The Battle for the Soul of Science

March 2, 2010 at 4:45 pm

At long last, the giants have begun to stir. Like the ents in the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, they’ve taken their time about it. While climate war wounded sway, buckle, and fall, the giants are are so ponderous they take days just to greet each another.

click for a 16-second sound clip: “They must have decided something by now”
Pippin, Treebeard & Merry, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Now, however, they’re stepping into the sunlight, making their voices heard in a battle over the future (indeed, the very soul) of science.

For too long we, the public, have been told that science academies don’t just endorse the theory of dangerous man-made global warming, they also support specific political responses (including emissions reduction and transitioning to a low-carbon society). We’ve been told that science journals and magazines agree.

We’ve been lectured by scientists, politicians, journalists, filmmakers, and celebrities about how our lives need to become less pleasant and less free because “science says so. We’ve been told that to doubt global warming is to be anti-science and that to question behaviour reminiscent of adolescent gamers is to “attack” climate scientists for doing their job.

But the distressing fact of the matter is that much of climate “science” has been conducted by people who – as evidenced by their refusal to share their data or explain their methods to third parties – are blatantly unscientific in their approach. Much of climate science appears to have been produced by people who would prefer to destroy their evidence instead of sharing it with critics. Who have tried to circumvent Freedom of Information laws. Who have advised other scientists to delete e-mails.

While this shocking behaviour unfolded in excruciating slow-mo in recent years, the science academies of the world averted their eyes. They refused to see or to hear – never mind investigate and call people to account. Instead, they inappropriately inserted themselves into the global warming debate by declaring support for one perspective. In doing so they abandoned their core mission – which is to defend and uphold the scientific method. They not only permitted people who’d abandoned the scientific method to speak with the authority of science – they stood behind them in public and thumped them on the back.

An investigation is currently being conducted by the Science and Technology Committee of the British Parliament. Yesterday Phil Jones, the head of Climatic Research Unit and a key participant in the UN’s climate consensus process, testified. He confirmed that it hasn’t been standard practice in climate change research to disclose all of one’s data to third parties. (Which means we’re just supposed to take the word of these researchers that abandoning the entire fossil-fuel-based world economy is necessary.) Jones also admitted that, during the peer-review process, no reviewers had ever asked to see his raw data.

(Incidentally, it’s fascinating what different people watching the same proceedings see. According to Simon Hoggart in the Guardian, Jones “looked taut, nervous, often miserable. At times his hands shook.” You “had to feel sorry for him,” says Hoggart. Meanwhile, over at the London Times, Anne Treneman insists that Jones “seemed eerily calm,” that his “face was immobile, eyes steady behind wire specs. He seemed, like a dead calm sea, almost glassy.” Video of Jones’ testimony appear HERE.)

In any case, those giants I mentioned begin with the Institute of Physics. A scientific charity with a worldwide membership of 36,000, it has submitted a formal statement to the British parliamentary committee. The statement says the Climategate e-mails raise “worrying implications” regarding the integrity of climate research and “the credibility of the scientific method.”

According to the physics institute, it’s vital that scientists “expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others.” The institute also says it’s concerned by the “intolerance” on display in the Climategate e-mails, since this attitude impedes “the process of scientific ‘self correction’, which is vital to the integrity of the scientific process as a whole, and not just to the research itself.”

The second giant is Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, with its membership of 46,000. It, too, has submitted a formal statement to the parliamentary committee. The chemistry society reminds us that the “true nature of science dictates that research is transparent and robust enough to survive scrutiny.” It points out that, since “advances in science frequently occur when the prevailing view is challenged by informed scepticism, this is fundamental to the scientific method and should be encouraged…”

The third giant is the Royal Statistical Society, with a membership of 7,000. Its submission to the parliamentary committee declares that “the data, the analysis methods and the models” used in climate research should all enter the public domain so that findings may be independently verified. The statistical society statement continues:

…science progresses as an ongoing debate and not by a series of authoritative and oracular pronouncements…the quality of that debate is best served by ensuring that all parties have access to the facts…The best guarantor of scientific quality is that others are able to examine in detail the arguments that have been used and not just their published conclusions. It is important that experiments and calculations can be repeated to verify their conclusions. If data, or the methods used, are withheld, it is impossible to do this.

Amen and hallelujah. The forces defending the scientific method have begun to gather. Now it’s time for others to step forward. Science academies, meteorological associations, science journals, science funding bodies – that means you.

Do it soon – before disgraced climate scientists drag you down with them.

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Entry filed under: climategate, ethical & philosophical. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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