Thoughts on Hunter’s statement on Science, Climate Change and Integrity

By Fabiana Kubke 09/04/2010

Professor Keith A Hunter has published a statment on ‘Science, Climate Change and Integrity‘ in the Royal Society of New Zealand website. His position with respect to the controversies surrounding climate change issues are made clear, as is his call for a re-examination of attitudes on both sides of the argument.

The controversies surrounding the science of climate change underscore the need for a more open approach in the reporting of scientific data, and Professor Hunter’s statement makes a strong argument towards moving in that direction. A while back Cameron Neylon [1] wrote in his blog in reference to the CRU email leaks that

[…] scandal has exposed the shambolic way that we deal with collecting, archiving, and making available both data and analysis in science, as well as the endemic issues around the hoarding of data by those who have collected it.

There are many arguments in favour of making scientific data openly available. In a recent commentary on Science, Jean-Claude Bradley is quoted as saying:

“It’s sort of going away from a culture of trust to one of proof,” Bradley says. “Everybody makes mistakes. And if you don’t expose your raw data, nobody will find your mistakes.”

Along those same lines Hunter argues that

’Science is a rational endeavour that is based on logical and critical analysis of scientific theories in the light of actual evidence. It follows that scientific information, including a transparent description of how the data has been processed and tested against hypotheses, must be publically available, especially when it has been publicly funded […]’

Without this open approach, the validity of scientific information has to be entrusted to the peer review system, but even Professor Hunter echoes what are concerns of the scientific community at large, that

“while we place great faith in the peer review process to weed out ideas that are wrong, peer review is not perfect and can be abused by both sides.”

And further argues that:

’If the intensity of the personal attacks on climate scientists over recent months are to have any positive effect, it will be the adoption of a more transparent approach to the dissemination of information.’

Two sides of the coin: Public/Open access vs Open Data:

Although the issues surrounding open data and open access can be seen to sit under the same umbrella, they really deal with two slightly different issues regarding the dissemination of information. While public or open access to published data is now a requirement by many public funding agencies, and is important for the public dissemination of information,  it does not in itself solve issues such as those raised around climategate.

I am a strong supporter of Open Access publishing — whereby the public has access to the published information — but unfortunatley it shares some of the same shortcomings with toll access publishing when it comes to the review process: the process is not fail-proof. The Public Library of Science has to be commended for opening the post-publication discussion of the work they publish and making it possible to highlight both shortcomings and strengths in the published material, and in this way allowing to correct any errors associated with the peer-review process. Yet even within this open model the criticisms are raised about the published material itself, and this solution falls short of solving the kinds of issues raised by the opponents of climate change: The raw data is not published by default (although it can be requested and it is PLoS policy that it should be made available by the authors).

Open Data on the other hand makes the raw data available: the analysis can be checked, rechecked, rehashed and reanalysed by other people. And as Jonathan Eisen is quoted as saying in the Science article, people do find mistakes.

Opening the data allows those mistakes to be found and to be corrected, and that can only be good since the ultimate goal of science is not to defend one’s pet theory but to keep one’s mind open to find the answer that is most consistent with the data. As Lawrence Krauss said in his lecture:

’I would argue that the definition of open-mindedness is forcing our beliefs to conform to reality, and not the other way around.’

Opening the data will inevitably lead to agreed upon interpretations that conform with reality: It allows the conversation to centre around scientific facts rather than around personal attacks to the scientific community or to the groups of vocal skeptics. And, ultimately, finding the best answer is the one common ground that is shared by both groups.

So what next?

Hunter states that:

[…] it is only fair to expect the critics of the mainstream scientific views […] to adopt an equally transparent approach with their own information, and with their own use and re-analysis of data entrusted to the public domain. They should also subject their findings to rigorous peer review. Opinion, however forthrightly expressed, will not change the laws of basic science.

As far as I know, there is still an Open Access Mandate to be had in New Zealand’s public research funding agencies. Let alone one on Open Data. So it was not without surprise that I read Hunter’s statment that

’In this regard, the Royal Society of New Zealand intends to play its part by developing a Code of Practice for Public Dissemination of Information that it hopes will assist the various New Zealand science organisations in improving their practices.’

This approach is needed if common ground is to be found between scientists and between scientist, society and policy makers. Disagreement is perhaps the strongest force that moves the interpretation of scientific data within the bounds of the most likely explanation. But disagreement can only move in a positive direction when all parties involved have equal access to information. In science that is called the data.

[1] Cameron Neylon’s blog has now moved here.

[2] Disclaimer: I receive and have received research funding from the Royal Society of New Zealand and am an Academic Editor of PLoS One.