Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why climatologists need to start filing lawsuits.

UPDATE: I'd prefer not to link Watts (because he's a gish-galloper), but his site echoes the early version of Briffa's rebuttal which may be useful while the CRU servers are acting up. Note that there's nothing important there that could not have been inferred from his paper. "No cherry picking--we used X algorithm from Y reference."

Back in September, climate science gadfly/demagogue Steve McIntyre posted an extensive commentary on the 2000 paleoclimate paper of Keith Briffa, accusing him of cherry-picking Siberian tree ring data from the "Yamal" set. As readers of this 'blog are already well aware, there's no major scientific thesis of modern-day import (such as anthropogenic global warming) that hinges on paleoclimatology let alone on the rings of a handful of Siberian trees. Nevertheless (perhaps even predictably) McIntyre's commentary went "viral" in the right-wing blogosphere; within a few days the socially constructed truth of the Right was that:

  1. the Briffa reconstruction was "debunked",
  2. that this meant that the anthropogenic global warming thesis was based on a "MASSIVE lie",
  3. and that Briffa had engaged in professional misconduct to arrive at his result.

Briffa released a thorough reubuttal (use the Google cache if you have trouble with CRU's web server); the whole crew at RealClimate played "what if" and explored the dependency of "hockey stick" reconstructions--and Briffas paper--on the Yamal data. Neither misconduct nor a blunder turn out to have been made, McIntyre loses, Briffa wins, the story should end there, right?

Of course not. Among climate denialists, no argument ever dies, because nobody--not even academic law professors--has the integrity to do intellectual due diligence, to verify a claim before passing it on. Thus yesterday Jim Lindgren of the Volokh Conspiracy gets to call Briffa "ethically challenged" and accuse him of the same professional misconduct that McIntyre's fans were accusing him of a few months ago, by a cut-and paste "Debunking [of] Briffa’s Version of the Hockey Sticks".

Again, none of it sticks, and one gets the feeling that Lindgren doesn't have the intellectual wherewithal to determine whether or not any of it sticks in so technical a field (and who is Lindgren to declare that CRU are now outside the community of scientists?), but the accusations are made anyway, namely that Briffa is cherry-picking and that the data analyzed in his paper were from "datasets, researchers, and locations that he did not disclose"--that is to say that he lied in his paper about what data he was analyzing. Pretty serious accusations to be making so lightly!

Maybe Lindgren stopped just short of libel and maybe he didn't--one would think he knows better than to cross the line--but it's clear that this is, unlike most disputes in science, not a dispute between gentlemen. Accusations of professional incompetence and misconduct, conspiracy theories in essence, are not what scientists toss back and forth at each other in pursuit of the truth. My thought are the following: Lawyers (like Lindgren) file libel suits over lesser matters. Climatologists are accused of professional misconduct or worse (think "hoax") over and over again, by prominent people like Lindgren, McIntyre, and other such right-wing commentators daily, to the point where it appears to be akin to the Marxist Propaganda of the Deed, a shaming, a "counting coup", an unfair tactic that has people believing that the accusations "must be true" because they are unanswered. The everyday punching bags--Briffa, Hughes, Jones, Mann, just to name a few--need to start identifying the easy targets, who are local and whose remarks are most clearly tortious, and start making them hurt. Reasonable people, gentlemen, would be stopped in echoing these libels by the rebuttals if not by their factual inaccuracy. The denialists aren't reasonable or decent people and they need to be dealt with in terms the unreasonable and indecent understand. Joe Schmoe made that accusation and settled out of court for X dollars" might stop the denialists from repeating their wildest personal attacks when mere rebuttals don't.