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How science works

One of the problems with building a demand for political action on science is that it tends to get in the way of the proper conduct of science. Correcting mistakes becomes difficult, if not impossible, because there are too many political vested interests involved.

It's nice then to be reminded of how things are meant to be, with this heartening story of an eminent mathematician who thought he had found something amazing, started writing a book about it and then let on in a discussion on Google+ about what he was working on. This led to some engagement with other interested mathematicians and shortly afterwards him posting the following remarks:

You are quite right, and my original response was wrong. Thank you for spotting my error.

I withdraw my claim.

At which point everybody shrugged their shoulders and moved on.

If only it were like that in climate science.

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Reader Comments (12)

The mathematician in question wasn't sweating on millions of dollars of extra government funding.

Being proved wrong improves your understanding of the subject, and even of your own limitations, which is anathema in the narcissistic and dollar-driven world of climate science.

Oct 4, 2011 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Both clever and wise.

I've never made a mistake (I couldn't blame on someone else).

Oct 4, 2011 at 3:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Reed

Dipping into this conversation, it is obvious that these people are academics of the highest quality. It seems a million miles from the technical ignorance and methodological failings regularly on display from the great men of climate science.

Oct 4, 2011 at 4:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Hallam


Is your claim that funding in mathematics is less competitive than in climate science (I know it is cheaper, but is funding as just as hard to come by)? Are climate scientists paid more? Are you saying that it is the personal money made by the likes of Hansen that has corrupted the whole field?

Otherwise there is surely just as great a pressure to be seen as correct in mathematics as in climate science?

Look at this letter from UK mathematicians to the British Government:

They point out that priorities for mathematical research have been set by government bureaucrats without consulting many (any?) mathematicians. The bureaucrats believe that their priorities will help British business.

The mathematicians believe they are arbitrary and destructive, missing subtle unforeseen payoffs from less fashionable lines of research.

There are a few possible responses.

On the related comment thread, Jon Jermey wrote:

Since it is the taxpayers' money, I don't see anything seriously wrong with the taxpayers' elected representatives deciding how it should be spent; with, of course, the usual conditions that the process should be made public, and poor performers should be subject to removal at the next election.

and Don Pablo de la Sierra wrote:

Why not just stop spending any public money on research? Why is it government's job to pay for research? Almost all of what has paid off comes from venture capitalists or large corporations.

Myself, I am open to the possibility of very different ways of funding research, or stopping government funding. But I think that so long as we have government funding then it will be most productive to let scientists rather than bureaucrats make decisions. Compared to what came before I think that current moves to take decisions out of the hands of scientists, transferring them to politicians and civil servants in the name of 'tax payer accountability' are a step backwards.

As I have said before here, I think that demanding scientists are accountable to the taxpayer will select for scientists who can write grants which tick boxes set by bureaucrats. I fear that demanding more accountability from scientists because scientists are 'narcissistic and dollar-driven' will become a self-fufilling prophecy.

If we have government funding then a good chunk of it should be distributed on 'pure' scientific interest. You will select for better scientists.

Oct 4, 2011 at 4:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterJK

The thread is titled "How Science Works", but feast your eyes on how the media works.

The Daily Mail had an article all ready to go on line & guess what? Someone pressed the wrong button & the story ended up on line.

Apart from the caption "media scum" under one photo, there are also the quotes the Daily Mail must have made up.

Prosecutors were delighted with the verdict and said “Justice has been done” although they said on a “human factor it was sad two young people would be spending years in jail.“

Oct 4, 2011 at 4:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterPerry

But us mathists are only interested in the logical truth of a statement ;-)
There's nothing that happened there that wouldn't have anyway, but it can take place much more quickly now. The only thing I find surprising is that Ed Nelson began writing a book before, at minimum, presenting at a conference, as Andrew Wiles did with his proof of Fermat's Last before he had all the details. Ed could easily have been left with much egg on face if he had published.

Oct 4, 2011 at 6:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterView from the Solent

A similar exchange occurred a couple of years ago in connection with a supposed proof of the Riemann Hypothesis discussed at CA here .

Oct 4, 2011 at 7:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve McIntyre

A recent edition of Rado 4's "Material World" briefly discussed the recent claims from the large hadron collider about neutrinos which seemed to have exceeded the speed of light. A scientist from (I assume) the relevant field said that the data would be released so that, over the coming months, scientists could, among other things, see if they could find a different explanation for the results which the original team of scientists had recorded. This, he told us, was the way science is conducted. The presenter invited two previous contributors to comment and everybody enthusiastically agreed that this was, indeed, how science was done. I don't know if "Material World" has ever explicitly described climate science as "settled", but there is no doubt that the programme treats the climate "consensus" as sacrosanct.

