What Does it Mean to Be a Scientist?

Once upon a time, I had romantic ideas about what it meant to be a scientist. I thought scientists were intelligent, dedicated individuals focused entirely on discovery and learning. I thought even evil supervillains shared a trait with good guys when it came to science - a genuine desire to learn. I don't anymore.

The reason I'm writing this post is a curious juxtaposition I happened upon. On Twitter, one person said the IPCC reports should be ignored/discarded due to certain unscientific influences on them. The conversation itself isn't important. What matters is how it began:

When I still held my romantic view of science, I'd have agreed with that tweet. I'd have said any science done in a corrupt, biased or simply shoddy way should be dismissed out of hand. Unfortunately, I've come to realize there isn't any science which lives up to my childhood standards. Because of that, I eventually said:

I don't like that statement, but it's the sad reality of our existence - there is no such thing as pure science. Humans are simply incapable of being unbiased. There are too many things which influence our views. We can fight against it, but ultimately, we'll never be perfect.

If you accept that view, you have to accept there is no such thing as "perfect" science. All science will be biased to some extent. That means you can't reject any work of science simply because it is "biased." You have to decide how biased is too biased for you. That's the point I was trying to make on Twitter. The IPCC definitely has problems, but something having problems isn't surprising. Everything has problems. The question is how serious those problems are, and are people willing to live with them?

I don't have an answer to questions like those. I'm not sure one exists. It seems a philosophical issue which depends upon personal preferences and other things that can't be measured or described objectively. That's why I didn't plan to write about it. Normally, I don't write about things which are so indeterminable. However, during the conversation on Twitter, I happened to read Mark Steyn's latest article and saw he had said:

I'm the co-author of a book that's come out - and is doing rather well, in fact - called Climate Change: The Facts. And I'm the know-nothing, but there's a couple of dozen really hotshot scientists in there...

I've read Climate Change: The Facts. I was dismayed by it. You may remember I've written three posts about how the book should be an embarrassment to anyone whose name is on it. I won't rehash what I said in them. Instead, I want to talk about something else. Steyn says "there's a couple of dozen really hotshot scientists in" this book. Who are they?

The book has 21 chapters with a total of 22 authors (one chapter has two). That means there can't literally be "a couple of dozen really hotshot scientists in" the book," but I won't begrudge Steyn a bit of exaggeration in phrasing. The difference between 22 and 24 wouldn't matter.

But one of those 22 is Steyn himself. We obviously can't count him. He is, as he says, a "know-nothing." That means there are only 21 people who could be those "couple of dozen really hotshot scientists." 21 and 24 still aren't that different from one another, so okay. But who are those other 21? Here's a description of one:

Andrew Bolt
Columnist with the Herald Sun, Daily telegraph, and the Advertiser, and host of Channel Ten's The Bolt Report.

That's clearly not a description for a scientist. Andrew Bolt is a journalist. Which is fine, but it brings our number down to 20. But then we have:

Rupert Darwall
Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming, A History published in 2014 and has also written for the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. He holds a degree in Economic and History from Cambridge University, and in 1993 was a Special Adviser to Her Majesty's Treasury.

Again, it's not taking anything away from Rupert Darwall to point out he is not a scientist. He doesn't claim to be a scientist, and it's fine for him not to be one. But it brings our number down to 19. Which falls even lower with:

James Delingpole
Executive Editor for the London branch of Breitbart.com; author of Watermelons; How Environmentalists are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing Your Children's Future (published in Australia as Killing the Earth to Save It).

And (18):

Donna Laframboise
Journalist, author of The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert; former member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association 1993-2001.

And (17):

Nigel Lawson
Former British Conservative politician and journalist; member of the House of Lords; author of An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming.

And (16):

Bernie Lewin
Author of climate change blog, Enthusiasm, Scepticism and Science (enthusiasmscepticismscience.wordpress.com)

And (15):

Alan Moran
Manager of Regulation Economics, former Director of the Deregulation Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs. Director of the Australian Office of Regulation Review and Deputy Secretary Energy in the Victorian Department of Minerals and Energy.

And (14):

Jo Nova
Science writer with columns published in The Spectator and The Australian, author of The Skeptic's Handbook (2009).

And (13):

Anthony Watts
Retired American Meterology Society certified television meterologist, author of 'Is the US Surface Temperature Record Reliable?' published the Heartland Institute (2009).

Once we exclude journalists, politicians and bloggers, we have only 12 authors in this book who might be considered "scientists." I'm willing to extend people some leniency in rhetorical flourishes, but you can't have a "couple of dozen really hotshot scientists" with only 12 people.

