Scientists in the Bunker


The first thought that crossed my mind, reading about the embarrassing leak of emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia--a leak that revealed their efforts to suppress inconvenient or complicating data and discredit anyone who questioned their data or results--was that they must not have gotten the memo about discretion in email writing. The one about never putting anything in an email that you don't want to see on a Times Square billboard. 

But beyond that, the incident raises some interesting questions about the impact of divisive political debate on its participants--even those tasked with getting us the data that's supposed to lie at the calm center, or eye, of whatever storms are swirling around it. 

Climate scientists have faced a more complicated challenge than many of their fellow scientists, from the get-go. Discover a new quasar, and everyone says "cool!" Discover something changing on our own planet ... especially something that appears to be caused or heightened by human activity, and you're likely to find yourself--and your data--in the middle of a political firestorm.

In the 1990s, I wrote a book on what we'd learned about the universe and Earth from NASA's scientific satellites. And in the course of my research, scientist after scientist in the "Earth Science" field, as NASA was then calling it, told of feeling like a political football, with pressures, abrupt budget boosts and cuts, and accusations of incorrect data and conclusions coming at them from both sides of the political spectrum.

"In a sense," I wrote, "support for funding any NASA project is affected by national priorities. But the Earth Science research results themselves were more likely to be used as a basis for regulation or legislation than space science results and therefore, as the scientists relate, were more often attacked by both sides of any related policy debate, particularly with regard to environmental issues. This link to legislation or regulation gave Earth Science projects an additional element of complexity that Space Science project typically did not have."

Frustration among the researchers was growing, even in the mid-1990s. And in recent years, incidents like the highly publicized attempts by a young political appointee to censor the work and public comments of Jim Hansen, NASA's chief climate scientist, have only aggravated that situation.  

At the time, Hansen argued that it was essential for him to be able to speak freely and publicly about his research because, as a New York Times article quoted him as saying, "public concern is probably the only thing capable of overcoming the special interests that have obfuscated the topic." 

None of which excuses the behavior--the massaging or limiting access to data, or nasty attempts to dismiss or discredit anyone who questioned that data--that the East Anglia emails revealed. Not only did the scientists lose sight of what was supposed to be their highest calling--a search not for data to support any given conclusion, but a search for the truth, whatever it might be--they also did grievous damage to the very cause they were trying to defend. Now all the scientific data is likely to have less credibility in the public sphere--especially among moderate skeptics--and it will be even more difficult for scientists to have their words believed, or to regain that lost stature and trust. 

But in a column in the Science Times earlier this week, John Tierney characterized the roots of the scientists' behavior as "smug groupthink." Maybe. But I can't help but wonder if the roots might lie not in smugness, but in an embattled bunker mentality developed over too many years of attacks on their data and its import. 

In an earlier piece on this site, I wrote about the tendency of people to hold tight to opinions even in the face of contradictory evidence--a phenomenon known as "motivated reasoning." And perhaps there was a bit of that going on, as well. But I also know--both from observation and through personal experience--that humans who feel cornered or overly embattled become almost irrationally defensive. Wild animals do, too, I suppose, so that shouldn't surprise anybody. 

But if someone is pushed by an opponent to a point where they feel as if a concession on a single point will create an "aha!" breach in the fortress wall that will lead almost immediately to the annihilation of their whole argument--legitimately or through misrepresentation, oversimplification or sheer volume--they're likely to rigidly deny any critique, question, or possibility of ambiguity, even if it's reasonable. Consider, for example, the rigid lines held by both sides of the abortion debate about where, exactly, "life" begins. 

Perhaps later, in a less contentious environment, individuals might acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties of whatever issue is at stake. But not while under attack--or, unfortunately, while trying to advocate for action or policy change. Forceful advocacy, after all, is much tougher to accomplish--especially in a sound bite world--if you acknowledge complexity.

Some people, of course, aren't all that concerned about complexity or truth, as long as they get what they want. But it's also true that the more entrenched one side gets, the less likely it is that anyone on the other side will concede even legitimate points of complexity or middle ground. And the less likely it is that any real progress will be made toward understanding, truth, or a reasonable solution.  

Perhaps the scientists had become so attached to their models and conclusions that being unquestionably and completely right trumped their interest in delving deeper into the mysteries of the planet. It happens, sometimes. But it's also possible that if they'd felt they had a safer, saner middle ground in which to hold considered, open discussion on a complex issue, more honest...and more productive...results would have ensued.  

Photo Credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images.