Home Resources SSI News KPBS' These Days: Climate Change Challenges feat. Ralph Keeling - February 5, 2010
KPBS' These Days: Climate Change Challenges feat. Ralph Keeling - February 5, 2010

By Maureen Cavanaugh, Natalie Walsh

February 2, 2010

The next Ethics Center forum "Climate Change Challenges" is Wednesday, February 3, from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Just when it looked like global warming was becoming an accepted part of every reasonable person’s world view, a scandal erupts. Last November, e-mails written by the director of a British climate research unit were leaked and those e-mails appear to show an attempt to manipulate global temperature data.

Global warming skeptics have seized on the scandal. The e-mails may have influenced the outcome of the rather lackluster Copenhagen climate summit and the incident highlights an even larger issue of how scientists handle their research. As part of our monthly series on ethics in science and technology, we'll discuss the e-mail controversy and its effect on the science and the scientists of climate change. Joining me now are my guests. Ralph Keeling is director of the CO2 Program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And, Ralph, welcome to These Days.

RALPH KEELING (Director, CO2 Program, Scripps Institution of Oceanography): Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Michael Kalichman, co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. Michael, welcome back.

MICHAEL KALICHMAN (Co-Director, Center for Ethics in Science and Technology): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you wonder how scientists ensure the accuracy of their research? Did the e-mail controversy make you question the science of climate change? Give us a call with your questions and comments, 1-888-895-5727. Now, Ralph Keeling, I’d like to start out with asking you what kind of research you’re doing in the Scripps CO2 Program.

KEELING: Well, I run a program to measure changes in the composition of the atmosphere at the global level. My entry into this field involved measuring changes in atmospheric oxygen and it picked up from work that had been started by my father many years earlier to measure carbon dioxide changes. So he passed away in 2005 and now I’m continuing to run his program as well as the program that I do on oxygen and there’s continued to be additional interest in variables we’re measuring, so there’s a kind of an expanding frontier of measurements that I’m overseeing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you mentioned your father, Charles David Keeling. He created the Keeling Curve. Tell us about that.

KEELING: Yeah, the Keeling Curve refers to the record of rising carbon dioxide concentrations made at the Mauna Loa station in Hawaii. And he began those measurements after he came to Scripps in 1956. The data started in 1958. And it was a landmark achievement because it showed that carbon dioxide levels really were rising in the atmosphere. Prior to that, there had been a wide body of work on carbon dioxide measurements but they’d been done with methods that were not accurate enough to actually see these changes clearly, and they were not made with sufficient attention to avoiding local contamination. So there was a confused picture about carbon dioxide prior to that and he had already, with prior work at Cal Tech before coming to Scripps, had verified that you could make a better measurement of CO2 and you could actually get away from contamination and see a stable background in the atmosphere. And the Mauna Loa record was the realization of tracking changes in that background.

CAVANAUGH: Now you just said you’re continuing the Mauna Loa record, is that right?

KEELING: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And how is your own personal research related to that continuing Keeling Curve record that you’re keeping up after your father’s death?

KEELING: Well, of course, in the sense that I’m keeping up the record, that’s now my research also.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

KEELING: Okay. But the oxygen program that I started was motivated by trying to understand better what was controlling the rise in carbon dioxide. And by measuring oxygen, you could discriminate between different types of sink processes. A sink is something that was removing CO2 from the atmosphere, compensating for the increase from fossil fuel burning. An example would be the uptake of carbon dioxide by the oceans, another would be the uptake of carbon dioxide by land plants. And it turns out that one of those sinks involve photosynthesis and, therefore, affects oxygen and the other sink involves inorganic chemistry, acid-based chemistry; it does not involve oxygen. So you can get a handle on the relative importance of these sinks at the global scale.

CAVANAUGH: So you, by heritage and by your own work, are immersed in the science of climate change. And I’d like you to tell us what – how you think – why you think that climate change research is so strong. Why do we know this is happening?

