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Climate: science, politics and honesty

February 18th, 2010 · 28 Comments

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I had never intended to write about climate. It is too far from the things I know about. But recent events have unleashed a Palin-esque torrent of comments from people who clearly know even less about it than I do. In any case, it provides a good context to think about trust in science,

Earth rise from moon. Appolo 8
Earthrise from moon. (click to enlarge)

My interest in it, apart from little matters like the future of the planet, lies in the reputation of science and scientists.

I have been going on for years now about the lack of trust in science, and the extent to which it is a self-inflicted problem. The latest reactions to the developments at the University of East Anglia and the IPCC may show the nature of the problem with dreadful clarity,

Many of us came into science because, apart from the sheer beauty of nature, it seemed like one of the few honest ways of earning a living. Most scientists that I know still think like that, but recent
events invite some reexamination of honesty in science.

How dishonest is science?

The first thing to say is that I have never come across anything in my own field that would qualify as fraud, or even dishonest. I did once have a visit from a rather distressed postdoc (not in my area of work) who felt pressurised by her boss into putting an interpretation on her work that she did not agree with. In the end, the bit of work in question was left out of the paper. That could be held to be dishonest, in that the omission wasn’t mentioned, but it could also be held that the omitted result was too ambiguous to contribute much to the paper. It was just short of the point where I’d have felt compelled to do something about it. But only just. That is about the worst thing I’ve encountered in a lifetime.

There is, of course, an enormous difference between being wrong and being dishonest.  Any research that is worth doing has an outcome that can’t be predicted before the work is done.  At best, one can hope for an approximation to the truth.  Mistakes in observations, analysis or interpretation will sometimmes mean the announced result is completely wrong, with no trace of dishonesty being involved.  But when that happens, others soon fiind the mistake. It is that self-correcting characteristic of science that keeps it honest in the long run.

Of course there have been occasional cases of outright fraud, simple
falsification or fabrication of data. How often it occurs is not really known. There is a recent analysis in PLoS One, about verified cases of misconduct in the USA suggested that 1 in 100,000 scientists per year are to blame, but other ways of counting give larger numbers. For example, if asked around 2 in 100 scientists claim to be aware of misconduct by someone else., The numbers aren’t huge but they are much bigger than they should be.

It isn’t perhaps surprising that the Fanelli study found misconduct was most frequent in “medical (including clinical and pharmacological) research studies”, which are often funded by the pharmaceutical industry, Basic biomedical research and other subjects were better, though sadly that could be only because they are less often offered money.

What gives rise to dishonesty?

It seems obvious that one motive is money, as suggested by the worst rates of misconduct being found in the clinical pharmacological studies, It is well known that studies funded by industry are more likely to produce results that favour the product than those funded in other ways.

The other reason is presumably the human desire to win fame, promotion and to get grants.

It is no excuse, but it is perhaps a reason for misconduct that the pressure to publish and produce results is now enormous in academia. Even in good universities people are judged by the numbers (rather than the quality) of papers they produce and by what journal they happen to be published in. Contrary to public perception, even quite senior people have no guarantee that they can’t be fired, and life for postdoctoral fellows, who do a large fraction of experimental research, is harsh to the point of cruelty. They exist on a series of short term contracts, they work exceedigly hard and have poor prospects of getting a secure job. In conditions like that, the only surprising thing is that there is so little dishonesty.

The pressure to publish in particular journals is particularly invidious because it is known that the number of citations that a paper gets (itself a fallible measure of quality) is independent of the journal in which it appears.   Bibliometrists are the curse of our age. (See, for example Challenging the tyranny of impact factors, 2003; and  How to get good science, 2007 or its web version; and Peter Lawrence’s article, The mismeasurement of science)

The enormous competitive pressure under which academics work is imposed by vice-chancellors, research councils and other senior people who should know better, It is a self-inflicted wound.

In other words, the authorities provide a strong incentive to do poor, over-hurried and occasionally dishonest science.  Perhaps the surprising thing in the circumstances is that there is so little outright fabrication.  The very measures that have the aim of improving science actually have just the opposite effect. That is what happens when science is run by people who don’t do it.

For an idea of what life is like in science now, try Peter Lawrence’s Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. Or, for someone at the other end of their career, Jennifer Rohn’s account on Nature blogs.

Given the high degree of insecurity for young researchers, compounded by well-intentioned but vacuous “training” from daft Robert’s’ "training courses", or the dismaly ineffective Concordat, the only surprise is that so many people remain honest and devoted to good science. Nothing raises the ire of hard-pressed scientists more than the constant emails form HR trying to force people to go to gobbledygook courses on "wellbeing". Times Higher Education recently did a piece on "Get happy", The comments are worth reading.

So what about climate change?

