Climategate and other correspondence

Since UR readers are no strangers to Steve McIntyre, I assume they are also no strangers to the event of the week—or possibly the month: Climategate.

I would not have attached the “-gate,” a journo-ism which at best aspires to banality. But here it at least achieves that banality. It still sounds stoopid—but it does not oversell the event.

No? Really? Oh, I don’t think so at all. First, the original, from Dr. Thompson:

“Jesus, this Watergate thing is unbelievable. It’s terrible, like finding out your wife is running around but you don’t want to hear about it.”

—Remark of a fat man from Nashville sharing a taxi with Ralph Steadman

So there are a hundred or more people wandering around Washington today who have heard “the real stuff,” as they put it—and despite their professional caution when the obvious question arises, there is one reaction they all feel free to agree on: that nobody who felt shocked, depressed or angry after reading the edited White House Transcripts should ever be allowed to hear the actual tapes, except under heavy sedation or locked in a car. Only a terminal cynic, they say, can listen for any length of time to the real stuff without feeling a compulsion to do something like drive down to the White House and throw a bag of live rats over the fence.

Yes… looking back at that line I just wrote, it occurs to me that almost half the people I know have been feeling that kind of compulsion almost steadily for the last eight or nine years. My friend Yail Bloor, for instance, claims to have thrown a whole garbage can full of live rats, roaches, and assorted small vermin over the White House fence about a week before Lyndon Johnson announced his retirement in 1968. “It was a wonderful feeling,” he says, “but only because it was Johnson. I knew, for some reason, that he would really hate the sight of big rats on the White House lawn.” He paused and reached for his snuffbox, taking a huge hit of Dr. Johnson’s in each nostril.

“I’m not sure why,” he went on, “but I wouldn’t get any satisfaction out of doing a thing like that to Nixon. He might actually like rats.”

As it so happens, back in the Clinton administration my own dear mother found herself working for none other than for Joe Romm at DOE. So I have heard “the real stuff.” Would Joe Romm actually like rats? He probably would. But then again, they might shun him.

And a few people seem to be reacting much like the fat man in Nashville. For instance: George Monbiot. Jesus! Nobody believes in the Presidency these days. At least, nobody under 80. The rest of us know it’s just a bad reality show. But Science! Jesus—Science! When Science is running around behind your back, you really don’t want to know.

(In actual fact, the Presidency had been operating as a basically Nixonian institution since 1933. If anything, Nixon toned that shit down. It was not before the ’70s that the Press gained both the courage and the motivation to challenge the White House. The coup was accomplished. The god abandoned Antony. And the White House can never be above the law again, not even if there is a Democrat in it.)

So Watergate marks the transition between the Middle New Deal and the Late New Deal. Or perhaps the Early and the Middle. As a student of history, I am reluctant to commit to any such chronology while the era remains ongoing. I expect it to remain ongoing for a while. Nonetheless, Chesterfieldian symptoms are not hard to observe.

Since the event is not oversold, it may well be that Climategate turns out to be a good endpoint for another era that needs an end: the 20th century. Just as “the sixties” are really the period from 1966 through 1974, or something like that, it is commonplace to date the historical 19th century from either 1815, 1789 or 1776 to 1914. If we follow this convention, we can say that the 20th century, as a political era, lasted from June 28, 1914 to November 19, 2009. And I’m going to go out on another big limb here and hope that, as a political era, it will not be missed.

Basically, in the 19th century, Hayek’s professional intellectuals became the dominant influence over Anglo-American public policy. In the 20th century, sovereignty was captured entirely by their intellectual institutions—other forces retaining some powers of resistance, but no initiative. (And Anglo-American public policy became everyone’s public policy.) These institutions now being thoroughly corrupted, their corruption now visible to all, we can only be doomed to spend the 21st extracting them from their offices. Or at least, wishing we could.

The basic problem here is one of sovereignty. Namely: Mike Mann, Phil Jones, and their friends exercise—or have been exercising—a little local slice of sovereignty over climate science for about the last ten years or so. If you were in the club and/or toed the line, you got to be a climate scientist. If not, you didn’t.

We can tell that Mann and Jones were sovereign, because they were not responsible to anyone. There was no party in the world authorized to check their work. There still is no party in the world authorized to check their work. (Perhaps there is some way to get the issue to the Supreme Court. If so, it is not obvious.) Within the domain of climate science, their authority was roughly as absolute as Stalin’s. Their methods, too, were comparably aggressive. Had this security breach not occurred, this situation might have persisted indefinitely—and, indeed, it may still persist indefinitely. The Soviet Union outlived Stalin. Climate science will outlive Mann and Jones, even if they do get the boot personally. I am not at all sure they will.