KEELING: Well, let me go back to the sort of my position as a climate scientist. I – Like most of the – By the way, I used to call myself a geo-chemist…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

KEELING: …and only in the last ten years or so have I started calling myself a climate scientist, just because it happens to be a better understood title. So my background is in the chemical aspects of the atmosphere and the impact of that on climate is secondary. That’s really picked up by other people. And my work is one little piece of the puzzle and it’s derivative of prior accomplishments, and I pointed to the work of my father. So the ability to track changes in the background atmosphere and how to go about it was essentially a settled body of work. It was solidly established by my father that you could do this, and by the 1960s and ‘70s, there was a growing body of scientists working on carbon dioxide measurements and programs that were making measurements like the Mauna Loa record at dozens, and now hundreds, of stations. And my work was to add some other species to the list of those being measured to learn more things about the system, so it was derivative. We accepted that carbon dioxide was rising. It was accepted that we could – we knew how to measure this. And the science had moved on to address more subtle questions about exactly why and where the source in syncs were, and these are the kinds of things you could learn by an expanded program.

CAVANAUGH: So just so everybody understands, it’s fair to say that there are climate scientists or geo-physicists who are taking measurements of climate, of CO2 levels, and other climate changes all over the globe.

KEELING: Oh, absolutely. There’s – the community now is in the thousands for sure. And I would emphasize that in the process of building on prior work like the ability to have a measurement of the background concentration. You don’t – you’re not really accepting it on faith, you’re actually continually testing it because if you – if, in the course of your research, you found some flaw in that premise, the most exciting thing to publish would be that itself. So the expansion of effort and its moving on into derivative disciplines actually continues to strengthen that fundamental background.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 Program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And I’d like to bring in Michael Kalichman. He’s co-director for the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. Now with the background that Ralph Keeling has given us about the wide-ranging aspect of climate science across the globe, perhaps, Michael, you can tell us about the allegation of research misconduct by some climate change scientists that surfaced in November and December of last year.

KALICHMAN: Sure, the basic story is that there were some e-mails that were extracted and some people are arguing that they basically were hacked from the computer system at East Anglia University in England. And those e-mails, if taken in the context presented, look very disturbing, especially to someone who is either not a scientist or particularly not a climate change scientist. There are words used in some of the e-mails that suggest the scientists are perhaps trying to trick people or that they’re trying to suppress dissenting views. Now, as it turns out, we don’t yet know the answer to those questions. However, what we do have is good reason to believe that much of what’s been seen in those messages is, in fact, scientists interacting in an informal conversation by e-mails and doing the thing that we all do in our e-mails. I’m extraordinarily careful in my own e-mail messages but I’m sure not careful enough about what would happen if somebody else saw this and, especially, if taken out of context. So an investigation is going on at East Anglia now to be sure that there wasn’t, in fact, research misconduct in this case, meaning that somebody had actively done something that clearly crosses the bounds of what’s acceptable.

CAVANAUGH: And I think one of the problems for the general public is that we’re not in on the conversations of scientists in general and we don’t know what areas cross the line when it comes to taking data and – basically taking some data and getting that in your research report and then dismissing other pieces of data. Is there – Can you tell us what are the most serious parts in your understanding, Michael, of the allegations involving these e-mails that were leaked?

KALICHMAN: So I think what might help is to step back and view misconduct in science when it occurs as being in two categories. One is the most serious and this I would – I tend to call it lying, cheating and stealing. There’s actually a federal law in this country against research misconduct, and that law defines research misconduct as fabrication, meaning you make something up without having actually done the work, falsification, meaning that you did the work but you didn’t think it was good enough so you fixed it, you made corrections to it that actually probably you should not have made, and plagiarism, meaning that you take the words, writings or ideas of someone else and claim them as your own. In this case, if we ask is there evidence that any of those things have occurred, there is a risk based on what you see in the e-mails suggesting that maybe they had falsified data or maybe they had not fabricated but they had done things in a way that would suppress the ideas of other researchers. My reading of what I’ve seen so far based on a first look at this is that it doesn’t look like that’s the case. But one of the things that I’ve learned about allegations of research misconduct is that an allegation is not proof. And just because it’s not proof does not mean it hasn’t occurred either. We have to wait for an appropriate, thorough investigation of exactly what did happen, and the worst case scenario is that we will find that some individuals had committed the worst misconduct. But I do want to conclude this bit by pointing out that there is another kind of misconduct which is much more common. Scientists are human beings. And being human beings, they may exhibit bad manners, they may be arrogant at times, they may be – they think they know something that they don’t. They may be sloppy. And all of those are probably things that we’re going to find were the case here as you would find in the work of anyone.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about various aspects of scientific research, misconduct, and sometimes negligence. We’re talking about it in terms of the e-mails that were basically hacked out of a computer in Britain regarding climate change. But we’re also talking about it on the broader scale of how scientists maintain the integrity of their data and their research. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call. Scott is calling us from Camp Pendleton. Good morning, Scott, and welcome to These Days.