Out of thousands of pages in the IPCC reports, a single mistake was found, On page 493 of the IPCC’s second 1000-page Working Group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (WGII) it was said that Himalayan gla­ciers were “very likely” to dis­appear by 2035. Glaciers are melting but that date can’t be justified. This single mistake has been blown out of all proportion. Furthermore it is important to notice that the mistake was found by scientists, not by ‘sceptics’. It is a good example of the self-correcting nature of science. Nevertheless this single mistake has provoked something close to hysteria among those who want to deny that something needs to be done.

On the other hand, the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) look bad.  It simply isn’t possible at the moment to say whether they are as bad as they seem at first sight, We just don’t know whether anything of importance was concealed, but we should know.

One thing can be said with certainty, and that is that the reaction to their revelation by Dr Phil Jones, and by the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, was nothing short of disastrous. Fred Pearce put it very well in Climate emails cannot destroy proof that humans are warming the planet

Most unforgivably of all, UEA refused to comply with requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and there is some reason to think that relevant material was deleted. The deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, said: in a statement that

“The emails which are now public reveal that Mr Holland’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information.”.

That seems to me to be a matter that requires the resignation of the vice-chancellor.  On this matter, I think George Monbiot is spot on in his article “Climate change email scandal shames the university and requires resignations“.

There was a big feature about academic freedom in Times Higher Education recently.  One of the problems was what happens to someone who brings their own university into disrepute.  But when that term is used, it is always used about junior partners in the organisation (you know, professors and the like).  It should apply equally to heads of communications and vice-chancellors who bring their own university into disrepute, whether the disrepute is brought about by failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or by promoting courses in junk medicine.

In general, conspiracy theories are wrong. I’m not sure how much of the distortion of climate data results from surreptitious funding of opposition to doing anything by the fossil fuel industry. The Royal Society is an organisation that is not usually prone to conspiritorialist views. That means one must take it seriously the fact that in 2006, the Royal Society wrote to ExxonnMobil to ask them to stop funding climate denialist organisations. This is a bit like the way Big Pharma has been caught funding “user groups” that endorse their products. Some newspapers like to stir up controversies about things that aren’t very controversial. For example there is a good analysis of a recent Sunday Times piece here.

Of course it is often alleged that "quackbusters" are funded by Big Pharma, though in fact the amounts of money involved are far too small for Big Pharma to bother. Climate deniers too like to suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy, arranged between hundreds of labs in the world to conceal the fact that there is no such thing as warming. I guess that shows only that deniers know little about how science works. it is an exceedingly competitive business, and getting hundreds of labs to say the same thing would be like trying to herd cats.

If there is a problem, it is the other way round. Labs are in such intense competition with each other, that it lcan lead to undesirable levels of secrecy.

Blogs in which researches have a direct dialogue with the public are a big help.  As always in the blogosphere, the problem is to find the reliable sources. Two excellent sites, in which scientists (not journalists or lobbyists) talk directly with the public are realclimate.org and Andrew Russell’s blog. The post on RealClimate, IPCC errors: facts and spin, is especially worth reading.

Total openness is the only cure

All the raw data and all emails have to be disclosed openly. Everything should be put on the web as soon as possible. By appearing to go to ground, UEA has made enormous problems for itself and for the rest of the world.  Some people object to total openness on the grounds that the other side tells lies.  In the case of climate change (and in the case of junk medicine too) that is undoubtedly true.  The opponents are ruthlessly dishonest about facts.  The only way to counter that is by being ruthlessly and visibly honest about what you know, and why.

The UK’s Meteorological Office has, to its great credit, put raw data on line. That policy has already paid off, because a science blogger found a mistake in the way that some Australian data had been incorporated into forecasts. The Met Office thanked him and corrected the mistake. In fact the error makes no substantial difference to the warming trend, but the principle is just great. The more people who can check analyses and eliminate slip-ups the better.

Putting raw data on the web is an idea that has been gathering force for a while, in all areas of work, not just climate change. In my own are (stochastic properties of single ion channel molecules) our analysis programs have always been available on the web, free to anyone who wants them, despite the large amount of work that has gone into them. And we run a course. almost free, on the theory that underlies our analyses. Within the last couple of months we have been discussion ways of making public all our raw data (in any case, we would always have sent it to anyone who asked). Digitised single channel records are big files (around 100 Mb) and it is only recently that the web has been able to deal with such large amounts of raw data. There are also problems of how to format data so other people can read it, The way we are all heading is clear, and the fact that some people in climate science appeared to be hiding raw data is a disgrace.

Public relations is not the cure


It is not uncommon to read that science needs better PR. That is precisely what is not needed. PR exists to put only one side of the story. That makes it an essentially dishonest occupation. Its aims are the very opposite of those of science. The public aren’t stupid: often they recognise when they are getting half the story.

It is particularly unfortunate that many universities have developed departments with names like "corporate communications". Externally they are seen as giving information about science, and indeed some of the things they do are successful public engagement in science. Only too often, though, it is made clear internally that an important aim of these departments is to improve the image of the university.

