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« Pulled | Main | You get what you pay for - Josh 230 »

Kelly on unbridled enthusiasm

Mike Kelly has a letter in Nature this week:

With more than US$1 trillion spent globally on research and development in 2007 (see, sheer scale seems to be corrupting the scientific enterprise as individuals take ever more extreme measures to stand out.

For instance, parliamentary reviews of the 2009 'Climategate' scandal at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, reported evidence of scientific misconduct (see The allegations included questionable journal refereeing to promote a particular scientific line (see also Nature; 2010). Instead, journals should be supported as places where unsettled science is refined by open debate. But, compared with 30 years ago, they do seem less willing to publish negative results or cautionary reviews that temper unbridled enthusiasm — perhaps because of ratings wars.

In another example, a May 2011 article in Times Higher Education reported on the cover-up of data that would otherwise have prevented a cancer drug from entering phase III clinical trials, raising and dashing patients' hopes and putting lives at risk on a false premise.

There is also a tendency to issue breathless press releases to accompany publication of even modest advances, and for entries in the 'future impact' section of grant application forms to be loaded with ludicrous hyperbole.

It is any wonder that trust in scientists is starting to decline (see

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Reader Comments (30)

I'm amazed that "Nature" published this letter.
Maybe a sign of the times....

Jul 24, 2013 at 9:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

...But, compared with 30 years ago, they do seem less willing ...

He was reading the New Scientist 30 years ago? Ah, a cranky old fogey! Never mind about him - he'll soon be retired....

Jul 24, 2013 at 9:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

"It is any wonder that trust in scientists is starting to decline ..."

It's not quite that. The survey(s) cited sampled readers of "Nature" and equiavlent journals. So, given the typical readership, the results actually point to a fall in trust of scientists expressly AMONG scientists. That's really alarming. Scientific publishing is in a critical state because really huge sums of money can be made from a successful journal. Hence the competition to say something interesting and the obsession with "impact". Hence, the manifest corruption of what used to be a fairly reliable system.

Jul 24, 2013 at 9:45 AM | Unregistered Commenteralan kennedy

The UK is a largely atheist, secular country. If trust in science as the premier purveyor of knowledge is destroyed, what will be left?

Jul 24, 2013 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterRog Tallbloke

All those science deniers proclaiming CG scientists had been "exonerated" are invited now to commit ritual seppuku in order to restore their own reputations

Jul 24, 2013 at 9:54 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

@Dodgy Geezer

Thirty years ago is the 80s, easily within reach. But I disagree with the Kelly's conclusion. The quality of research was as bad if not worse then. What has changed, among other things, is that the internet has made it extremely easy to give publicity to external scrutiny. Before, we were largely stuck with gross errors ad misconducts of all kinds. Now, we can be heard.

Jul 24, 2013 at 9:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrute

35 years ago, I began reading New Scientist and its essential companion publication called Punch.

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterBernd Felsche

"The UK is a largely atheist, secular country. If trust in science as the premier purveyor of knowledge is destroyed, what will be left?"

Tallbloke, some ideology will fill the void. If I were a betting man my money would be on Islam.

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Hallam

The UK is a not a "largely atheist, secular country". Its unofficial anthem is Jerusalem, and its society still very much focused on the last verses

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:19 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

"Ratings wars" I think about sums up the situation.
I liken it to the dear old Beeb who gets £140+ of everyone's money every year even if she never puts a single programme on air. Yet — in spite of denials — she insists on chasing ratings. She has to be "in there" mixing it with ITV or Sky — or Dave, come to that! — otherwise people might forget she's there and what would that do for her collective ego.
Which is the problem. It's all ego-driven. How good the research is, how worthwhile the subject, how accurate the findings, all irrelevant if the great and the good and my peers (who deep down I actually believe are my inferiors) are not looking at and talking about ME.

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:35 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Strangely enough I only visited Glastonbury for the first time last week, that I can remember. "And did those feet" and all that. Utter tosh as history of course. Tacitus confirms the much more gory reality.

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:38 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

History is like art - it changes with the mind of the author, and of the final user

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:54 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Richard Drake
There is nothing in Tacitus that bears in any way on Blake's speculation. I don't know of many people who think for one second that he was right but since we have no way of knowing what Jesus was doing between the ages of 12 and 30 it seems a harmless enough conceit.
As is the sentiment expressed in the verse omnologos quotes. Pity that Parry set it to such a good tune; it could have died a natural death otherwise.

