SoftestPawn’s Weblog

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Elitism & Science

Posted by softestpawn on November 22, 2009

As the he-said-so-he-must-have-meant pop-psychology goes on over the unexpectedly published EA CRU data, some of the discussion turns to how scientists (or, to be more specific, academic researchers) involved should behave professionally.

We’re all – even most academic researchers – human. We can expect Phil Jones and his team to be angry, to scorn those who question his theories, especially when he sees those theories as vital to the future of humanity. And so he does. So would most of us, though we may be a little more careful about committing those things to email.

Dr Spencer, a well known skeptic, has quite a lot to say about such ‘elitist’ behaviour

Good -isms

But there’s nothing wrong with being elite, with being amongst the best at doing a job. And being able to discriminate on merit – on the ability to do things well – is a vital part of any society that intends to improve its lot.

We similarly must discriminate between ages if we want to avoid sharing a wing with Sidney Cook. We discriminate between religions to book holidays, and when providing meals to guests. We discriminate between sexes if we’re heterosexual, or homosexual. We discriminate between sexual preferences to ensure that those that can’t discriminate between ages get to share a wing with Sidney Cooke. We discriminate again between ages to allow certain ages to get away with not making that discrimination.

And this is all good, if a bit Sir Humphrey.

Bad -isms

But if we consider ‘elitism’ as we consider ‘racism’ (discriminating for differences in behaviour or ability that don’t exist), then we’ve got a much more unpleasant attitude. Then we get people who think that their superior expertise gives them remit to protect that expertise by denying evidence to others, remit to use political or organisation clout to deny them access to publish, or remit to disregard any work by anyone else purely because they are not also ‘officially’ elite.

I’m not convinced however by Spencer’s claim that the CRU team are elitist in that way. Yes they believe themselves right, they believe Spencer and McIntyre and McKintrick and all the other hundreds of skeptical scientists are wrong, and they act as the mini tribe that most of us act when we consider ourselves ‘us’ and others ‘them’. There’s nothing particularly unusual with showing they despise people they think are very wrong and are undermining their hard efforts. Even when it’s rather callous.

And there’s nothing particularly evil about abusive comments from experts about other people’s competence. These are arguments over merit, based on their opinions of each other’s work.

Ordinary tribal -ism.

Declaring that those opinions matter only when they are part of the community is not so good. Apparently they are only worth considering when published in approved journals. Journals that publish them are not approved of, and should be ousted from the community. By somewhat underhand means. Which makes for a nice, comfortable, insular, self-reinforcing community, or ‘ivory tower’ as it is usually known.

So they appear to ‘discriminate against’ McIntyre for example because he’s not part of their community, rather than because he’s not ‘elite’. His theories are ‘discredited’ because they are not published in the community journals, rather than because they are wrong.

He certainly doesn’t fit the community: he publishes openly, on t’interweb, where anyone can and does criticise his work (of course, the CRU community is also now doing this, inadvertantly, and they don’t like it). He has a background in statistics, not environment, and he generally sticks to statistical analysis. And while he’s definitely not an enthusiast for The Cause, he’s careful to remain neutral on what the final conclusion will be.

That Science Thang Agiin.

More importantly than disregarding opinion outside the community (we’re all busy anyway, how much time have we got to consider every criticism everywhere?) or the ordinary abuse and wishful thinking, there are the fairly deliberate discussions about (mis)interpreting the data to fit the cause (eg Bishop Hill, Delingpole – these include some rather dubious criticisms of the emails, but some are very telling).

The complete opposite of the much-vaunted stereotyped scientist that is curious about the differences between theory and observation, and investigates them.

Even so, if these particular twonks demonstrate poor professionalism, bordering and perhaps crossing to deliberate manipulation, misrepresentation and destruction of the data, that only means some of these folks do (some are much better behaved). It would be poor science to infer that’s the case for all climatologists, or reflects on the conclusions of the climatology community as a whole.

Though we might want to check that the wider community is more professional – more scientific – in the same way that we might want to check any other organisation for systematic incompetence when we uncover some in a core part of it.

Anyhow, a few paragraphs from Spencer’s article make much better points about how we outside these academic research communities should view the work that they do:

One of the biggest misconceptions the public has about science is that research is a straightforward process of making measurements, and then seeing whether the data support hypothesis A or B. The truth is that the interpretation of data is seldom that simple.

There are all kinds of subjective decisions that must be made along the way, and the scientist must remain vigilant that he or she is not making those decisions based upon preconceived notions. Data are almost always dirty, with errors of various kinds. Which data will be ignored? Which data will be emphasized? How will the data be processed to tease out the signal we think we see?

Hopefully, the scientist is more interested in discovering how nature really works, rather than twisting the data to support some other agenda. It took me years to develop the discipline to question every research result I got. It is really easy to be wrong in this business, and very difficult to be right.

We can see that we need to do better than ‘hope’, if we are to get any reliable science to inform our votes, lobbying and ‘lifestyles’ on this matter.

Update: Judith Curry (I think this Real Establishment Climate Researcher), talks about tribalism and the duty of public release here. And Eduardo Zorito (another Real Establishment Climate Researcher) says a few things a little more strongly.

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