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Some Scientists Fail At Science. Again

Posted by softestpawn on May 10, 2010

Quite an extraordinary letter (Climate Change and the Integrity of Science) was posted in the May 7th issue of American Science Magazine. The extraordinariness of it lies in its incompetent defence of ‘science’, by people supposedly qualified to do it.

I will assume, for the moment, that there is indeed “compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence” for human-caused global warming, somewhere in the scientific community. That doesn’t affect this letter’s incompetence.

(There are a couple of ordinary not very important mistakes to snigger at: such as that the authors felt that a letter to a subscription-only magazine was somehow ‘open’ (although it is now public). Or that the associated picture of a lonely polar bear was photo-shopped; the marooned polar bear as a symbol of catastrophic global warming may well backfire, but they look cute. From a distance).

Authority

The paper is given with 255 signatories, and this is supposed to mean something. It is not, in other words, supposed to stand on its own. It is an ‘argument from authority’; there are lots of scientists, they know stuff about science, we should believe them.

But of course the recent publicity tells us that we can’t always trust scientists, so this letter seems a little redundant. They have missed the point.

They also have no authority on the subject; few if any are climatologists, and this makes them about as competent to pronounce on it as you or I or anyone else. Just because someone is employed by a university does not make them scientific. Or knowledgeable. Or, it seems, familiar with some basic good working practices. Or a reasoned argument…

Certainly it’s not certain

The authors say the public should not wait for certainty, because certainty is impossible, which is all fine by itself. But it’s also known as a ‘strawman’, in that you set up an argument that has not been made against you, demolish it, and claim that therefore you are right. Few if any skeptics expect or ask for certainty.

What is missing is any acknowledgement of what uncertainty means, thus demonstrating that it is the authors who haven’t understood the problem. Somehow, by saying that we should not wait for certainty, they conclude that we should therefore take expensive action because there is an unspecified ‘dangerous risk’. This argument that lack of proof means… proof that we should act, is good Precautionary Principle eco-mentalism, it’s not scientific.

The Scientific Process

We see, again, the mythical ‘scientific process’ that is somehow self-correcting – in fact, the authors claim it is designed to find and correct mistakes: the intellectual scrum of adversarial open honest and technical argument provides magical automatic quality assurance. Since the ‘political assaults’ the authors complain about are largely to do with enforcing openness and honesty, this comes across as a bit…. ignorant.

Without additional assurance techniques (such as blind tests), for the ‘scrum’ to work the scientists must be honest and intellectually rigorous and people are pretty rubbish at this, climatologists being no exception. The scrum – by itself – has about as much merit for developing and aggregating ideas as my local pub. Which is to say that it’s not completely useless, but it’s certainly not very good.

And the main public concerns is not that the climatologists need better PR, or better protection from evil vested interests, but that they need to demonstrate that the processes they use really do find and correct mistakes.

Facts

Another extraordinary failure in appreciating how research fits into the real world is shown in claims that once things have been “deeply tested”, “questioned” and “examined” then they become ‘facts’.

There’s not even a recognition that this is not an either/or discrete event, such as quite how much “questioning” for example gives you confidence in the ‘factiness’ of something, and how far along this the various aspects of climate science have reached.

Instead they point at some commonly held theories (big bang, evolution) that have gone through some quite remarkable changes, and are by no means as fixed as climatology would need to be ‘compelling’ evidence of impending fossil-fuelled catastrophe.

The Vested Adversarial

The circled wagons mentality of a community suddenly under direct and personal public view seems to be driving a conspiracy mentality – that criticism must be driven by ‘vested interests’ and ‘dogma’, as if this somehow provides a reason to make the criticism invalid.

The adversarial approach that is supposed to make the scientific process work shouldn’t be applied, it seems, if someone has a reason to want to be an adversary. Whereas as any fule kno thrashing out an idea properly needs people who disagree strongly and who have a motivation to do so, not with your friends, or people who would benefit from it.

It is indeed worrying to the advocates if the ‘science’ is so sensitive to a few mostly retired enthusiasts. This is the science that is supposed to be robust in the intellectual scrum of attacks and criticisms by fully qualified, informed and trained researchers, and yet needs protecting from ‘special interests’.

That Alternative Thing Again

Another naughty unscientific assertion is that adversaries should provide alternative explanations if they are to challenge dogma consensus. This is only sort of true when the dogma has been demonstrated in the first place.

Making stuff up and then challenging people to disprove it has no place in applied science, as you would know if you considered the little pixies painting the backs of your ears. No, really, they are. Prove they haven’t or it must be true.

Or clouds, you know, they move about because aliens use them as mobile homes. No, really, they do. Do you need theories about wind and water vapour condensations to challenge that? No, you don’t.

The authors claim that major ideas can and will be challenged, because fame and – well, just fame – await the successful challenger.  This ignores all the ordinary hurdles that limits challengers to members of very small communities in the way of funding, data access, resources, social networks, staff. It also implies that because scientists apparently eagerly court controversy, and since anyone who could show failures in theories would have done so, therefore they must be right in near enough entirety to be ‘comprehensive’. Which isn’t true, rational or even logical, captain.

Errors

The authors claim that when errors are pointed out in, say, the IPCC reports, then corrections are made. Which they are – sometimes. Corrections to the famous himalayan glacier melt cock up were resisted, despite being straightforward to check. The well-funded IPCC chair Patchuri didn’t just challenge the correction, he deliberately insulted the researcher

If it came from the ‘scientific process’, then the ‘vested interest’ skeptics that pushed and publicised that error are part of that process – which of course, they are. We shouldn’t get too excited about a few mistakes, but we also shouldn’t get too excited by the motivations of the people pointing out errors, if we’re at all serious about the science.

And…. action!

The conclusions – the call to action – claim that society has two options: to “hide our heads” or “act… to reduce the threat”.

Which has the intellectual merit of a mouldy damp teabag. There are of course a whole range of options, and most of them are continuous distributions of ‘how much’ we will do of various interrelated activities, not discrete ‘either/ors’.

The hypocrisy

By pretending that motivations are special interests or dogmatic, you can ignore the evidence presented of mistakes or wrong doing. This is known as ‘denial’.

It’s also the very “innuendo”, “guilt by association” and “outright lies”, that the authors complain about. Just because, for example, someone gave a talk at an organisation that once received some funds from an oil company, does not mean they are wrong. This is known as ‘smearing’.

The authors talk of “McCarthy-like threats of prosecution” when the recent spate of public prosecutions and legal wrangling have been based on poor scientific work practices of those researchers.  No examples – no evidence – are given of unfair prosecutions. The authors want immunity, it seems, from law, without providing any demonstrated duty of care in return.  This is known as ‘distraction’

And it hasn’t a patch on attempts to prosecute people for not believing them, or to legally eradicate climate skepticism. As with using the term ‘denier’, or pointing at funding routes, or complaining of vested interests, or casting innuendo, so these attempts to criminalise challengers are backfiring as the skeptics turn to law to enforce good practice. This is known as ‘just desserts’.

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One Response to “Some Scientists Fail At Science. Again”

  1. Since I didn’t want to give the impression, like Brooks Hansen I think, that I thought all scientists were like this, I’ve edited the title and added this post: Most Scientists do Science

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