by Judith Curry
Well I thought it was probably impossible at this point for someone to come up with a fresh perspective on Climategate. A new article in Inside Higher Ed entitled “Scholars and Scandals” arguably fits the bill. The article tackles the broader questions of:
What is the best course of action when scholars’ motives and research are attacked? How quickly should they respond? Who should vet such allegations — universities, disciplinary societies, or some other entity? If scholars move too hastily, do the risks of getting it wrong (or of being later disproven) outweigh the damage of letting allegations fester without rebuttal?
The article cites some insightful statements from the Muir Russell report:
“One of the most obvious features of the climate change debate is the influence of the blogosphere,” wrote Russell’s panel. “This provides an opportunity for unmoderated comment to stand alongside peer reviewed publications; for presentations or lectures at learned conferences to be challenged without inhibition; and for highly personalized critiques of individuals and their work to be promulgated without hindrance. This is a fact of life, and it would be foolish to challenge its existence.”
This environment, the panel noted, should prod scientists to be more open with their data and to communicate their work in more accessible ways. “A failure to recognize this and to act appropriately can lead to immense reputational damage by feeding allegations of cover up,” Russell’s panel continued. “Being part of a like-minded group may provide no defense. Like it or not, this indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.”
As Russell’s panel suggested, the means of argument and debate, the treatment of uncertainty and the appearance of authority differ greatly between the blogosphere and academe. The blogosphere has many virtues: it is egalitarian, democratic, decentralized and quick. But, some scholars note with dismay, it also allows anyone with an Internet connection to publish his or her views and to find a platform to cast doubt on others, often without being held accountable.
In addition, some worry that the current media environment has exacerbated partisanship; people can simply pick and choose among sources of information that reinforce their existing world view. The web can advance, for lack of a better word, “truthiness,” the term used most famously by the comic pundit Stephen Colbert. In 2006, the American Dialect Society named it the word of the year and supplied a definition: “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”
On the fallout of Climategate:
Leiserowitz said recently via e-mail that it is unclear how long the damage has lasted, though he and his colleagues are about to do another survey. Many scientists felt stung by the episode, to be sure. But the issue has faded from memory for all but the most skeptical members of the general public, Leiserowitz said, with some who were on the fence indicating that their opinions had hardened. “Probably some people who were formerly doubtful became dismissive because of Climategate,” he said. “It will be hard to win back their trust.”
The University of East Anglia, where the Climatic Research Unit is housed, waited too long to respond once the e-mails were released, Leiserowitz added. In those weeks, the story gained traction and was firmly framed by climate skeptics. “We now live in a 24/7 news cycle — the story went through multiple iterations before they said anything,” he said. “The community was caught flat-footed.”
Speed vs deliberation?
Typically, universities — which have legal departments, review boards and other resources (as well as ultimate responsibility for federal grants, if the research funded by such sources is implicated) — are best equipped to handle allegations of research misconduct or unethical behavior, said Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Frankel wondered whether methodical time frames were still practical in the current information environment. “To some extent, it changes the rules of the game,” he said of the blogosphere. And it is not yet evident, he said, that universities or disciplinary societies have developed processes or mechanisms to respond to rapidly proliferating, diverse and unfamiliar sources of information from which allegations spring forth.
“This is a different world from even 10 years ago,” said Frankel. “Moving with all deliberate speed is not going to be fast enough in the 21st century.”
Several interesting case studies are presented, including the El Dorado controversy (anthropology) and a controversy surrounding guns (history).
In conclusion, the article asks “Whose job is it?”
While universities may be well-equipped to pick through the sorts of issues that tend to come their way — typically allegations of fraud, fabrication and plagiarism — it is unclear how more ambiguous breaches of disciplinary ethics, like many of those taken up by the AAA, can best be investigated. Ethical standards tend to be unique to each field of study and more nuanced than, say, determining whether plagiarism occurred. While disciplinary societies would seem to be the standard-bearers of ethical practice, it is not clear that they have the resources or temperament to rule on them.
Stanley N. Katz, Lecturer with the rank of Professor and director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, said that the web can be harnessed in service to scholarship: scholars linked to each other via the web might deploy to respond quickly to emerging controversies. The larger risk of the current media environment, he said, is the weakening or destruction of academe’s best tool: peer review. “If everyone is a publisher, that’s a disaster,” he said. “That’s a real threat.”
“Some say the primary obligation is shifting from the institution to the discipline,” said Katz. “It’s every man on his own and every woman on her own. It’s in nobody’s corporate interest to police activity.”
It bears repeating:
“It’s in nobody’s corporate interest to police activity.”
The incentives aren’t there for universities and professional societies to self-police effectively. The most effective policing seems to be coming from the Inspector General’s office of the U.S. funding agencies (e.g. NOAA, NSF).
The blogosphere clearly has an important role to play here. Your ideas?