Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Should Scientists Be Sued?

Here is a thought exercise:

Dr. Gassious T. Jones, head of Titanic Drug Company, writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that says, "Widgetex improves 100% of colds within 24 hours." 

The same day the op-ed appears, Dr. Jones writes a private email to a colleague that says, "Widgetex isn't curing colds. It is a travesty." 

A year later, the private email becomes public. What do you think would occur next?

I think we know what would happen: There would be a blizzard of articles condemning drug company greed and a race to the courthouse to file class action lawsuits where lawyers get millions and the 'victims' get coupons for 25¢ discounts.

Of course, this really happened in climate science. As revealed in the first release of "Climategate" emails, a Colorado scientist wrote an article for a local publication that said global warming was "incontrovertible" while privately writing -- the same week -- "we can't account for the lack of warming...and it is a travesty that we cannot."

In Climategate, of course, the media came to the scientist's aid with "the science is sound" articles. The climate scientist is still gainfully employed and, last week, wrote a pro-global warming op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Why do I bring this up?

Meteorologist and statistician Matt Briggs has a thought-provoking article over at his blog asking, "Should Scientists Be Held Legally Responsible for Their Results?" Before you form an opinion, please go over there and read both his posting and the comments. I think you'll find both are excellent.

My thoughts: If we are talking about results (as opposed to predictions, theories, hypothesis, forecasts) then the answer should probably be "yes" if there is fraud involved. In other words, there should be penalties for  publishing or promoting test results known to be false, especially if taxpayer dollars are involved.

But, science cannot progress if hypothesis or forecasts are held to a legal standard of accuracy.

Right now, science cannot forecast earthquakes. We know it would be a tremendous good if earthquakes could be forecast -- thousands of lives could be saved and millions of property loss averted. But, if the first tentative forecasts were snuffed out by lawsuits due to inaccuracy, we'll never have earthquake forecasts. Science progresses through trial and error.

Those are my thoughts. Go over to Matt's blog and see what you think.

And, to see how this might work in real life, there is an major investigation due to flooding in Australia when a dam was allegedly not properly managed during a forecast of heavy rain. Roger Pielke, Jr. has more info over at his blog.

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