And I'm not sure we should even consider the other 12 people scientists, much less "hotshot scientists." There are a couple economists in the list. Is economics a science? I don't know. My instinct is to say it isn't, but... what is science anyway? With all the biases and corruption known to exist in formal scientific works, is a "scientist" really any better at science than a "science writer"? Does a "hotshot scientist" have to be a formally defined scientist, or can a journalist or meteorologist qualify is they run a popular enough website?

I don't know. My instinct is to say Climate Change: The Facts doesn't have many "hotshot scientists" on its author list, much less a couple dozen of them, but... who am I to say? What is a "hotshot scientist" in the first place? What is a run-of-the-mill "scientist"? Heck, what is "science" anyway?

I don't have an answer for any of these questions. All I know is I trust results which are verified more than results which aren't. Because of that, I don't care if the IPCC reports are scientific. I don't care if Mark Steyn's co-authors are "hotshot scientists" or not. All I care about is, "Do they produce good work?"

But is that a measure of "science"? I don't know. Dr. Doom may have been a horrible supervillain, but you never saw Mister Fantastic look at one of his amazing doomsday weapons and say, "You didn't follow the scientific procedure, so you're not a scientist!"

Or maybe you did. There was a lot of stupid writing in comic books. Either way, the point remains. There is no such thing as pure science. All there might be are shades of science; some lighter, some darker.

12 comments

  1. Thanks for elaborating, Brandon.

    In case they make a difference, a couple of points:

    1. "Biased" wasn't a word I used. Nor was "flawed." I generally don't use those (though I did take up the word "bias" after you introduced it). You may well have heard such adjectives from other IPCC cynics, but I find them simplistic.

    2. I question whether a romantic or idealized view of scientific practice is really a prerequisite for a positive regard for science as a general proposition, nor for feeling revulsion towards politicians who half-assedly dress their activities up as science.

    3. I don't even think you need to "trust" scientists in order to distrust politicians. Let alone when the latter have already lied to your face (e.g. by claiming that their handiwork is "the science.")

    4. As I tried to suggest before (in 1.4 hectocharacters), the scientific method entails that you at least *try* to be scientific, notwithstanding that humans will necessarily fall short. The IPCC doesn't even bother trying. (Did you get a chance to read this: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/feb/09/ipcc-report-author-data-openness ?) The brazenness of the process is almost as incredible as the blindness of its apologists. I often call it pseudoscience, but that's not really fair—pseudoscience implies an effort to simulate science. The IPCC puts in about enough effort to fool arts graduates, which is to say not very much at all, and that's it.

    5. Mark Steyn's questionable characterization of the authorship of 'The Facts' is a distraction from the much more interesting point at which you started the post, IMHO.

  2. Brad Keyes:

    2. I question whether a romantic or idealized view of scientific practice is really a prerequisite for a positive regard for science as a general proposition, nor for feeling revulsion towards politicians who half-assedly dress their activities up as science.

    Of course it isn't. But without a romantic or idealized view of scientific practice, it is impossible to justify blindly trusting "science."

    3. I don’t even think you need to “trust” scientists in order to distrust politicians. Let alone when the latter have already lied to your face (e.g. by claiming that their handiwork is “the science.”)

    Of course not. My recommendation would be not to trust a politician or scientist.

    4. As I tried to suggest before (in 1.4 hectocharacters), the scientific method entails that you at least *try* to be scientific, notwithstanding that humans will necessarily fall short. The IPCC doesn’t even bother trying. (Did you get a chance to read this: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/feb/09/ipcc-report-author-data-openness ?) The brazenness of the process is almost as incredible as the blindness of its apologists. I often call it pseudoscience, but that’s not really fair—pseudoscience implies an effort to simulate science. The IPCC puts in about enough effort to fool arts graduates, which is to say not very much at all, and that’s it.

    I don't agree with any of this. And to be frank, you haven't done a thing to show it is even close to true. Yes, in theory, politics could cause the SPM to be changed, and in turn, that could cause the underlying reports to be changed. But so what? In theory, papers can be withdrawn prior to publication due to organizations providing grants demanding it. That doesn't mean we should automatically dismiss any work done under such grants.

    Ultimately, you've done nothing to show the IPCC process is any worse than the normal "scientific" process. It's certainly no worse than the process which leads to many of the things that get published and accepted by skeptics across the globe (just look at WUWT for proof). You may feel comfortable dismissing the IPCC reports as a whole based on nothing but vague theory with no evidence, but why should anyone else?

