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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