Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fraudulent Science

The local worthy, ahem, who writes for the Vancouver Sun had a little conniption a while ago about the anthropogenic global warming "skeptics" who assert that we are currently witness to a lot of "junk science". Stephen Hume wrote:
In the world of climate skeptics, skepticism is apparently acceptable only when it agrees with the climate change skeptics' point of view. Show skepticism toward their own implausible theory of a vast scientific conspiracy at leading universities to deceive the world about global warming with fraudulent "junk science" and it's just unworthy scoffing from a lazy, dishonest hack.
"Junk science" is often used by non-scientists to imply that work by scientists is false or incompetent, although the term is an oxymoron since if it's "junk" it can't, by definition, be science. And if it is genuine science, it can't, by definition, be junk.
Well, I wonder if Mr. Hume will now advise us which it is, in light of the apparent revelation of fraudulent science being conducted at the heart of the AGW industry.

In an earlier article, Hume invokes Britain's top science academy, the Royal Society, and its recent rejection of the "skeptics", as the epitome of good science. Today, I had moment to remind myself of the origins of modern science and the Royal Society in a comment at Pajama's Media (Charlie Martin's post on the Hadley Climate Research Unit's betrayal of our trust in the peer review processes of science, that sparked some comments on whether peer review is essential to science) that might be worth reproducing here, since, along with illuminating the circumspect origins of "good science", and its relationship to the honour of the gentleman observer, it ends with Adam Katz's illuminating comment on a concern dear to our hearts: should we be raving about or reviling the youth of today?:
It’s interesting that the little debate that has erupted here parallels that which occurred at the birth of modern science. As the publisher’s blurb (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/2353.html) for Shapin and Schaffer’s book on Robert Boyle’s airpump reads:

In the aftermath of the English Civil War, as people were groping for new forms of political order, Robert Boyle built an air-pump to do exper­iments. Does the story of Roundheads and Restoration have something to do with the origins of experimental sci­ence? Schaffer and Shapin believed it does.

Focusing on the debates between Boyle and his archcritic Thomas Hobbes over the air-pump, the authors proposed that “solutions to the problem of knowledge are solutions to the problem of social order.” Both Boyle and Hobbes were looking for ways of establishing knowledge that did not decay into ad hominem attacks and political division. Boyle proposed the experiment as cure. He argued that facts should be manufactured by machines like the air-pump so that gentlemen could witness the experiments and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on. Hobbes, by contrast, looked for natural law and viewed experiments as the artificial, unreliable products of an exclusive guild.

The new approaches taken in Leviathan and the Air-Pump have been enormously influential on historical studies of science. Shapin and Schaffer found a moment of scientific revolution and showed how key scientific givens–facts, interpretations, experiment, truth–were fundamental to a new political order. Shapin and Schaffer were also innovative in their ethnographic approach. Attempting to understand the work habits, rituals, and social structures of a remote, unfamiliar group, they argued that politics were tied up in what scientists did, rather than what they said.

And, as Bruno Latour in his book We Have Never Been Modern writes:

Far from “situating Boyle’s scientific works in their social context” or showing how politics “presses in upon” scientific doctrines, they [Shapin and Schaffer] examine how Boyle and Hobbes fought to invent a science, a context, and a demarcation between the two. They are not prepared to explain the content by the context, since neither existed in this new way before Boyle and Hobbes reached their respective goals and settled their differences.

The beauty of Shapin and Schaffer’s book stems from their success in unearthing Hobbes’s scientific works – which had been neglected by political scientists, because they were embarassed by the wild mathematical imaginings of their hero – and in rescuing from oblivion Boyle’s poilitical theories – which had been neglected by historians of science because they preferred to conceal their hero’s organizational efforts. Instead of setting up an asymmetry, instead of distributing science to Boyle and political theory to Hobbes, Shapin and Schaffer outline a rather nice quadrant: Boyle has a science and a political theory; Hobbes has a political theory and a science. The quadrant would be uninteresting if the ideas of our two heroes were too far apart… But by good fortune, they agree on almost everything. They want a king, a Parliament, a docile and unified Church, and they are fervent subscribers to mechanistic philosophy. But even though both are thoroughgoing rationalists, their opionions diverge as to what can be expected from experimentation, from scientific reasoning, from political argument – and above all from the air pump, the real hero of the story.
Boyle carefully refrained from talking about vacuum pumps. To put some order into the debates that followed the discovery of the Toricellian space at the top of a mercury tube inverted in a basin of the same substance, he claimed to be investigating only the weight of the air without taking sides in the dispute between plenists and vacuists. The apparatus he developed… that would permanently evacuate the air from a transparent glass container was, for the period – in terms of cost, complication and novelty – the equivalent of a major piece of equipment in contemporary physics. This was already Big Science….

