Climategate, or, how science works

Climategate, or, how science works

“Science advances, funeral by funeral.” (often attributed to Timothy Ferris)

The blogosphere has been abuzz over the past week or so with the release of data — emails and program source and documentation — from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, one of the premier climatology research institutions in the world. Those with an interest have doubtless read much more about it than you will read here, but the nutshell version is that skeptics maintain that the emails show that the climatologists have been falsifying data and running a scam, and the mainstream claims that this is just the way science is always done, scientists are after all human. Robin Hanson points out that “If you knew how academia worked, this news would not surprise you nor change your opinions on global warming.”

I think that Robin is right that no one should be surprised. But I have a couple of observations about the nature of science and scientists:

First, scientists don’t really go out into the world with a blank mind and allow the data to suggest new laws of nature to them. Scientists — the ones who make significant breakthroughs anyway — go out with a paradigm firmly fixed in their minds and look for data to prove it. The paradigm is produced by subconscious processes of scientific intuition.

The classic case where this was made public because a top scientist was honest with himself in his notebooks, and these were subsequently published, was Millikan and the oil drop experiments to determine the charge of the electron.

It is plausible to suggest that Ehrenhaft’s methodology approximated the traditional scientific method, which did not allow him to discard anomalous data. Millikan, on the other hand, in his publications espoused the scientific method but in private (handwritten notebooks) was fully aware of the dilemma faced and was forced to select data to uphold his presuppositions.

A model of why this is the way things really work is the satisfiablity problem in computer science. The problem is to find values for variables that give a true value to a logical expression. If you can guess the right values, it’s simple to evaluate the expression and show they’re right. Otherwise, you are left with an intractable search. Similarly in science, guessing the right answer and then proving it is usually the way things really work.

In the Climategate files, it’s clear that the climatologists have a predetermined paradigm and are trying to prove it. The skeptics claim that’s evidence of a scam, but I think that by and large, climatologists really believe the paradigm they’re pushing, and they’re “selecting data to uphold their presuppositions.”

On the other hand, because science really does work this way, it is even more important than would be the case in the naive view, that there be a strong devil’s advocate function and that replication be required before any results are accepted. Here I think the climatologists are on shakier ground.

Science is at its base a way of convincing people that something you believe is true. It says, if you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Do the experiment, do the math. Any reasonable person will have to come to the same conclusion I did. There are other modes of persuasion: the religious (if you don’t believe me, you’ll go to Hell), the political (if you don’t believe me, you’ll be fired/jailed/shot), and the social (everybody else believes this, if you don’t you’re a kook). The other modes are much more deep-seated in the human psyche and held sway for much longer than the relatively few centuries of modern science. Thus when climatologists act all too human, they run the risk of slipping into other modes of persuasion and losing the claim to be doing science.

We didn’t need the Climategate papers to know that the climatologists were refusing to publish their data and their models. This turns the idea of science on its head. Instead of “here’s what I did, try it yourself” we have “not only is my data secret, my theory (the computer model) is secret.” This does not inspire confidence.

Science convinces by letting the critics have all the advantages and take their best shots. If a theory is true, it will still stand. If a theory is protected instead by the other modes of persuasion, it’s suspect.

There is, in the age of the internet, absolutely no reason that science can’t be open source. Let, for example, tree-ring or temperature-station data be placed on the web — the real, raw data, not after someone adjusts and interprets it. Let all the codes representing theories be open source. After all, most of this stuff is paid for with tax money in the first place. Let anyone read it, interpret it, make new or variant theories in the form of statistical or simulation codes. Ideas, like iron, are best formed when they are subjected to lots of heat and beaten on.

Climategate probably won’t have a lot of effect on climate science per se, but if it moves it, and science in general, even a little bit in a more open-source direction, that’ll be something to be thankful for this week.



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  1. Taoist November 25, 2009 at 8:38 am - Reply

    While I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying, the other major issue that Climategate/Climaquiddick is revealing that is entirely against the operating philosophies of science is the deliberate suppression of opposing theories, where the scientists involved tried to stop any document that opposed what they had said from even being published. That is also a scientific travesty.

  2. TheRadicalModerate November 25, 2009 at 10:11 pm - Reply

    Seems like it’s the case that being a scientist doesn’t qualify you to be a software engineer. There’s nothing wrong with spaghetti code, especially when you’re blundering about trying to produce a model and you’re not yet quite sure how to do it. But, for the life of me, I can’t understand why these models don’t get peer-reviewed with the papers based on them, which would in turn require that the software be, like, you know, engineered, and maybe even put under source code control!