Amazing double standards. I have no complaint with what the scientists said on this occasion, provided they genuinely adhere to these practices in their professional lives, but the BBC is presumably expecting the LHC, in due course, to provide a feasibility case study for the simultaneous possession and ingestion of cake, by the same organism.

Oct 4, 2011 at 8:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

Yes but does Andrew Montford ever admit it when he's wrong? If I ask him an awkward question he just ignores it. Recently I asked if he had pondered the ethics of looking at hacked emails - his response was to make a false accusation of corruption. Perhaps he could start by withdrawing every false accusation he has made.

Oct 5, 2011 at 1:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterHengist McStone

This post was heartening. I am a now retired editor of a scientific journal, and remember to this day a referee advising me along the lines of: "I recommend rejection of this paper for the following reasons [serious analysis followed]. These are the same kinds of faults that led you to reject my submission [file No/date etc]. I have never attempted to publish that paper elsewhere. Thank you and the reviewers for saving me from a colossal embarrassment.

That's the way science should, and usually does, work.

Oct 6, 2011 at 2:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicodemus

This post was heartening. I am a now retired editor of a scientific journal, and remember to this day a referee advising me along the lines of: "I recommend rejection of this paper for the following reasons [serious analysis followed]. These are the same kinds of faults that led you to reject my submission [file No/date etc]. I have never attempted to publish that paper elsewhere. Thank you and the reviewers for saving me from a colossal embarrassment.

That's the way science should, and usually does, work.

Oct 6, 2011 at 2:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicodemus

youtube transcript

Philosophy of Science Dr Terence Kealey University of Buckingham Speech to the Third International Energy and Climate Conference Berlin 2010

I do want to say one thing about peer-review and one brief thing about science. I met Woolfgang at a couple of conferences earlier this year and he asked me to come and speak about the philosophy of science so I would just like to tell if I may one brief story. In the nineteenth century in England there was a real debate over the age of the Earth. One group of geologists has studied the rate of sedimentation of the rocks and had concluded that the Earth had to be hundreds of millions of years old. Another group of geologists measured the temperature of the volcanoes and the rate of cooling of the globe and concluded that the Earth could not be more than five million years old, because it would have cooled otherwise.

So here two groups of first class scientists both of whom are apparently right. Of course sedimentary rocks show that the Earth is hundreds of millions of years old - and they were right. And of course the temperature of the Earth and the rate of cooling meant that the Earth could not be more than five million years old - and they were right.

So how did these two groups of scientists deal with the dilemma? Did they say to themselves Professor Poper says if you are falsified you are wrong and you must change your course or did they say Professor Poper is not yet born and therefore we are sticking to our story and we’re ignoring falsification?

The dilemma of science is that all great scientists ignore falsification. It is almost a definition of greatness that you ignore what others say. You stick to your suspicions and beliefs and you seek to prove what you secretly know, in advance, to be true. That is actually the nature of science and it has to be the nature of science, because there are too many observations out there. You have to select your observations. You have to select your theory and then you spend your life trying to prove it. Which is why they say science advances funeral by funeral, because no one ever changes their mind.

In the end, as we know the dilemma about the age of the universe and the globe was sorted out by radio activity. The centre of the world is radio active and it releases radio activity, and radio activity releases heat and so the world, as we know is four billion years old.

But the point I wanted to make was climate change scientists are all post-normal, because all scientists have always been post-normal. All scientists always grab a hypothesis and seek to prove it. And peer-review is merely a group of people within the same club all of whom share certain pre-assumptions and therefore peer-review can often be very deceptive.

We didn’t smash Climategate through peer-review we smashed Climategate by people using freedom of information and through breaking in to peoples websites. [applaus]

And so to finish scientists are advocates, they are not judges. Scientists do not seek to say this is right and this is wrong, based on the evidence before me. That’s what judges do. What scientists do is they are advocates. They say I believe this to be true this is the case and I will do every thing I can prove it. And anyone who reads a scientific paper and doesn’t understand that scientists are only advocates and it can take twenty years or thirty years before we really know what they truth is after everyone has died does not understand the process of science.

Oct 12, 2011 at 1:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterFay Kelly-Tuncay

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