by Judith Curry
Don’t let transparency damage science. – Stephan Lewandowsky & Dorothy Bishop
The Mertonian Norms of Science, introduced in 1942, describe “four sets of institutional imperatives [comprising] the ethos of modern science:”
- Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
- Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
- Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
- Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.
An interesting article on counter norms and critiques of the Mertonian norms is given in this article in the Journal of Higher Ed. This is a very interesting article, and the paper concludes with this paragraph:
The Mertonian norms, as principles representative of the normative system of science, have been challenged, attacked, dismissed, contested, inconsistently referenced, and, in short, battered and bruised by controversy and careless application. They nonetheless have endured for over 65 years as part of the communal property of science.
Lewandowsky’s latest paper in Nature
Numerous lessons in violating these norms are provided by a new paper just published in Nature [link; full paper available online]: Research integrity: Don’t let transparency damage science, by Stephan Lewandowsky & Dorothy Bishop. Subtitle: Stephan Lewandowsky and Dorothy Bishop explain how the research community should protect its members from harassment, while encouraging the openness that has become essential to science.
My ‘favorite’ excerpts:
Many organized attacks call for more data, often with the aim of finding an analysis method that makes undesirable results go away [JC note: most would call that ‘skepticism’].
Even when data availability is described in papers, tension may still arise if researchers do not trust the good faith of those requesting data, and if they suspect that requestors will cherry-pick data to discredit reasonable conclusions. [JC note: ‘universalism’ does not care whether researchers trust the good faith of those requesting data].
What’s more, the scientific community should not indulge in games of ‘gotcha’ (intentionally turning small errors against a person). Minor corrections and clarifications after publication should not be a reason to stigmatize fellow researchers. Scientific publications should be seen as ‘living documents’, with corrigenda an accepted — if unwelcome — part of scientific progress. [JC note: ‘disinterestedness’ doesn’t care about the reputations of specific scientists, nor their feelings. How on earth can you justify corrigenda as being ‘unwelcome’?]
Scientists who are harassed often feel alone. Universities do not tolerate harassment based on race or gender, and neither should they tolerate harassment based on contentious science. They should provide training and support to help their researchers cope. [JC note: big boy pants please. Be a scientist and learn to embrace disinterestedness and skepticism. Training researchers in ethical behavior and their legal responsibilities (and maybe also the philosophy and sociology of science) is all the coping support that they need.]
Public declarations can be particularly useful: in 2014, in response to the harassment of one of its professors, the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York publicly acknowledged the scientific consensus on climate change and its support for academic freedom. [JC note: this might be most frightening statement in the entire paper – institutionalizing a politicized, manufactured consensus on a highly uncertain scientific topic as an argument for rejecting the norms of communalism and skepticism].
Similar attention must be devoted to stressors and threats to science that arise in response to research that is considered inconvenient. The same institutions and bodies that have scrutinized science must also start a conversation about how to protect it. [JC note: ‘disinterestedness’ doesn’t care whether research is convenient or inconvenient. Policy advocates care whether research is convenient or inconvenient]
The comments at the end of the Nature article are very interesting, however the most interesting ones are the large number of comments that Nature has deleted, including a comment from Richard Tol. Paul Matthews has post on this, excerpts:
Tol’s deleted comment read:
“Research integrity and transparency are great. It starts at home. It would be good if Professor Lewandowsky would come clean about his research on climate change, and if he would tell his student John Cook to do the same. Harassment would be much reduced if researchers would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about their data, how it was gathered, and how it was processed and analyzed.”
Canman also has a post, citing some of the comments (by Brad Keyes) deleted by Nature, an example:
Brad Keyes 2016-01-27 07:33 PM
The above article is a heinously antiscientific attempt to make excuses
for obscurantism, deletionism and Phil Jonesism (“Why should I make my
data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong
with it?”) Dear Lewandowsky and collaborator (whose name I’ve forgotten),
do yourselves a favor and wake up to the fact that THE MIDDLE AGES ARE
OVER. You can either be priests or scientists. Not both.
Nail: you’ve been hit on the head.
Barry Woods received the following email from Nature:
Dear Dr Woods,
A user has reported your comment on the Nature article “Research integrity: Don’t let transparency damage science” so the comment (below) has been removed. Please see the website terms and conditions, section 6, for more information on Nature’s community guidelines: http://www.nature.com/info/tandc.html.
Any nominations for the ‘users’ reporting all these comments?
This whole episode has generated substantial discussion on twitter. Barry Woods raised the following issue:
ATTP (Ken Rice) made the following comment on the Nature article:
Ken Rice • 2016-01-28 04:03 PM
Additionally, it says “In compliance with University of Bristol regulations, the data are therefore made available to credentialed scholars only and through a standardized approval process.” Has anyone who is a credentialed scholar tried to get access to the data? Is there an objection to it only being available to credentialed scholars?
