Re: [asa] Ottawa Citizen: The Skeptics Are Vindicated

From: Schwarzwald <>
Date: Wed Nov 25 2009 - 19:52:22 EST


I don't care that scientists themselves know that their field can be "all
too human", so to speak - filled with personal vendettas, pushing of
policies, maligning of rivals, manipulation of this precious "peer-review
process", etc, etc. Just as I don't care that politicians themselves are
well aware of their own faults - the cynical polling, the misrepresentation,
the spin-doctoring, etc.

I care that the people they are trying to influence know. And scientists,
just like politicians, invest and have invested quite a lot of effort into
convincing people that what they do (either personally, or in a larger
institutional sense) are much purer than they really are. Indeed, the two
groups seem to be more and more wound up in modern times - and I find it
telling that the various past "policy" science disasters (Lysenkoism,
eugenics, etc) never seem to impart the lesson that entangling science with
government and policy is a bad idea. Indeed, no amount of disasters in any
field ever seems sufficient to teach that lesson to any group. Save for,
perhaps, the amish.

Nor do I think 'knowing the science' always requires becoming a scientist,
or joining 'the fraternity of rogues'. Another discussion, that, but I think
there are broader options available. Nor do I think stressing what you may
call the "human aspect" of science (the imperfections, the personalities,
the rivalries) as a pointless endeavor, as if no one - indeed, probably a
sizable amount of people in general - often give them too much credence, or
fail to subject their views to much criticism. It is, I think, a lesson that
bears repeating. Indeed, I think even some scientists seem to forget this
here and there.

Either way, you don't want criticism - and I really don't think I'm going
overboard here in offering some - but I'll say again. The way I'm reading
you here, it seems like you're saying all the controversy related to these
leaked emails is much ado about nothing, on the grounds that certainly
scientists realize how human they can be. Which seems rather like saying
that, for example.. the Enron Scandal was practically a non-story, because
surely people realize that executives and businessmen can be corrupt.

I want to bow out of this as I feel like I'm starting to chase my tail
> somewhat, but let me just offer the following observations:
> First, my response was not "it happens" - it was, "I always knew it
> happens" - the first indicates indifference, the second familiarity. Here
> let me say that part of the reason I don't bother responding to many of the
> criticisms of evolutionists, climatologists, etc, which float around is
> precisely because they are largely correct. So what do you want me to argue
> with?
> BUT, second point - the other reason I let such objections slide is because
> they are - in respects of the ultimate goal of science - largely irrelevant.
> The fact is that science - as it is actually practised - is a
> self-correcting pursuit predicated on the assumption of human fallibility.
> This self-correction can take decades, of course, but like the separation of
> powers in US democracy it is inherent in the entire process.
> Sure peer-review is often inadequate, sure consensus science is
> questionable, sure scientists get it wrong (more often than they get it
> right, in fact) - but do you really think that scientists themselves are
> ignorant of this? You say we should regard them with skepticism, question
> their motives, and disagree with their findings - but what, pray tell, do
> you think scientists spend most of their time doing to one another?
> The big difference between scientists and their critics is NOT that
> scientists lack critical skills - it's that their critics generally lack an
> education in science.
> So it's not the fact of criticism per see that I ever object to - it's
> misdirected criticism. And as long as the debate centres on the integrity of
> scientists, as long as it serves merely to point out the human nature of the
> pursuit, then I will neither argue with the observation nor feign surprise
> as the observations are, I think, quite correct - but at the same time
> somewhat trivial and largely irrelevant.
> If anybody wants to make a constructive criticism, then they should go back
> to the data and ask: "what does this tell me?" - but, unfortunately, that
> requires actually knowing the science, which means actually becoming a
> scientist oneself, which means joining the very same fraternity of rogues
> which one claims lacks any credibility to pronounce on the issues at hand.
> I think I'll leave off here as I've said my piece and, as I said, I'm
> starting to feel like I'm chasing my tail - I'm happy to field requests for
> clarification on my position, but responding to critical remarks? Not so
> much.
> Blessings,
> Murray
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Received on Wed Nov 25 19:52:56 2009

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