Jul 24, 2013 at 11:07 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Mike: Excuse me? Are you saying that you have some ancient, independent confirmation that Jesus Christ visited England? Not all 'conceits' are equal in history, for very good reasons. Just as in science we need to make sure we don't lose our grip on that.

Jul 24, 2013 at 11:18 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

It doesn't matter. What matters is that the history of England and after the Panama Canal debacle of the whole UK has been and still is the idealistic attempt at building the post-Apocalyptic "Jerusalem" here-and-now.

People can believe to be atheists whilst unconsciously aiming for the same.

Jul 24, 2013 at 11:30 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Maurizio et al: I've debated Muslim radicals at Speakers Corner on a number of occasions and I don't think we're going to get by with anything so mushy. We need to do our history ruthlessly, wherever it leads. And so do they. There's a major challenge right there facing Western academics - will we have the guts to apply the same critical scholarship to the origins of Islam as have been for centuries now sifting and testing the early Christian story? To our great benefit, in case I haven't already made that clear. But western historians aren't used to death threats for following their scholarly instincts.

A lot of people hope none of this matters. Unfortunately I think that if we lose our grip on history we have already surrendered and what Nicholas Hallam suggested earlier is a dead cert. And that we will lose a gigantic amount, culturally and in many other ways, at that point.

This all came out of Tallbloke's very interesting question. I think I've said enough, because what Mike Kelly wrote in his letter to Nature is important in its own right and deserves attention. Put up a Discussion thread if anyone really wants?

Jul 24, 2013 at 11:42 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

cAGW hardly runs on unbridled enthusiasm. This particular horse of the apocalypse is fed by pernicious pessimism, and stabled amongst the bastard offspring of Malthusianism.

Jul 24, 2013 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Blake was not actually even attempting to write history.

Blake's poem asks four questions rather than asserting the historical truth of Christ's visit. Thus the poem merely implies that there may, or may not, have been a divine visit, when there was briefly heaven in England

Jul 24, 2013 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

michael hart:

cAGW hardly runs on unbridled enthusiasm. This particular horse of the apocalypse is fed by pernicious pessimism, and stabled amongst the bastard offspring of Malthusianism.

bravo, for one of the most compact and effective comments I've ever seen and with which I also agree. If only we could flog the horse the rest of the way to furniture store meatballs, we might be saved.

Jul 24, 2013 at 12:14 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

To rationalise Blake's words is to limit oneself to the "dark Satanic Mills" he identifies as the mechanism which so stunts human potential. Conversely, "Arrows of desire" in unison with an unsleeping sword of "Mental Fight" (appetite aligned with intellect) describes his understanding of man at his very best - "Jerusalem".

The magnetism of AGW theory is that it is - at its base - an unbridled 'rationalised' attack on human desiring.

Perhaps the closest Blake got to commenting on the climate was in his lines - "If the Sun and Moon should ever doubt, they'd immediately go out"... which seems to sum up the Malthusian state of mind very well to me.

Jul 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

Richard Drake
I don't know why I'm bothering but I suggest you go back and read and make some attempt to understand what I actually wrote in my first paragraph instead of simply sounding off.
This is irrelevant to the discussion anyway and simply a by-blow of a passing remark by Maurizio. Still you have now made us aware of your acquaintance with both Tacitus and Speakers' Corner.
My uncle was a regular at Speakers' Corner for most of his adult life along with the theologian Frank Sheed.
Your move!

Or perhaps back to the thread.

Jul 24, 2013 at 1:10 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Sorry, wrong thread ^.^

Jul 24, 2013 at 3:22 PM | Registered CommenterDung

Your researcher that wishes to investigate the effects of deforesting on frogs, so you do all the hard work of putting a proposal together but get rejected. Someone tells you that what your proposal you ‘lacked’ is the all-important AGW element . So now your researcher that wishes to investigate the effects of deforesting on frogs which is due to AGW, the money flows in.

Plenty of those types of research around which tells us that whatever the reality of the climate , the AGW scare bucket is still deep and well filled and there plenty of researches more than happy to dip into it and never mind the facts.

