Science in a free society

Posted: June 28, 2011 by tallbloke in climate, flames, Philosophy, Politics

Steve "Show us the data" McIntyre

Not long before climategate broke at the end of 2009, Steve McIntyre requested some assistance from readers at his blog Climate Audit. In the long running battle with the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia over access to the CRUTem dataset, attempts to obtain the information under the Freedom of Information Act had been thwarted by the CRU’s use of various exemption clauses. One of these was it’s claim that binding written agreements with other countries prevented them from disclosing it to non-academics. Steve asked readers to make FOIA requests for copies of these agreements.

I picked three countries, including Cuba, and duly sent off my request, which was refused some weeks later on the grounds that the agreements were themselves confidential. However, despite not wanting to share their confidential information with me, the CRU’s FOIA officer had no compunction in sharing my confidential information with the Norfolk Constabulary in the wake of the release of emails and data which became known as climategate. In the course of their investigation of the alleged ‘hacking’ the police contacted me and requested an interview, so they could ascertain if I may have been the ‘Hacker’ who obtained the emails and data.

Today, the Office of the Information Commissioner has ordered the CRU to release the requested CRUtem data to Jonathan Jones, a notable victory for common sense and open science. Steve McIntyre has the details here:

Anthony Watts got hot under the collar about U.N. Foundation Chief Tim Wirth’s interview on T.V. a few days ago in which he said:

Tim "wag your finger for all it's" Wirth

We have to–I think, again as I’ve suggested before–undertake an aggressive program to go after those who are among the deniers, who are putting out these mistruths, and really call them for what they’re doing and make a battle out of it. They’ve had pretty much of a free ride so far, and that time has got to stop.

In his challenge to Tim Wirth, and in the heat of his anger, Anthony made a comment about the unacceptable use of the term “denier” which he said was an insult not only to those on the sceptical side of the climate debate, but also to “the Jewish race”. This of course raised a bit of a storm around the blogosphere, with journalist Keith Kloor writing a piece in which he claimed the Watts’ outrage was ‘phony’, and that his comment about Jewish people showed his hypocrisy, because he hadn’t done the same in his previous thread criticising Christopher Monckton’s use of a swastika image in his presentation discussing Australia’s planned carbon tax. He also said Anthony was overblowing Wirth’s interview comment, saying:

Wirth is merely suggesting that climate skeptics should be more aggressively challenged on their claims, that’s all.

Fellow Lisbon attendee Steven Mosher weighed in saying:

Anthony clearly sees Wirth as a threat ( maybe motivating more Anna Hayes types to show up at his place of business). Some people feel so threatened that they use monikers as opposed to their real names.

Kirk "I'm Spartacus!" Douglas

To which I responded:

Mosh, after my name got picked up by the alarmist crowd letters started arriving at the Pro Vice Chancellors office demanding I be sacked from my place of work. The threat is real, and the tactics are mean spirited and dirty. My contract has since been renewed so all is well, but that doesn’t make the McCarthy-esque behaviour any less troubling. Anthony Watts is self employed, so the kind of attacks he suffers are different, but none the less real, and a genuine cause for concern.

So when Tim Wirth makes vague, undefined statements about “going after” “deniers”, it is understandable that Anthony Watts is concerned. It is not just ideas that get attacked. The ‘ends justify means’ people, and Wirth is one of them, are a real threat. People from all sides of the climate issue who believe in an open society and freely expressed scientific debate need to stand up and be counted here.

“I’m Spartacus!”

Paul "Anything Goes" Feyerabend

Tom Fuller made a thoughtful contribution, commenting on the truth of philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend’s observation that in trying to get a new theory to the front, ‘anything goes’, and that the progress of science is inevitably as much a political struggle as the winning of a logical debate on the merits of scientific evidence. That thesis formed the core of his book ‘Against Method’. I also recommend reading Feyerabend’s less well known book:
‘Science in a Free Society’(click for review)

People in the scientific establishment wrote Feyerabend off as a maverick crank. Recent developments in the climate wars have proved him and his philosophy of science right in my opinion.

  1. tallbloke, I’ve hardly been looking at the climate blogs the last few days so this was a really valuable summary for me of a debate I’d completely missed.

    I haven’t even read the original Watts, let alone the original Wirth. I have glanced at the Kloor thread though. That is a fantastic interaction between you and Mosher.

    Thanks for the testimony about the modern-day McCarthys and for the thoughtfulness of the analysis that goes back to Feyerabend. Something tells me that there’s something better but you can’t knock the guy for being too idealistic and impractical – and that’s always a plus for an academic!

  2. tallbloke says:

    Hi Richard, and welcome. Feyerabend has a lot more to say than the potted synopses provide. Everyone should read and think about his work. It is deeply considered and well exemplified.
    On a personal note, I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude to the climate debate, and it is the attack on science as a discipline which causes me the greatest concern. The institutionalisation of science has been to the detriment of the overall enterprise it seems to me. There are some spin-off benefits such as space probes which small groups couldn’t fund, but the downside in the groupthink is a big issue to deal with. What use is data if it is hidden, manipulated to support a biased agenda, and even destroyed to avoid negative implications?

  3. Tenuc says:

    tallbloke says:
    June 29, 2011 at 8:09 am
    “…On a personal note, I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude to the climate debate, and it is the attack on science as a discipline which causes me the greatest concern. The institutionalisation of science has been to the detriment of the overall enterprise it seems to me…”

    I couldn’t agree more, Rog. The history of scientific progress is littered with examples of this and still we continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Knowledge is power. This means that knowledge is always open to corruption. However, wisdom provides a depth of understanding which frees the human mind. Knowledge is of the past, but wisdom is of the future.