by Judith Curry
[T]here is a routine confusion between science as a process (the scientific method), and science as an institution. – Ben Pile
This thread is motivated by the recent publication of a paper entitled The Subterranean War on Science, by Stephan Lewandowsky, Michael Mann, et al. The first sentence of the paper is “Science denial kills.” Lewandowsky and Mann coauthoring a paper is a pairing made for climate blogospheric heaven.
Before digging into the Lewandowsky et al. paper, lets take a look at a recent blog post by Ben Pile that provides some interesting context.
What is science?
Ben Pile has a provocative and lengthy post entitled What is Science? The entire post is worth reading; here I excerpt from the closing paragraphs:
Putative fans of science often wax lyrical about the wonders it can reveal. But not so far behind this wide-eyed poetry is a desire to turn it from discovery into a petty-minded bureaucracy. Science identifies the mechanisms of our planet, but then is employed to enforce the optimum and most efficient ways of managing public affairs, in spite of people’s wants and needs, rather than overcoming what appear as boundaries and limits. Worse still, it seems that the scientists didn’t even realise that the notion of optimums, efficiencies, boundaries and limits are not scientific discoveries, but ideological prejudices they bought to their investigation.
So what is science? A point made here a lot is that there is a routine confusion between science as a process (the scientific method), and science as an institution. Ince, Klein, and the rest aren’t merely seeking authority for their arguments in science, i.e. as a source of some kind of unimpeachable objective truth or facts. They are seeking authority in a very real sense, for the sake of having an authority. It’s not a search to explain the world, but to create order within it.
Notice that the climate debate descends to science — it is not elevated by it. Venture criticism of the proposal that a global scientific panel should determine the parameters of domestic energy, climate, and economic policies, and rather than being offered a defence of such a form of political organisation, you will be accused of ‘denying the science’. You will be accused of being ‘ideologically-motivated’, as though the design of this form of politics was not itself every bit as ideological as eugenics, as Malthus, or less alarmingly, the promises of jet-packs, flying cars and ‘energy too cheap to meter’. Many scientists and their institutions have been complicit. Perhaps science isn’t so great, after all.
A subterranean war on science?
Read the paper Subterranean war on science by Lewandowsky et al., its a short read. My first reaction was ‘How on earth did this get published in a journal?’ On further reflection, this article does provide some insights into the ‘war’, but it is not the ‘war on science’ that they think it is.
Some excerpts from the paper that illustrate the tactics being used by deniers:
In light of the lethal track record of denial, one might expect opprobrium to be reserved for those who deny the public’s right to be adequately informed about risks such as AIDS or climate change. Paradoxically, however, it is scientists whose research aims to inform the public of such risks who have been at the receiving end of hate mail and threats.
Other attempts of intimidation have involved the solicitation of potentially compromising information from the first author by a non-existent internet “sock puppet” whose unknown creators pretended to be victimized by climate deniers — and who then splattered the private correspondence on the internet
At a public level, an American lobbying outfit has recently likened climate scientists to the Unabomber in a billboard campaign, and a British tabloid journalist entertained the execution of the second author by hanging in what passes for a “mainstream” newspaper in the UK.
Another common tool of harassment involves FOI requests. Under many legislations around the world, email correspondence by an academic is subject to almost unconditional release. During the last 9 months, the first author has been subject to numerous requests for correspondence and other documents, including trivial pedantry such as the precise time and date stamps of blog posts.
A further line of attack involves complaints by members of the public to scientists’ host institutions with allegations of research misconduct. The format of those complaints ranges from brief enraged emails to the submission of detailed, elaborately-formatted multi-page dossiers.
Those attacks on scientists by personal abuse, vexatious use of FOI and the complaints process, and legal proceedings, have not only consumed valuable time, thereby delaying research, but have also taken an emotional toll. Those attacks have caused considerable trauma among some junior scientists known to us. However, the problem does not end there. Even more concerning is another line of attack that directly targets the integrity of the scientific process: We are concerned about the activities of individuals outside the scientific community and of little scientific standing, who systematically insert themselves into the peer-review and publication process to prevent the publication of findings they deem inconvenient. Those insertions typically involve emails to editors which have been described as “bullying” by some parties involved. Far from being isolated incidents, at last count we have identified 7 editors of several journals who have been subject to such bullying tactics across two disciplines; viz. climate science and psychology.
How should the scientific community respond to the events just reviewed? As in most cases of intimidation and bullying, we believe that daylight is the best disinfectant. This article is a first step in this effort towards transparency. Knowledge of the common techniques by which scientists are attacked, irrespective of their discipline and research area, is essential so that institutions can support their academics against attempts to thwart their academic freedom. This information is also essential to enable lawmakers to improve the balance between academic freedom and confidentiality of peer review on the one hand, and the public’s right to access information on the other. Finally, this knowledge is particularly important for journal editors and professional organizations to muster the required resilience against illegitimate insertions into the scientific process.