Worst of all, Mann and Jones were and are sovereign over billions of minds. Literally: what a billion people know of “global warming” is the beautiful smoothed curves of Mann and Jones. (And others, of course, in their little Party—climate science, as we’ve seen, being a one-party state.) Then again, hundreds of millions believed in Stalin. (Counting Americans—from ’41 to ’48.) What about this is surprising? It is, or was, the 20th century. In that century God abandoned his traditional affection for fools and drunks, devoting himself entirely to the United States. But even God’s patience has its limits.

The sovereign university is entirely impervious to external purification. Nor can it be expected to purify itself. It probably cannot be separated from power without destroying it entirely. Perhaps it cannot be separated from power at all. And there exists no plausible replacement; nor, if there was one, any plausible way of installing it.

If Science is sovereign, it is corrupted by power. We can see this because we can see that Science is sovereign, and we can see that it has become corrupt. But if Science be not sovereign, it must be subordinate to some other sovereign power. Mike and Phil must deliver their reports to this power. It must look down on them and say: “Mike and Phil: your data is crap, your code is crap, you are crap. You had sat too long for any good you have been doing lately! Security will be here in a minute to escort you out of the building.” Of course this power, if corrupt, will have all the power it needs to corrupt Science. And of course, in 2009 no such thing can be imagined.

This is an old problem and it has not changed, nor will it soon. But what did change on November 19th: it just became much, much easier to convince any reasonable person that there is something seriously wrong with government by university. Of course, most reasonable people are not even aware that this is the form of the New Deal state. These emails, however, cannot fail to attract unwanted attention to the uncomfortable reality of the matter.

Because a fallible sovereign is a very different thing from an infallible one. It is easy to mistake an infallible sovereign for a vacuum of sovereignty, the perpetuum mobile of political engineering. If the University is infallible, its advice is the mere truth and not in any sense an action. Once the master’s hand is seen to wobble, however -

Let alone to delete emails. Ye gods! It’s almost as if there was a person inside the machine. Indeed every sovereign in history has sought to stress this impersonal or superhuman character, though most have phrased it in more spiritual terms. If the peasants knew that mere men wore the sacred masks of the gods, they might have the impertinence to think we had mere necks…

Anyway. I could go on in this vein for decades. But it’s Thanksgiving, and I don’t have decades. Neither do you, I suppose. You get the point. You have probably already read about the CRU leak, and even seen some of the emails. If not, I direct you to Bishop Hill’s summaries. I just want to emphasize a few less obvious issues.

First: the Mann group is not a mere mafia, clique or even “conspiracy” within mainstream climate science. The Mann group is mainstream climate science. (And prosopography, despite popular opinion, is an essential historical tool.) You can’t talk seriously about removing these dogfsckers from the IPCC process, for instance. They are the IPCC process.

(You can see this easily by looking at their entirely successful attempts to purge any institutional opposition, e.g., “unreliable” editors. Once you establish a bureaucratic reign of terror, you cannot possibly slacken in your attentions to Madame Guillotine. Otherwise, your enemies—who are probably just as nasty as you are—will sense weakness and stab you in the back. So there is no room for weak sisters. Everyone is either in, or out.)

The practical effect of a decade-plus of Stalinist science: there exists no alternative. This is only one of the reasons that anyone expecting concrete near-term results from Climategate is far too optimistic. For many reasons, it will prove impossible to remove climate science from the domain of Mann, Jones et al. But one of the most fundamental is that there is no such thing as “skeptical climate science.” The opposition is, like any set negatively defined, unorganized—a bureaucratic null. It cannot seize power, because it does not exist.

Second: again, anyone expecting any serious proximate result from this event is expecting far too much. The University may not be infallible—but it has extraordinary powers of bureaucratic resistance. It is not unkillable, but this event comes about as close to killing it—in the near term—as a pimple on your ass comes to killing you.

Within its own square centimeter of skin, an ass pimple is a pretty big event. Zillions of cells die in an ass pimple. Nonetheless, on the historic scale, an ass pimple is no big deal. A man can be killed, true, by a septic ass pimple, but it is very unlikely. The expected result is a patch of fresh new skin on your ass.

The Mann-Jones group is climate science. But this group is more than just Mann and Jones—much more. The specific individuals named in these emails are certainly suffering some career damage. Who knows? If all the dice roll the right way, one or two might even go to jail. Some certainly appear to have committed criminal offenses. But climate science will endure. It will certainly not be purged and rebooted. If that cat could be belled, someone would have belled it!

