Friday, February 5, 2010

Published Thought: In Defence of Climate Science

I got so annoyed by the Guardian's sensationalistic coverage of the UEA Climate Research Unit emails, that I wrote this letter to the editor. My argument is basically that the incriminating emails probably don't significantly undermine the findings of Phil Jones and his team, and the whole story has been overblown - scientific research is always imperfect, and there are always issues about the reliability of data. And, sometimes, academics behave badly over email. Amazing but true.

Today in the same newspaper Simon Jenkins writes an awful article inviting scientists to 'get off their pedestal and join the common herd'. I think this kind of comment is actually quite revealing about the mixture of suspicion and awe in which scientists are held. The problem is that Simon Jenkins is totally incapable of evaluating scientific research, and this makes him feel quite uncomfortable when research findings are shaping our lives. Actually I am not much better placed - my knowledge of climate research doesn't get much beyond Jenkins'. But I think it's very unlikely that the vast majority of climate scientists across the world have been duped by a handful of dodgy researchers. Why? Because academics love trashing each others' work.

The inability - or refusal - to understand the way science works is also the reason why Jenkins imagines that scientists form a monolithic consensus, which ordinary folks are unable to challenge. The truth is  that the world of scholarly research is a world which revolves around argument and disagreement: present a paper at a conference and, if it is at all interesting, hands will go up as other researchers seek to challenge and scrutinize your findings. The main reason for this is probably vanity - asking a tricky question and putting another scholar on the spot wins you respect and standing. But the fortunate side effect is that poor research has a good chance of being revealed as such.

Of course, if Simon Jenkins and others can't understand science, then this does explain why science operates without much outside scrutiny. But how else are we supposed to do it? Should fundamentalist Christians get to decide who gets research grants in Texan universities? Should research applications be put to the popular vote to decide who gets funding? There's not much alternative to letting science get on with it. But it would be nice if intelligent and well educated people - like Jenkins - could be bothered to read a book or two about the history and philosophy of science before sounding off about pedestals and such like. Not to mention Guardian science correspondent Pearce, who clearly does understand science, but can write three pages about the UEA research group and only briefly mention that the controversy about Chinese weather stations barely affects the estimates of global temperature change.

PS A funny thing happened just a day or two ago. Andrew Wakefield, whose research on the purported link between MMR and autism provoked a newspaper campaign against the vaccine, leading many parents to opt out, was declared 'irresponsible' by the General Medical Council and risks being struck off. Wakefield, more or less alone, challenged the vaccine, and practically the whole medical establishment rubbished his findings. 10 years and millions of missed vaccines later, Wakefield's work - and his professional ethics - have been definitively debunked. The Lancet has regretted publishing his work on MMR. Does 'getting off the pedestal' mean treating Wakefield's work as valid, since it challenges the 'establishment'? The majority view can certainly be wrong, but for an individual to be wrong is an awful lot easier.