Oh my. As Lucia would say, please put on your big boy pants.
Matt Briggs has written two biting essays that respond to this paper:
The Supraterranean War on Sanity: Scientists Versus Civilians. This post is summarized by a tweet: There is a war brewing between (self appointed) Experts and Citizens. At least, I hope there is. Excerpts from the post:
If there’s one thing you can count on in a scientist, it’s that he never lets his failures hold him back. How could they? He never remembers them. No matter how many mistakes the scientist has made, no matter how over-certain he has in the past proved to be, he will sally forth boldly in his newest venture chock full of assuredness.
And, boy, will he be angry if you don’t fall in at his heels chirping, “You’re so smart. We ought to listen to you.” If you have the temerity to remind him of his previous sins, he will boast, “Science is self-correcting!”, never realizing that this argument is fallacious. Self-correcting science may be, but this is not evidence that the theory in front of us does not need correcting. Tell a modern scientist this and he begins to babble about “deniers”.
Lewandowsky in particular, like most who teeter on the leftmost fringe of thought, finds it unfathomable that anybody can differ from his opinion. He dismisses as ludicrous the idea his opponents hold reasonable arguments. No: it must be some deep-seated pathology, some psychological aberration that accounts for the deviant behavior he feels surrounds him, that is closing in on him, constricting his movements, tightening the noose…it’s a conspiracy of oil companies and nefarious corporations!
The world views of the experts are being challenged, and the experts are aghast, unsure what to do about it. Lewandowsky, after all but labeling his opponents mentally ill dimwits, was horrified—he tells us this—I almost can’t bring myself to type it—that somebody called him a bad name. Oh, the humanity!
Mann is a pest, an intellectual lightweight who in his imagination sees himself sparring with the big boys, but who puts on his glasses and whimpers at the first sign of trouble. Somebody dared asked for proof of his statistical, government-funded ravings and the poor dear was reduced to a blubbering mess.
Scientists do face enmity for their beliefs; they do endure acrimony; they do suffer ignominy—but the most vicious and wounding attacks come from fellow scientists, not civilians. Georg Cantor, anybody? Alfred Wegener? How many stories do we know of men whose work was vilified, whose livelihoods were trashed but who saw ultimate vindication (usually after death)?
Then there were the fellows whose views were wrong but who were not politely informed. They were attacked and eaten alive in academic feeding frenzies. B.F. Skinner, Emanuel Velkovski. I
Why are scientists’ attacks so cruel? Because they know better than anybody else how to best stick it to you. They know just who to whisper to behind your back. They know who’s in charge of funding and are pals with the dean and journal editors. A nastier group cannot be found outside a girl’s locker room after cheerleading practice. What harm can a civilian do besides hurting the feelings of overly sensitive coddled academics by calling them bad names?
Scientists are too used to deference. This attitude might have been the proper reflexive stance for civilians back when the number of scientists was small and the preponderance of their work sterling. But now when PhDs are minted faster than plastic Halloween decorations at a Chinese factory, and the quality of their research of the same durability as spiderwebs in a can, the appropriate response is, “Is this guy for real?”
Well, it seems to me that the most vicious attacks do come from fellow scientists. The Climategate emails provide ample examples. In my own case, the most vicious attacks of me have come from Michael Mann.
Warren Pearce has a post The Subterranean War on Science? A comment. The comment section is particularly interesting, with perspectives provided from Mann’s ‘tormentor’: Steve McIntyre, and Lewandowsky’s ‘tormentors’: Barry Woods and Jeff Condor.
From a comment by Steve McIntyre:
The Climategate dossier showed a clearcut example of bullying of the journal Climate Research by Mann and associates at University of East Anglia and elsewhere, in which various scientists considered an organized campaign to boycott the journal, which had published an article criticizing Mann. Lewandowsky and coauthors should surely begin with a condemnation of this conduct.
As to FOI requests, Mann and associates had no compunction about Greenpeace and USA Today issuing FOI requests against Soon and Wegman.
FOI requests for data should never have been necessary. To my knowledge, every FOI request for climate data has ultimately resulted in the data being made public. There is no public support for scientists withholding data if they also expect their articles to influence public policy. Efforts by climate scientists to oppose or delay deserve no support.
