Re: [asa] ESA: Wilkins Ice Shelf under threat

From: Lynn Walker <lynn.wlkr@gmail.com>
Date: Wed Dec 03 2008 - 03:46:24 EST

On Wed, Dec 3, 2008 at 2:11 AM, Murray Hogg <muzhogg@netspace.net.au> wrote:

> Hi Lyn,
> *...I'll only add - in reiteration both of a point Rich Bline made in a
> previous post on this thread and which follows from my second paragraph
> above: to quote the media in response to credible scientific agencies is
> hardly convincing, ..*

You know, you're right. Please allow me to quote Dr. Higgs regarding just
who is, and who is not qualified to speak on various scientific and economic
matters:*

Peer Review, Publication in Top Journals, Scientific Consensus, and So Forth

*http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1963
Robert Higgs

*Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent
Institute and Editor of the Institute?s quarterly journal The Independent
Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University,
and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College,
Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a
visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow
for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the
author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

*In following the discussion of global warming and related issues in the
press and the blogosphere, I have been struck repeatedly by the assumption
or expression of certain beliefs that strike me as highly problematical.
Many writers who are not scientists themselves are trading on the prestige
of science and the authority of scientists.

Reference to "peer-reviewed research" and to an alleged "scientific
consensus" are regarded as veritable knock-out blows by many commentators.

Yet many of those who make such references appear to me to be more or less
ignorant of how science as a form of knowledge-seeking and scientists as
individual professionals operate, especially nowadays, when national
governments most notably the U.S. government play such an overwhelming role
in financing scientific research and hence in determining which scientists
rise to the top and which fall by the wayside.

I do not pretend to have expertise in climatology or any of the related
physical sciences, so nothing I might say about strictly climatological or
related physical-scientific matters deserves any weight.

However, I have thirty-nine years of professional experience twenty-six as a
university professor, including fifteen at a major research university, and
then thirteen as a researcher, writer, and editor in close contact with
scientists of various sorts, including some in the biological and physical
sciences and many in the social sciences and demography.

I have served as a peer reviewer for more than thirty professional journals
and as a reviewer of research proposals for the National Science Foundation,
the National Institutes of Health, and a number of large private
foundations. I was the principal investigator of a major NSF-funded research
project in the field of demography. So, I think I know something about how
the system works.

It does not work as outsiders seem to think.

Peer review, on which lay people place great weight, varies from being an
important control, where the editors and the referees are competent and
responsible, to being a complete farce, where they are not.

As a rule, not surprisingly, the process operates somewhere in the middle,
being more than a joke but less than the nearly flawless system of Olympian
scrutiny that outsiders imagine it to be.

Any journal editor who desires, for whatever reason, to reject a submission
can easily do so by choosing referees he knows full well will knock it down;
likewise, he can easily obtain favorable referee reports.

As I have always counseled young people whose work was rejected, seemingly
on improper or insufficient grounds, the system is a crap shoot. Personal
vendettas, ideological conflicts, professional jealousies, methodological
disagreements, sheer self-promotion, and a great deal of plain incompetence
and irresponsibility are no strangers to the scientific world; indeed, that
world is rife with these all-too-human attributes.

In no event can peer review ensure that research is correct in its
procedures or its conclusions. The history of every science is a chronicle
of one mistake after another. In some sciences these mistakes are largely
weeded out in the course of time; in others they persist for extended
periods; and in some sciences, such as economics, actual scientific
retrogression may continue for generations under the misguided (but
self-serving) belief that it is really progress.

At any given time, consensus may exist about all sorts of matters in a
particular science. In retrospect, however, that consensus is often seen to
have been mistaken.

As recently as the mid-1970s, for example, a scientific consensus existed
among climatologists and scientists in related fields that the earth was
about to enter a new ice age. Drastic proposals were made, such as exploding
hydrogen bombs over the polar icecaps (to melt them) or damming the Bering
Strait (to prevent cold Arctic water from entering the Pacific Ocean), to
avert this impending disaster.

Well-reputed scientists, not just uninformed wackos, made such proposals.
How quickly we forget.

Researchers who employ unorthodox methods or theoretical frameworks have
great difficulty under modern conditions in getting their findings published
in the "best" journals or, at times, in any scientific journal. Scientific
innovators or creative eccentrics always strike the great mass of
practitioners as nut cases until their findings become impossible to deny,
which often occurs only after one generation's professional ring-masters
have died off. Science is an odd undertaking: everybody strives to make the
next breakthrough, yet when someone does, he is often greeted as if he were
carrying the ebola virus.

