Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Climategate: That's just how science is done

The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

Bertrand Russell, The Will To Doubt
By CanSpeccy
The Hockey Stick Graph (Source)
Climategate is the alleged scientific misconduct revealed through publication, by a person or persons unknown, of thousands of email communications among leading climate scientists.

These revelations are, says Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell, a catastrophe for science.

What the emails show, says Caldwell, is "that scientists are no less prone to vanity, rivalries and corner-cutting than people in other walks of life."

This, says Caldwell, has "undermined the scientists’ claim to be speaking as scientists rather than as interested parties."

That's the catastrophe?


Anyone who thinks that the debate between climate "warmists" and "denialists" falls short of science's tradition of objectivity and fairness should remind themselves of the long-running dispute between Isaac Newton, the founder of modern science, and Gottfried Leibniz, variously described as "the last universal genius" and "the most comprehensive thinker since Aristotle." Terms employed by the chief protagonists or their associates in that debate included "thief," "toady" and "ape."

In comparison, the dispute between Mike Mann and Steve McIntyre over the hockey-stick graph has been conducted with collegial restraint.

The discovery, for those to whom it is a discovery, that scientists are not lobotomized calculating machines programmed solely for the revelation of truth, but self-serving, self-aggrandizing, largely irrational people like the rest of us, provides, surely, an important lesson.

For how, in a democracy, can science be properly managed if the public is imbued with the delusional belief that scientists are mostly saints not sinners?

Scientists can be, as anyone who has studied the history of science knows, furiously competitive to a degree that can, and often does, influence the objectivity of their work.

Scientists, for example, often fiddle their results, less with the intent to deceive than because of an overwhelming conviction of the correctness of their scientific intuition.

But so what? Everything eventually comes out in the wash. Or should do. Mistakes and fakes cannot be concealed for ever in an empirical science where others can repeat your observations and experiments. Science is a competitive enterprise and if you get something important wrong, someone will be happy to point out your error.

More often, though, if someone else's result does not fit their model of the world, an experienced scientist will just ignore it. People who want to find something out, don't waste their time acting as policemen.

And if your hunch is right and you fake results to prove it, what harm is done?

Galileo claimed to have observed more than it was possible to see with his primitive telescope, but his ideas about the solar system proved consistent with later more precise observations.

Gregor Mendel's revolutionary findings on the segregation of genetic components during reproduction are said by statisticians to have been too good to be true. But they are consistent with verified theory.

Arthur Eddington's measurement on May 29, 1919 of the deflection of starlight by the gravitational pull of the sun, which was generally accepted at the time as proof of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, was highly questionable due to measurement error. Nevertheless, subsequent evidence confirmed the result that Eddington claimed.

Newton and Einstein fiddled their results by introducing what later proved to be unnecessary fudge factors.

Newton corrected his calculation of the speed of sound to make it match what proved to be an inaccurate experimental measurement by incorporating a meaningless adjustment for what he called the "crassity of the particles."

Einstein fiddled his cosmological model by introducing the cosmological constant, a fudge factor to explain why gravity doesn't cause everything in the universe to glom together in a heap.

When Hubble showed that the universe was expanding, Einstein described his cosmological constant as "the greatest blunder of my career."

As it happens, the cosmological constant has come back into vogue to account for the fact that the universe is not only expanding but is expanding at an accelerating rate.

So much for the objectivity and irreproachable integrity of scientists.

Thus, when Caldwell says: "The emails were damaging because they undermined the scientists’ claim to be speaking as scientists rather than as interested parties, the damage, surely, can only be to scientific humbugs.

It is the mistaken belief in the saintly, unprejudiced, objectivity of scientists that constitute the real danger to science.

Ignorance of the frailties of scientists means failure to guard against the ever present danger of science being skewed by outside interference: Al Gore, the Green Party, oil, the tobacco industry, big pharma, the UN, all seeking to control the scientific message and the scientific agenda for financial or political reasons.

Enough of such interference and science is corrupted beyond redemption, as was true of genetics in the Soviet Union during the Lysenko era, and in Germany during the Nazi era.

Indeed, the magnitude of current efforts by both government and industry to influence science for financial or political ends is indicative of the unhealthy intellectual times in which we live.

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