political passions surrounding the Kyoto Protocol. He quickly teamed up with University of Guelph economist Ross McKitrick, who shared the businessman's doubts over the hockey stick graph, which became emblematic of the global-warming argument.

Their 2005 critique of the graph, published in Geophysical Research Letters, sparked a renewed examination of the hockey-stick data, but didn't make any fundamental change in the debate. Since its original publication, the graph research has been replicated by nearly a dozen studies. Although the hockey stick has been battered and bruised by many critics, it still works.

"What McIntyre has essentially done is put his finger on small technicalities that don't matter," argues Prof. Mann, now based at Pennsylvania State University. "In every case, they've been dismissed. When the question arises, does it make a difference? The answer is always no. All that is important to him is to be able to say that he's found a problem and then allow everybody else to say this fundamentally undermines the science."

The key objection to the work of bloggers such as Mr. McIntyre is that they are engaged in an epic game of nitpicking: zeroing in on minor technical issues while ignoring the massive and converging lines of evidence that are coming in from many disciplines. To read their online work is to enter a dank, claustrophobic universe where obsessive personalities talk endlessly about small building blocks - Yamal Peninsula trees, bristlecones, weather stations - the removal of which will somehow topple the entire edifice of climate science. Lost in the blogging world is any sense of proportion, or the idea that science is built on cumulative work in many fields, the scientists say.

Understandably, Mr. McIntyre doesn't agree with dismissals of his work, and the criticism he has received has made him increasingly critical of the peer-reviewed process that has vindicated the hockey-stick graph. "Peer-reviewed scientists have denied the point of [our]research," he complains. Many of his recent attacks on climate change have focused on the argument that seemingly independent studies validated by peer review are actually the work of a small group of insiders who control the peer-review process and rubber-stamp each other's scholarship.

Online writing has other advantages over the peer-reviewed system, some bloggers believe. If blogging is a speedy new medium, peer review is a classic example of a slow and deliberative old medium.

"There are 10 peer-reviewed articles I could draw out of the Climate Audit posts," Mr. McIntyre says, "but I've got this very large audience. I've got to keep feeding the blog."

As much as climate change, the issue of peer review separates Mr. McIntyre from his critics. "There is a very fundamental distinction between the way science actually moves forward, which isn't on blogs," Prof. Mann notes. "It's through the traditional process of doing the hard work necessary to get your work published in legitimate peer-reviewed scholarly journals and then it's out there for others to either improve upon, to refute, to address. That's the self-correcting process. Frankly, that process has been subverted by those who … make sometimes outlandish claims in the completely un-peer-reviewed environment of the Internet."

Still, the scientists concede that the work of some of these online bloggers has led to some necessary corrections - including sloppy misrepresentations of data such as the recent "Glaciergate" brouhaha (over unreliable estimates of when Himalayan glaciers would eventually melt), which Mr. Mooney says the researchers "ought to be ashamed of."

Gavin Schmidt, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Institute for Space Studies cites a mistake that Mr. McIntyre found in an analysis of global temperatures, which "we fixed in a day and thanked him for his attention. That got blown out of all proportion and was made to look like we did it on purpose ... something McIntyre did nothing to prevent. So you take something that is constructive and turn it into a huge piece of misinformation."

One little-known irony of the debate is that for all the harsh words, many scientists have a grudging respect for Mr. McIntyre's intelligence. "He could be a scientific superstar," Mr. Schmidt says. "He's a smart person. He could be adding to the sum total of human knowledge, but in effect he adds to the reduction of the sum total of human knowledge."

As the world looks toward Mexico, where further climate change negotiations are scheduled in July, how much impact have the bloggers had on the political debate? Polling data on the issue is inconclusive and the full impact of Climategate has yet to be felt, but there are some telling signs. Last month, a poll from researchers at Yale and George Mason universities revealed that 50 per cent of Americans are "somewhat" or "very" worried about global warming, down from 63 per cent in 2008.

Jeet Heer is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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