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Science, values and ethics Ken Perrott Apr 28

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There is an unfortunate common perception that scientists are cold, hard people. That they are only interested in objective facts and are emotionless. And especially that science as a process is not creative and does not encourage the development of an ethical outlook. Consequently there is an attitude that while we can learn about the nature of reality from science and scientists we can learn nothing about ethics or the appreciation of reality.

Some people even claim that for this we must turn to religion. Although they never seem to be able to explain how on earth religious leaders can offer any better knowledge of ethics than scientists, boot makers, mechanics. or cooks.

I think most scientists would object to this common perception. So I was pleased to see this recent article from Agnosticism / AtheismValues of Godless Science: Modern Science Does Not Need Religion or Gods for Values. It’s worth a read so I reproduce it below:

Modern, Godless Science is not Value-Free:

It is commonly claimed by both critics and supporters that modern science is value-free. This is false, though it is true that science lacks many of the values traditionally ascribed to religion and doesn’t make any value judgments about the use of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, the very ability of science to function as it does, and so successfully, is dependent upon a set of very important values. Some of those values are explained here.

Work & Discipline:

Science is a difficult field to be successful in. Nothing gets done in science without a great deal of hard work, long hours, and the discipline necessary to work those long hours. Very little in science can be described as ’glamorous’ – most scientific work involves poring over large amounts of data and tiny details that would make most people’s eyes just glaze over. This work is necessary, however, because it builds the foundations for new discoveries.

Honesty:

Every profession depends upon its members being honest for the profession to function. In science this requirement can be even more important. Many scientists work independently and their results are then incorporated into the work of other scientists. Faulty data can thus take on a life of its own, infecting the honest work of researchers around the world. Fortunately there are systems in place to catch and eliminate cheating, but they don’t always catch problems immediately.

Reason:

One of the most important values of science is the use of reason. Problems aren’t assumed to be solved by tradition, faith, or simply trusting someone’s word. The use of reason helps ensure that explanations and solutions are based upon reality rather than upon personal preference, what is politically correct, or what is ideologically convenient. Reason can of course be misused, but no more so than anything else – and thus far, reason has proven to be more reliable than anything else.

Community:

Although it’s common for scientists to work alone, science isn’t really a solitary profession. Scientists are part of a larger scientific community, one which encompasses both those in the same field and those involved in other aspects of scientific research. All are interlinked, such that the results reached by anyone may help the work of others. The community also helps ensure the reliability of everyone’s work because to be properly scientific, research must be reviewed by peers.

Questioning Authority & Critical Thinking:

Although there are authority figures in science like there are in every profession, this authority is not absolute. Scientists are encouraged to question and challenge the claims and results which authority figures offer. After all, the next biggest name in science will be someone who can prove that an earlier theory was wrong, or at least incomplete, and therefore that current authority figures have been mistaken. Every scientist has a vested interest in questioning authority.

Imagination:

It’s common to think of scientists as focused on logic, but a very good imagination can be more necessary to being a good scientist. Imagination is important because it allows one to think of new possibilities which may not be evident from the raw data alone. Imagination also allows one to develop new explanations which also aren’t immediately supported by the data, and this provides an impetus to look for the data. Often, it’s imagination that draws a person to science in the first place.

Progress & Improvement:

One important feature of science is that it is never static. No explanation is ever final or complete and there is always new data that has be to explained, so there is never any feeling that the work of scientists is finished. This means that scientists are always looking towards improvement and progress at all times. Science works for the betterment of humanity and society, helping us all move forward rather than simply being content with where we are now.

Methodology Over Conclusions:

One value of science which many can miss is the emphasis on focusing on proper methodology over conclusions. What this means is that work must not be done for the sake of reaching particular and favored conclusions. Instead, one must focus on following the proper scientific methodology and reasoning. This helps guarantee that one is more likely to arrive at the correct conclusions and correct explanations, regardless of what they may be. Imagine if other fields, like politics, worked this way.

Godless Science and the Enlightenment:

Modern science is largely an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and that, in turn, was a period when religious institutions and ecclesiastical authorities began to really lose their power over most aspects of people’s lives. The Enlightenment was thoroughly secular in that it did not derive its impetus or principles from religious tradition or authority. The most fundamental values of godless science are thus also the values of modernity: skepticism, empiricism, and secularism. It’s not a coincidence that science and modernity developed side-by-side: godless science has reinforced secular modernity while secular modernity has provided the atmosphere in which godless science could thrive.