    I don't trust the IPCC process. I think it's horrible. I just think vague theorycrafting is a poor substitute for well-reasoned, documented criticisms.

    5. Mark Steyn’s questionable characterization of the authorship of ‘The Facts’ is a distraction from the much more interesting point at which you started the post, IMHO.

    I think Mark Steyn's post, in and of itself, is largely uninteresting. On the other hand, if not for the peculiar timing of these two separate things, I wouldn't have found this subject interesting enough to warrant writing a post.

    Plus, I find it interesting pretty much no "skeptic" will challenge him on this point. Or any other point. It's rather remarkable how people who talk about the importance of integrity in science will almost inevitably ignore serious deficiencies in things on their "side." This is like a minor case of what happened with Richard Tol.

  3. Vague theorycrafting?

    More like a matter of public fact.

    When even The Guardian admits scientists had to alter their own findings to agree with politicians, the game is up, Brandon. It's not just a matter of the potential for political interference; that potential is *realized*:

    "Yet IPCC procedure required that the chapters had to be made consistent with the summary, rather than vice versa. This is because the ultimate authors of the "intergovernmental" reports are the governments that approve the summary for policy makers. But such a rule puts the scientists in a difficult position, and Santer had the unenviable job of rewording his chapter to reflect the wording of the political summary."

    To honest people who value science, the politicization thereof is a matter of regret. To the IPCC it's policy. The IPCC rules *require* Science to commit fraud by pretending it agrees with what Policy says. The IPCC's rules enshrine, normalize and openly advertise this dishonesty.

    Adults know this is a bad thing. I don't need to explain why.

    I can only assume you're playing devil's advocate, Brandon. Not that I literally believe in Satan—but people who partake in an organized crime against science come pretty close.

  4. "Plus, I find it interesting pretty much no “skeptic” will challenge him on this point. Or any other point."

    Not interesting, just a grubby fact of human nature that comes out in team sports like this. I don't like it any more than you do. I have been known to challenge Steyn (on things that matter, like grammar). I haven't read the The Facts book, so I'm in no position to tell him he's wrong about it, but there's nothing stopping you from doing so. Break the cycle of complacency and be an example to the rest of us "skeptics"!

  5. Brad Keyes:

    Vague theorycrafting?

    More like a matter of public fact.

    When even The Guardian admits scientists had to alter their own findings to agree with politicians, the game is up, Brandon. It’s not just a matter of the potential for political interference; that potential is *realized*:

    You're still doing the same thing I've pointed out all along - talking about a potential problem without making any attempt to quantify its effect. That's why I called it theorycrafting. You're not looking at what's actually happened. You're just talking about what could happen.

    The one example you've provided is grossly cherry-picked, as the very article you cite suggests the change wasn't a change in meaning:

    Santer told me the words were added to his chapter late, and without full consultation. But he said it was "essentially the same conclusion we [the authors of the chapter] had reached months earlier".

    Critics point to a section of an earlier draft of the chapter that was deleted by Santer at this stage. It asked: "When will the detection and unambiguous attribution of human-induced climate change occur?" and answered "We do not know." But the contradiction is more apparent than real. Showing an "unambiguous" human impact is a much harder task than assessing the "balance of evidence". It was the assertion of a "balance of evidence" that Santer added.

    The affair sounds like a semantic storm in a teacup.

    You claim "scientists had to alter their findings to agree with politicians," but you haven't shown that has ever happened. All you've pointed to is a case where a section saying unambiguous evidence for an anthropogenic influence didn't exist was deleted while text saying the balance of evidence supported the idea. There is no contradiction there. There is no change of findings.

    I can only assume you’re playing devil’s advocate, Brandon. Not that I literally believe in Satan—but people who partake in an organized crime against science come pretty close.

    You can assume whatever you want, but in my experience, assuming things about people just because you don't agree with their position is unwise. That's especially true when their position is, "You haven't done anything to show this problem has had any meaningful impact," which is true - you largely don't even try to show it has.

    (And seriously, fraud? What is with people charging fraud at the slightest thing? Doing that is why so many people don't take accusations against Michael Mann and Stephan Lewandowsky seriously.)

  6. Brad Keyes:

    “Plus, I find it interesting pretty much no “skeptic” will challenge him on this point. Or any other point.”

    Not interesting, just a grubby fact of human nature that comes out in team sports like this.

    You may not find that interesting, but I certainly do. I think it's fascinating to see how people mostly won't call out people on their "team" for mistakes, no matter how big or small those mistakes may be.

