Friday, April 2, 2010

The research climate

Well, we regularly post on the uncertainties in science and the way these are cherry-picked to serve various vested interest, and are debated for that as well as legitimate reasons to determine what in the heck the actual evidence shows--if anything.

Many of our recent posts deal with this problem, indeed it's a major theme of this blog. This week it was the debate about whether mammograms before age 50 are worth doing or not. And the New York Times had a pot-stirring article that said that most meteorologists disagree with climatologists and geoscientists about climate change. A majority of meteorologists say the evidence doesn't support climate change, much less human-generated climate change. This directly challenges the prevailing climate change view of the primary sciences.

Now I, a former meteorologist, hate to criticize my erstwhile colleagues, but the meteorologists in question are largely television personalities not highly up to date on the actual science (even of meteorology, perhaps, but certainly not geosciences generally). They serve a TV audience, a short-term worldview (will it rain on Friday when I want to play golf?) rather than long term. The NYT story says there may be some resentment by the camera personalities of the status of university scientists, too.

Meanwhile, yesterday the UK also cleared Dr Jones, the person whose hacked emails led to the Climategate accusations that he had covered up information, of doing anything wrong except perhaps not being very forthcoming to critics wanting easy access to data. Penn State has done something similar in regard to its climate person who had also been accused of such offenses. That will cause a sigh of relief among those who saw this as a Luddite distraction from urgent problems facing humankind. The weathercaster survey will be just another such challenge.

Again and again, these things are difficult to decide, or there's room for the 'anti' crowd, because the facts are complex, observations largely indirect or inferred from the deep past and projected using theory into the deep future. Science can't be blamed for not having precise understanding of things that we don't yet know how to understand. And while we should be credited for evaluating strong evidence (as seems to be the case of climate change), we should learn when to temper our confidence (or our bragging and lobbying for funds) when the facts are less certain or clear.

That's hard to do when the research climate, indeed the climate of our whole culture these days, is to brag, boast, and lobby. Simple glib promises and hyperbole are rewarded, and we train our students to promote themselves this way.

For our blog, the issue is both the embeddedness nature of science within our culture, as well as the direct scientific challenge of trying to understand the universe we live in, when theology doesn't provide the answers.


Holly Dunsworth said...


Anonymous said...

as a final year undergraduate, i do get a sense of the need "to brag, boast and lobby" any findings.

it's not right. brickbats and critisism just because of an opposing viewpoint or findings just goes against science.

and this goes to both warmers and skeptics.