When good scientists go bad.

Though it’s a bit of old news now (‘old news’ in this day and age meaning older than one 24 hour news cycle) the scandal that has come to be known as ‘Climategate’ continues to reveal the depth of the corruption in climate research.

Though there are a number of aspects that could be commented on (the media and leaders ignoring the story, the legitimacy of gaining information through hacking, etc.) I think what is most telling as the whole event unfolds is the degree to which scientific endeavors are corruptible by human nature. Science, which is understood by the materialist to be the be all and end all of human knowledge, is held up as ultimately reliable because it is based on testable observations, rigorously reviewed by knowledgeable peers, who have no interest in a particular result.

Of course that is the ideal; in reality science is conducted by human beings, and if there is one certain universal truth about human endeavors, it is Lord Acton’s axiom, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. That truth is a cornerstone of American political philosophy, but it is a concern in any human institution – economic, religious, and yes, even the scientific sort.

In the case of the climate research going on at University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, whose work was central to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) purposes, hacked e-mails reveal that power and politics did indeed do the work of corrupting reason and research. And it isn’t just the occasional remark which indicates how the research was manipulated; lengthy chronicles of the manipulation of data are now available that show how little of the research was based on robust, consistent data, but instead was massaged, directed, and contradictory data was ignored.

And to add to this travesty of ‘science’ is the revelation that the original data upon which the studies were based has all been lost, keeping others from effectively examining the research.

But most of this is little surprise when one realizes that climate research has become big business and big politics – governments make international treaties based on this research, politicians and celebrities make movies and win awards by advancing the claims, and those who give knowledge gain a prestige that is hard to come by in the course of ordinary academic investigation. Power and fame are the most addictive intoxicants known, and being a scientist does not make one immune to their effects.

The reality is that science is best when it limits itself to readily observable phenomena, providing explanations and solutions for those events which can be reproduced in controlled circumstances, researched by multiple independent observers, whom are free to express dissent and skepticism of the ever changing consensus.

Science is at its worst when it strays outside of this pervue into politics and metaphysics, where it’s pronouncements are based on vague and unique data sets, susceptible to interpretation based on the bias of the researcher, which take the form of unassailable dogma. This sort of ‘science’ mocks dissenters and skeptics, insists on adherence to a consensus, and resists contrary explanations in an attempt to hold onto power and reputation. In short science that has given way to all too human inclinations. Such tendencies are common to all human institutions, but science has all too often held itself up as a special form of knowledge which is immune to human nature, when it is in fact only one of a number of forms of human knowledge, limited to certain uses, but impotent beyond that.

Understanding and acknowledging these limitations is critical not only to good science, but to good policy and a good society. Lord Acton added to his common dictum these less well known thoughts:
Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Our society would do well to remove science and scientists from the pedestal of authority they now enjoy, if for nothing else, to save science itself.


3 Responses to When good scientists go bad.

  1. bZirk says:

    Okay, this is off-topic, but I’m glad to see you’re posting again! Yea!

    I’m in fangurl mode today, so lucky you are the recipient. 😀


    Concerning Climategate, whatever happened to the U.S. press? They have started to run a chill up my back with their deafening silence — until they have no choice but to spin it. Yeah, that’s another blog.

    OT again: have you ever heard of a speaker named Bill Jack? You might like him — especially how he addresses illegitimate authority. He’s primarily a speaker for high school students. I’ve taken my kids to hear him on several occasions, and they’ve also gone to Worldview Academy of which he’s a part. Good stuff.

  2. jackhudson says:

    Hi! Goood to hear from you – I miss regularly reading your wise postings.

    Yeah, I am surprised at the extreme silence on the issue (ok, not too surprised); some have used the excuse that they don’t want to use a source that is from hacked e-mails – of course, the source of information didn’t seem to bother the NYT’s when it was destroying some of our critical intelligence gathering programs. Apparently some sources are more equal than others 🙂

    I hadn’t heard of Bill Jack, though someone else mentioned Worldview Academy to me recently – I will have to look him up, since he comes recommended from such a trustworthy source.

  3. […] [1 December 2009 22:17 GMT]: Another WordPress blogger has written an article with the same title. It’s worth reading. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)When good scientists go […]

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