The…er…science, of climate change

There are lots of problems with what passes for science much of the time now. Peer review is not all it’s cracked up to be, in fact Einstein hated it and his most famous work never underwent the process. The whole concept of statistical significance is under question (in medical matters it often bears no resemblance to clinical significance), and there has been a lot of flagrant bad behaviour in the hot political areas of science. Many ‘scientists’ (loosely defined) suffer from the same malaise as ‘experts’. There’s plenty of crossover between the two spurious groups. I hate putting such established terms in inverted commas, but one feels driven to it.

Part of the problem is the ‘publish or die’ atmosphere in many academic centres. The scientific and medical literature has expanded exponentially. One would sensibly doubt that the quality has kept pace.

But you know, there are some rules, generally accepted terms of reference. Here’s one fine example from the works of sociologist (not the rubbish kind) Robert K Merton. He is the man who originated those everyday phrases “unintended consequences,” the “reference group,” the “role model,” and “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Quite a body of work in its quotability, like a Shakespeare of Sociology:

In his landmark 1973 work The Sociology of Science , Robert Merton established norms upon which scientists should rely . These Mertonian norms include: communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originalism, and organized skepticism… These norms have been described as follows: “Communalism: Science is public knowledge, freely available to all . . . Universalism: There are no privileged sources of scientific knowledge . . . Disinterestedness: Science is done for its own sake. Originality: Science is the discovery of the unknown . . . Skepticism: Scientists take nothing on trust…” Merton’s original work was done in the aftermath of World War II and is understood as making the argument for the necessity of these norms to scientific advancement in a democratic society.

The National Academy of Sciences built on Mertonian norms by establishing guidelines of its own that seek to foster a “community characterized by curiosity, cooperation, and intellectual rigor…” While the Academy encourages open debate and criticism, id . at xv, it treats the falsification of data, intent to mislead, and retaliation against critics as examples of serious research misconduct.

Great stuff, clear and almost noble idealism.  If you don’t have rules that are widely accepted, then you get dud science and useless outcomes. Just look at the problems with reproducibility,  which anyone who ever did O-level chemistry should intuitively understand.

You might have guessed that the reason I’m plugging Merton is his relevance to the scientific chaos surrounding climate change, and the quote above came from Mark Steyn’s update on his legal battle with the egregious Michael Mann. The provider of the quote is a real scientist, Judith Curry, who has heroically joined the fray.

Every medic knows that people more often than not publish for their CV and the career – it’s a necessity. Few  people are really good at scientific research. It’s a lot harder than surgery by and large, if you’re doing it well. Most of it is forgettable, irrelevant or possibly plain wrong. Scientific endeavour  from a position of preconceived bias will almost certainly be bullshit in, bullshit out.

To quote Anglo-Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney:  A theory is a supposition which we hope to be true, a hypothesis is a supposition which we expect to be useful; fictions belong to the realm of art; if made to intrude elsewhere, they become either make-believes or mistakes.

And there’s a lot of the latter about.

..he said in 10 years we won’t know what snow is…



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