'Poor Al Gore. Global warming completely debunked via the very Internet you invented. Oh, oh, the irony!"
This quip by comedian Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" last week was a welcome break from the steady disclosures of science gone bad. So too was the instantly viral online video called "Hide the Decline," a mocking send-up of the scientists who tried to suppress data showing global cooling. It was viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.
Climategate began with the disclosure of emails and other documents showing how leading global-warming scientists had evaded peer review and refused to disclose data. Over the past week, there have been resignations and investigations of top scientists in England and the U.S.
The British government is recalculating its historic weather findings in light of the now-suspect data from the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia. Even the United Nations, which had claimed "unequivocal" evidence for man-made global warming, pledges that it will review the evidence.
More details will come out as the leaked documents get fully parsed, but already one certainty is the end of certainty. The one-sidedness of the views of the most influential scientists had led many to believe in the gospel of global warming.
Unlike Watergate, Climategate didn't come to light because investigative journalists ferreted out the truth. Instead, this story so far has played itself out largely on blogs, often run by the same scientists who had a hard time getting printed in the scientific journals. Climategate has provided a voice to the scientists who had been frozen out of the debate.
This may be how information-based scandals play out in the future: A leak from a whistleblower directly onto the Web. Expert bloggers then assess what the disclosures mean—a Web version of peer review.
Much of the analysis is on the site of Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian who edits ClimateAudit.org. He has long tried to get access to raw data on temperatures. He filed numerous freedom-of-information requests of the East Anglia scientists, leading them to ask one another to delete records. He also showed that the familiar hockey-stick graph showing global warming was based on incomplete sampling.
Blogging scientists have been busy reviewing the 15,000 lines of code by programmers that were included in the "Documents" folder of the leaked materials. The latest twist is hidden notations in the data from programmers that indicate where they had manipulated results. The programmers expressed frustration when the numbers didn't fit the case for global warming.
Comments in the code include "These will be artificially adjusted to look closer to the real temperatures," referring to an effort to suppress data showing that the Middle Ages were warmer than today. Comments inside the code also described an "adjustment" as follows: "Apply a VERY ARTIFICIAL correction for decline!!" Another notation indicated when a "fudge factor" had been added.
There are three other data sets on historic temperatures, but blogging scientists have pointed out that they aren't completely independent of the now-dubious East Anglia assertions. Atmospheric data from satellites, for example, rely on the East Anglia surface data to calibrate their measurements.
In addition to blogs, skeptics of global warming have used "crowdsourcing" to improve on the science supposedly done by professionals. Anthony Watts is a meteorologist who was surprised by how local conditions affect the reliability of the 1,200 U.S. weather stations. Along with more than 600 volunteers, he found that almost all the stations violate the government's standards by being too close to heating vents or surrounded by asphalt.
Most of us remain skeptics. A Rasmussen Reports survey last week found that most Americans believe there is significant disagreement among scientists over global warming. Almost 60% of people thought it was at least somewhat likely that scientists have falsified research data.
This episode raises disturbing questions about scientific standards, at least in highly political areas such as global warming. Still, it's remarkable to see how quickly corrective information can now spread. After years of ignored freedom-of-information requests and stonewalling, all it took was disclosure to change the debate. Even the most influential scientists must prove their case in the court of public opinion—a court that, thanks to the Web, is one where eventually all views get a hearing.