What this means is that it isn’t possible to defend one without also defending the other. Secular modernity won’t be able to proceed very far without the reinforcing support which godless science is able to provide; godless science won’t be able to continue helping us understand the world around us without the atmosphere created by secular modernity. Not only do they need each other, but we need them as well: secular modernity provides the freedom and room for people to follow their consciences and explore their religious beliefs; godless science has become invaluable to our survival as a species.

Science is often maligned for being godless, but godlessness is largely why science is successful: being godless means that science is not beholden to any religious ideology or perspective. If it were, then it wouldn’t be truly free to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Science is also often maligned for lacking values, but science has many values – it’s just that they are values which are fundamental to our secular, godless modernity. It is this which most upsets critics because those values are proving their superiority to the religious values which anti-modern ideologues would rather promote.

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Getting to the truth — gradually Ken Perrott Apr 06

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I guess reaction to the UK Parliamentary report on “climategate” (see Climate scientist Phil Jones exonerated) is predictable. The more extreme climate change denier blogs are shouting “whitewash.” Scientific blogs are generally accepting the conclusions.

No scientific dishonesty

Anybody who had objectively read through the emails and explanations could not have been surprised.  The report rejects the charges of scientific dishonesty. It says of the much publicised use of the word “trick”:

“60. Critics of CRU have suggested that Professor Jones’s use of the word ’trick’ is evidence that he was part of a conspiracy to hide evidence that did not fit his view that recent global warming is predominately caused by human activity. The balance of evidence patently fails to support this view. It appears to be a colloquialism for a ’neat’ method of handling data.”

And on “hide the decline”:

“66. Critics of CRU have suggested that Professor Jones’s use of the words ’hide the decline’ is evidence that he was part of a conspiracy to hide evidence that did not fit his view that recent global warming is predominantly caused by human activity. That he has published papers–including a paper in Nature–dealing with this aspect of the science clearly refutes this allegation. In our view, it was shorthand for the practice of discarding data known to be erroneous. We expect that this is a matter the Scientific Appraisal Panel will address.”

Peer review and freedom of information

Regarding charges of perverting the scientific peer review process the report concludes:

“73. The evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers. The Independent Climate Change Email Review should look in detail at all of these claims.”

Conclusions on the issue of freedom of information and access to data were more complex. Blame for any problems seems to be attributed to the University of East Anglia, rather than the small staff of the Climate Research Unit including Phil Jones. And the Information Commission Office (ICO) is criticised  for its “statement to the press that went beyond that which it could substantiate and that it took over a month for the ICO properly to put the record straight.” This press statement was used by opponents of Phil Jones to “prove” he had committed a breach of the Freedom of Information Act. The ICO is urged to “develop procedures to ensure that its public comments are checked and that mechanisms exist to swiftly correct any mis-statements or misinterpretations of such statements.”

The report largely dismisses the claims that  any withholding of data or computer codes by the CRU was unusual or had interfered with peer review or verification:

“51. Even if the data that CRU used were not publicly available–which they mostly are–or the methods not published–which they have been–its published results would still be credible: the results from CRU agree with those drawn from other international data sets; in other words, the analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified.”

And it accepted that “It is not standard practice in climate science and many other fields to publish the raw data and the computer code in academic papers.”

Transparency issues

However, the report does argue for more transparency, especially considering the political importance of the field.

“We therefore consider that climate scientists should take steps to make available all the data used to generate their published work, including raw data; and it should also be made clear and referenced where data has been used but, because of commercial or national security reasons is not available. Scientists are also, under Freedom of Information laws and under the rules of normal scientific conduct, entitled to withhold data which is due to be published under the peer-review process. In addition, scientists should take steps to make available in full their methodological workings, including the computer codes. Data and methodological workings should be provided via the internet. There should be enough information published to allow verification.”

This is really a recommendation for future, more ideal, practices rather than any specific condemnation of previous practices.

