Climategate revisited

Now that the main charges of scientific misconduct arising from the hacking of the University of East Anglia email system have been proven false, it’s possible to get a reasonably clear idea of what actually happened here. For once the widely used “X-gate” terminology is appropriate. As with Watergate, the central incident was a “third-rate burglary” conducted as part of a campaign of overt and covert harassment directed against political opponents and rewarded (at least in the short run) with political success.

The core of the campaign is a network of professional lobbyists, rightwing activists and politicians, tame journalists and a handful of scientists (including some at the University of East Anglia itself) who present themselves as independent seekers after truth, but are actually in regular contact to co-ordinate their actions and talking points. The main mechanism of harassment was the misuse of Freedom of Information requests in an effort to disrupt the work of scientists, trap them into failures of compliance, and extract information that could be misrepresented as evidence of scientific misconduct. This is a long-standing tactic in the rightwing War on Science, reflected in such Orwellian pieces of legislation as the US “Data Quality Act”.

The hacking was almost certainly done by someone within the campaign, but in a way that maintained (in Watergate terminology) “plausible deniability” for the principals. Regardless of what they knew (and when they knew it) about the actual theft, the leading figures in the campaign worked together to maximize the impact of the stolen emails, and to co-ordinate the bogus claims of scientific misconduct based on the sinister interpretations placed on such phrases as “trick” and “hide the decline”.

The final group of actors in all this were the mass audience of self-described “sceptics”. With few exceptions (in fact, none of whom I am aware), members of this group have lost their moral bearings sufficiently that they were not worried at all by the crime of dishonesty involved in the hacking attack. Equally importantly, they have lost their intellectual bearings to the point where they did not reflect that the kind of person who would mount such an attack, or seek to benefit from it, would not scruple to deceive a gullible audience as to the content of the material they had stolen. The members of this group swallowed and regurgitated the claims of fraud centred on words like “trick”. By the time the imposture was exposed, they had moved on to the next spurious talking point fed to them by the rightwing spin machine.

To keep all this short and comprehensible, I haven’t given lots of links. Most of the points above are have been on the public record for some time (there’s a timeline here), but a few have only come to light more recently. These Guardian story brings us up to date, and names quite a few of the key players (see also here). For the role of allegedly independent journalists in all this, see Tim Lambert’s Deltoid site (search for “Rosegate” and “Leakegate”).

Update I should have mentioned that much the same team had their first outing in the controversy over the Mann et al “hockey stick” graph. All the same elements were there – supposedly disinterested citizen researchers who were in fact paid rightwing operatives, misuse of accountability procedures, and exceptional gullibility on the part of the “sceptical” mass audience. Details are here (h/t John Mashey). Note in particular the role of Edward Wegman, who had the great appeal of being an apparent cleanskin without the kind of paper trail associated with the majority of delusionist “experts”. Here are my comments on Wegman’s silly and dishonest critique of Mann.. It was obvious at the time that Wegman had agreed in advance to do a hatchet job, a fact confirmed by his later appearance on delusionist petitions. But until now we didn’t have the details of the connection.

Bacevich on the American faith in force (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The American Conservative is a mixed bag, to put it mildly, but this piece by Andrew Bacevich (h/t Jack Strocchi) is well worth reading. Bacevich points out how rarely the faith of the American policy elite in military force has actually been rewarded with success. The key quote:

An alternative reading of our recent military past might suggest the following: first, that the political utility of force—the range of political problems where force possesses real relevance—is actually quite narrow; second, that definitive victory of the sort that yields a formal surrender ceremony at Appomattox or on the deck of an American warship tends to be a rarity; third, that ambiguous outcomes are much more probable, with those achieved at a cost far greater than even the most conscientious war planner is likely to anticipate; and fourth, that the prudent statesman therefore turns to force only as a last resort and only when the most vital national interests are at stake. Contra Kristol, force is an “instrument” in the same sense that a slot machine or a roulette wheel qualifies as an instrument.

To consider the long bloody chronicle of modern history, big wars and small ones alike, is to affirm the validity of these conclusions.

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Send in the clowns

It’s hard to believe that, three months ago, Australian national politics was (primarily) a contest between two broadly normal political parties. The government was running well ahead, but open to criticism for having talked a lot and done relatively little. The opposition was excessively keen on the maxim ‘the first duty of an opposition is to oppose’, and the alternative policies it proposed were neither as detailed as they might be, nor entirely consistent, but that has always been true of oppositions. Although a change of government in 2010 looked unlikely, there was nothing to suggest that such an event would be a disaster if it happened.

