Monday, November 23, 2009

When Scientists Become Politicians

Over thousands of years, at each step, the response of the scientists was to continually adjust and refine their theories to conform to the data, not the other way around. This is how science is done and how we developed the knowledge that has given us such tremendous and accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs in the past century. It is occasionally reasonable to throw out a bad data point if it is in defiance of an otherwise satisfactory model fit, as long as everyone knows that you’ve done so and the rationale, but a deliberate and unrevealed fudging of results in an attempt to make the real world fit one’s preconceptions is beyond the scientific pale. Journal articles have been thrown out for it; PhD candidates have lost their degrees for it.

But such behavior, along with attempts to cover it up and dishonestly discredit critics, is exactly what was revealed in a leak of emails last Friday [6] from a research facility in eastern England. And it was not the behavior of previously unknown researchers on some arcane topic of little interest to anyone outside their own field. It was the behavior of leading luminaries in perhaps the greatest scientific issue and controversy of our age: Whether or not the planet is warming to a potentially dangerous degree as a result of humanity’s influence. It is a subject on which billions — if not trillions — of dollars worth of future economic growth and costs hinge


But scientists are human, with human failings. Thomas Kuhn noted half a century ago that science doesn’t always follow the idealized model of the objective scientist seeking only truth; it is often driven by fashions and fads, peer pressure, and a lust for glory and respect by the other courtiers of the court that fund them. So we may never know whether this defense of a flawed theory arose from the sense of power that it might give them over the rest of our lives. Or perhaps it was due to simply an emotional attachment to a theory in which they had invested their careers. Either way, what they did was not science, and they should be drummed out of that profession. They can no longer be trusted.

Many in the climate change community have condemned what they call “skeptics,” often to the point of declaring them de facto criminals and assigning them to the same category as Holocaust deniers [8]. They tell us that “the science is settled” and that we should shut up. But every scientist worthy of the name should be a skeptic. Every theory should be subject to challenge on a scientific basis. Every claim of a model’s validity should be accompanied by the complete model and data set that supposedly validated it, so that it can be replicated. That is how science works. It is how it advances. And when the science is supposedly “settled” and they refuse to do so, it’s not unreasonable to wonder why.

Full article here

Posted via email from Garth's posterous

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