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« Judge: rule of law challenged by greens | Main | Tree ring proxies RIP »
Monday
Dec082014

Sliding science

Matt Ridley has one of those pieces in the Times that is just going to get Bob Ward's blood boiling. He covers the scandal over the neonicotinoid "research", the Met Office's claims about record temperatures and the revelations over the Sheep Mountain data, wrapping them all up in a sorry tale of scientists dropping their standards in the endless search for money and relevance.

The overwhelming majority of scientists do excellent, objective work, following the evidence wherever it leads. Science remains (in my view) our most treasured cultural achievement, bar none. Most of its astonishing insights into life, the universe and everything are beyond reproach and beyond compare. All the more reason to be less tolerant of those who let their motivated reasoning distort data or the presentation of data. It’s hard for champions of science, like me, to make our case against creationists, homeopaths and other merchants of mysticism if some of those within science also practise pseudoscience.

In all the millions of scientific careers in Britain over the past few decades, outside medical science there has never been a case of a scientist convicted of malpractice. Not one. Maybe that is because – unlike the police, the church and politics – scientists are all pure as the driven snow. Or maybe it is because science as an institution, like so many other institutions, does not police itself properly.

It's paywalled, but well worth it if you have access.

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Reader Comments (58)

Full article now at Ridley's blog.

I am surprised that Bob Ward has not yet pointed out one minor error in Ridley's piece. The Royal Society report on Resilience to Extreme Weather did in fact mention at one point on page 29 that mortality rates are declining. The reason Bob is so slow off the mark may be explained by his latest tweet.

Dec 9, 2014 at 10:29 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

What is that, eye-lipstick?

Dec 9, 2014 at 12:14 PM | Registered Commentershub

BSE, eh? It makes me wonder whether there is any way to "cull" the globalwarmmongers.

Dec 9, 2014 at 3:02 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

Response from Nursie on letters page - Times 10th Dec.
(paywalled)

Dec 10, 2014 at 9:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterJazznick

A kind of fight is brewing up on twitter.

Richard Betts fired off a lot of rather angry tweets.

"Yes, @mattwridley shows he's as paranoid & rude as Tim Ball when it comes to conspiracy theories & accusations of malpractice"

"Worrying that a Peer seems to accuse civil servants of letting 'prejudices' affect their duties @mattwridley "

"Exactly. If @mattwridley wants to criticise climate policy then he's got every right, but attacking scientists is wrong."

"@BranginHalfloin No, this is me, email me to check. You're right, I don't often get cross but @mattwridley out of order IMHO"

Ridley has now responded to Richard at his blog, see the PPS section

Dec 10, 2014 at 10:15 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

There's an interesting postscript on Matt Ridley's blog here
http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/policy-based-evidence-making.aspx

which mentions Richards Betts' reaction - not good!

Dec 10, 2014 at 10:34 AM | Unregistered Commenteranng

Richard made this comment at Andthentheresphysics.. which seems way over the top.
https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/policing-science/#comment-39425

Richard Betts says:

December 9, 2014 at 9:51 pm


As I told him on Twitter, Ridley’s article is paranoid and rude. It’s a sign of desperation when someone can’t actually engage with the science so they just resort to claiming it’s ‘corrupt’ instead. And claiming that ‘most of the people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in their views on climate policy, which hardly reassures the rest of us that they leave those prejudices at the laboratory door’ is just ridiculous – I bet he doesn’t even know the people who work on the datasets, let alone know whether they are ‘vocal on climate policy’ (they aren’t – they just quietly get on with their jobs without putting their heads above the parapet, with the exception of John Kennedy who’s sardonic humour on Twitter is hardly an example of being ‘vocal on climate policy’.) Viscount Ridley is as bad as Tim Ball – a comparison which seemed to upset him a bit!

Dec 10, 2014 at 1:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Matt Ridley's response -

http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/policy-based-evidence-making.aspx

PPS
After this article was published an extraordinary series of tweets appeared under the name of Richard Betts, a scientist at the UK Met Office and somebody who is normally polite even when critical. He called me “paranoid and rude” and made a series of assertions about what I had written that were either inaccurate or stretched interpretations to say the least. He then advanced the doctrine that politicians should not criticize civil servants. The particular sentence he objected to was:

Most of the people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in their views on climate policy, which hardly reassures the rest of us that they leave those prejudices at the laboratory door.

He thought this was an unjustified attack on civil servants. However, if you read what I said in that sentence, it is that (1) people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in support of certain policies – which is not a criticism, just a statement; and (2) that we need reassurance that they do not let that consciously or unconsciously influence their work, which again is not a criticism, let alone an attack, merely a request for reassurance. Certainly there is no mention of civil servants, let alone by name, and nothing to compare with an attack on me by name calling me paranoid and rude.

Is the first assertion true? I had in mind Jim Hansen, who was in charge of GISS, a data set for which serious questions have been raised about adjustments made that warm the present or cool the past, and who is prepared to get himself arrested in protest against fossil fuels. I also had in mind Phil Jones, partly in charge of HADCRUT, who also is not shy with his views. I was not thinking of Julia Slingo of the Met Office, because I do not think of the Met Office as a collater of temperature data, but perhaps I should have been. And then there’s Australia’s BoM. And indeed the RSS data, whose collater, Dr Carl Mears, fumes at the way “denialists” talk about his data. Hardly objective language.

Is my request for reassurance reasonable? In view of the Australian episodes, the GISS adjustments, the USHCN story from earlier this year (see here) – all of which raised doubts about the legitimacy of adjustments being made to the temperature data – then yes, I think I am. Do I think the data are fatally flawed? No, I don’t. I happily accept that all the data sets show some warming in the 1980s and 1990s and not much since and that this fits with the satellite data. But do I think such data can be used to assert that this is the warmest year, by 0.01 degrees, a month before the year ends? No, I don’t. I think people like Dr Betts should say as much.

As of this writing, Dr Betts’s latest tweet is:

If ‪@mattwridley wants to criticise climate policy then he's got every right, but attacking scientists is wrong.

Well, if by attacking he means physically or verbally abusing, then yes, I agree, but I don’t do it. I don’t call people by name “paranoid”, for example. But criticizing scientists should be allowed surely? And asking for reassurance? Come on, Richard.

The WMO “re-analysed” a data set to get its 0.01 degree warmest year. What was that reanalysis and has it been independently checked? I would genuinely like to know. I stopped taking these things on trust after the hockey stick scandal.

The thrust of my article was that the reputation of the whole of science is at risk if bad practices and biases are allowed to infect data collection and presentation, and that science like other institutions can no longer take public trust for granted. A reaction of bluster and invective hardly reassures me that science takes my point on board. For the moment, I remain of the view that

The overwhelming majority of scientists do excellent, objective work, following the evidence wherever it leads. Science remains (in my view) our most treasured cultural achievement, bar none. Most of its astonishing insights into life, the universe and everything are beyond reproach and beyond compare.

But Dr Betts’s reaction has weakened my confidence in this view.

Dec 10, 2014 at 1:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

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