25 January 2010

Tarnishing Science

The credibility of science, in the eyes of the public, has taken a beating lately.  This is, of course, "thanks" to some climate scientists, as unfortunately evidenced by some recent revelations:
It is slightly odd to see scientific conclusions being made, or being given greater credit and authority, by a panel formed in the United Nations, a political organization.  That scientists are human and are susceptible to ordinary persuasions like power, prestige, or money, isn't news.

Maybe some of the climate scientists were so affected, or maybe not.  The truth in this particular case is hard to discern from such distance, so for me, that is better left to conspiracy writers, investigative journalists, and other interested parties.

What troubles me most is the impact these highly publicized incidents, with huge financial consequences for many countries, companies, and people, have on the image and credibility of science as the human endeavour to discern the objective truth [1].

It's concerning when I hear people mock or ridicule climate science research as "climate science" rather than as a "climate pseudo-science".  It's concerning because it suggests, to those who don't spend time looking carefully [2] at the situation, that it's not just climate science that has problems, it's that science — all of it — has problems.

To clarify, my research interests are in computing science and has nothing to do with climate research, so I'd rather admit to having no idea whether the basic climate science research is sound or not.  What's at stake, though, is the credibility of all science, not just climate science.  The recent revelations of actual, or of the appearance of, research impropriety is just one more layer of tarnish on the dignity of science.

It does seem like there's been more layers of tarnish lately, and that there is a need to reinforce the credibility of science.

[1] Using the word "objective" in a broad and non-pathological way here so we don't, for now, have to dwell on the philosophy of it.

[2] Thought experiment: If the primary audience for the scientists' work "are not very discerning" (cf, "How to do what you love"), and if there's plenty of prestige available to be had by the scientists, what impact would this have on their research, if any?

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