Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Collapse of Good Faith in Science

In legal circles, the words “in good faith” simply mean without an agenda. A person acting in good faith or giving evidence in good faith is assumed to have integrity and to be an honest witness. And quite often, we assume good faith because to do otherwise makes life very difficult. If you thought your doctor was following his own agenda, as it seems Mr Andrew Wakefield was doing in his research on autism and MMR, you might hesitate before popping the pills he was prescribing you.

What happens when the presumption of good faith collapses? There is a technical term for rejecting the idea that anyone acts in good faith – it’s called being paranoid. Conspiracy theories thrive on the idea that the other side have something to hide.

Creationists assume that evolutionary biologists lack good faith because they are following a materialist agenda. Of course, in the case of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, they are probably right. But the vast majority of biologists are just getting on with the job. Unfortunately, the lack of a presumption of good faith on either side of the creationism debate means that it cannot be resolved by evidence or argument. Nobody trusts their opponents enough for that.

And now the climate change fiasco has caused scientists to lose a vast amount of public goodwill. The scientific arguments are irrelevant because any evidence that climate scientists present will be assumed to be bogus by sceptics. And sceptics now make up half the population of the UK and an even larger proportion in the US. They have good reason to doubt the proclamations of the scientists.

Because climate science fully deserves the opprobrium being heaped upon it. We find researchers in senior positions conspired to hide data from their critics – data that turns out to have been badly flawed (as even the front page of the Guardian alleged this week). We find that the sacrosanct IPCC reports contain conclusions cherry-picked from popular magazines and environmentalists’ campaign material. It is clear that some climate scientists saw themselves as advocates and not as objective researchers.

So what can we do about this? It is bad enough that such an important issue as climate change cannot now be discussed with a presumption of good faith. But if this contagion spreads to other areas of science (and there are enough scandals in medical research for that field to reach tipping point as well) we will all be the poorer. The problem is getting serious.

It seems likely that the answer will involve additional layers of bureaucracy and regulation to police the activities of scientists. As for climate science, it is effectively back at year zero and almost everything ever done on the field will have to be reviewed by panels that include sceptics who are currently outside the mainstream. The careers of several eminent climatologists are now over, but they will need to be publicly defrocked and preferably confess to their sins for public confidence to be restored. And if climate change is the crisis that we were told, we really have had it. The popular and media consensus has evaporated and without it no western government can act.

Luckily, there was an important breakthrough in fusion power this week. Thank goodness for physicists...

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Any excuses for keeping one's head in the sand! said...

Surely, as always, the solution is to go back to the evidence (which in an area where there are so many complex variations to weigh against each other will always be modified). The evidence for climate change is so solid overall that not to be confronting the issue and dealing with the likely eventuality that it will be a serious threat to the future of humanity is crass. The sceptics position rests on little more than picking holes in scientists' reputations which is not, of course, anything to do with science. The climate change deniers have failed to provide any significant evidence to justify us keeping our heads in the sand. If they start to do they may be taken seriously. One suspects anyway that, as with GM crops, the British public will suddenly wake up to the fact that no one takes them seriously any longer. Let's fight for better science education.

Karl said...

Any Excuse,

Exactly how can the evidence for climate change be solid overall when the Guardian story linked to by James mentions little tidbits like:

A Guardian investigation of thousands of emails and documents apparently hacked from the University of East Anglia's climatic research unit has found evidence that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed and that documents relating to them could not be produced.

Just asking.

And it isn't the scientists' reputations that the skeptics are poking holes in; it's the fact that we have caught them in a major case of fraud. It might just be me but I think that confirmed instances of scientists withholding the information requested under freedom of information laws, confirmed instances of cherry-picking data and making very public claims like that all Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 which later turned out to be crap warrants a closer examination and investigation of that particular scientific field of study.

Larry said...

Good science shouldn't depend on the reputation of the scientist, unfortunately science, so-called, is resting more and more on just that. When scientists withhold data so that it is impossible to replicate their results they have quit doing science and are saying, in effect, "trust me, I'm an expert". When you combine this lack of transparency with scientists, like those at the CRU, who clearly had agendas to push, can you blame people for doubting their results?

I suggest that for something to be considered science, it must be replicatable by someone else. How else can you expect peer review to work? This means that that all raw data and computer programs have to be available. This doesn't mean that they have to published in journals, making them available on the web would be sufficient.

Jim S. said...

The two things that disturb me the most about "Climategate" are that 1) the original data was discarded, so no verification of it can be made. All we have now is the adjusted data which is subject to subjectivity. 2) The software programs -- which were not peer-reviewed (because scientific software never is) -- were absurdly unprofessional. On this point, see here and here.

So if the original data and the means by which it was processed are either faulty or unverifiable, I think skepticism about the grandiose conclusions drawn from them are justifiably under a cloud of suspicion.

Any excuses for keeping . . . said...

Expecting high standards from scientists, publishing all dat and being critical of it is what scientific activity is all about. No problems there. What seems to be happening though is that some people are arguing from this that climate change is some kind of gigantic hoax, hoisted on a gullible public for reasons that are totally obscure by a conspiracy of tens of thousands of scientists working in many different fields who are producing a consensus of some kind that the globe is warming and will do immense damage to many of its inhabitants if nothing is done about it. The climate deniers go on and on about the high standards they expect from scientists and then produce no science of their own!

