Interesting discussion at Althouse about the human interchanges revealed in the so-called "climate-gate" email leak. Actually, interesting discussion in a lot of places, but I'll just pick Althouse to start.
I write this at a time before the emails are confirmed to be completely genuine, and I write as a global-warming agnostic. It is reasonable to take prudent steps to alleviate the problem as long as there is a significant consensus among climatologists that there's a problem and there's something we can do about it, as seems plausible; it is also reasonable to continue to take data, to publicize raw data, and to keep objectively re-evaluating the data we have in preparation for revising those steps if necessary. Really, that's the sort of thing I would say about any kind of research that seems to demand Action Be Taken -- look at the health recommendations of heart-disease researchers, for example.
But there's nothing terribly shocking to me about how the climatologists are apparently behaving in these e-mails. And I am not saying this because I believe climatologists to be peculiarly biased or peculiarly political-minded.
Having got out of the academic research business immediately after receiving my doctorate, my experience with the writing and submission of scientific papers is limited. I have served as peer reviewer exactly once. My name appears on a couple of papers that I didn't write (and didn't ask to have my name attached to). I chose not to put in the work to finish or to submit the papers that were based on my thesis research.
That's a long caveat for this observation: Scientists and engineers are subject to human nature just like everybody else.
Because "objectivity" and "adherence to the data" are explicit values of our profession, I think the human tendency to let our feelings about people influence our beliefs about their competence, or to ignore data we don't like, or to nudge our conclusions in the direction of our own ideologies, are probably mitigated relative to many other professions. (Which is why "Show me the data" is a demand that will always have teeth.)
But those tendencies don't go away, and they never quite let go their sway over people.
Every once in a while you hear someone sniff, "We're scientists, we make recommendations based on objective observations" -- as if the mere fact of "being a scientist" is a guarantee that he or she will behave like scientists are supposed to. (What would you think of a sitting congressman who stated, "I'm an elected official, therefore you can be sure that I always act in the interest of my constituents and the good of the country?") It would be better for scientists and engineers to acknowledge that they must have biases, being human, and that those biases always exert a pull on their work, and then do their best to overrule them with the rational mind, to root them out in the service of the values of the profession.
One way to root them out is to show your data to someone who disagrees with you, of course, and let him or her have their say. That's one of the things which peer review is supposed to accomplish, but it's also the sort of thing that one could do in private, as a preliminary exercise or test of one's own conclusions. How solid are they, really? Can you really say "incontrovertible?" That's almost like saying your theories are "untestable." Which is treading close to saying that they are not scientific statements at all.
Anyway, my point is just that there's nothing special about climatology, or about other lines of research with policy implications, that make the scientists and engineers who are involved in it peculiarly subject to the whims of human nature. You see it everywhere you look hard enough. Maybe that's just another way of saying that everything is fraught with politics, and it doesn't matter how petty the politics is -- we could merely be talking about intradepartmental politics, or hunger for power within one single research group in one department in one corner of one university in the middle of nowhere -- it still gets deep into people and makes them forget the higher values of their profession.