All in the game of science

The CRU stands accused of political manipulation but, says Martin Cohen, this is what scientists have always done

March 4, 2010

Machiavellian politics and the Climatic Research Unit don't seem a very ready mix. And no one ever went to the University of East Anglia to change the world. But now all the old certainties have been shattered. If we believed the world's media, it would seem that a couple of harmless old duffers at the CRU and the equally dull-sounding NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington DC) or the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University were actually a key link in a vast plot that sent all the world's leaders to Copenhagen and cost hundreds of billions of dollars (taking the World Bank's tally of carbon credits). This is Weltpolitik. And to think this could be linked with CRU director Phil Jones driving every day to the science building and sending a few emails before lunch. Well, all the Himalayan glaciers would have to melt first.

Yet science is a very political business. Indeed, the UK government became a big supporter of climate research only after a meeting between former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a small number of climatologists, including the CRU director at the time, Tom Wigley. And CRU staff have been lead authors of all four United Nations reports that present the unit's founding credo: "The warming of the climate system is unequivocal."

It should be no surprise, in fact, that Jones and his unit have been playing a highly political game. If they have finessed figures, pushed enemy opinions and journals into obscurity, ramped up the status of friendly academics and buried data that appeared unhelpful, as many claim, they have been doing what scientists always do - twisting the evidence until it fits the paradigm. Don't let's rush to criticise, far less adopt too lofty a tone. Theory needs advocacy.

Instead, compare "Climategate" to one of the great scientific debates of the past - the question of whether life springs instantaneously from chemical elements, whenever the conditions are right - or whether life has to be already present in the form of little "eggs".

Aristotle insisted it was the former, and so, even as late as the 17th century, the Flemish physician Jan Baptista van Helmont described how he had successfully spontaneously generated mice from wheat grains and a sweat-stained shirt incubated in a warm dark closet. (He noted carefully that the mice seemed in every respect identical to more conventional ones, such as those running around his house.)

But then, the French Academy of Sciences, acting a little like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, offered a prize of 2,500 francs (a considerable fortune in those days) to whoever could shed "new light on the question". Eventually, Louis Pasteur won for a series of elegant experiments demonstrating that dust carrying germs explained cases of "life" apparently arising spontaneously inside sealed flasks of sterilised broth. His flasks allowed the movement of air, but kept dust out. The liquid inside remained clear for months. The chemical ingredients for life were present, but no life appeared. As Pasteur put it: "I prefer to think that life comes from life."

Another triumph of scientific method? Not quite. Victory came only after a long and error-strewn process overseen by a biased committee. It was settled in Pasteur's favour only because his opponent, Felix-Archimede Pouchet, walked off in protest. But then, the theory of spontaneous generation was considered to diminish God's role in creation, and was a very "political matter".

On the "evidence" presented, Pouchet should have triumphed. He even demonstrated that broth made with hay could generate life even when boiled. (Actually, this is only because the spores on hay are heat resistant.) Indeed, Pasteur's notebooks reveal that the great man repeatedly ignored unwanted results in experiments, claiming that they were due to error. Only a minority of his experiments gave the results he anticipated and desired.

So spare a thought for the CRU director, who surely does not deserve the opprobrium being heaped on his head. Facts do not speak for themselves and scientists must speak for money.

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