Too many people have too much invested in the reigning ideas; for those
people an acknowledgment of their own idea's bankruptcy is tantamount to an
admission that they have wasted their lives. Often, perhaps to avoid
cognitive dissonance, they never admit that their ideas were wrong.

Most important, as a rule, in science as elsewhere, to get along, you must
go along.

Research worlds, in their upper reaches, are pretty small. Leading
researchers know all the major players and what everybody else is doing.
They attend the same conferences, belong to the same societies, send their
grad students to be postdocs in the other people?s labs, review one
another's work for the NSF, NIH, or other government funding organizations,
and so forth.

If you do not belong to this tight fraternity, it will prove very, very
difficult for you to gain a hearing for your work, to publish in a "top"
journal, to acquire a government grant, to receive an invitation to
participate in a scientific-conference panel discussion, or to place your
grad students in decent positions.

The whole setup is tremendously incestuous; the interconnections are
numerous, tight, and close.

In this context, a bright young person needs to display cleverness in
applying the prevailing orthodoxy, but it behooves him not to rock the boat
by challenging anything fundamental or dear to the hearts of those who
constitute the review committees for the NSF, NIH, and other funding
organizations.

Modern biological and physical science is, overwhelmingly, government-funded
science.

If your work, for whatever reason, does not appeal to the relevant funding
agency's bureaucrats and academic review committees, you can forget about
getting any money to carry out your proposal.

Recall the human frailties I mentioned previously; they apply just as much
in the funding context as in the publication context. Indeed, these two
contexts are themselves tightly linked: if you don't get funding, you'll
never produce publishable work, and if you don't land good publications, you
won't continue to receive funding.

When your research implies a "need" for drastic government action to avert a
looming disaster or to allay some dire existing problem, government
bureaucrats and legislators (can you say "earmarks"?) are more likely to
approve it.

If the managers at the NSF, NIH, and other government funding agencies gave
great amounts of money to scientists whose research implies that no disaster
looms or no dire problem now exists or even that although a problem exists,
no currently feasible government policy can do anything to solve it without
creating greater problems in the process, members of Congress would be much
less inclined to throw money at the agency, with all the consequences that
an appropriations cutback implies for bureaucratic thriving.

No one has to explain all these things to the parties involved; they are not
idiots, and they understand how the wheels are greased in their tight little
worlds.

*Finally, we need to develop a much keener sense of what a scientist is
qualified to talk about and what he is not qualified to talk about.

*Climatologists, for example, are qualified to talk about the science of
climatology (though subject to all the intrusions upon pure science I have
already mentioned). They are not qualified to say, however, that "we must
act now" by imposing government "solutions" of some imagined sort.

They are not professionally knowledgeable about what degree of risk is
better or worse for people to take; only the individuals who bear the risk
can make that decision, because it's a matter of personal preference, not a
matter of science.

Climatologists know nothing about cost/benefit considerations; indeed, most
mainstream economists themselves are fundamentally misguided about such
matters (adopting, for example, procedures and assumptions about the
aggregation of individual valuations that lack a sound scientific basis).

Climate scientists are the best qualified people to talk about climate
science, but they have no qualifications to talk about public policy, law,
or individual values, rates of time preference, and degrees of risk
aversion.

In talking about desirable government action, they give the impression that
they are either fools or charlatans, but they keep talking worst of all,
talking to* doomsday-seeking journalists* nevertheless.

In this connection, we might well bear in mind that the United Nations (and
its committees and the bureaus it oversees) is no more a scientifc
organization than the U.S. Congress (and its committees and the bureaus it
oversees).

When decisions and pronouncements come forth from these political
organizations, it makes sense to treat them as essentially political in
origin and purpose.

Politicians aren't dumb, either vicious, yes, but not dumb. One thing they
know above everything else is how to stampede masses of people into
approving or accepting ill-advised government actions that cost the people
dearly in both their standard of living and their liberties in the long run.

Lynn

To unsubscribe, send a message to majordomo@calvin.edu with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Wed Dec 3 03:46:59 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Wed Dec 03 2008 - 03:46:59 EST