03 December 2009

Gentlemen scientists

Much has been written about the theft of emails from climate scientists and how bad they look when taken out of context. And oh yes, I agree that they look bad. Bad enough to provide fodder for The Daily Show.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Scientists Hide Global Warming Data
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Why these emails look so bad is that they play right into what is right at the heart of every anti-science campaign, whether it’s anti-evolution, anti-vaccine, anti-global warming, whatever: the conspiracy theory. Every time these groups attack a well-established scientific consensus, each of them fails miserably on the evidence, so each posits a conspiracy to explain their failure. Denialists are always trying to make claims about researchers’ motives, not evidence about nature.

I was reminded of this bit from a recent Ockham’s Razor.

For the previous 200 years, science had been the exclusive concern of wealthy gentlemen, who would have scorned payment for their work; gentlemen, by definition, did not work for money, so any form of compensation would have compromised their social standing. And the fact that they didn't need the money was part of the reason they were considered reliable and honest investigators of nature - they were disinterested. By contrast, those who sought to profit from their discoveries, like the alchemists of earlier times, had every incentive to falsify their results, conceal their knowledge and exaggerate their achievements. The gentlemen who formed Britain's Royal Society in 1660, took pride in the fact that they received no funding from the state; their wealth and social status guaranteed the accuracy of their observations and the truthfulness of their claims.

There’s little doubt that as science has become a profession, where researchers are facing ever higher stakes to publish, there have been more incentives that people can use to question the motives of scientists. Not sure if there is any way that we as a profession can recreate some of that “gentlemanly disinterest” that characterized our predecessors?

1 comment:

Juan Gabriel Llorca said...

Here's the thing about the scientists: they demand our faith, just as would any priest, or con man...the whole thing has to work on belief, because who among us can validate the scientists' assertions?

So, I rely upon my own logic...and I am a skeptic.
I agree with the agenda, an environmentally chill human population, but I don't agree with scaring them into submission.
With every passing day, fewer and fewer believe...doubt increases, and people will wander back into their old habits...
All because the sell was too hard, people are beginning to question and walk away.
'Don't believ the hype.'
Nope, as a pretext to change poples' behaviour, the 'global warming/climate change crisis is fast losing currency, as a motivating idea.
Back to reality...