Occasionally politicians,* for whom constituent interests are normally paramount, must remind scientists that the public’s reverence for science can not be assumed. Such was the case recently after someone in November 2009 hacked into a server used by the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the publicly funded University of East Anglia, a little over 100 miles northeast of London. Thousands of documents, including e-mails, appeared on various Internet sites whereupon critics of the anthropogenic global warming thesis noisily sought to use the hacked material to discredit it.
One need not be especially cantankerous to observe that anthropogenic global warming is a compound proposition, consisting of not one but two principal elements, one of which is much more difficult to prove than the other. It may be indeed true that a steady increase in global temperatures over time can be shown by a mountain of systematically collected quantifiable evidence. However, verifying the nature and extent of discrete human causes of such a phenomenon is a far more complex matter. There are numerous variables in such a process, many of which are interactive, and all of which are difficult to isolate from the others. The computer coded algorithms on which most such theses rely are no more nor less than highly sophisticated exercises in statistics. And even the best educated among us occasionally confuse statistical correlation with causation.
In response to the ‘global warming’ tumult in cyberspace, widely dubbed “Climategate,”** during the early months of 2010 various august persons and organizations investigated allegations that the hacked data and e-mails revealed manipulation of evidence and a conspiracy to unlawfully withhold data to protect the CRU scientists’ conclusions from public scrutiny. These inquiries prudently avoided investigating or debating the merits of the anthropogenic global warming thesis itself. The resulting reports focused instead on (1) whether the scientists had adhered to “standard scientific practice” in managing their climate data and computer codes; and (2) whether CRU researchers had attempted to prevent the release of data and e-mails responsive to lawful requests under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.
Now, let’s pause to consider an interest far more important than the the careers of the ‘Climategate’ combatants, and certainly no less significant for human society in the long term than the persistent warming of the planet.
Scientists traditionally look to the fellows of their guild to judge the validity of their work (‘peer review’), arguing that only scientists can judge science. But scientists are not only members of their profession. Most are also members of a form of civil society wherein actions are judged and policy is made on the basis of constitutionally adopted and publicly –openly– administered principles and laws. What’s more, there are likely to be policymakers both here and in the UK who are the intellectual peers of the best scientists practicing.
Those who work with numbers and algorithms, as ‘hard’ scientists and engineers do, are not exceptionally reliable arbiters of qualitative or moral judgments–including their own. Codifying this view the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of cases during the 1990s, affirmed that the judiciary, not scientists–notwithstanding all their peer reviews–determines what is valid evidence in federal law, even when litigation involves scientific or engineering questions.
Likewise, the Freedom of Information Acts of both the UK and the United States do not exempt from public disclosure scientific information per se held by public authorities (of which the University of East Anglia is one). However, academic research institutions in general and the science establishment in particular–neither of which could survive without regular infusions of public funds–have managed to insert weasel wording into their respective countries’ FOIA regulations allowing them to withhold from disclosure research data salient to matters of public policy.
Here’s how: In 1998 U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala) introduced language into the Omnibus Appropriations Act for fiscal year 1999 extending the FOIA to research data produced not only by government researchers, but under federally funded research awards. During the lengthy federal administrative process of revising legislative implementation guidelines that followed, the National Academy of Sciences, along with various research institutions partially supported by federal research grants and contracts, successfully lobbied the White House Office of Management and Budget to exempt from the FOIA disclosure of research data “necessary to be held confidential by a researcher until they are published, or similar information which is protected under law [e.g., intellectual property or national security information].” Thus did the guild reserve to itself the discretion to reveal the existence of research data acquired with public funds, and to decide whether any of it might be subject to timely public release. The scientific establishment in the U.K. obtained similar language in the U.K.’s corresponding statute.
Returning to ‘Climategate,’ the British Information Commissioner (IC) found that the CRU data at issue was indeed subject to the FOIA and the European Union’s Environmental Information Regulations, enforceable by the IC. The IC also found that the CRU’s e-mails disclosed by the hacking episode provided prima facie evidence that “some requests for information were considered an imposition, that attempts to circumvent the legislation were considered and that the ethos of openness and transparency the legislation seeks to promote were not universally accepted.” Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on where one stood, the initial FOIA complaint had not been made within the six-months period required by the statute, and thus the Information Commissioner’s inquiry could not proceed beyond the prima facie evidence.
Meanwhile, the report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, issued March 31, 2010, reproduced “hacked e-mails [which] appear to reveal scientists encouraging their colleagues to resist disclosure and to delete e-mails, apparently to prevent them from being revealed to people making FOIA requests.” Nonetheless it chose to defer to the IC’s necessarily inconclusive inquiry into the alleged University of East Anglia’s FOIA violations. The committee concluded: “A great responsibility rests on the shoulders of climate science: to provide the planet’s decision makers with the knowledge they need to secure our future. The challenge that this poses is extensive and some of these decisions risk our standard of living. When the prices to pay are so large, the knowledge on which these kinds of decisions are taken had better be right. The science must be irreproachable.”
This conclusion begs the question of just whose responsibility it is to ensure that the science used to shape public policy decisions is irreproachable. The answer must be that the responsibility for justifying national policy decisions belongs to the people, through their elected representatives, even when scientific or technical judgments are involved. (Indeed, in the 21st century few national policy issues lack some scientific or engineering component.) The uses of scientific research in resolving public policy disputes are a matter of judgment. Such judgments must be made in the public forum, through open and fully informed debate. Not only is this so as a matter of constitutional principle; it is so because the reality of science is that its truths are not imperfect or immutable. To argue otherwise is to argue doctrine, not experience.
* Politician: a policy-maker whose policies one opposes.
** A designation inspired by the 1972 break-in of Democratic Party National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel-office complex in Washington, DC, which became a factor in the downfall of the Nixon presidency.
Text sources: Available on request.