Wednesday, October 7, 2009


From Jon Richfield [Via Benny Peiser's CCNet]


"Whatever is going on here, it is not science." Ross McKitrick.

When the first McIntyre-McKitrick report appeared on CCNet, I had been a climate sceptic for years, not because I am a climatologist (I emphatically am nothing of the sort!) but because the claims that I saw were variously assailable, implausible, and above all, illogical. (Anyway, as I pointed out elsewhere, in my not tediously humble opinion as a qualified non-engineer, to correct the predicted global warming consequences struck me as a minor problem.) When McMc described their statistical work, I was deeply impressed, but it did not make as deep an impression as evidence of a more serious problem:

1: Mann et al had not published their raw data (Bad!)

2: Certain major journals had not followed up and demanded the data (Worse -- Mann might have been just a naughty little lad, but these journals were practically the long-standing gold standard for quality, ethics, and professionalism. It is as shocking an example as I have seen, of what happens when even the proudest standards of smug elites are not policed.)

3: Mann et al, in the face of legitimate requests, had privately and publicly refused to provide the data. They did so on grounds so puerile as to be nauseating. I was wondering whether there must be some misunderstanding. I thought myself pretty unshockable, but...!

4: Those journals did not react when their noses were publicly rubbed in the fact that their own public honour was at stake. They did not insist on release of the data, did not publish any sort of retraction, and in the face of mounting evidence that there was something seriously wrong with the material, something that surely must come to light sooner or later, they tried to sit on the mess and hope that no one important would notice. Other VIPs forgot or jettisoned the Nullius in verba principle, and eagerly joined the party or preached vapidities against denialist treasons. By that time I was seriously beginning to doubt the evidence of my sources or senses.

5: Major international organisations, whose conferences might have required re-steering or loss of prestige, sat determinedly on their own messes. This at least was not shocking; it was politics and self-interest. Honesty and ethics were not at issue and could safely be ignored as irrelevant to anybody's personal greed.

6: Certain persons' "Inconvenient Truth" proved to be such a scientifically vacuous sales job that its popularity led me to despair; if people would swallow *that*, then what was the point of arguing? If no would understand, what did it matter whether anyone would listen?

All this is by now old stuff, certainly in CCNet. But in the light of recent revelations it raises certain points above and beyond the value of the by now widely contemptable peer-review "system":

A: Granting that no human system can be perfect, we have seen repeatedly in recent decades scientific fraud in pursuit of everything from personal prejudice, cronyism, material greed, advancement, and self aggrandisement, to downright malice. Such things may be in the minority, but nowhere far to seek. A particularly revolting corollary has been the degree to which whistle-blowing has amounted to career suicide, seen as treason, worse than the offence in some of the most flagrant cases of professional abuse.

B: The foregoing point, no matter how it may be denied, raises the commonsense observation that undetected abuses many times outnumber those that reach the public awareness. How many of us have seen theses with errors that no one could or wanted to mention? How many bosses have forbidden publication of results embarrassing either to themselves or cronies?

C: There are whole ranges of problems here, and not all of them simple to mitigate. However, to my mind the operative one is the fact that nearly all control of research is voluntary, which works fine until any conflict of interest arises. Then it instantly becomes a matter of personal ethics, in which the ethics of the most senior or esoteric of the dramatis personae generally prevail. People make all sorts of noises about how science sorts itself out sooner or later, but that is missing the point -- a whole bushel and a peck of points. The products of research, including the intangibles (Possibly the intangibles in particular!) are the concern of the community.

D: Increasingly, where communal interests are at stake, there is talk of enforceable communal sanctions. Fastidious persons do not like that idea, and neither do I, but what is the alternative? How many of us would like to be at the mercy of many people who would like to assume the prestige and power of doctors, if there were no enforceable controls? Log into for some ugly object lessons. But the system is leaky and creaky? Certainly! But it is better than nothing. And every time there is a major scandal, either there is a shake-up or the bad eggs become a little more careful for a while. Is that good enough? No. Is it better than nothing? It works in medicine, in law, and a few other fields... partly. In science one party might get slapped on the wrist, but seldom seriously, and usually indirectly, such as for fraud, rather than scientific misconduct.

Insult to the clean-handed workers? Rubbish! I do not live in a froth of indignation because there is a law against my committing burglary, even though I am not a burglar! My lab days are past, but I wouldn't have blinked at the idea that there was a law against misconduct, any more than because there was a law against burglary.

In short, I think that if there were a few dozen or so workers, among the referees, journalists, and research workers, who were at the moment contemplating possible long jail sentences for this global warming fiasco, (whether AGW is a material concern or not) that would be a salutary and salubrious thing. And the same would go for any other field of research.

E: Perhaps worst of all: if youngsters starting their scientific careers see such abuses as routine, then how long before the whole system all collapses into a morass of short-term self interest and corruption? The politics are bad enough already. Surely to avoid that is worth a little control?

Any thoughts?



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