SCOTT (Caller, Camp Pendleton): Thank you. I’d just like to say I was a little disappointed at the intro that implied that there’s some ethical problem with that data because they used the term ‘hide’ the tree ring data because it didn’t track with actual thermal measurements that have been going on more recently. If they’d used the word ‘extract’ or ‘compensate,’ maybe it wouldn’t be such a hot topic. But, you know, many experts throughout the world have looked at these e-mails and say that the use of the data and the way that the tree ring data was nullified, if you will, to be corrected based on better data, was perfectly acceptable in that discipline and I’m just disappointed that we’re still, this many months later, acting like global warming doesn’t exist because of ethical questions about the manipulation of data, which turns out to be false, you know, that accusation is false. At least many experts seem to think that it’s just a bunch of brouha (sic) over nothing.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

SCOTT: And we’re still, you know, your intro just exacerbates that problem where people – all of a sudden they want to nullify the existence of global warming. That’s like saying there’s no plate tectonics. I mean, the world isn’t flat, you know. There’s some things that we know. And some little brouha (sic) in England should not negate all the data that says we need to be doing something about global warming. I was disappointed you guys are continuing to, you know, to promote this, oh, my goodness, ethical issue, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Scott. I really appreciate it. And, Michael, you wanted to comment.

KALICHMAN: Ralph.

KEELING: Yeah, this is Ralph.

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. Sorry. Excuse me. Excuse me.

KEELING: Yeah, I want to agree with some of the sentiment of this caller in that the global warming debate that’s being talked about in the press is typically over the question of whether increasing greenhouse gases can cause significant change in the climate. And from my standpoint as a scientist, that question seems to have been settled decades ago, and that the scientists working in these e-mails, whatever is in them, it’s about derivative topics. It’s about refinements in that to try to figure out some detail about what went on. So there’s a confusion about the question that was actually involved in these e-mails and – and there’s really no way that that question could be challenged by a revelation from a few e-mails because the scientific community has moved on. There are thousands of people who are continuing to work on this problem and strengthening that basic premise all the time. So it – the conclusion does not rest in the hands of a few individuals.

CAVANAUGH: Before we take a break, though, Ralph, I want to ask you, you know that and many, many other people in the scientific community know that but when you heard about this leak of these e-mails, did you hold your head and say, oh, no?

KEELING: Well, I – You know, I – to some extent, I didn’t know what was in the e-mails either and I haven’t studied them in any depth beyond what’s in the media and I think there may be some things that come out of them that aren’t too good. Well, I think there’s some questions about data sharing that emerged from that and there’s some questions about peer review literature that are relevant. But it sure doesn’t look like there’s anything in there that could challenge these basic premises and it’s hard to see how it really could.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue our discussion about ethics in scientific research. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 Program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Michael Kalichman, co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, and we’re talking about, really, the subject of the new Ethics Center Forum “Climate Changes Challenges.” We’re talking about the ethics of scientific research. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Michael, if you would, I’d like you to say something about the reason that we’re still talking about this even though the science from all over the globe is still, you know, still firmly in place when it comes to the subject of climate change.