    I don’t like it any more than you do. I have been known to challenge Steyn (on things that matter, like grammar). I haven’t read the The Facts book, so I’m in no position to tell him he’s wrong about it, but there’s nothing stopping you from doing so. Break the cycle of complacency and be an example to the rest of us “skeptics”!

    I have. That's how I trashed my reputation with a number of people, including Anthony Watts. He'll claim it's about my behavior, but the reality is Watts liked me until I criticized him and Richard Tol for making mistakes. Then he started making things up to smear me in an attempt to make me look bad.

    The funny thing is that's actually part of why I made my first comment of this discussion on Twitter. My point hasn't been to defend the IPCC. I think the IPCC has a lot of problems, and I think those problems have caused the latest IPCC report to have distortions and misrepresentations in it. Richard Tol's significant rewriting of sections in his chapter, absent any sort of external review, is a perfect example of what is wrong with the IPCC.

    But nobody talks about that one because Tol is popular with skeptics, so they won't criticize him (Watts flatly refused to even look at the issue when I talked to him about it). And so far, nobody has found a better example. That means there's no significant example of IPCC procedures having a negative impact on the latest report because skeptics refuse to talk about the obvious example we have... because it's from one of their "own."

    The reality is you'll never convince the average person the IPCC reports should be ignored or distrusted because of some procedural issue. If you don't show that procedural issue has an effect which tarnishes the reports, people won't care about it. And nobody seems to be looking for ways it tarnished the latest report.

    Except me, that is. I've already found three more things which could merit attention/concern. One definitely does. I just need to find the motivation to work out the details and write about it. That's hard to do since I know this issue is far less significant than the one with Tol.

  7. Brandon,

    There's not much wrong with what you're saying. I agree that many layfolk will be more disillusioned about the IPCC if we can show specific examples of damage to the meaning of the reports than they are by the mere vulnerability to damage, exquisite as it is. ("Corruptibility does not mean corruption" being a foreseeable reaction.) So I don't discount the propagandistic value of digging in and finding examples. Allow me therefore to limit myself to claiming that I, Brad Keyes, don't need that level of evidence. Why not? Because I understand the scientific method, so I'm all about method. I personally can't dismiss such problems as "some procedural issue." Process is literally everything that separates science from enteromancy.

    So I'm all ears to what you're alleging about Tol's chapter. If I understood the specifics and if it turned out to be as bad as you're suggesting, then I wouldn't hesitate to use it as an example when raising awareness of the IPCC's credibility bankruptcy among the ordinary folk. Just because Tol is On Our Side™ doesn't mean he's beyond criticism.

    Would I find this information on your blog somewhere? And will I need to understand much about economics to follow the argument? (That could be a problem!)

    Rest assured you won't become persona non grata for the crime of criticising me! 🙂

  8. BTW I really don't think 'fraud' is too strong a word to describe the deliberate disguising of a political as a scientific process. I don't mean Nigerian-email-type fraud, I mean intellectual fraud (specifically, pseudoscience.) But then, I seem to care about science a lot more than does the average bear.

  9. Brad Keyes:

    (“Corruptibility does not mean corruption” being a foreseeable reaction.)

    Everything is corruptible. Modern science depends largely upon the peer review system, a system we have hundreds of examples of corruption in. That doesn't mean we dismiss all scientific papers. In the same way, pointing out flaws in the IPCC process doesn't mean we should dismiss the IPCC reports. Finding actual examples of flaws affecting the results isn't just about "propagandistic value." It's about showing the flaws actually have an impact. Nothing is perfect so we need to look at relative quality.

    BTW I really don’t think ‘fraud’ is too strong a word to describe the deliberate disguising of a political as a scientific process. I don’t mean Nigerian-email-type fraud, I mean intellectual fraud (specifically, pseudoscience.) But then, I seem to care about science a lot more than does the average bear.

    I think you'll find most people who might hear you use "fraud" in this way will disagree. What happens here doesn't come close to what an average person would think of as fraud. It certainly doesn't compare to what Michael Mann has done. Heck, it doesn't even compete with what BEST has done.

    So I’m all ears to what you’re alleging about Tol’s chapter. If I understood the specifics and if it turned out to be as bad as you’re suggesting, then I wouldn’t hesitate to use it as an example when raising awareness of the IPCC’s credibility bankruptcy among the ordinary folk. Just because Tol is On Our Side™ doesn’t mean he’s beyond criticism.

