Spencer Weart: My most interesting conversations were with historians who have been studying the history of the tobacco companies that did their best, and quite successfully for many years, to cover up the fact that smoking kills people by the million.  Some interesting parallels, but…

The Discovery of Global Warming book cover imageSo begins a fascinating interview of Weart on the illegally hacked emails by Capital Weather Gang’s Andrew Freedman.  Dr. Weart is a physicist and science historian with the American Institute of Physics.

Weart’s website, “The Discovery of Global Warming,” is one of the places to start if you’re interested in getting the basics of climate science.  Based on the comments posted on CP, RealClimate, WUWT, DotEarth, etc., I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of the self-proclaimed “skeptics” (aka those who’ve been duped by the professional disinformers) haven’t even bothered to look at the most basic scientific evidence on human-caused global warming.

And the majority of the professional disinformers simply have no regard whatsoever for basic science or an evidence-based search for the truth — which is why they keep pushing talking points that have long been debunked in the scientific literature (see, for instance, Scientists advising fossil fuel funded anti-climate group concluded in 1995: “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of GHGs such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied”).

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But as science historian Weart tells Freedman — spreading disinformation about science is nothing new.  What is new is the slander of both individual scientists and the entire scientific community:


Andrew Freedman: What effects do you think this will have on public perceptions of climate science and climate scientists?

Spencer Weart: I don’t expect this to have much impact on public perceptions of climate and climate scientists. Opinions have become so fixed that it would take serious evidence to shift a significant number of people. Since the late 1980s, just about every year and sometimes almost every month, a group of people (mostly the same ones) have exclaimed, “Now in these latest (whatever) we finally have proof that there is no need to worry about climate change!” There is a segment of the public that has believed every new claim. The rest will continue to doubt such claims in the absence of truly solid proof.

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AF: What do you think this story reveals about the conduct of climate science?

SW: Back around 2000 leading climate scientists talked to each other mostly about their science–debating one another’s data and analysis and negotiating travel, collaboration and other administration–and a little bit about policy. As time passed they have had to spend more and more of their time answering criticism of the scientific results already established, criticism mostly based on ignorance, fallacious reasoning, and even deliberately deceptive claims. Still more recently they have had to spend far too much of their time defending their personal reputations against ignorant or slanderous attacks.

The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It’s a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.

Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers. In blogs, talk radio and other new media, we are told that the warnings about future global warming issued by the national science academies, scientific societies, and governments of all the leading nations are not only mistaken, but based on a hoax, indeed a conspiracy that must involve thousands of respected researchers.

Extraordinary and, frankly, weird. Climate scientists are naturally upset, exasperated, and sometimes goaded into intemperate responses… but that was already easy to see in their blogs and other writings.

Guess the tobacco companies just weren’t as clever and ruthless as the big fossil fuel polluters and their allies (see On the 150th anniversary of first commerical U.S. well, the oil industry is headed toward oblivion — and trying to take civilization down with it and Obama takes on the anti-scientific delayers, while Australia’s Rudd slams the “deniers” and the “gaggle” of “conspiracy theorists” opposing climate action).

AF: For a science historian such as yourself, how valuable are these emails? And what is your impression of them thus far?

SW: There would be a lot to learn if the owner of these emails (I suppose the University) would release them for analysis; for example, you could run up statistics on the types of interchanges and the structure of networks of discussion among researchers. Of course no scholar can make use of stolen material, and in particular one cannot legally or ethically quote a private message without the explicit permission of the writer.

Historians do often work with collections of letters that have been donated to archives. Typically we spend countless hours trying to understand the context; scholarly reputations have been ruined by interpretations that turned out to be mistaken. The risk of misinterpretation is far greater with emails, written so much more casually than letters. Our society is having difficulty dealing with this new form of communication. Look at last week’s verdict on the Bear Sterns hedge fund managers who were accused of misleading investors. The prosecutrs based their case on a few seemingly incriminating sentences drawn from a mass of emails. When the jury saw the whole set of emails, they quickly found that there was no crime, just ordinary business ch
atter. From what I’ve seen, I expect that will be the verdict on the climate scientists’ emails.

Precisely — see Reuters: “ANALYSIS-Hacked climate e-mails awkward, not game changer.”

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