Jul 24, 2013 at 3:53 PM | Unregistered Commenterknr

If you want to research frogs and the only money that is being sprayed around like water is AGW-connected then why would you not fling in the idea of looking at some aspect of that subject.
You then go off and do your (exceptionally vital) research, write it all up, include the obligatory statement to the effect that there may or may not be some AGW effect on whichever bits of the frog's behaviour you were actually researching but that further study would etc., etc.
You can then take a year off, write another brief paper which suggests that perhaps the AGW aspect has been overstated and move on to another field using the same gambit.
I'm sure there is a lot of research of great benefit to mankind being carried out under the general umbrella of AGW because that was the only way that the grant money was forthcoming.
And of course you can always count these researchers in your 97%!

Jul 24, 2013 at 5:41 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Re: trust in scientists

Some of the more notorious names from Climategate have banded together in a politicized attack campaign because Google, Inc. did a benefit luncheon with US Senator James Inhofe.

Are these clowns really unable to stick to science and stay out of such political mud fights? No matter what they pretend, these are diehard political activists posing as objective scientists:

Mann, Bradley, Jones, Trenberth, Santer et al. leap into political fray yet again

[h/t Tom Nelson]

Jul 24, 2013 at 8:40 PM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

How interesting. In the very same issue of Nature is an article full of speculation and impending catastrophe on the subject of methane release from the Arctic. The authors, Peter Wadhams and Chris Hope from Cambridge, Gail Whiteman from Erasmus University put a different spin on the well-worn speculation about methane release by computing the hypothetical cost of the ensuing environmental damage.

Using a discredited economic model PAGE09 (I call it discredited because it was used in the Stern review) they compute the costs of methane release as equal to the current size of the global economy - $60 trillion.

They somehow fail to point out in their article that methane in the atmosphere is increasing at a much lower rate since 1998.

... and they wonder why no-one trusts scientists anymore.

Press release:

Nature article:

Methane since 1987:

Quote of the week:

... We calculate that the costs of a melting Arctic will be huge ...

Melts every summer doesn't it?

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterBilly Liar


I don't know why I'm bothering ...

One thing on which we might be expected to agree, as I'd suggested taking the offshoots from Tallbloke's question to a Discussion thread. Let's call it Green and pleasant land.

Jul 25, 2013 at 7:11 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Both Michael Polanyi's Republic of Science model and David Hull's evolutionary model of science deduce "invisible hand"-style conclusions about the inherently self-correcting nature of the pure-science enterprise. When it takes place among a community of self- or peer-funded researchers whose primary motivations are a) getting credit for making discoveries and b) achieving understanding of some area, we have good reasons to think that no outside regulation could be expected to improve the rate of progress. Incentive alignment between the individual and the community is very high in such cases--how I "get ahead" is closely correlated with "what is best for advancing scientific understanding."

But once the particular conclusions of one's research, apart from their validity, begin to matter to actors outside the community of researchers (such as policymakers or funders) then the "invisible hand" argument starts to break down. (That's why it's perfectly all right, for example, for astronomers to decide on their own rules about data disclosure but it wouldn't be appropriate to apply such lax standards to the construction and review of national economic statistics. If the consensus on cosmic inflation were to turn out to be wrong, most of the impact of that would fall on the members of the community itself.) Journals will stop trying to be maximally useful for would-be discoverers in order to chase after other audiences, researchers will spin their findings to influence those outside the discovery community, etc.

Only strong norms of "honest-brokerage" among core researchers can prevent the lack of incentive alignment from gradually destroying the credibility of the community's output. Misstating the findings of a field to outsiders or otherwise pandering has to be met with severe reputational sanctions. Oddly, it seems to me that economics, which has the most unavoidable connection to "outside" considerations, does a better job of navigating these shoals than does climatology or environmental studies.

Jul 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM | Unregistered Commentersrp

Profound and helpful srp. It's time Michael Polanyi's thinking came back into the picture.

Jul 27, 2013 at 1:33 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

I know I'm late, but I have to say...

"... We calculate that the costs of a melting Arctic will be huge ...

Melts every summer doesn't it?" Jul 24, 2013 at 10:58 PM | Billy Liar priceless.

Aug 14, 2013 at 3:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterClunking Fist

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