Nor has Mann had any compunction about academic misconduct complaints being filed against Wegman – complaints that were intended to silence his criticism of Mann’s statistics. Nor have Mann and associates had any reluctance to file complaints under UK press regulations, Mann himself filing a complaint against Booker, UEA against Delingpole.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
A comment by Paul Matthews:
It is delightfully ironic that the author of papers labelling other people as conspiracy theorists should write this paranoid piece claiming that there is a “subterranean war on science”.
Lewandowsky’s paper was criticised because it was junk. Briefly, in order to find evidence to support his preconceived notion that climate sceptics were conspiracy theorists, Lewandowsky concocted a survey with such a transparent agenda (a sequence of questions on absurd conspiracy theories followed by questions on climate change) that any results coming out of it would have been meaningless. Worse still, the survey was only posted at activist blogs (referred to by Lewandowsky as “pro-science”). One of the blogs named did not post the survey at all, a basic factual error in the paper that has been drawn to the attention of authors and editors, to no avail. A link to the survey could easily have been placed in a comment on sceptic blogs, but this was not done, showing that the authors were not seriously interested in getting sceptics to take the survey.
When the errors were pointed out, the authors wrote a second paper, labelling those individuals who had dared to point out the flaws as conspiracy theorists – a gross violation of the ethical principles of the field. When this was pointed out to the editors of that journal, they pulled the paper.
Similarly with Mann’s work – it was criticised by many of his own colleagues, as we know from the leaked emails. They described it as “sloppy”, “dodgy”, “suspect”, and worse. It was Mann, not his critics, who violated statistical conventions (the so-called decentered PCA), and it was Mann and his colleagues who engaged in bullying and intimidation of journal editors who dared to publish any dissenting papers.
The Lewandowsky, Mann et al. paper provides substantial insights into the ‘victims of deniers’ group of scientists.
The first insight is that they appear not to understand the difference between challenging science as a process vs challenging the authority of a group of scientists in a political debate. Once the debate becomes about challenging the authority of a group of scientists, the debate shifts to the boundary work of distinguishing those who are ‘qualified’ to comment versus those who are not. These efforts have characterized skeptics from within the climate science community as small in number, extreme, and scientifically suspect. Or Michael Mann simply shouts ‘denier!’, which seems to be ‘evidence’ in a certain segment of the community.
Critics from outside the climate community are automatically dismissed with this statement from Lewandowsky et al.:
We are concerned about the activities of individuals outside the scientific community and of little scientific standing, who systematically insert themselves into the peer-review and publication process to prevent the publication of findings they deem inconvenient.
In the context of concerns of Mann and Lewandowsky, this presumably refers to Steve McIntyre, Jeff Condor and Barry Woods. What is ‘scientific standing’? Sounds like a frightening concept. What happened to ‘scientific argument’? Isn’t this what counts in the process of science? This clearly speaks to their concerns as being rooted in the perceived affront to their ‘standing’ and ‘authority’ in the public debate on climate change; and not the process of science.
Well, Steve McIntyre et al. are concerned about the process of science and the accountability of science. They demand access to the data. They expect transparency in methods. McIntyre’s expertise in statistical analysis far outstrips any paleoclimatologists that I know of, and he has become extremely knowledgeable about paleoclimate proxies. He has brought much needed probity to the field of paleoclimatology, probity that seemed absent from within the field. And we are supposed to object to all this because of McIntyre’s lack of ‘scientific standing’, whatever the heck that is? The ‘in crowd’ of paleoclimatologists won’t stamp his membership card or something?
With regards to the Lewandowsky papers that were the subject of Condon’s and Wood’s concerns, it is difficult to call that twaddle ‘science.’ Lewandowsky’s defensive moves trying to cover up the deficiencies of his studies was pathetic. And this is somehow ok because Lewandowsky has ‘standing’? Now that he has published a paper with Mann, looks like his membership card has been stamped.
This is the stuff of high school cliques, and it has no place in science, and most particularly not in policy-relevant science.
The real war on science is from WITHIN: scientists who are playing power politics with their expertise. When the politics are questioned, or the link between their expertise and the politics is discussed, or the authority of science in a political debate is questioned, these scientists claim ‘war on science,’ victim status, and call the questioners ‘deniers.’ These so-called scientists are less concerned about the process of science than they are with their ‘standing’ in their self-appointed community and their authority in a public debate. This is the real war on science, and it comes from self-appointed scientists with ‘standing’ who are attempting to cover up their own shoddy science and to elevate their own influence in a political debate.
Policy-relevant science needs to be transparent and publicly accountable, and it should be audited by a wide range of people from outside the community with ‘scientific standing’ on that particular topic. Claiming that this constitutes a ‘subterranean war on science’ is a perversion of the political process and worse, it inoculates flawed science from the scrutiny that it deserves. Inoculating flawed science from the scrutiny it deserves by shouting ‘denier’ is the real war on science.