29 November 2009

ClimateGate and CSI

ClimateGate, as I wrote earlier, does not expose the evil machinations of the Knights Carbonic. It doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know (although it proves one or two things that were fairly obvious but previously had barely-plausible deniability)

It is important, though, for what it tells the wider public. Not what it tells them about Climate Science, but what it tells them about science generally. Climate Alarmism has been a beneficiary of a kind of CSI Effect. "There was also evidence of genetic material from a franklinia alatamaha on his shoe. The only known specimen in this area, outside a specialized botanical garden, was given to Senator Alan Corman as a gift."

The truth of science is rather different. And I don't say that because I'm anti-science, It's just that science is a slow process, and, above all, a social process. It isn't all "Hurrah, I've discovered Boyle's Third Law." What is unusual about climate science is not the science itself, but the relevance of public opinion and the relevance to politics.

Science that's of particular interest to the public is usually bad. Usually what happens is that the Mail and the Express get all excited, and everyone else ignores it. What happened with climate science is that a scare story had stakes that were high enough that all the papers got involved, leading to irresistable pressure on politicians, leading to a whole industry being created on the scare.

A story which serves as a nice microcosm of the process is this one. Warning people of dangers is part of the HSE's job. They ran a campaign, in cooperation with the TUC, to warn building workers about the dangers of asbestos. In doing so, they exaggerated the risk of death by an order of magnitude, by using a theoretical risk model with simplifying assumptions that were incorrect.

A lobby group complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled against the HSE. That could happen, because the issue was never big news, and no significant politicians had attached themselves to either side of the question. (Scientists dont politicise science, politicians do). Nobody at the ASA got a concerned call from David Cameron. So in this case, the error was corrected. It's not bound to happen that way.

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