    Would I find this information on your blog somewhere? And will I need to understand much about economics to follow the argument? (That could be a problem!)

    I've written something like a dozen posts about the issue here, so yeah, you could definitely find the information here. It's really easy to understand too. It takes no knowledge of anything to see what Richard Tol did was wrong. It might take a little knowledge to understand why Tol's work is complete garbage, but you don't need to understand that to see what he did with the IPCC report was wrong. Or that he cherry-picks results to let him reach the conclusions which made him so popular with skeptics.

    Anyway, there's quite a bit of material regarding the issue on this site. I actually toyed with writing another short eBook to explain just how much Tol has done wrong, but I probably won't. Nobody seems to care. That includes the IPCC, which has simply ignored the complaint I filed with them, something which violates their formal policy on how to handle notification of errors. I would think that should be mildly scandalous, especially since the complaint shows a number of inexplicable and unjustified changes were made, including several which actually added errors to the report. You can read more about it here. I'm not very happy with how the complaint turned out, but I've largely given up on the issue since nobody seems to care about it.

    For a preview, here's the introduction:

    There were a number of unexplained and unjustified changes to the Intergovernmental Panel on
    Climate Change Chapter (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Working Group II (WGII). Chapter
    10 had two sections added to it after the Second Order Draft (SOD) was sent out for review: Section
    10.9.2 (Aggregate Impacts) and Section 10.9.3 (Social Cost of Carbon). Additional changes were made
    to Section 10.9.2 after the Final Government Draft (FGD) had been disseminated for public
    consumption. Many of these changes were unexplained, and the explanations which were given were
    sometimes false. Most troubling, the changes generally promoted the work and views of Richard Tol, a
    person responsible for the text which was changed.

    Personally, I think it understates the problem. It also leaves off the fact the IPCC's documentation of changes on their website was (effectively) backdated to make it appear they had always disclosed certain changes. In reality, that documentation wasn't made available until after my post pointing out a number of changes were made after the final draft of the IPCC report got publicity at Watts Up With That.

    And great. I had tried to not think much on that topic because it still bothers me quite a bit how indifferent people have been toward it. Every time I think about it I start wanting to rant. Maybe I should write that eBook after all. Even if I don't publish it, it might be cathartic to write it all out in a single document. The links I included in this comment don't begin to scratch the surface of the problems with Richard Tol's work he snuck into the IPCC report. I've discussed them in various posts, but collecting it all in a single document might help me be less annoyed by all this.

  10. By the way Brad Keyes, about a week ago you said:

    Brandon, I can’t wait for your ass-kicking, number-taking return to blogging the big issues.

    Outside of Michael Mann's hockey stick and the Skeptical Science consensus paper, I'd say Richard Tol's work and how it got added into the IPCC report is probably the biggest issue I've ever discussed here. It's also probably the one I've done the most work on (again, aside from the other two I mentioned). Just a bit of perspective for you.

    For some additional perspective, Richard Tol has tried to use legal threats to punish his critics. That led to me concluding:

    It’s Michael Mann again, just without the deep pockets. I’m amazed I’m only hearing about this now, nearly two years after the fact. Richard Tol has been receiving a lot of attention lately. I’d have expected this to come up. I guess skeptics just don’t mind blatant intimidation tactics coming from people they like.

    Combined with what I referred to above, I think it would be fair to call Tol Mini-Mann. He's basically Michael Mann, the less competent version. There are even more similarities if you examine their responses to questions/criticisms. For instance, did you know Richard Tol refused to release the calculations he used to produce his data, mocking people who asked for them? That's right. Tol responded to requests for data/code with the climate science approach of, "Do the work yourself."

  11. Less competent than Michael Mann?

    I'd care more if Tol were a [natural] scientist, but I'll still take the time to read your posts about him. Thanks dude.

  12. Plenty more reports of examples of political interference here: http://www.smh.com.au/world/ipcc-report-summary-censored-by-governments-around-the-world-20140413-zqugm.html

    In other parts of the summary, objections from rich nations resulted in the removal of a line saying: “In 2010, ten countries accounted for about 70 per cent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes.”

    They also demanded, and won, removal of a line reporting that ethical mitigation of climate change would require the developed world to transfer “hundreds of billions of dollars per year” to non-OECD countries to invest in green technologies.

    Objections from "upper middle income" countries resulted in the deletion of a graph that showed the stunning rise in emissions from those countries in the decade to 2010, compared with other parts of the world.

    I'm not motivated to read any further. It's not science, it's the tropicopolitical method in scientific clothing.

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