Scientific Feud: Does Global Warming Make Us More Violent?

The manner in which Hsiang and his colleagues have responded to the criticism has done little to defuse the conflict. They label the accusations levelled by their critics as "FHC" or "frequently heard criticism." They allow that some of the critiques "are quite reasonable" but say that others "stem from a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what we are trying to do in the paper." Still others "are patently false." In comments to SPIEGEL ONLINE, one of the paper's co-authors, Marshall Burke, had struck a similar tone, saying that most critics are "misreading our paper" or didn't read it at all.

Even though the Hsiang team stresses they "are not trying to pick fights," their statement contains some pretty strong language. "The handful of climate/conflict sceptics have garnered a lot of press by very publicly disagreeing with our findings and this has presumably been good for their careers," the statement reads.

Scheffran believes that such verbiage is an attempt to "use the reputation of Science and many mass media outlets which adopted (the Hsiang team's) point of view to introduce a sharp dividing line into the debate." It is a strategy which "transforms into outsiders scientists who take seriously a relationship between climate change and violence but who decline to label it a universal phenomenon" -- despite their having merely questioned the study's methodology and its scientific fairness. But, he says, you can't simply end a scientific controversy "with forced consensus."

Hans von Storch, head of the Institute of Coastal Research at the Helmholtz Center in Geesthacht says the spat reminds him of the debate over the hockey-stick curve. The graph is iconic in climate research, a reconstruction of the climate over the last thousand years. It is supposed to demonstrate that temperatures have rapidly climbed since the beginning of industrialization. Although some doubts were voiced about the accuracy of some of the details in the hockey-stick graph, "an attempt was made to ward off such criticism for political reasons," von Storch says. A similar phenomenon can now be witnessed in the discussion over the relationship between violence and climate change, he says. "Political motivations are leading to a circling of wagons."

Von Storch, though, also says that the editors of Science are partially to blame. "The peer review process didn't work," he said. "You need critical evaluators, which apparently didn't happen in this case."

A spokeswoman for the journal, though, says that she sees nothing disadvantageous in the debate. "Science is a self-correcting process," she wrote in an e-mail. "Researchers publish work in the scholarly literature so that it can be further scrutinized, replicated, confirmed, rebutted or corrected. This is the way science advances."

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