An Interesting Juxtaposition of Science and Bullheadedness

A SIMPLE idea underpins science: “trust, but verify”. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment. That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since its birth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better.
But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.
Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis (see article). A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, a drug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk.
.--- The Economist, yesterday

There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published.
                          – Brian Nosek, as quoted by the Economist.

There is a huge premium placed on papers published in Science, Nature, PNAS in academic evaluation (promotion, tenure, salary).  Publication in these journals focus on novelty and relevance.  In the geosciences, there seems to be a disproportionately large number of papers from the planetary sciences (mostly discovery based exploration) and also paleoclimate and analysis of climate model projections, particularly the impacts of projected future climate (relevance to the public debate on climate change).  There are many paleoclimate papers published in these papers that include dubious statistical methods and great leaps of  logic.  The papers analyzing climate model projections tell us nothing about how nature works, at best only about how the models work.   If the paleoclimate research involves the geochemical analysis of proxy data, well that is hard work.  However, if the papers are merely statistical analyses of proxy data sets or analyses of of the outputs of climate model production runs, well these papers can be knocked off without much effort.
My point is that ambitious young climate scientists are inadvertently being steered in the direction of analyzing climate model simulations, and particularly projections of future climate change impacts  – lots of funding in this area, in addition to high likelihood of publication in a high impact journal, and a guarantee of media attention.  And the true meaning of this research in terms of our actual understanding of nature rests on the adequacy and fitness for purpose of these climate models.
And why do these scientists think climate models are fit for these purposes?  Why, the IPCC has told them so, with very high confidence.  The manufactured consensus of the IPCC has arguably set our true understanding of the climate system back at least a decade, in my judgment.
--- Dr. Judith Curry, Climate Scientist, commenting on the "Economist" article

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

                         --- President Dwight Eisenhower's Farewell Address, 1961

There have been many forecasts in the news in recent years predicting more and more extreme weather-related events in the US, but for 2013 that prediction has been way off the mark. Whether you’re talking about tornadoes, wildfires, extreme heat or hurricanes, the good news is that weather-related disasters in the US are all way down this year compared to recent years and, in some cases, down to historically low levels.
--- More here

Before going into some detail about why these letters don't make it into our pages, I'll concede that, aside from my easily passing the Advanced Placement biology exam in high school, my science credentials are lacking. I'm no expert when it comes to our planet's complex climate processes or any scientific field. Consequently, when deciding which letters should run among hundreds on such weighty matters as climate change, I must rely on the experts -- in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review.
And those scientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- a body made up of the world's top climate scientists -- said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn't whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.
--- Los Angeles Times' "Letters to the Editor" editor explaining why he will not print letters from skeptics


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