So here is what will happen to climate science if Mann, Jones, et al. go to jail: it will become stronger. Considerably stronger. At least, in the near and medium term.

What happens when you kill the top 20 members of al-Qaeda? Everyone in the top 200 joins the competition to replace them. Decapitation is not an effective attack against a disorganized institution. For every Mann or Jones, there are 10 or 20 ex-students trained by a Mann or Jones. Do not these disciples aspire to their mentors’ positions? Damn tooting they do! Moreover, just because they lose their leader, does not mean that leader will be replaced by those who are the most disloyal to him.

In short, any such involuntary circulation of elites will have a notably beneficial effect on the entire movement. The reader of the CRU emails cannot help but fail to notice what was already obvious: as scientific minds, Mike and Phil are most definitely among the second-rate. Why? They are leaders in climate science simply because of their seniority; they got in when paleoclimatology and climate modeling were (as they deserve to be) scientific backwaters; through bureaucratic ruthlessness, they made their field big and powerful.

Therefore, not only do these pioneers have many disciples, but the disciples were attracted to a hot—no pun intended—and growing field. Thus, they are likely to be both more ambitious than their sacrificed former leaders, and more talented. If Mann, Jones et al get the axe and become poison in any position of formal authority, even if they lose their jobs, even if they go to jail, their former students will continue to worship them (and exclude any of their peers who don’t).

Their fate, in other words, will be exactly that of the State Department’s so-called China Hands—who did indeed “lose China.” For Mike Mann, read Owen Lattimore. This generation of bureaucrats is revered for a reason—it essentially founded the modern academic field of international relations. It may be challenged, tentatively, by internal revisionists—but not by external opponents. It has no external opponents. It strangled them all.

The thing about paleoclimatology and climate modeling is that both are such marginal sciences, if they can even be considered scientific at all, that their results can be fudged without any of the embarrassing foibles revealed in the CRU emails. We do see a lot of what could almost be described as conscious bias in the CRU methodology—there are “good” data (warm) and “bad” data (not so warm). We also see that overall, the data set is a major dog’s breakfast.

It is not necessary for climate science to be in the hands of these B- students. Their own students are not A+ men, because A+ men are too delicate to operate in this kind of sinister bureaucratic context—but they are A and A- men. Thus, we can expect that in the long run, climate science will repair itself and produce a new body of work, consisting as before largely of “good” data, but of “good” data composed with apparent professionalism and honesty. I do not expect that this will happen, because I do not expect that Mann and Jones will actually get the axe. However, if they do get the axe, this is what I expect to happen. In either case, it will surely be the trend in the long run.

Those activists attempting to resist the political aggressions of climate science have been strengthened, but only for a time. And the denialists have to win every time; the alarmists only need to win once. Possibly the goal of a global carbon tax has been set back two, three, even five years. Historically? No big deal.

Third: one of the easiest, yet most important, observations to be had from these emails is that the climate-science community is entirely sincere. They are not a conspiracy. They are something much more dangerous: true believers.

In their minds, AGW is an entirely real phenomenon. There is not a particle of doubt. And since there is not a particle of doubt, Mann, Jones et al. see their task not as one of teasing Nature’s secrets from her, but as one of public communication. They take their roles in the Modern Structure with complete seriousness—like all those with actual power.

This is why “good” data is good, and “bad” data is bad. “Good” data is useful data. It is data that helps them in their task of saving the planet. Bad data interferes with this task. And furthermore, since they know that that the problem is real, bad data is just that—it is data that is obviously contaminated, incorrect, or otherwise corrupt. No shortage of that in paleoclimatology! In any real science, data selection is never entirely without art. (It is just not meant to be a secret art.)

Take, for instance, Mike’s Nature trick. (Don’t miss Gavin’s disingenuous excuse.) To the naive observer, the most reasonable explanation of the divergence problem—the fact that historical temperature proxies diverge with the instrumental record, just as the instruments are getting good—is evidence that there is some existential problem with the entire exercise of paleoclimatology. But since a paleoclimatologist will never consider this possibility, he instead skips to the second most reasonable explanation: that some source of noise, probably itself anthropogenic, has contaminated the recent end of the graph. A “non-temperature signal.”

He therefore removes this noise by cutting off the proxy record at 1960 or 1980, and smoothing its end with the temperature record. While drawing the two as separate lines on a graph, intended for public communication. Now the proxy record, instead of peeling off in a weird decline, smoothly converges with the modern instrumental record. Beautiful! By two entirely independent means, scientists have teased the same truth from Nature’s purse. The message is harmonious and clear, rather than muddy and confused.

