23 November 2009

Of Credibility, Openness and Scientific Tribalism

I've steered clear of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) break-in since emotions are still running high, while information content remains low. But aside from the significance (or otherwise) of the emails, one thing is abundantly clear: if the climate data had been released from the beginning, this would really be a story of negligible interest to the wider world.

Here's an insightful post that explores not only that issue of openness, but also an extremely important factor I'd not really appreciated sufficiently before: scientific tribalism.

Tribalism is defined here as a strong identity that separates one’s group from members of another group, characterized by strong in-group loyalty and regarding other groups differing from the tribe’s defining characteristics as inferior. In the context of scientific research, tribes differ from groups of colleagues that collaborate and otherwise associate with each other professionally. As a result of the politicization of climate science, climate tribes (consisting of a small number of climate researchers) were established in response to the politically motivated climate disinformation machine that was associated with e.g. ExxonMobil, CEI, Inhofe/Morano etc. The reaction of the climate tribes to the political assault has been to circle the wagons and point the guns outward in an attempt to discredit misinformation from politicized advocacy groups. The motivation of scientists in the pro AGW tribes appears to be less about politics and more about professional ego and scientific integrity as their research was under assault for nonscientific reasons (I’m sure there are individual exceptions, but this is my overall perception).


Scientists are of course human, and short-term emotional responses to attacks and adversity are to be expected, but I am particularly concerned by this apparent systematic and continuing behavior from scientists that hold editorial positions, serve on important boards and committees and participate in the major assessment reports. It is these issues revealed in the HADCRU emails that concern me the most, and it seems difficult to spin many of the emails related to FOIA, peer review, and the assessment process. I sincerely hope that these emails do not in actuality reflect what they appear to, and I encourage Gavin Schmidt et al. to continue explaining the individual emails and the broader issues of concern.

This analysis exposes the worrying possibility that the fractures within the scientific community can be further exploited by those who wish to see climate change science damaged and the necessary measures it calls for delayed or even dismissed.

It looks like the greatest enemy to climate change science comes not from the denialists - be they fools or knaves - but from narrow-minded tribalists within the scientific community itself who cannot see the bigger picture. Perhaps we should be grateful for the ugly fissures that the CRU incident seems to reveal, since it gives the people concerned a chance to heal them before they lead to irreversible fractures.

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