Climategate's Effect on Students

CLIMATEGATE IS NO doubt extremely damaging to the scientific community. It casts doubt on the reliability of newly developed scientific knowledge and the scientific method. But before you go burn your science textbooks (those things are expensive), let's reflect on just what this means for students of science and for academic research in general.

For these purposes, it's not really all that important who's right about climate change. We might not ever really know who's right. The debate is much more nuanced than one side being right and the other wrong. There's clearly evidence on both sides. What's important is how we use that different evidence to arrive at conclusions, and this is the most troubling part of Climategate.

Science provides us with theories of how the world works based on the best available evidence. It's therefore critical that scientists judge the available evidence clearly and honestly. They must not allow other factors to influence their interpretation and understanding of this evidence, because their conclusions will be used to create the theories that will drive our understanding of the world around us.

Climategate is an example of a group of scientists showing disregard for the importance of judging evidence in this manner. We often assume that scientists naturally honor a sort of Hippocratic Oath for their field, but the reality is that they don't. Their conclusions can be motivated by a number of factors, and the advancement of scientific knowledge may or may not be one of them.

Unfortunately, in the world of research universities, professors from almost all fields have multiple incentives for conducting certain types of research and arriving at particular conclusions. Subsequently, their research and conclusions may or may not advance knowledge and truth.

Many professors avoid this temptation without any problems. Some professors, however, allow these perverse incentives to drive their work, and in the end, what we get is not a broader understanding of science, history, mathematics or anything else. What we get are predetermined conclusions based on an arrangement of bits of evidence that pleases the individuals or organizations that fund the research.

Much of the research conducted in today's universities is funded through government grants. For a variety of reasons, it seems that governments all around the world are very interested in taking action in response to the theory of global warming, as the recent talks in Copenhagen demonstrate. The governmental position on this issue contributes to the disproportionate funding levels for research supporting the theory of global warming as opposed to research questioning its validity. Unfortunately, what drives the politicians in government to support the theory of global warming is not scientific evidence, but the political forces that reward and retain them in their positions of power. It's not surprising, then, to find an incident where scientists purposely attempt to make their research say what they and their funders want it to say, instead of drawing open and honest conclusions based on their best evidence.

Jacob Bronowski, a British mathematician and biologist, once said: "No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power." Climategate gives yet more credence to Dr. Bronowski's theory. 

Michael Van Beek is the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.