My column went live at the New Statesman yesterday. Unedited draft here, final version here.
What does a journalist do when a metric conspiracy-load of private emails between scientists land on his desk which he has neither the time to read, nor the skills to dissect? As the Climate Research Unit hacked emails story has developed, we’ve seen several different answers to this question.
On Today last Monday John Humphreys and Ed Miliband, having both agreed with each other that neither of them was a scientist, proceeded to strip down to their metaphorical loin cloths and dance around the totem they had built together out of “the science”. The previous Saturday, Simon Heffer in the Telegraph had précised his denialist contribution to the debate with “I have not so much as an O-level in physics or chemistry”. The polemic was illustrated with a picture of a green-haired climate protester screwing her face to camera, sardonically captioned “the voice of reason”. Thus did it perpetrate that most common of crimes against the Enlightenment: confusing ideology with reality.
Like the scientific method – itself more cybernetic than democratic – the hacked emails debacle is very much an internet story. More, it is a story of the public web, whose high incidence of “flat-earthers”, sceptics and chat room mavericks has apparently helped dissuade the CRU from hitherto publishing their data and workings, versus the private web, across which those same scientists bounced email after email, amassing a decade-large corpus that would make Cardinal Richelieu giddy. Whoever sent the whole thing to Wikileaks less than a month before the Copenhagen negotiations knew what they were doing. The mainstream media mostly enjoys telling stories. Twists in the tale are likely to be evaluated less on merit and more on where they take the narrative.
The constant questioning and debate that indicate healthy scientific discourse look entirely different to a media obsessed with the U-turn, that nasty little concept that distils every public debate into something slightly less sophisticated than a football match. But whatever comes out of Copenhagen this week, it will be the beginning of science’s involvement in the public discourse, and not the end. For society to survive, we will have to make good choices, and they will be choices about science and technology. Totems, ideology and story-telling will not be useful. If the public is to have any kind of scrutiny over these choices, the media need to get used to an altogether different type of refereeing.