By Kevin Meyer
The emerging Climategate scandal has really been something to behold, both in terms of shedding some light on questionable scientific evidence and how scientists deal with it, but also by showing us the dangers of groupthink. Don't get me wrong – I still have no doubt that the Earth is warming, as it has several times in the past, but when analyzing data showing fractions of a degree of change over milliseconds of geological time you have to wonder about the real statistical relevance of the human contribution. Although it still behooves us to work to reduce emissions whether or not they are actually contributing to the warming. It's just the right thing to do.
I'm not going to focus on the scientific and political aspects of global warming itself, although I will drop a couple of quotes from a good USA Today article to provide the context for my eventual point.
In a long string of embarrassing e-mail exchanges, CRU scientists discuss with friendly outside colleagues, including Penn State University's Michael Mann, how to manipulate the data they want to show the world, and how to hide the often flawed data they don't. In one exchange, they discuss the "trick" of how to "hide the decline" in global temperatures since the 1960s. Again and again, the researchers don't object to just inconvenient truths but also inconvenient truth-tellers. They contemplate and orchestrate efforts to purge scientists and journals who won't sing the same global warming hymnal.
Now keep that in mind as we explore the psychology behind the scandal.
First, the climate change industry is shot through with groupthink (or what climate scientist Judith Curry calls "climate tribalism"). Activists would have us believe that the overwhelming majority of "real" scientists agree with them while the few dissenters are all either crazed or greedy "deniers" akin to flat-earthers and creationists. These e-mails show that what's really at work is a very large clique of scientists is attempting to excommunicate perceived heretics for reasons that have more to do with psychology and sociology than physics or climatology.
Second, the climate industry really is an industry. Climate scientists
make their money and careers from government, academia, the United
Nations and foundations. The grantors want the grantees to confirm the
global warming "consensus." The tenure and peer-review processes
likewise hinge on conformity. That doesn't necessarily mean climate
change is untrue, but it does mean sloppiness and bias are unavoidable.
That is what has bothered me all along – scientists who are taught to continually question are suddenly calling something "settled" and dismissing (to put it politely) anyone with a nonaligned opinion. Contrary to to what they'd like us to believe, there are large numbers of top shelf scientists who do question the "settled science" – and it's starting to look like for good reason.
When dealing with highly technical issues there's another negative aspect of groupthink: the inability of independent observers to uncover the problem.
part of the problem is also that the journalists do a bad job when the
majority of "respected" experts agree on anything complicated. For
instance, it was pretty impossible for reporters to independently
Hussein had WMDs, and since the most established authorities agreed he
had to have them, the news media reported the consensus, which turned
out to be wrong.
Likewise, most journalists aren't qualified or capable of working through the climate data. So they opt for the consensus.
I've heard lots of people bemoan the decline of true "journalists" while supposedly knuckle-dragging bloggers take their place. Perhaps that's not a bad thing when specialized bloggers may have the background to correctly analyze complex observations.
Now let's take this away from Climategate and into our world of manufacturing and business. Where do we notice consensus and groupthink forcing entire organizations along a narrow path, with any deviation being called wrong?
How about traditional accounting? To most people it's fairly complicated and therefore understanding the fallacious underlying assumptions and resulting incongruous impact is impossible. Compound that with a group of professionals, aka finance dudes, who should understand the problem but don't like to be questioned – and what happens? Everyone goes happily from year to year wasting time on budgets that never seem to be accurate, costing profitable products out of existence, with a small nagging feeling that training a thousand people in a different language a few thousand miles away seems strangely more difficult than investing in the existing domestic workforce.
Or building in batch versus one piece flow, or overproducing simply because the machine is miraculously making good parts for a change, or laying off and rehiring every couple weeks to supposedly match a computer-concocted production schedule that isn't even tied to demand. We could go on and on.
Continually question supposed reality and "settled science." You never know how thin the ice is that it sits on. Uh… perhaps that's a bad metaphor. Or is it?