The parliamentary committee could not rule on possible breaches of the Freedom of Information Act, despite prima facie evidence (Jones’s request for deletion of emails):

“It would, however, be premature, without a thorough investigation affording each party the opportunity to make representations, to conclude that UEA was in breach of the Act. In our view, it is unsatisfactory to leave the matter unresolved simply because of the operation of the six month time limit on the initiation of prosecutions. Much of the reputation of CRU hangs on the issue. We conclude that the matter needs to be resolved conclusively– either by the Independent Climate Change Email Review or by the Information Commissioner.”

I think that conclusion is wise. There really does need to be an investigation more thorough than the parliamentary committee could make. Reputations are at stake and there still remains room for mischief making until this is cleared up.

The committee made several recommendations regarding improvement of the Freedom of Information Act and “the rules for the accessibility of data sets collected and analysed with UK public money.”

Irresponsible use of public data

Unfortunately it didn’t consider ways of dealing with the problem of malicious FIO requests and the irresponsible or misleading use of public data sets. This was an aspect raised in the written  evidence of the Royal Society of Chemistry: (CRU 42) (see Volume II, the oral and written evidence)

“10. The issue of misinformation in the public domain must also be tackled. Just as the scientific community must be open with regard to their evidence base, those who disagree must also provide a clear and verifiable backing for their argument, if they wish their opinions to be given weight. When disagreements occur, the validity of the analysis must be established before credence can be given to any opinion. Increased understanding of the process of scientific research, firstly in the government, but also within the media and general public, is vital in order to foster a more open sharing of information.

11. Support from the scientific community is needed to provide context and to explain the process by which conclusions are reached. Encouraging scientists to openly engage with the public can only be achieved if researchers are given the necessary backing in the face of any unfounded arguments against their work. This support must come from the highest levels, sending out a strong message on the importance of scientific methodology and research and promoting open sharing of information between scientists and the wider community.”

I have written about this problem before (see Freedom of information and responsibility) becuase it is also an issue in New Zealand. Legal changes to achieve this are not immediately obvious. However, I have seen a couple of suggestions in internet discussions. For example there could be a requirement that all FOI applications are registered and there is a requirement for public disclosure of what use is made of the data. Personally I would also like some sort of requirement of peer review. Surely it would improve responsible use of this sort of data if any resulting report or publication was submitted to the same sort of review as that required for the original scientists.

One commenter even suggested that this could be done now, by making a FOI request to public institutions for a list of such FOI requests. The individual requests could then be publicly listed on the internet with a chance for comment and update. This would become a sort of “wall of shame” for those making malicious FOI requests. This may help reduce, or at least publicly expose, vexatious FOI request campaigns such as those organised by Steve McIntyre and readers of his blog Climate Audit (see Submission to CRU Email review by Dr P. C. Mathews) last July.

In conclusion

A useful inquiry with an outcome generally favourable to science. It is a start to discovering the truth that has been obscured by the “climategate” hysteria. There are two more inquiries yet to report:

These will obviously be more detailed and their conclusions more authoritative. Hopefully the issue of responsible use of public data could be considered here. We should also remember the favourable report from the Pennsylvania State University Inquiry into Michael Mann (see Spinning exoneration of Dr. Michael Mann Into ’Whitewash’) and a subsequent inquiry (yet to report) into the science produced by Mann’s team.

I hope these can finally put to rest the doubts that have circulated about climate scientists and their findings.

See also:
The beginning of the end of climategate? « Andy Russell’s Blog.
CRU evidence to Sir Muir Russell’s review: Download pdf (78 pp)
Report from UK Parliament Science and Technology Committee  (The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia‘, HC 387-I).

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Lynch mob mentality Ken Perrott Jan 14

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We have seen a wave of anti-climate change hysteria in the last few months – coinciding with the stealing of emails from the East Anglia Climate Centre  and the UN Copenhagen Conference. Posts and comments on internet blogs and forums have been particularly extreme. And for many scientists, who usually don’t have to involve themselves in such irrational debates, the hostility, even hatred, towards scientists and scientific finding has been somewhat of a shock.

We are so used to debating, even emotionally debating, evidence – not personalities. But in this global debate personalities have been demonised and defamed. Mud is being thrown – and of course mud has the problem that it sometimes sticks. While most of this hysteria has been coming from the usual conspiracy theorists and conservative political activists many of the non-aligned public may be left with the feeling that there is something wrong in the scientific community. Or that scientific findings should not be easily accepted, perhaps they should even be rejected because they are scientific. Science itself is being demonised.

