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Climate scientists behaving badly? (Part 1)

Global warming hawks claim the moral high-ground, claim to speak for what is right against grubby self-interest. It behooves those who take the high ground to behave well themselves. Do they?


Data and email exchanges between climate scientists have been stolen from the servers at University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit and published online. Whether the data or content of these emails tell us anything about global warming is not an issue I am concerned with. Nor, for that matter, am I concerned with bad behaviour in the sense of global warming hawks being rude about global warming skeptics. The bad behaviour of interest is epistemic bad behaviour, and on this matter I think the emails tell us quite a lot. Furthermore, the Climatic Research Unit is one of the world’s leading players and so the behaviour of its members tells us something about the epistemic state of climate science.

On the whole I would have to say that the attitude of the hawks towards the lay public has been high handed. They do not think we can be trusted to form our own opinions about what is happening and what should be done about it, and they think this despite the very great success they have had in convincing us that the climate is warming and that humans have caused it. One must wonder, therefore, why they have this attitude.


Part of the answer is that they are, in a certain limited respect, right. Climate scientists are experts and we should rightly give greater weight to their testimony within the realm of their expertise.  But that is only the beginning of the matter. We are not required simply to submit to experts, nor can experts expect us to become experts before we can have a view and even disagree with them. There are significant constraints on the weight we should give to expert testimony that depend on our assessment of their testimonial reliability, and since we can’t assess them on the content of their testimony we must make use of other information: information about their epistemic character and information about how reliable expertise is in particular and in general.

epistemic character

Since Francis Bacon rejected the Idols of the Mind, science has demanded that its practitioners hold themselves to the highest standard of epistemic character.  Amongst the epistemic virtues required are objectivity, impartiality, disinterestedness, restraint in not going beyond ones knowledge, fairness to opposing views, intellectual competence, imagination, originality,  honest dealing in the conduct of enquiry, sincerity of testimony and honest dealing with opponents.  In addition, it is essential to science qua natural philosophy that basic evidence is publicly available—hence ruling out as evidence claims that originate in special insight or revelation not granted to us all. It is this that  imposes on scientists the obligation to keep records of methods and original data  and make such records freely available.


How high is the standard of  epistemic character that hawks hold themselves to? I fear it is not as high as it ought to be. Even prior to the leaked emails we had evidence of failings in these virtues. The emails give yet more evidence and also show how little hold the enumerated epistemic virtues have on  the professional milieu of climate science. Indeed,  it appears that within climate science, epistemic vice is practised without shame, and with little awareness that the vicious practices are vicious. In part 2 I will run over that evidence.

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