    I’m willing to admit that these guys may be on to something with their model, but the problem is that they’re claiming that they have a theory that’s good enough to do actual geo-engineering, when in fact all they have is a computer program that happens to fit the (rather heavily massaged) data.

    That seems like a pretty lousy way to make very expensive public policy.

  3. Michael November 25, 2009 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    Scientists are human beings like anyone else and make mistakes. What bothers me is people not only playing with data so they can prove their models correct but the brick wall researchers run into when their work contradicts current models. The scientific community can be as dogmatic and stubborn as the Spanish Inquisition. Don’t upset the waters or you won’t get your tenure, grants etc. I convinced we won’t eliminate this problem until inpartial AIs begin to take the role of astronomer, biologist and so on.
    It’s been said that new scientific theories only become accepted until after most of the prominent scientists in that discipline begin to literally die off. The younger researchers aren’t as emotionally invested in the current models and are willing to give the “debunked” data a second look. Wade Frazier discusses the barriers Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers experienced from the supposedly impartial and empirical scientific community: From “”

    -In 1879, Edison was basking in fame. The year before, he had demonstrated the phonograph. He had more than 150 patents to his name, and was known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” Edison’s crew devoted most of 1879 to solving a problem that had defeated the world’s most prominent electrical engineers: electrical lighting. After testing thousands of materials for a filament that would work, and playing with vacuum and various resistances, Edison hit on a combination that worked, a high resistance filament in a vacuum. When the “Napoleon of Science” announced that he had successfully created a practical electrical lamp, how did the world of science react?

    England’s most distinguished electrical engineer, Sir William Siemens, who had tried solving the electrical lighting problem for ten years, greeted Edison’s announcement with, “Such startling announcements should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to its true progress.” Edison soon perfected his light and publicly demonstrated electrical lighting in Menlo Park, lighting the streets around his laboratory. The public came from miles away to see the night lit up by electrical lighting. Edison was demonstrating the “impossible” to the public. What was the reaction of science then?

    Professor Henry Morton lived near Menlo Park, and could not be bothered to stretch his legs to go see for himself. Morton instead wrote that he protested “in behalf of true science.” Morton wrote that Edison’s experiments were “a conspicuous failure, trumpeted as a wonderful success. A fraud upon the public.” Professor Du Moncel said, “One must have lost all recollection of American hoaxes to accept such claims. The Sorcerer of Menlo Park appears not to be acquainted with the subtleties of the electrical science. Mr. Edison takes us backwards.” Edwin Weston, an expert in arc lighting, said that Edison’s claims were “so manifestly absurd as to indicate a positive want of knowledge of the electric circuit and the principles governing the construction and operation of electrical machines.” While the public was strolling under the radiance of the electrical lighting in Menlo Park, Sir William Preece, who had studied under Faraday, and was the chief engineer of Britain’s Post Office, addressed the Royal Society in London, where he read a paper under the day’s murky gaslights. Preece said that Edison’s electric lamp was “a completely idiotic idea.”

    Edison was probably the world’s most famous scientist at the time, and he was publicly demonstrating something said to be “impossible.” Not one scientist could be bothered to go to Menlo Park and see it for themselves. Human feeble-mindedness also applies to scientists, in spades.

    If the world’s most famous scientist was treated that insanely, imagine how two obscure bicycle mechanics were received when they achieved the “impossible” – heavier-than-air flight. Perhaps the most amazing sight of the entire Industrial Revolution was human flight, which the Wright brothers accomplished in December of 1903. Similar to electrical lighting, heavier-than-air flight had frustrated science. A few weeks before the Wright brothers first flew, Simon Newcomb, the professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, published an article in The Independent that scientifically demonstrated that human-powered flight was “utterly impossible.” In 1902, the chief engineer of the Navy, Rear-Admiral George Melville, wrote in the North American Review that attempting to fly was “absurd.” Two months before the Wright brothers flew, Professor Samuel Langley tried flying a craft from a houseboat on the Potomac, and it plunged into the river. He tried it again nine days before the Wright Brothers flew, and his plane was destroyed.

    The Wright brothers did not listen to the “experts” and flew at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. They returned to their bicycle shop in Dayton Ohio, and continued refining their airplanes. They wrote to newspapers and politicians, inviting them to come see human-powered flight, and even sent out pictures of their planes in flight. They were ignored. It did not stop them from continuing to work on their airplanes. They practiced their flying in a field owned by a Dayton bank president, and regularly flew their planes. A rail line ran next to the field. During one flight in 1905, the Wright brothers were flying when a passenger train was rolling past the field. The general manager of the rail line and his chief engineer were on the train, and the manager ordered the train stopped. They and the passengers stared in wide-eyed amazement at the sight of a man flying through the air. Many of those dazed witnesses wrote to the Dayton Daily News, and asked why they were not reading about those men flying over “Huffman Prairie.”