It’s an ongoing battle, I guess. These sorts of conflicts are inevitable and just have to be fought out.

Local conspiracy theorists

Our local conspiracy theorist, conservative Christian activist Ian Wishart, is again promoting personal attacks on a New Zealand scientist. In his article NZ scientist at centre of Pachauri allegations refuses to talk, Wishart, together with a UK conspiracy theorist group, EU Referendum, is accusing Andy Reisinger* of involvement in money laundering (see Pachauri: money laundering? Part II – by Richard…). Wisharts links with overseas conservative groups are enabling this story to be spread more widely. For example American Thinker (sic) and UD/RK Samhälls Debatt are  repeating it in their posts When it comes to the IPCC, follow the money – if you can and Climate Gate — All the manipulations and lies revealed 219 . (For some strange reason EU Referendum and UD/RK Samhälls Debatt attribute an Open Parachute post to Andy Reisinger – I would love to get hold of the emails between Ian Wishart and these groups).

This, of course, parallels the articles Ian Wishart ran last November/December attacking our scientists at NIWA. This started with his peddling of the discredited (see New Zealand’s denier-gate and New Zealand’s climate change deniers’ distortions exposed) report (Are we feeling warmer yet?) written by Richard Treadgold for local climate change denial groups. Overseas conservative blogs and newspapers repeated Wishart’s biased reporting, further demonising our local scientists. Despite the basic flaws in the report Wishart and local conservative bloggers persisted with their attacks and displayed some of the lynch mob mentality towards science and scientists locally. See for example:

I confess I now believe in manmade Global Warming; Three Questions for NIWA; Auckland Public Meeting: Climategate, NIWA and the ETS; NIWA, Climategate and Evasive Fallacious Answers; The NIWA Emails; NIWA ClimateGate link hits MSM in NZ [Update 3]; Climategate — How the scientific community is responding; Climate scientists caught lying; New Zealand not warming?; CLIMATEGATE — A better study than NIWA, by an 11 year old! and Kid and his dad: 1, Global Warming: 0.

Fighting back

Micheal Mann

There have been a number of good blog articles internationally putting the whole UK email issue into its correct perspective. I think this does demonstrate the importance of science blogging because only good science communicators can really do this job. Particularly as science journalism is a dying profession.

Its worth reading a couple of articles written by scientists who have been targets for the internet lynch mob. Micheal Mann, particularly vilified for his working on global temperature changes over time, was one of the email writers. His article Climate expert in the eye of an integrity storm from the Philadelphia Inquirer explains the phrases used in the emails and his opinion of the attack. And another email author Kevin Trenberth makes some brief comments in The truth about carbon dioxide, climate and the weather.

Kevin Trenberth

*By the way Andy Reisinger is a senior research fellow with the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington. He has worked in climate change science and policy as a research scientist and senior policy adviser on climate change to the New Zealand government. From 2006 to 2008, he was responsible for managing the production of the Synthesis Report of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is author of  the book Climate Change 101 (see A good climate change book) and blogs at Sciblogs NZ (Degrees of Change).

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Beware the retired scientist? Ken Perrott Jan 07

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The Lippard Blog has an interesting analysis of Who are the climate change skeptics? In this he identifies links of many of the sceptics with several right wing think tanks like The Heartland Institute and George C. Marshal Institute. One could do a similar analysis of our local climate sceptics and deniers. Some of them seem to be linked with the right wing NZ Centre for Politcal Research, the ACT Party and Conservative Christian organisations and blogs. Have a look at the discussion New Zealand’s “CLIMATEGATE”! on the Centre for Political Research forum. Obviously conspiracy theorists tend to congregate in these areas.

Professional status of sceptics

But – enough of the political connections. What interested me about Lippard Blog’s analysis is the likely age and professional status of scientists who are climate sceptics compared with those working in climate science who are generally accepting of the IPCC conclusions. (He identifies the latter groups as the “IPCC scientists.”)

The analysis used data for 623 scientists involved in the Working Group 1 of the IPCC and for 469 scientists who were signatories of documents skeptical of anthropogenic global warming. The data included the number of citations for the 4th most cited paper for each scientist and the year their last degree was obtained. This gives us some idea of scientific standing, age and working/retired status.

