09. April 2010 · 9 comments · Categories: politics

My debate with George Monbiot is still going on in this thread. I’m raising this comment to be a separate blog post (with extra linky goodness), because I think it’s important, independently of any discussion of the CRU emails (and to point out that the other thread is still growing – go see!)

Like many other commentators, George Monbiot suggests that “to retain the moral high ground we have to be sure that we’ve got our own house in order. That means demanding the highest standards of scientific openness, transparency and integrity”.

It’s hard to argue with these abstract ideals. But I’ll try, because I think this assertion is not only unhelpful, but also helps to perpetuate several myths about science.

The argument that scientists should somehow be more virtuous (than regular folks) is a huge fallacy. Openness and transparency are great as virtues to strive for. But they cannot ever become a standard by which we judge individual scientists. For a start, no scientific field has ever achieved the levels of openness that are being demanded here. The data is messy, the meta-data standards are not in place, the resources to curate this data are not in place. Which means the “get our own house in order” argument is straight denialist logic – they would have it that we can’t act on the science until every last bit of data is out in the public domain. In truth, climate science has developed a better culture of data sharing, replication, and results checking than almost any other scientific field. Here’s one datapoint to back this up: in no other field of computational science are there 25+ teams around the world building the same simulation models independently, and systematically comparing their results on thousands of different scenarios in order to understand the quality of those simulations.

We should demand from scientists that they do excellent science. But we should not expect them to also somehow be superhuman. The argument that scientists should never exhibit human weaknesses is not just fallacious, it’s dangerous. It promotes the idea that science depends on perfect people to carry it out, when in fact the opposite is the case. Science is a process that compensates for the human failings of the people who engage in it, by continually questioning evidence, re-testing ideas, replicating results, collecting more data, and so on. Mistakes are made all the time. Individual scientists screw up. If they don’t make mistakes, they’re not doing worthwhile science. It’s vitally important that we get across to the public that this is how science works, and that errors are an important part of the process. Its the process that matters, not any individual scientist’s work. The results of this process are more trustworthy than any other way of producing knowledge, precisely because the process is robust in the face of error.

In the particular case [of the CRU emails], calling for scientists to take the moral high ground, and to be more virtuous, is roughly the equivalent of suggesting that victims of sexual assault should act more virtuous. And if you think this analogy is over the top, you haven’t understood the nature of the attacks on scientists like Mann, Santer, Briffa, and Jones. Look at Jones now: he’s contemplated suicide, he’s on drugs just to help him get through the day, and more drugs to allow him to sleep at night. These bastards have destroyed a brilliant scientist. And somehow the correct response is that scientists should strive to be more virtuous?! Oh yes, blame the victim.