Climategate: Not Fraud, But 'Noble Cause Corruption'

Three months after the release of the Climategate emails and fresh on the heels of the publication of Climategate: The Crutape Letters, Dr. Phil Jones -- head of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia -- took questions from Climategate’s version of David Frost: Roger Harrabin of the BBC.

That interview and a question and answer session indicate that Jones has since made some concessions after painful reflection. During this same period, the UK press has reexamined the ground covered in The Crutape Letters. However, the U.S. press has largely ignored the incident despite the involvement of New York Times journalists in the files.

Initial reactions are of two views. Fear-peddling alarmists argue that nothing in the emails changes the science; global warming contrarians scream fraud. A close reading of the emails shows that these views don't explain anything -- they merely restate entrenched views.

The truth of what has occurred is more subtle.

Jerome Ravetz, Oxford University philosopher, seconds this analysis:

This scandal, and the resulting crisis, was created by people within science who can be presumed to have been acting with the best of intentions. ... If we are to understand Climategate, and move towards a restoration of trust, we should consider the structural features of the situation that fostered and nurtured the damaging practices. ... It seems that several causes conspired. First, the early opposition to any claim of climate change was only partly scientific; the tactics of the opposing special interests were such as to induce the proponents to adopt a simple, forcefully argued position. Then, once the position was adopted, its proponents became invested in it, and attached to it, in all sorts of ways, institutional and personal.

The emails revealed a form of "noble cause corruption" resulting in a loss of trust in climate science and climate scientists. Early proponents of global warming and environmental activists set the stage for the crisis with early opponents and corporate interests. The scientists, led by the example of Michael Mann, adopted a “bunker mentality.” Jones confirms this reading of the situation: that bunker mentality led directly to an erosion of scientific values and scientific practices, now under investigation by Parliament and a stumbling team hastily thrown together by UEA.