I have plotted the data in the figure. Unsurprisingly the number of citations increased with time since last degree, or age. Scientific standing does increasing with time and experience (and numbers of publications).

But there is a huge difference between the two groups in the average date for last degree. I take from this that as a group climate sceptics tend be older and many more of them will actually be retired, compared with those who worked on the IPCC documents.

Retired scientists

I am retired myself so I have often thought of the role that many retired scientists still play in scientific and political issues.

Some scientists like to remain active in their field on retirement. Some will continue to work without payment or retain academic positions – often for no payment. Great for their institutes – although I did hear of one lab which had been trying to  diplomatically  tell a still active long-term retiree that his shaking hands and poor eyesight had become a safety issue in the laboratory!

It’s also quite common for scientists to do a bit of consulting in their retirement. It brings in a bit of money, maintains some standing in the scientific community and often, to be frank, appeals to the vanity and self worth of the scientist. After all, one of the few negative features of retirement is reduced social contact and standing.

Problems with consultants

I see a problem with assuming retired scientists are always reliable sources of information, though. After all, it’s harder to keep up with the literature and to be aware of current findings – especially if one is no longer based in a working scientific institute. There is no longer the advantage of, and necessity for, peer review of one’s publications and public statements. Mind you, commercial and political interests may be more interested in the name and degree, the authority of the scientist, than the facts.  Maybe a win-win situation for some. A presentation of an authoritative image by the retired scientist, without the need to maintain research and reading or bother about consulting colleagues. While the purchaser of the information gets a “tame’ expert with suitable endorsement of their product or political campaign.

Now I am not, by any means, claiming this is so in every case. Far from it. Simple retirement doesn’t necessarily lead to loss of integrity. Nor does institutional employment necessarily imply integrity. I have seen scoundrels in both situations.

However, the graph above does indicate that climate sceptics are more likely to be divorced from peer review, familiarity with the literature and current findings  and the discipline of consulting colleagues. And maybe they can be influenced by commercial interests, or even just the fact that in the current political climate large numbers of people are willing to see them as authorities and uncritically accept and parrot their articles and statements.

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The global warming conspiracy? Ken Perrott Dec 07

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The hacked emails from the East Anglia Climate Centre in the UK have not been a big issue in New Zealand. At least for most people and for most news media. There are, of course, ideological motivated people who wish to promote the issue as a scandal. Who wish to attack our current understanding of climate science and climate change. Or who just have an anti-science attitude in general and attack the integrity of scientists as part of their nature.

A few bloggers have tried to mobilise on this issue (see for example  NIWA, Climategate and Evasive Fallacious Answers, The scientific community and self-criticism, Climate scientists caught lying, Climategate — How the scientific community is responding, WarmingGate, New Zealand not warming? and I confess I now believe in manmade Global Warming). And, as Peter Griffin pointed out recently, ’The comment sections of some blogs have become particularly grubby places to congregate’ (see Climategate brought out the worst in us).

Even the ACT party is trying to get in on the act (Auckland Public Meeting: Climategate, NIWA and the ETS).

Of course, we have been preoccupied here with attacks on NIWA scientists by the ACT party, the Climate Science Coalition, the Climate Conversation Group, conspiracy theorist Ian Wishart, and climate change deniers in the blogosphere. Obviously taking advantage of the climate gate email scandal they made serious attacks on the integrity of these scientists. However, this has also more or less fizzled out as NIWA released information to show the attacks were false.

Conspiracy theories

Of course this doesn’t stop some people. These conspiracy theorists who are presented the emails as evidence of a global conspiracy. They got the bit between their teeth. Believed their own propaganda and started to assert that the Copenhagen meeting would be canceled. That this is the end of the global warming story! The gobal warming conspiracy!

This short video by potholer puts the whole email scandal into context.

It investigates the two most used examples of “fraud” from these emails – the ones talking about “using a trick to hide the decline” an it being a “travesty that we can’t explain the cooling.” The examples that the denier alarmists (conspiracy theorists) have been concentrating on. The ones that have them frothing at the mouth. Poholer pours the cold water of reality over them.

It’s worth watching.

YouTube – 6. Climate Change — Those hacked e-mails.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nnVQ2fROOg

Thanks to Pharyngula: Febrile nitwits and the hacked climate change emails

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