Karl Popper and the stolen emails

I don’t normally link to AP stories because of their somewhat aggressive stance towards bloggers, but they have performed a useful service by doing a detailed and — as as far as I can judge — pretty detached study of the UEA email trove. The overall conclusion:

E-mails stolen from the computer network server of the climate research unit at the university show climate scientists stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data, but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked.

I had thought of going through the trove myself but desisted because (a) they were stolen, (b) they were downloadable only as a zip file from a .ru server and (c) laziness, so it’s interesting to see what a detailed study reveals.

At first sight, the UEA people seem to be too jokily dismissive of climate change ‘sceptics’, and that’s obviously embarrassing. But there’s a context here: what the stolen emails don’t reveal is the level of intrusive, aggressive harassment that climate change researchers can face from sceptics and deniers. The tool of choice of these people (some of whom are clearly obsessives) is FOI requests and these are very blunt and time-consuming instruments. I imagine that the UEA researchers were constantly bombarded with these, and might understandably have developed a siege mentality — traces of which are clearly visible in the emails.

The other thing that’s interesting about the AP analysis is the light it throws on the real — as opposed to the idealised — practice of science. Students of these things will remember that the criterion that Karl Popper proposed for deciding whether an activity is scientific or not is whether its practitioners actively seek ways of falsifying their theories (as distinct from ways of verifying them). This seemed to me to fly in the face of everything we know about science in practice: in order to make real advances in a field one has to be an absolutely passionate advocate for a theory. The last thing one wants to do is pick holes in it; that’s the job of others (and of the peer-review process). Very few scientists are falsificationists in the Popperion sense — at least about their own theories. So it’s hardly surprising that the UEA researchers might express in private emails what might seem, in retrospect, to be a less than detached attitude towards their theoretical findings and beliefs. They’re perfectly normal scientists.

Thanks to Roger Highfield of New Scientist for the original link.

Later: My colleague Joe Smith has a thoughtful blog post about this, in which he says, en passant:

The IPCC has serious limitations, including a gaping hole when it comes to investigating the social, cultural and philosophical dimensions of climate change, but it remains the most ambitious peer review process modern science has undertaken. The truth about climate science is that it is inevitably messy and unfinishable – its a hugely complex system we’re trying to understand – but that hard intellectual work conducted by a very large number of people (who win little publicity and are modestly rewarded) is doggedly narrowing the boundaries of uncertainty. There is, almost all climate science researchers agree, plenty of justification for very urgent and bold action.