    Not only did the newspapers not send a reporter out to look at such a sight, but letters from people who had seen the Wright brothers in flight were burying them, and the papers complained about the volume of letters they were receiving. Two highways also bordered the field. All the while, the Wright brothers were mailing invitations across the country to media and others to see them fly, an effort that was generally futile. The local newspapers could not be bothered to send even one reporter to check out the story that was happening nearly in sight of the newspaper offices. The managing editor of the Dayton Daily News once spoke with Orville Wright, who told him that he flew for about five minutes that day. The editor did not believe him, and no story ever ran. Maybe if they flew a plane into the newspaper building, somebody might have come out to investigate.

    In January 1906, more than two years after they first flew, science weighed in on the persistent reports that the Wright brothers were flying. Scientific American ran an article about the Wright brothers’ flights. They implied the Wright brothers were hoaxers, and cited the primary reason for not believing the reports:

    “If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well-known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face – even if he has to scale a fifteen-story skyscraper to do so – would not have ascertained all about them and published the broadcast long ago?”

    There it is, the myth of the vigilant, free press. The house organ of science stated its reason for not believing the Wright brothers and their claims of flight: because they had not read about it in the papers. It was not until September 1908, when President Roosevelt ordered tests at Fort Myer, Virginia, and the Wright brothers flew over the town for a week (after first flying over Paris, where they first found fame, because the French were far more receptive to the Wright brothers than Americans were), that the Wright brothers’ flights were accepted. It could be denied no longer. Science was finally forced to accept it.[31] Even then, the Smithsonian Institution, which helped fund Langley’s failed experiments, clouded the issue for generations, trying to deny the Wright Brothers their rightful place as the fathers of powered flight.

  4. Ed in Calgary November 27, 2009 at 8:31 am - Reply

    As with Michael, the non-scientific methodologies of theorems and proofs of climatologists puts serious doubt into their research. And as he has shown, those who are true scientists are transparent and unflappable to criticism. The same cannot be said of any climatologist I’ve ever met.

    I was under the impression from a scientific perspective (as an amateur astronomer – a ‘voluntary and unpaid scientist of the sky’), that when ever we developed a theory, it was our purpose to try our best to disprove it. For example, I would have an idea about the strange patterns of a particular pulsar we often observe and I would let the RASC group tear it apart. So far, I’m not right, but the scientific methodology of having a theory, and then trying to disprove it, well, that’s how it’s suppose to be done. Transparency and scientific methodologies are also hand in hand. We’re not suppose to mind having our ideas out there. It also supports collaboration from different fields. Back to my pulsar theory, what if in the same room, someone who specializes in harmonics research as an engineer is there and supports my theory because he’s able to correlate another theory he has about another similar element he’s studying and modify my theory for his own purposes? That is how this is ‘suppose’ to work.

    Here is my perspective on this ‘pseudo-science’: Climate science is a bad science for three reasons:
    1. Meteorology is a new science – newer than even nuclear (where you can go to school and become a professional.
    2. Climate science (the way most practice it) is highly open to criticism for their lack of proper scientific methodologies. They are their own worst enemy.
    3. They lack transparency and act like bullies. A true scientist would be a) open to criticism, and b) having his/her theories and ideas out there like low-hanging fruit on an tree. They don’t and they all seem hungry for nothing more than research money – but what scientist isn’t? Most scientists I meet however, are not hiding their data or ideas like a Wall Street banker.

    It is for those three reasons I am unfortunately, highly sceptical of any climate change science.

  5. Robert November 28, 2009 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Very well written article. I think those of us advancing nanotechnology need to be very mindful of things like climategate and genetically modified foods. Hide nothing. You are so right on the open-source model that is required. It just takes courage and conviction to stay with it.

  6. Al Fin November 29, 2009 at 8:14 am - Reply

    And then there’s always the question of whether Phil Jones’ and Michael Mann’s evasion of the FOIA broke any laws. Should they be prosecuted?

    Robin Hanson’s cute little quip is quite wrong. It is unlikely that most people — whether academics or not — realised just how woeful was the state of climate “science” in the early 21st century. Finding out how bad things are could very well change one’s opinion on climate change catastrophe.

    Make no mistake: it is the catastrophic claims that drive media coverage and drive Barack Obama’s lemming march to Copenhagen’s global energy starvation.

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