Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Thought on Those CRU Emails

The release (by whatever process) of communications and data from the Climate Research Unit at Norwich has been covered by half of my blogroll, it appears. (And a few who aren't on it, but probably should be.) I am not going to attempt any kind of analysis, not having the time (I don't know how anyone else does, either, but some clearly do) nor the competence. By the way, the response at Real Climate is an attempt to brush it aside with a general 'that's just the way scientists talk' kind of bluff. It isn't, and a much better explanation/defense is required, which may yet be forthcoming, but so far I haven't seen it.

But one thing that is clear to any real scientist is that these communications are not about science, but politics. Science is the search for a certain kind of objective truth, and must be carried out in accordance with certain procedures, which include transparency, collaboration, openmindedness and freedom from preconception, if it is to have any chance of identifying that truth with some confidence. Another thing that science does, as part of this search, is to quantify ignorance.

Scientists do not work in a vacuum. In Universities they are subjected to very considerable political pressures, they experience personal pressure from their own professional ambition- to publish more, to be respected by their peers, to get a better post; industrial scientists are under commercial pressure from their companies; all are human, and instinctively want the world to be a certain way. It's when they fail to recognise this in their work that they stop doing proper science. Their are extracts from the communications which clearly indicate that the unit was, at least at times, prepared to sacrifice the truth to the pursual of some other purpose, apparently social, political or personal, and that is not science.

Those who have done some analysis of the data (which the CRU has never wanted to publish- see transparency above) suggest that it wasn't quite what it seemed either (see preconceptions above).

As I say, I'll let others do the work, and they'll do it much better, but it is worth remembering what science is and what it isn't.


Vincent said...

It seems to me that "science", like organised atheism, has become a form of political lobbying, constantly attacking this, defending that - even on the sides of London buses.

My ear is offended when they talk about "the science", in an arrogant manner equivalent to the Americanisms "do the math" or "smell the coffee".

It would be pleasant if scientists would restrict themselves to scholarly (or if you like, professional) behaviour, in relation to their fields of study. If they are able to fund their own researches, they can of course say what they like. But if they are employed, whether by university, industry or directly by government, they should leave the public pronouncements to their employers, or obtain their invitation to speak.

And stop acting like high priests who know how to save the world.

And the same goes for everyone else, whether economist, government or the man who runs the corner shop.

Taxi drivers and bloggers can say what they like, naturally.

CIngram said...

It would be pleasant if scientists would restrict themselves to scholarly (or if you like, professional) behaviour, in relation to their fields of study.

Yes, indeed. And most real scientists do do that. Science is a very specific thing, very interesting and very useful at times. But it's done by human beings, and it usually needs other people's money behind it, which means it must be completely open about its methods and the information it is using. It must also clarify its aims and motivation. Even real science, where real truth is revealed, is often done because government, company, university has some vested interest in finding out more about a particular area, not because it's truer or more important or the right path to take. The science that is done is doen at the expense of other research which has to wait, and it is important to know why this is.