Does Mike know he is fudging the numbers? Of course he knows he is fudging the numbers. He probably drove 65 on his way to the office, too. In his mind, Mike is removing a confusing red herring in order to present a deeper, more accurate truth. If—as with the deleted emails—he knows he is breaking the law, he exhibits mens rea, he thinks of it almost as an act of civil disobedience. He is mis-crossing a T or two, in order to save the planet. The only difference between him and Martin Luther King is that it was useful to the civil-rights movement for Dr. King to get arrested, whereas it is more useful to the Earth for Dr. Mann not to get arrested. Therefore, the former disobeyed publicly; the latter, surreptitiously. Todo por la causa.

Thus the resistance to this unbelievable, impertinent “auditing” campaign. There is a simple reason why the Manns and Joneses of the world believe that they are oppressed by an evil conspiracy, fomented by the sinister carbon barons. They are actually being charitable. The only alternative of which they can conceive is that McIntyre and these other awful people are not merely corrupt, but just plain evil.

Because the price of crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s is the price of not saving the planet. It is the price of helping the people who want to destroy the planet. The idea that all these people, obviously bright people, would spontaneously come together all over the Internet, just for the purpose of advancing evil, is a vision simply too dark to contemplate. Therefore, it is best to assume that all these people are simply shills and lobbyists. As many of them obviously are!

I’m not saying I believe this. I’m just explaining what the world looks like from behind the eyes of a true believer—and how, to be specific, these people can feel innocent and yet act guilty. In their minds, they are guilty of aggressive paperwork. They are indeed being persecuted unfairly. In the face of this incredible conspiracy, what can they do but conspire a little themselves? They’re trying to save the planet, and some wild mafia of sick Internet geeks, plus of course the usual right-wing corporate shills, are trying to get them fired and prosecuted for clicking this instead of that in their email window. Jesus Christ! In a situation like this, a little shrillness and collusion is to be expected! And so on.

On a similar note, it is especially interesting to notice the response of the Internet’s “libertarian lite” bloggers—Megan McArdle, Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, Robin Hanson. These people all have two things in common. One, none of them is particularly concerned by the way the Mann-Jones group operates. Two, all of them are professionally associated with the Cathedral—i.e., Press or University. Stara struktura!

Is this because McArdle, Cowen, Caplan and Hanson are evil? Have their souls been eaten? Sort of, but not exactly. It’s because they’ve seen this kind of stuff. They are, after all, on the inside. Why would it surprise them? Kling is more conservative:

In my days as a macroeconometric model jockey, I often used “add factors” to make the equations fit the data better. But I never used them to distort the data. I disagree with those who think that “climategate” is a typical scientific brouhaha. This is at least one standard deviation away from normal academic behavior.

One standard deviation! I think Arnold is exactly right. It’s about one standard deviation away from normal academic behavior. Possibly even one and a half. Two? No, I wouldn’t say two. Two would be going a little far…

Among this craven crew, Professor Hanson is particularly frank. The boldface is his:

Yup, this behavior has long been typical when academics form competing groups, whether the public hears about such groups or not. If you knew how academia worked, this news would not surprise you nor change your opinions on global warming. I’ve never done this stuff, and I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but that is cheap talk since I haven’t had the opportunity. This works as a “scandal” only because of academia’s overly idealistic public image.

It is a shame that academia works this way, and an academia where this stuff didn’t happen would probably be more accurate. But even our flawed academic consensus is usually more accurate than its contrarians, and it is hard to find reliable cheap indicators saying when contrarians are more likely to be right.

If you don’t like this state of affairs join me in trying to develop a more reliable consensus mechanism on such topics: prediction markets.

You’ll note that Professor Hanson is saying the same thing as me—with only three differences.

One: this doesn’t change his opinion of global warming. Nor does it change mine. But he started out believing in it! Somehow, the actual facts of the matter are too unimportant to engage his attention. Does this inspire you to engage Professor Hanson to help overcome your biases?

Two: he expresses no shame whatsoever at being a member of this basically criminal endeavor. Indeed, if he has ever before bothered to inform his readers of the nature of his Mafia oath, I missed the post. How kind of him, to help his readers overcome their bias! You know, the one toward unconditionally trusting the products of Science—just on account of the name, it seems.

