Climate Scientists Cleared, But Communication Falls Flat

Michael E. Mann, climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

Last week, the prominent British climate scientist at the center of the storm over the so-called Climategate controversy, Phil Jones, was cleared of scientific misconduct by an independent panel. Jones had been accused of finagling and suppressing data in his work with the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the British University of East Anglia. A furor erupted in late 2009 after the release of over one thousand hacked emails between climate scientists. The emails cast doubt on the scientists’ conduct and raised the profile of scientifically-dubious arguments championed by climate change “deniers.” The panel’s vindication of Jones came on the heels of similar exoneration by two separate panels for a fellow climatologist embroiled in the mess, Michael Mann, of Penn State University.

To be sure, climate scientists have agreed that the science behind human-caused climate change is linked to our enormous greenhouse gases emissions. Yet the whiff of impropriety wafting from the emails’ content was enough to make the anthropocentric climate change skeptics and deniers go wild. These panel reviews, as well as another examination that focused on errors in a major 2007 IPCC report, found that the underlying climate science remains solid. What was uncovered spoke more to the poor behavior of the researchers, their deafness to critics, susceptibility to groupthink, unwillingness to respond to information requests and more than a little arrogance.

Scientists can take an important lesson from this debacle by recognizing that even when thorough and rigorous science is performed, the need for openness and clarity still exists. Science benefits when practitioners are forthcoming and research is open to critical scrutiny. Meeting those objectives calls for improved communication skills, a proficiency that is not always a top priority for scientists. It calls for respectful dialogue among those who vehemently disagree. This is especially true in highly contested, competitive, and politically-charged fields of research like climatology.

The exoneration of Jones and Mann won’t end the debate over climate change, but it is a wake up call for scientists to better engage and explain sound science to the public.

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