Barry Woods writes:
Bristol have refused me the data, after I followed the standardised approval process.
Universalism says ‘all scientists’. We previously ran into this issue via the antics of Phil Jones, who provided his data to Peter Webster, but not to Steve McIntyre or Ross McKitrick – McIntyre was not a university academic, and McKitrick was not a scholar in the ‘right’ field.
This ‘credentialed scholar’ business is a relic of the 20th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many scientists had no obvious academic credentials. Ben Franklin is an example of a scientist who is self-educated and without academic credentials.
During the 21st century, enabled largely by the internet, we are again seeing the rise of independent scientists and self-taught scientists, particularly in the interdisciplinary field of climate science. Steve McIntyre and Nic Lewis are examples – in spite of having no formal credentials in the field of climate science, both have published papers in the peer reviewed literature, and both have been active in critiquing and auditing other papers and publishing these critiques either in the peer reviewed literature or on their blogs. Nic has effectively ‘joined the club’, and is often invited to attend Workshops, etc. After trying (relatively unsuccessfully) to engage with the mainstream paleoclimate community, at this point Steve McIntyre is operating outside of the ‘club.’
The norm of universalism demands that that scholars from other fields, independent scientists, and ‘auditors’ such as Barry Woods have the same access to the data and other scientific goods as ‘credentialed scholars’ in the ‘approved’ field.
This trend away from universalism is particularly pernicious in light of the concerns of the heterodoxacademy.org, whereby there is a lack of intellectual and political diversity among scholars in many fields in the academy. Specifically with regards to climate science, I wrote:
The minority perspectives on climate science are effectively being squeezed out of the academy as individuals choose to join the private sector, retire, join think tanks, or switch research topics. Further, dissenting individuals are emerging from other fields (and are non academics), some of this which is supported by the blogosphere.
Climate science is badly in need of a more catholic (universal) definition of universalism in terms of participants in the scientific debate. God bless the internet.
Why are such obvious scientific norms/values being eroded away? IMO the main cause is violations of ‘disinterestedness’ — a combination of careerism and public policy activism/advocacy.
Careerism leads a scientist not to want to have their research be challenged or audited, for fear of damage to their reputation that is shallowly based on such things as publication numbers, funding, memberships on prestigious boards, press releases and citation numbers (rather than an interest in learning and making meaningful contributions that advance science).
Policy advocates/activists do not want to see their science challenged (or the science of their political allies), for fear that the challenge will diminish their policy and political objectives. Challenges from someone on the ‘other side’ of the policy/political debate are regarded as especially objectionable, since their motives are ‘different’. As a result, we are seeing an epidemic of ‘activism that abuses science as a weapon.’
All of this squashes skepticism, which IMO is the central norm of science. Disagreement, skepticsm and challenges are what moves science forward. Robert May has a superb Royal Society article: Science as Organized Skepticism. Another good article that I just spotted on this topic is Certitude Seeking Truth.
A secondary cause of the erosion of scientific norms is the campus ‘safe space’ movement, which protects university folk from minority and unpopular views. God forbid that a scientist should feel harassed if an opponent wants to check their work, or worse yet someone on the internet ‘attacks’ them. This essay from Brendan O’Neill is superb: The violence of the Safe Space.
Being human, some individual scientists will try to pervert the norms for personal gain. This wouldn’t be a particular problem if there is sufficient diversity of perspectives in the academy, which there clearly isn’t, and there are appropriate checks and balances in the institutional systems. The problem is made intolerable when the institutions that support science start perverting these norms, such as Nature has done in publishing the paper by Lewandowsky and Bishop (and then deleting ‘inconvenient’ comments), and Science has recently done with Marcia McNutt’s op-ed.
The 21st century institutions of science need to adapt because of the following externalities:
- blogs, twitter and the internet, that enable a much wider community to engage in the discussion of scientific research
- growing interdiscisiplinarity, i.e. making the traditional disciplines and credentialed expertise less relevant
- the rise of independent scientists that are not associated with the traditional institutions, and many of whom are self taught or switching fields
- the growing political relevance of scientific research in the environmental and health fields
However, the solution to adapting to these externalities is NOT to overthrow the norms of science.
From Barry Woods: Perhaps a follow up article could be written: Academic Integrity – Don’t let Activist Academics Damage Science.
An article recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine: Data Sharing [link], raises concerns about ‘research parasites’ that use data collected by others to try to replicate the original results or for purposes that were not intended by the original investigators.