Karl said...

Any Excuses,

Well, as Jim pointed out earlier, skepticism about the grandiose conclusions drawn from them are justifiable when we have caught several leading climatologists in a blatant cover-up, doing sloppy or just plain under-handed science and at the same time seriously pushing a political agenda. The fact of the matter is we have had plenty of scientists not exactly doing good science before simply to push their pet theories and personal agendas; a couple of big examples are the case of meteorites and plate tectonics.

And there isn't tens of thousands of scientists working in many different fields who are producing a consensus of some kind that the globe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has about 157 authors plus some 600 reviewers.

Al Moritz said...

Any excuses,

this has nothing to do with keeping your head in the sand. I am a scientist myself (and accept all of mainstream science, including evolution etc.), but I start having my doubts too. Just saying, oh the evidence is all there, and we all should really believe in, and worship at the altar of, the almighty god of science doesn't cut it. Show me the evidence. How solid is it really?

If the original data are really not there anymore, who can tell what's real and what's not?

any excuses . . . said...

No one is asking anyone to worship at the altar of science - one simply has to acknowledge that science is one, imperfect but not useless, way of interpreting the physical world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only represents a very small proportion of those scientists working in many different regions of the earth and in different disciplines who have provided evidence that is compatible with global warming that has a manmade cause. To suggest that all these scientists are misguided, cooking their books and collaborating ( in what is a highly competitive area) to foist, for motives that are totally obscure, a scare story on a gullible public is just plain silly.

Karl said...

Any Excuse,

The news stories I read paint a slightly different picture then unanimous agreement that humanity causes global warming among scientists. For example:

A survey of climatologists from more than 20 nations has revealed scientists are evenly split on whether humans are responsible for changes in global climate. The findings refute a widely reported study by a California “Gender and Science” professor who claimed that, based on her personal examination of 928 scientific papers on the issue, every single one reached the conclusion that global warming is real and primarily caused by humans.

The London Times then reported on Professor Dennis Bray, of Germany’s GKSS National Research Centre. Bray surveyed hundreds of international climate scientists, asking the question, “To what extent do you agree or disagree that climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes?” Bray received 530 responses from climatologists in 27 different countries. With a value of 1 indicating “strongly agree” and a value of 7 indicating “strongly disagree,” Bray reported the average of the 530 responses was 3.62, almost right down the middle. More climatologists “strongly disagreed” than “strongly agreed” that climate change is mostly attributable to humans.

Hell, Wikipedia has a fairly large but still incomplete list of scientists who disagree with the supposed consensus on global warming:

So the scientific establishment is not exactly a united front on this issue, further evidenced by Al Moritz's statement. And we have caught one side in this debate engaged in some very questionable practices, to put it mildly, so forgive us if we are just a tad suspicious.

Jim S. said...

for motives that are totally obscure

I've seen others suggest that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming conveyers have no possible motive. I find this bizarre. They receive an enormous amount of funding, and the more dire their predictions, the more funding they get. They also get to represent themselves as intellectual heroes who deserve our praise and respect. They get to say that we have to pay attention to them and what they say, because what they're saying is extremely urgent and important (thus, they are extremely important). And they get to demonize those who disagree with them as cranks who don't need to be taken seriously.

Of course, I'm not saying they may not end up being right. I'm just saying they would have very obvious ulterior motives for pushing their agenda. This is precisely where science lives up to its definition: by other scientists verifying their data and methods. But their data were discarded, their methods were faulty, and for years they refused to reveal any of it to other scientists so that it could be independently checked. Again, that doesn't mean that they're wrong, but it does mean that their wounds are self-inflicted and that we are justified in treating their doom-saying with some degree of skepticism.

Al Moritz said...


So the scientific establishment is not exactly a united front on this issue, further evidenced by Al Moritz's statement.

Well, I am a scientist, but no climate scientist (I am a biochemist). So I am not an expert in the field; as a scientist I only have critical questions. The real issue is if there is a consensus among climate scientists. And perhaps there is none, if your sources are correct.

Mike said...

Karl's source is from 2005. This one is more recent:

A quote:

A group of 3,146 earth scientists surveyed around the world overwhelmingly agree that in the past 200-plus years, mean global temperatures have been rising, and that human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures.

Anonymous said...

The IPCC's charter requires it to broadcast alarm about climate change. 'Even if we have to redefine what peer-reviewed means'.

So, yes, there's grounds to suspect it might not be putting the case for climate calm; indeed 'using Mike's 'Nature' trick to hide the decline.

Suspect Al Gore's good faith, sure, and even suspect that so far humans might not be responsible for the present warming trend.

So far. Building a bunch of nuke plants is still our obvious action.

Any excuses. said...

Robert Henson's Rough Guide to Climate Change is a bit dated (2008) but gives a good summing up of the evidence. Not sure what this subject is doing on this blog but perhaps the host's new link to the conservative US publisher Regnery is tending it towards right-wing politics.