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In November of last year, e-mails between England’s University of East Anglia Professor Phil Jones, the head of the Climate Research Unit, and Professor Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University were publicized by computer hackers. These e-mails received a great deal of media attention because they seemed to imply that there was a degree of misconduct between the two scientists. The misconduct came in the form of data being hidden in order to influence the peer review process and ultimately to keep scientific papers which had dissenting points of view from becoming public. For example, in one e-mail, Dr. Jones noted, regarding the global climate status, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Jones has since stepped down as head of the Climate Research Unit.

Although Professor Jones has defended the content of his e-mails, most recently to BBC News in a question-and-answer format (see, there is no doubt that what he wrote has ignited a public outcry about how scientists treat data, especially as it relates to climatology.  Responding to his critics in the interview with BBC, he says that the “…’trick’ did not refer to any intention to deceive — but rather ‘a convenient way of achieving something’.”

This leads us to ask why and how something like “Climategate” could happen.  What do the data really reflect? If the periods studied do not show a warming trend of statistical significance, what does this mean? How well do the interpretations of the data reflect what is really happening with the climate? Was the need to “hide the decline” a scientific necessity or was it political? And if it was political how much should politics influence the representation of scientific data? Is there a “correct” way to interpret scientific data, and if not, how does one educate a young scientist to interpret data to reflect the best possible representation of reality?

First, there is no one right way for interpreting scientific data and predicting climate change. The science of climatology is complex because there are so many variables involved.  Jones notes just a few of the numerous data points a climate scientist must take into consideration: “human and natural influences… natural internal variability of the climate system… Volcanic influences… Solar influence…” Because of all the variables, it becomes necessary to take a solid look at the collected data from various viewpoints.

Second, when looking at the science of a highly politicized issue such as climate change, it is imperative that scientists not become influenced one way or another by political opinion.  In the case of “Climategate,” it appears as though Jones may have mixed science with politics, and then felt pressured to present the “right” data so that climate change would appear in one light, when in fact his records possibly showed otherwise.  When questioned by the BBC, Jones admitted that, although there has been some warming, there has not been significant global warming from 1995 to the present, and that “Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.” What this means is that Dr. Jones may have felt the need to stretch his data to appear sympathetic to the issue of climate change. His stretch has now cast doubts on all of his data, not just the statistics he referred to in these specific e-mails.

Last, the public is not well-versed in thinking critically when it comes to scientific matters. Science is not black and white and most scientific conclusions are complex and layered. Rather than looking at data objectively with a healthy dose of skepticism, sometimes the media and politicians will take their own point of view and then search for scientific data to back up their already-formed opinions.  This leads to an imbalance in the way scientific facts are presented to the public.

These are significant issues when it comes to science and how scientists present scientific data to the public, and these problems point to a desperate need to overhaul science education. It is not enough to rely on the “experts” and although there will always be need for expert opinion, everyone needs have a better understanding of science and the scientific process. What is being discussed in “Climategate” is the reason I wrote Real Science-4-Kids (RS4K). RS4K curricula help provide a foundation for science that kids can build on in the future.  With RS4K, children are given the tools they need to critically evaluate and interpret scientific facts. With the Kogs, kids are taught how science is connected to history, philosophy, technology and critical thinking. Better science education is not just a necessity for children who want to become scientists when they grow up, it is also imperative that politicians, journalists, and everyday readers who follow the news be educated to think critically and understand the limitations of scientific investigation.

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