Perhaps ClimateGate is a flash in the pan, though we view that as unlikely. It might be that the ardent scientists of East Anglia corrupted data in service of their vision of the world. Or perhaps it is the “deniers” who are in error. In either case there is a conflict of visions. Perhaps thinking back to a previous conflict of visions could add a little enlightenment.
In 1962 Thomas Kuhn, then at Harvard, published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which quickly became one of the seminal books in the history of science. Kuhn argues that radical changes in thought often require, and create, a whole new way of seeing the world. He invented the term “paradigm shift,” to describe the phenomenon. Often, it is only when you have crossed over to the new paradigm do you see reality the way it really is.
One example Kuhn uses to illustrate his point is the Copernican Revolution. In 1500, the accepted view in the Christian world of western Europe was that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. The astronomer Ptolemy in the second century AD had worked out a set of equations for the movements of the planets and the moon based on the the earth being the center of the universe. Of course the set of equations describing the Ptolemaic universe had terrible problems since they were attempting to describe a universe that doesn’t exist.
In the early sixteenth century, Copernicus developed an alternative view of, and set of equations for, a universe in which the moon alone revolved around the earth, and in which the earth, like the other planets, revolved around the sun. His masterwork, De Revolutionibus, was published after significant delays, due to religious and scientific objections to his work. Copernicus finally received a copy of his book on May 24, 1543, the day he died.
Many people had a lot invested, professionally, culturally, religiously, psychologically, in the notion that the earth and man were the center of all creation, and so there was considerable resistance at first to the Copernican universe. Some scientists and religious leaders of the day were horrified at the universe Copernicus described, and adamantly defended their geocentric, Ptolemaic beliefs, refusing to accept the Copernican paradigm. Kuhn writes:
In a sense I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. (p. 150)
The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced….
Darwin, in a particularly perceptive passage at the end of his Origin of Species, wrote: “Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume…, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are shocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine….[B]ut I look with confidence to the future, — to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to look at both sides of the question with impartiality.” And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (p. 151)
We instinctively tended to side with the AGW skeptics because that viewpoint fits with our view of the world. We think government should have modesty and a limited role in man’s life, we are viscerally repelled by grandiose schemes that intend to pick our pocket in the service of a vague threat decades away, and we think that man burning things for 200 years is small beer given the vastness of nature. (BTW, we often dislike conventional wisdom just for the heck of it.) Many on the other side of the argument probably have a different view of the proper role of government. The data often come into play only thereafter, but they can serve as a battering ram — we are thus appalled that anyone could think that an insignificant 100ppm increase in a rare gas (0.3% of global greenhouse gases) that is necessary to life on earth could be calamitous. Those on the other side have their data too.
Final point. ClimateGate may not be the Copernican Revolution. However, it does remind us of some recent events in history. Most of the smart money and praise from the wise has been for the pro-AGW crowd. They represented the superiority of the knowledge of the elite over that of the lumpenproletariat. Not surprisingly there has been to date precious little glasnost about their data, and little perestroika as well. That seems about to change. Things didn’t end well for the incumbents as that situation developed over the succeeding several years. We’ll just have to see which worldview a critical re-evaluation of the data supports.