While a dozen civil wars were raging, Boyle chose a method of argument – that of opinion – that was held in contempt by the oldest scholastic tradition. Boyle and his colleagues abandoned the certainties of apodictic reasoning in favour of a doxa. This doxa was not the raving imagination of the credulous masses, but a new mechanism for winning the support of one’s peers. Instead of seeking to ground his work in logic, mathematics or rhetoric, Boyle relied on a parajuridical metaphor: credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature. So he invented the empirical style that we still use today.

Boyle did not seek these gentlemen’s opinion, but rather their observation of a phenomenon produced artificially in the closed and protected space of a laboratory. Ironically, the key question of the constructivists – are facts thoroughly construced in the laboratory? – is precisely the question that Boyle raised and resolved. Yes, the facts are indeed constructed in the new installation of the laboratory and through the artificial intermediary of the air pump….But are facts that have been constructed by man artifactual for that reason? No: for Boyle, just like Hobbes, extends God’s “constructivism” to man. God knows things because He creates them. We know the nature of the facts because we have developed them in circumstances that are under our complete control. Our weakness becomes a strength, provided that we limit knowledge to the instrumentalized nature of the facts and leave aside the interpretation of causes. ONce again, Boyle turns a flaw – we produce only matters of fact that are created in laboratories and have only local value – into a decisive advantage: these facts will never be modified, whatever may happen elsewhere in theory, metaphysics, religion, politics or logic.

So you see, science, as a human practise, cannot be understood absent certain understandings of the role of an honorable “gentlemen” observer/fact recorder. But the “peer” is a necessary but not sufficient part of explaining the overall scientific process. A genealogy of “peer review” would have to start at least here though of course our understanding of the “gentleman” goes far back into the history of aristocratic values and their social roles. Anyway, consider that there is a fundamental difference between science and other forms of human-focussed knowledge in that anyone who has a great revelation into human nature can be, say, an artist or religious leader and make a genuine contribution. If those of us without scientific credentials or at least some serious amount of formal education, have a genuine revelation in the natre of physics or chemistry, there is really little we can do with it. No one will listen to us, because we will not know how to represent our little revelation in a way that makes it presentable to those in the field. We won’t know how to relate it to the established understandings and limits of present-day science. Science is ineviatbly a guilded discipline and has to have the honour code appropriate to such. Of course, this has to adapt to new technology and the increasing demands for tranparency and it has to know that it cannot have the final word on how we interpret the causes or socio-political-religious implications of its facts. But if science begins with facts, we need to be able to trust the integrity of those few with the resources and training to create them in the first place.

I chose the blogging name “truepeers” because it is inherently paradoxical; you can’t specify exactly what is a true peer. But, at the same time, you can’t engage in this world, or any human world, without adopting, as a base assumption, some form of the paradox. Which reminds me of something a friend writes (http://gablog.cdh.ucla.edu/) :

Perhaps the assumption that certain moral and ethical dispositions (certain patterns in the relations between ostensives, imperatives and declaratives) are required for a healthy political economy would help account for and benefit from exploring the one time and place in history, so far as I know, that genuinely approximated a free market: the 19th century Anglosphere, the U.S. and Great Britain (and Canada?) in particular. One of the greatest accomplishments of early modern bourgeois culture was the conversion of aristocratic into republican values, as notions like “nobility” and “virtue” came to be attached to action and character as opposed to being markers of social class. The “gentleman” and the “lady” were critical results of this process, and these figures eased the transition from status to individuality, maintaining their currency until very recently—only the cultural revolution of the 60s decisively dealt them their death blow (how long before the terms no longer even grace our public restrooms?). The gentleman and the lady domesticated ancient notions of “honor,” directing them away from violence perpetuated in the name of tribal and patriarchal prerogatives and protection towards a harmonious balance between public and private life, centered on the division of sexual roles in the nuclear family. My point here is not that we can revive ladies and gentlemen, but simply that no account of free market economics would be complete without them— without the assumptions of upward mobility and generational transmission through discipline and effort, including female responsibility for sexual deferral and “manly” self-reliance, implicit in these “categories,” the daunting rigors of Victorian laissez-faire economics would be unthinkable. An originary political economy today, then, would likewise have to study the novel forms of individuality and family life emergent today. An unsentimental and disinterested observation of today’s children and youth—if we can impose upon ourselves the discipline restraining us from either marveling at their supposedly splendid new qualities or flunking them due to their deviation from a more familiar model—would certainly be a good place to start, especially given the almost absolute independence and simulated internal coherence accredited to the world of teenagers in particular by the contemporary market. Maybe the representation of children holds at least one key towards unlocking today’s political economy.

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