And three: his “solution” is… well… retarded. Like any design for the production of government by formula without human intervention, it is a perpetual-motion machine. There is no way to produce good government (or good management) without good people in a good organizational structure. Professor Hanson is certainly not the first to dabble in the transformation, by ritual mathematics, of base metals into precious. He would be the first, however, to make it work!

But other than that, he’s exactly right. What you’ll find, historically, is that his is the perspective of every decent cog in a bad wheel: not even slightly unaware or demented. There are never good cogs in a bad wheel, but there are always decent ones. You will find this exact same Oriental mentality in: Reinhard Spitzy’s How We Squandered The Reich (National Socialism); Alexander Barmine’s One Who Survived (early Communism); or Victor Klemperer’s The Lesser Evil (late Communism).

The perspective is that—sure—the system is bad. It is bad. Criminal? Sure. Thus, anyone who has seen the machine from the inside cannot possibly be surprised by Climategate. That’s just how professors behave! At least, now that professors run the world. Acton gets it right again.

But what’s the alternative? There isn’t any alternative. I mean, if the professors stop running the world, who will take over? Who else can run a world? Anyone in here got some world-running experience? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller…

Therefore, the System must be reformed from the inside by men and women of good will, who will make up for its various crimes by creating a new socialism with a human face. Yadda yadda. Exit: the New Deal State. Enter: the New Deal State, with prediction markets. Or “charter cities.” Or whatever. Not that any of these professorial innovations have any chance of actually happening, of course. Frankly, it’d be stupid if it wasn’t so funny.

When I read apologiae of this species, I am of course reminded of Carlyle:

No: at all costs it is to be prayed by all men that Shams may cease. Good Heavens, to what depths have we got, when this to many a man seems strange!

Yet strange to many a man it does seem; and to many a solid Englishman, wholesomely digesting his pudding among what are called the cultivated classes, it seems strange exceedingly; a mad ignorant notion, quite heterodox, and big with mere ruin. He has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial,—what you in your iconoclast humor call shams—all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting on without them.

Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams? Kings reigned, what they were pleased to call reigning; lawyers pleaded, bishops preached, and honorable members perorated; and to crown the whole, as if it were all real and no sham there, did not scrip continue salable, and the banker pay in bullion, or paper with a metallic basis?

Alas, Carlyle went quite unheard in his time. Shams did not cease; nor have they. And where is England now? Spiceries still come, if mainly from the East. Lawyers plead, and the rest. Scrip, though, does not move so well as formerly. And as for the banker…

So here at UR, we take a slightly different perspective from Professor Hanson et al. We do not believe the problem can be solved by any conceivable improvement. Rather, we observe that it has been generally getting worse, and expect that it will continue to get worse. We see a set of institutions in need of no renovation, but replacement. New formulas are not needed; it is the present ones, rather, which will have to go.

Carlyle again:

And to such length have we at last brought it, by our wilful, conscious and now long-continued method of using varnish, instead of actual repair by honest carpentry, of what we all knew and saw to have gone undeniably wrong in our procedures and affairs! Method deliberately, steadily, and even solemnly continued, with much admiration of it from ourselves and others, as the best and only good one, for above two hundred years.

Ever since that annus mirabilis of 1660, when Oliver Cromwell’s dead clay was hung on the gibbet, and a much easier “reign of Christ” under the divine gentleman called Charles II was thought the fit thing, this has been our steady method: varnish, varnish; if a thing have grown so rotten that it yawns palpable, and is so inexpressibly ugly that the eyes of the very populace discern it and detest it,—bring out a new pot of varnish, with the requisite supply of putty; and lay it on handsomely. Don’t spare varnish; how well it will all look in a few days, if laid on well! Varnish alone is cheap and is safe; avoid carpentering, chiselling, sawing and hammering on the old quiet House;—dry-rot is in it, who knows how deep; don’t disturb the old beams and junctures: varnish, varnish, if you will be blessed by gods and men!

This is called the constitutional System, Conservative System, and other fine names; and this at last has its fruits, such as we see. Mendacity hanging in the very air we breathe; all men become, unconsciously or half or wholly consciously, liars to their own souls and to other men’s; grimacing, finessing, periphrasing, in continual hypocrisy of word, by way of varnish to continual past, present, future, misperformance of thing:—clearly sincere about nothing whatever, except in silence, about the appetites of their own huge belly, and the readiest method of assuaging these.

If you don’t like this state of affairs, join me in trying to root these rats from their holes with fire, gas and electricity—and replace them with a real, working King, from whose royal eye every slimy rodent-thing must shrink. Selah.

(Also: if this is just not enough for you this week, there are additional conversations here and here and here and here.)