KALICHMAN: Yeah, so before the break, Scott called in with what I think also was an excellent question. That’s that it appears that we are making a big brouhaha about an e-mail or possible e-mails that might have some minor problems in them and, therefore, implying that there’s something unethical in the field of climate change research. And I – While I agree personally very strongly with Scott’s perspective, I think it’s also very important for us to remember that well-meaning, thoughtful people can look at an e-mail like that, especially those who may not work in the field of science and say here is evidence that the climate change scientists are doing something that’s suspect. It doesn’t mean that they are doing something suspect but it does mean that we have an obligation in the scientific and the academic community to try and better clarify what science is, how it works, what is possible, what is impossible. And in this particular case, it’s important for us to make clear what this context means. What does it mean if this occurred, if some misconduct occurred? And we can also look at questions about what kind of misconduct, if any, has occurred. My personal best guess right now is that some people in the presumed safety of e-mail exchanges said some things that are going to look bad to people who aren’t in the field and aren’t their immediate colleagues. But my guess also is that this is a lesson for all of us in our e-mail exchanges. What would happen if you accidentally hit send to somebody you didn’t intend? And in this case, they didn’t hit send to somebody they didn’t intent, somebody hacked the e-mail system and came up with the e-mails. However, now that we have these e-mails, it is important to step forward and say what does this really mean, conduct an appropriate investigation, rather than to say it should not be investigated because that would be a suggestion that we’re trying to hide something.

CAVANAUGH: Michael, if you would, tell us a little bit about the checks and balances that exist to guard against misconduct when it comes to scientific research.

KALICHMAN: Yeah, that’s a key question here about the nature of science and checks and balances are huge. Ralph has already referred to some of them. If somebody really were doing something inappropriate and finding answers that were, in fact, wrong, there would be thousands of people who would be delighted to show that that path is incorrect, every head of a research group who has graduate students. You know, those students would be delighted to find something new, a new path, a new direction. That’s, in fact, what they’re challenged to do. So we have a constant dialogue between different researchers around the world in different fields and that helps protect against the integrity of the research record as a whole but it doesn’t guarantee that individuals won’t sometimes do something wrong. The key for me about this particular memo or this particular case is that even if we found there was something wrong in this particular instance with some of these researchers, it can’t take away from the whole. And just a very brief analogy, I am not a watcher of sports much but I understand that the Chargers, unfortunately, lost a game recently…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, indeed.

KALICHMAN: …to the Jets, 17 to 14. And if we were to ask about the tens of thousands of people who watched that game and if somebody came out of that game and said, I was there, I watched it and the score wasn’t 17 to 14, it was 21 to 14, and we found out that they had made that up, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the overall answer still remains the Chargers, unfortunately, lost that game. And it doesn’t take away in this case because some researcher might have said this is, you know, they might have overstepped the bounds of good propriety and research does not mean that all of the research, the mass of data from many different areas is necessarily wrong. It’s the best story we have so far.

CAVANAUGH: Ralph Keeling, I wonder if you’ve ever come across or know of a situation where sometimes scientists may rush their data out into the larger world or not be thoroughly forthcoming because of the competitive nature of science. Does that happen?

KEELING: There’s a judgment everyone has to make in going forward with data as to whether or not it’s solid enough for your own comfort. And that comfort level is different with different scientists and that does lead to some tension. Two groups will discover something more or less at the same time and one group wants to do some cross-checks, the other group does not. The second group publishes first and gets more credit. So carefulness actually can detract from gaining credit. So that tension exists. I’m not sure it’s particularly harmful because if the first group had rushed to publish and turned out to have been wrong, they risked embarrassment and it was backed up by a second group anyway. So, yes, this does go on. I’m not really, in my own field, I’m not sure I’m aware of any place where there’s been a ethical bound crossed in that way.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a phone call. Alan is calling from North Park. Good morning, Alan, and welcome to These Days.

ALAN (Caller, North Park): Good morning. Hey, I’m wondering if part of the reason there’s still a debate on global climate change is that there are huge corporations throughout the world that make a lot of money by pumping oil out of the ground and then there’s other huge corporations that make a lot of money by building cars and airplanes and military equipment that burns that oil, and as long as these corporations are making so much money then they want to keep making that money and want to put skepticism into our minds about global climate change. Is that a reasonable idea?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Alan. Who would like to take that? Let me pose this question then on top of what Alan was saying, and that is it’s very true that because of political interest, because of economic interests, the science of global warming has been politicized almost since the very beginning. And I wonder, with the release or the hacking of these e-mails, does that make this situation that much harder for the science of global warming to gain the kind of complete acceptance that it needs, Ralph?

KEELING: I suppose it does. The difficulty that we face as scientists is that there’s a lot of the public that forms their viewpoints from a variety of strands and science is only one of them, so we get our message out to – in clear terms or less clear terms but in any case, it’s only one of the streams of – one of the voices out there and you can’t expect that we’re going to dominate the airwaves.

