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A recent article in The Washington Times titled “Climate scientists to fight back at skeptics” discusses the ways in which key climatologists are feeling pressure to fight back and respond to their critics, in light of what has been referred to as “Climategate.” “Climategate,” which has painted climate scientists in an unflattering light, concerns the leaking of emails between two top climate research scientists. The emails appeared to indicate that the two scientists were “massaging data” in favor of a certain conclusion and ignoring other key data points to do so.

In the article, Stephen H. Schneider, a Stanford professor, says that he believes the “social contract” between policymakers and scientists has been broken and needs to be fixed. He is quoted as saying,

“What I am trying to do is head off something that will be truly ugly… I don’t want to see a repeat of McCarthyesque behavior and I’m already personally very dismayed by the horrible state of this topic, in which the political debate has almost no resemblance to the scientific debate.”

Schneider was a participant in an email conversation in which several other climate scientists associated with the National Academy of Sciences discussed organizing their fellow researchers to form a nonprofit group in order to raise funds for an ad in the New York Times which would respond forcefully to critics of the climatologists.

This latest twist in the story of “Climategate” leads us to question why the “social contract” between scientists and policymakers has been broken. Is it because the scientific facts given to us by the climate researchers are entirely flawed? Or could it be a result of policy makers who have relied on the “science experts” to tell them what to believe rather than using their own critical thinking skills to evaluate the conclusions proposed by the experts?

Science, at its most basic level, is all about argument, opposing viewpoints, and varied interpretations. One of the central requirements of any scientific theory is that its conclusions be falsified and tested, however what constitutes a “proven fact” is debatable. Because of this, scientists argue; that’s simply what scientists do. Scientists have disputes about everything; from evaluating data to how to conduct experiments. Many graduate students have been witnesses to heated conflicts over the interpretations of scientific data where scientists sometimes even attack one another’s reputations at conferences! So it’s no surprise that climate scientists vehemently disagree on the data and what the data mean. However, when one point of view ceases to be questioned, in a “this is the whole truth” perspective, science stops being scientific. “Climategate” is certainly the result of sloppy handling of data, but it is also likely the result of bias. When the theory that human CO2 emissions caused global warming became the sole cause for why polar ice caps were melting, scientific objectivity was shelved. This one, very narrow interpretation of data was presented as the entire reason behind climate change, while other facts, such as particulate matter by aerosols or the influences of solar activity were downplayed. It doesn’t take a climate scientist, or even a scientist, to see that to present one set of data as the only cause of a phenomenon while downplaying other data spells trouble. Anyone with a basic understanding of science and adequate tools in critical thinking can see this.

Politicians, journalists, and the general public need to learn to take responsibility for their own understanding about science and the scientific process. Awareness about the fundamentals of science and how science works are the keys to forming good opinions about climate science data. Anyone can achieve the ability to evaluate scientific claims. If first graders can learn physics and chemistry, then journalists and policymakers, as well as the average adult, can learn the basics and from there think critically about scientific conclusions.

Essentially, “Climategate” is a problem with education and politics, not science. The conflict between scientists is exactly the way science functions and is not out of the ordinary. There is a battle over climate data, as there should be. However, because policymakers viewed climate change from a narrow lens without critically evaluating counterarguments, errors in judgment were likely made. What we need is more science education for everyone, not necessarily more experts. If our policy makers had been taught to evaluate scientific claims for themselves and not merely rely on others to dictate scientific opinion to them, issues such as “Climategate” might have been avoided. However, if funding for education continues to be cut, as is currently happening in California to make up for the financial shortfall the state has experienced, this problem will only get worse. In order to re-establish the “social contract” between scientists and policymakers it might be a good idea to ask that both scientists and policymakers take responsibility for their own understanding of those scientific issues that impact politics.