Panel 17 of the 9th International Conference on Climate Change was on the subject of “Peer Review, Herding, and the Reliability of Climate Science.” Anyone interested in the way science is actually conducted and the problems with the prevailing peer-review system can find a lot of interesting material in the discussion.
The featured speakers in this panel were Dr. Patrick Michaels, Dr. Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, and Dr. Tim Ball. These three scientists spoke on the problems and distortions in the scientific profession of which laymen are frequently unaware.
In his talk, Dr. Michaels asks the question at the beginning of his talk: “Why do scientists herd?” In other words, why do scientists attach themselves to a set of beliefs or positions and defend them even in the presence of conflicting evidence?
Michaels answers this question by explaining what scientific communities actually are, namely “communities of self-interested, self-reinforcing people.” Scientists are not disinterested parties. They have ideologies and reputations to defend, and that sometimes means defending the positions they have spent careers building up.
Michaels went on to describe the growth of “big science” and the “myth of science as a public good.” He describes the Manhattan Project as the birthplace of these two phenomena in which was seen the “complete socialization of the relevant scientific community.” With the phenomenal success of the Manhattan Project, the federal government decided that the arrangement could be repeated in peacetime with all of the sciences.
The result of all of this was a new funding regime in the sciences, in which the government became the primary funder of research through the nexus of universities. Michaels contends that this arrangement is what has promoted the statist attitude of university professors.
Further problems with the way science is done are highlighted in the presentation of Dr. Boehmer-Christiansen. An avowed socialist, she still sees the inherent problems in a scientific funding regime, whether public or private, that expects researchers to produce the results it desires. The desire to retain funding for research means scientists experience an impetus to “massage” their results to suit their funders.
Dr. Ball examines another problem in the world of science, namely that laypeople are not plugged into the scientific process or the biases that twist it. For the majority of the public,” Ball says, “science is of no consequence whatsoever.” When people do not care to be informed about issues, the problems are allowed to fester.
The important lesson to take from the panel as a whole is that science is not a disinterested endeavor. It has as much personality and politics as any profession. It is essential that informed citizens understand that and allow that understanding to inform their interaction with the scientific community.