That could not be said today. The government is much the same as before, but the opposition has become a clown show, happy to do or say whatever comes to mind, either to chase votes, secure the support of its base or simply to muddy the waters enough that they have a chance to win in the resulting confusion.
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Zombie ideas rise again

A glutton for punishment, I’ve decided the Zombie Economics book manuscript I submitted a month ago (mostly online here) is in urgent need of more zombies. I’ve been struck, even in that short space of time by the extent to which, with undeniable “green shoots” now appearing, the zombie ideas I’ve written about are clawing their way through the softening soil and walking among us again. The most amazing example is that of the Great Moderation – surely you would think no one could believe in this anymore, but they do.

So, I’m planning to add a bit to each chapter, pointing to examples of these ideas being revived. I’d appreciate good examples for the rest: Trickle Down, Micro-based Macro the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and Privatisation (of course, the Queensland government gives an example v close to home).

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Ignoring the elephant

My piece in Thursday’s Fin noted the prevalence of delusional conspiracy theories about climate change on the political right, pointing in particular to Lord Monckton, Nick Minchin and the Lavoisier Institute as sources for the claim that the whole thing was a plot to destroy the economy and bring in a communist world government. Among other points on the silliness of this claim, I observed that all credible economists agreed that the cost of measures to stabilise global climate (less than 5 per cent of GDP) on all estimates, did not appear sufficient for the catastrophic destruction required by the conspiracy theorists.

The piece attracted a couple of responses, one from the Lavoisier Institute and one from Sinclair Davidson (who has given Monckton plenty of favorable treatment on his blog, and his pushed conspiracy-theoretic views of the IPCC). Curiously, neither of them mentioned the conspiracy theories that were the main subject of the piece, and which Lavoisier has pushed for years.

Rather they cavilled at the point that the economic costs of an ETS or carbon tax would be marginal. Lavoisier’s Ray Evans did not offer a counterargument, but simply claimed that economists had been wrong when they said the effects of Thatcher’s 1981 Budget would be disastrous. Davidson accepted the standard estimates, but said that, if you converted them into present values at a low discount rate, they looked really big. He also made a spurious personal attack on me (reply over the fold).

This is just silly. Although Australia got off relatively lightly from the GFC, our national income is several percentage points below where it would have been in the absence of the crisis and is likely to remain below trend for some years to come. Has anyone noticed the collapse of civilisation as we know it? Even in countries like the UK, where the impact of the GFC has been many times the size of the maximum estimates put forward by economists for the cost of climate stabilization, many observers believe that the threat of imminent communist dictatorship and a return to the Dark Ages may yet be staved off.

As I said in my original piece, it is tempting to dismiss all this as mere hyperbole. But, for delusionists, the only alternative to crazy conspiracy theories is the claim that thousands of professional scientists have fallen prey to errors that can easily be discerned by the average (scientifically untrained, innumerate, information derived from blogs) rightwing pundit. Now that’s really crazy.

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Well, we did do the nose … and the hat

In discussing the loony antics of Lord Monckton with climate delusionists/rightwingers (the two categories are now pretty much coextensive), I’m struck by the frequency with which I get the line (pushed a little while ago by Janet Albrechtsen) “Well he did say that Rudd and Obama were planning a communist world government, and that Jackie Kennedy killed millions of people and that the child of holocaust survivors was a Nazi and that he was a member of House of Lords, but why focus on that stuff … you should be debating him on the science”

I’m not sure whether the appropriate Monty Python reference is the witch sketch in Holy Grail or “What have the Romans ever done for us” in Life of Brian. Certainly, the idea of supposedly hard-headed politicos going to this guy for scientific advice is one that would stretch credulity even for a Python gag.

European exceptionalism (crosspost from CT)

I’d like to broaden John Holbo’s CT discussion of the US as a center-right nation to consider the broader idea that the US is, in some sense, exceptional. As Barack Obama correctly pointed out not so long ago, every nation is exceptional in its own way, which tends to undermine the idea that any nation is specially exceptional.

Still, compared to the developed world in general, it seems obvious that the US is different in lots of ways: an outlier in terms of nationalism, military power, religiosity, working hours and inequality of outcomes and (in the opposite direction) in terms of government intervention, health outcomes and other measures typically associated with welfare states. Among these the outstanding differences arise from the fact that the US aspires, with some success, to be globally hegemonic in military terms and (with rather less success) in economic terms as well.

But, when you think about it, there is nothing exceptional here.
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