The reaction of bloggers and pundits to Climatequiddick - the hacking and disclosure of e-mails sent and received by climate scientists at East Anglia University - follows two unfortunate patterns.
On the right, we hear folks proclaiming the end of the debate about anthropogenic global warming. They say, as I heard local talk show host Mark Belling claim, that claims of AGW have been shown to be based on "fraud." The e-mails are significant, but surely they don't do that.
On the left, we have denial expressed in the form of accusing "denialists" of "lies" and "ignorance" resulting in a failure and refusal to understand the supposedly innocuous content of the e-mails, which - despite references to tricks and suppression of opposing views - actually reflect scientific integrity. The hack is a nefarious plot to subvert the Copenhagen summit.
For the most part, neither group has the expertise - or is willing to take the time - to understand what they are talking about. I, for example, can't really say whether ignoring recent measurements of tree ring density in northern latitudes because they don't fit into certain models concerning the relation between such density and temperature is right or wrong.
But, being a reasonably informed observer of the global warming debate, it does seem to me that the e-mails reflect an ongoing problem with the matter of AGW. In my view, the most intelligent "popular" writer on the subject has been Jim Manzi.
Manzi, in short, makes the following points. First, is that the process claimed to result in AGW is based on sound physics. Increased atmospheric carbon could result in increased temperature. Second, it is by no means clear that it will do so because of many confounding and countervailing elements. Third, it is, therefore, virtually impossible to "predict" the fact or extent of warming. It makes far more sense to speak in terms of probabilities. Efforts to develop predictive models based on the historical record are particularly problematic because they are essentially unfalsifiable and, by certain defintions, cannot be "science." If we find data that contradicts the model, we can simply tweak the model ("hide the decline") until the data fit. What we can't do is run an experiment in which history is reconstructed under different conditions and see how often the model fits the data. Fourth, concern over AGW is prudent but it is unlikely to be the existential crisis that it is claimed to be and it is not clear that the best policy is abatement rather than accomodation. (Manzi does recognize that a small chance of a bigger problem requires a policy response but not the economic retrenchment that has been the typical proposed response.)
In that context, the e-mails become highly problematic - not because they "disprove" AGW - but because they reflect a rigid and unscientific commitment to orthodoxy. As Manzi points out, paleoclimatology is more like economics and political science than physics and chemistry. It is unlikely ever to achieve the certainty that we associate with certain questions in hard sciences and, therefore, the dogmatic commitment reflected in the e-mails is hard to see as frustration with those who won't accept the obvious and seems to reflect a set of closed minds.
This seems particularly so in the case of the website RealClimateChange (from which the Climatequiddick "deniers" seem to get their talking points). It doesn't read like most academic blogs. It is full of hyberbole, name-calling and smack talk.
The problem can't be assumed away by structuring the question as "selfless" defenders of the climate against self-interested industrially funded hacks. There is money to be made on both sides of the climate debate. That scientists might get lost in commitment to claims about the power of their discipline (here that science can predict the climate) and to their previous positions is a very well known - and very human - phenomenom.