President’s Column – February 2010

Title: “ClimateGate” Data Anomalies and Geology

Author: Jerry Cuzella

Publication: The Outcrop, February 2010, p. 4-6

By now it seems, that the dust-cloud over “ClimateGate” has begun to settle down somewhat with the passing of the Copenhagen climate summit, but the impact of the incident has potentially serious consequences to the entire scientific community.

To quickly summarize the incident, unknown persons allegedly hacked into the emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. Many allege the emails contain information that some climatologists had tried to suppress anomalous data and that there was collusion to influence the peer review process to support preordained conclusions that climate change is caused by humankind. Others contend that the comments were taken out of context and that the whole thing was nothing more than an effort to discredit some climatologists, and cast dispersion on sound research supporting the argument for anthropogenic causes for climate change. Whether or not any improprieties were committed by the involved workers is yet to be determined, and I offer no judgment on this aspect of the incident. Regardless of where one might side on the debate for the case for anthropogenic causes for global warming, the “CliimateGate” event is cause for introspection. Certain lessons are to be learned from this whole affair and the potentially serious consequences it has on public perception of scientists and scientific research.

As geoscientists we deal with complex data sets on a daily basis which can be ambiguous and incomplete. When organizing these data as maps or graphs, “data busts” (data points that just don’t fit) are a common occurrence, but when identified they are scrutinized, checked and double-checked to verify that they are indeed real, or the result of some contributing error source, e.g. bad KB’s or wrong well spots. If they are real, these anomalies can become the basis for prospects, faults, or differences in basement lithologies, just to name a few features with far-reaching implications that at times are something to be sought-after. But what happens if the recognized anomalies just don’t fit and can’t be reasonably explained away; are they to be ignored? It can be construed that in certain “ClimateGate” emails the investigators chose to disregard or manipulate data that didn’t fit the model.

As geologists we’re trained to employ the “method of multiple working hypotheses” put forward by T.C. Chamberlin and first published in 1889. It forms the fundamental core for geologic research. It is an open-minded, scientific approach that starts with many tentative explanations of a recognized phenomenon. As the research progresses there is the possibility that some explanations will be rendered incorrect, or that new explanations may materialize. The method promotes thoroughness, attention to detail, and can lead to lines of inquiry that might have been unnoticed. This is in contrast to the method of “ruling theory” which begins with an explanation for a particular phenomenon and the researcher looks for facts to confirm the answer or, the “method of the working hypothesis”—where the researcher looks for facts to try against it. In either of these two latter methods, Chamberlin recognized a pitfall where there is a tendency for the researcher to develop a passionate affection for the theory or hypothesis with impartiality being abandoned. In the complex world of cutting-edge global climate modeling, where researchers are searching for answers to the earth’s ever changing and unpredictable weather patterns, the modeling process is a data driven, multifaceted, numerical simulation. In the modeling process, the model goes through a refining process and modification, eventually the data and predictions are consistent with the model, finally leading to acceptance. In essence the science is done. This analytical process seemingly takes the form of the single working hypothesis advancing into the “ruling theory” method and dangerous territory. In this “ruling theory,” a certain paternity eventually develops on behalf of the researcher for the theory; in contrast, the multiple working hypothesis approach consistently drives for better answers. The methodology pioneered by Chamberlin 120 years ago has as much application today as it was when first introduced.

Knowledge of geology and science in general is lacking amongst the general public, yet legislative action and public policy which has its basis in many earth science disciplines, is being formulated that will have lasting and direct impact on our society. The “CliimateGate” incident seems to have shaken the public trust in science and the way in which scientific findings are being used in the political process. As geoscientists we have an obligation to educate the public and take an active role to positively affect the political process. The RMAG does not make position statements, but the “RMAG Public Issues” page on the RMAG website provides information on vital public issues and corresponding links to additional information, its intent is to keep the membership up to date and actively involved on public issues of interest. It can be found at: [Web editor’s note: RMAG website no longer has public issues page]. Check out the site, it’s a great place to keep informed on issues that are of significance to the membership.

A reprint of the 1890 text “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” by T.C. Chamberlin published in Science can be found at: [Web editor’s note: link updated to current live link for article.]