CAVANAUGH: When a scientific issue is as politicized as the subjective global warming, how should scientists reveal new information that might contradict what was thought to be true before without sort of upsetting the entire apple cart? Michael.

KALICHMAN: Sure. Nice simple question. I think every scientist that I’ve known would be delighted to find something that would upset the apple cart because if they can demonstrate that definitively then their career will be largely made. It will be wonderful for them to do that. The hurdles to successfully do that are large, though. The burden of the proof for someone who is trying to demonstrate something that is very different than what was known before is huge, and it should be. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof is what a number of people have often said. So it’s a big challenge but every scientist I’ve known has always been willing and desirous of moving forward on that and some will go more quickly, as Ralph pointed out, than others in the hopes of being the first. But others will be more cautious to make sure that before they make this extraordinary claim, they already have the extraordinary proof. So the approach will vary. Scientists, this is something that is hard for scientists to remember, scientists are human just as others are. There are some who will do some terrible things. There will some (sic) who will have bad manners. There will some who – there will be some who will rush but on the – by the same token, there’s some who are the exemplars that we would all just wish we could say were our family or friends because they are such incredible people.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Caroline is calling from Balboa Park. Good morning, Caroline. Welcome to These Days.

CAROLINE (Caller, Balboa Park): Good morning. Yes, I wanted to segue from this concept of proof. I work as a statistical geneticist and one of the problems I’ve encountered is that many of the scientists I work with are not only afraid of statistics but they’re also – they also consider a statistician to be a luxury so they will often make mistakes in their wording, which might be one of the problems in these e-mails in describing their data, and they may actually make serious errors in manipulating their data just because they don’t really understand the proper procedures.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call, Caroline. So, Ralph, are scientists afraid of statisticians?

KEELING: I think a lot of climate scientists really are statisticians in fact. So I’m not a statistician and I wish I knew more statistics but I have high regard for many climate scientists, in part because they are fantastic statisticians. They are at the cutting edge of innovation in statistics in some cases, building new tools. I should say, though, that the strength of the case for global warming being a serious issue, for example, doesn’t really depend on statistics. The measure of that is – probably a better measure of that is probably the behavior of the community as a whole, which is weighing in with a whole range of judgments about it, including statistical evidence and other kinds of inferences.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, Michael.

KALICHMAN: So I wanted to add that while Caroline’s point, I think, is true in certain fields that have developed without an emphasis on statistics and seeing that she’s a statistical geneticist, she may be working with people who don’t begin with a focus on statistics, that may be true. But as Ralph points out, much of what we see published and much of the data that supports where we’re going with climate change research is based on people who, in fact, themselves must be statisticians. It’s an important part of what they do. It’s sort of a defining element of what they do.

CAVANAUGH: And, in closing, Ralph, I wonder, to go back to the climate change issue, what aspects of climate change research do you think are most misunderstood by the public?

KEELING: Well, I mean, speaking from my own discipline, one of the challenges to understand about the carbon dioxide problem is the cumulative nature of it. CO2 is recognized as a pollutant by a lot of people but they – it’s not easy to appreciate that it’s fundamentally different in some ways than a common pollutant like automobile exhaust. If you curtail tail pipe emissions, you get an immediate benefit and an improvement in the air quality. If you cut carbon dioxide emissions slightly, what you do is you slow the growth of carbon dioxide so you’ve made the problem get worse more slowly…

CAVANAUGH: I see.

KEELING: …okay, so it – the problem cumulates over time so it – you have to actually make quite drastic cuts to actually get on the side of this where it’s getting better with time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I…

KEELING: And…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, go ahead. I…

KEELING: So that’s a point I thought I’d emphasize here because a lot of people don’t get that.

CAVANAUGH: I appreciate it and I want to let everyone know they can continue this conversation. They can continue it tomorrow. The next Ethics Center Forum, "Climate Changes Challenges" is tomorrow night from 5:30 to 7:00 at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. It’s free, open to the public. You can go to KPBS.org/thesedays for more information and to post your comments if we couldn’t answer your question on the phone. I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us today. Thank you.

KALICHMAN: Thank you.

KEELING: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And thank you for listening. And stay with us for the second hour of These Days coming up in just a moment here on KPBS.

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