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Climategate Analysis

January 20, 2010
By John P. Costella

The most difficult thing for a scientist in the era of Climategate is trying to explain to family and friends why it is so distressing to scientists.

The most difficult thing for a scientist in the era of Climategate is trying to explain to family and friends why it is so distressing to scientists. Most people don’t know how science really works: there are no popular television shows, movies, or books that really depict the everyday lives of real scientists; it just isn’t exciting enough. I’m not talking here about the major discoveries of science—which are well-described in documentaries, popular science series, and magazines—but rather how the process of science (often called the “scientific method”) actually works.

The best analogy that I have been able to come up with, in recent weeks, is the criminal justice system—which is (rightly or wrongly) abundantly depicted in the popular media. Everyone knows what happens if police obtain evidence by illegal means: the evidence is ruled inadmissible; and, if a case rests on that tainted evidence, it is thrown out of court. The justice system is not saying that the accused is necessarily innocent; rather, that determining the truth is impossible if evidence is not protected from tampering or fabrication.

The same is true in science: scientists assume that the rules of the scientific method have been followed, at least in any discipline that publishes its results for public consumption. It is that trust in the process that allows me, for example, to believe that the human genome has been mapped—despite my knowing nothing about that field of science at all. That same trust has allowed scientists at large to similarly believe in the results of climate science.

Until now.

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