But you have to choose. You can engage the public in science or you can be a PR image-builder. You can’t be both.

The matter came to a head in 2008 when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, the University of Nottingham issued a memo that defined public engagement as: “The range of activities of which the primary functions are to raise awareness of the university’s capabilities, expertise and profile to those not already engaged with the institution”.

The mainstream media and political blogs

The biggest problem of all with climate change is that it has become more about politics than about facts. It has become an essential credential for any conservative to deny that climate is changing. It is part of their public image, and most conservatives neither know nor care about evidence.  Like Sarah Palin, they just know. In the USA especially, the argument is not really about climate at all. It is really about discrediting Barack Obama -a sort of swift-boat treatment that uses whatever lies are needed.

Just as with the great MMR fiasco and the promotion of its false link to autism, reports in newspapers and blogs must bear much of the blame for failing to inform readers of the actual underlying facts and, just as important, the uncertainties.  Of course some papers have done a pretty good job, particularly the Guardian and the Independent in the UK, and the New York Times..  The political blogs, by and large, haven’t.  The Huffington Post has made little effort (and publishes some appalling nonsense about medicine too).

The problem with political blogs and tabloid newspapers is that they are much more interested in sensation and circulation than they are in giving accurate news and information.  Take, for example, the Guido Fawkes blog.  To be fair, the blog itself says "The primary motivation for the creation of the blog was purely to make mischief at the expense of politicians and for the author’s own self-gratification.  Its writer", so you know not to expect much, Paul Staines, was at the Westminster Skeptics event, Does Political Blogging Make a Difference?  He makes no pretence of taking the news seriously, which, I guess, is why I don’t read his blog.  After the talks I asked why his blog did little about climate change.  His answer was "where are your sandals?".  On the way home I tweeted, from a very overcrowded train (most trains from Euston being cancelled that night),

"On way home from #sitp political blogging. Learned that Guido serious about nothing but Guido. Narcissist not journalist."

At least one other person there agreed (thanks, Dave Cole).

It was good to hear Sunny Hundall of Liberal Conspiracy (the only one I read), but I found myself agreeing mostly with the chair, Nick Cohen.  It would be a tragedy if the great national and local papers were to vanish.  Guido Fawkes and Huffington Post are not remotely like proper newspapers. 

Specialist blogs like this one  are fine if you are interested in the topics we write about, but we don’t begin to supplant proper newspapers.  Bloggers can and do occasionally get good stories.  Those that are written by scientists can analyse more critically than most journalists have either the knowledge or the time to do.  Bur they don’t come close to supplanting the detailed reporting in good newspapers of local events, what happens in law courts or in parliament. That’s why it is vital to buy newspapers, not just read them free on the web.


James Hayton, who is in nanoscience has posted his thoughts obout trust in science on his blog.  I discovered this via Twitter (@James_Hayton).  He also posted a beautiful clip from the Ascent of Man, in which Jacob Bronowski speaks, from Auschwitz, of the consequences of irrational dogma. I’m old enough to remember Bronowski on a 1950s radio programme, the Brains Trust, though James Hayton clearly isn’t.  Now I enjoy equally his daughter, Lisa Jardine‘s talks about science and history.

1 March 2010. Phil Jones, and the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, appeared before a parliamentary committee. I found their responses to questions very disappointing. The evidence submitted by the Institute of Physics was strongly worded, but spot on.

“The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital.”

7 March 2010. Thanks to some kind remarks from Michael Kenward (see first comment). I sought wider coverage of this item in the mainstream media. Consequently, on Thursday 4 March, a much shortened version of this article appeared on the Guardian environment site. That piece has accumulated so far, 230 comments. The discussion of it has spread to the two blogs that I recommended, Andy Russell’s blog and RealClimate.org, though it has been diverted onto the side-issue of the letter from the Institute of Physics. The seemingly innocent idea that total openness would increase trust has, to my real astonishment, resulted in hysterical accusations that I’m a crypto-denialist. The constant politically-motivated attacks on climate science seem to have induced a paranoid siege mentality in some of them. There is a real danger that such people will harm their own cause, and that would be tragic.

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Tags: Academia · blogosphere · blogs · climate · corporate · corruption · honesty · Imperial · politics · public engagement · Public relations · Universities

28 responses so far ↓

  • 1 michaelkenward // Feb 18, 2010 at 15:36

    “Specialist blogs like this one are fine if you are interested in the topics we write about, but we don’t begin to supplant proper newspapers.”

    Very true. And much that appears on blogs deserves to remain obscure.

    This is not one of those articles. A thoughtful piece like this would be better than much of the guff on the climate saga that has appeared in print.

    I urge you to offer this to a “mainstream” outlet. It is too long for most, but careful editing would improve rather than harm to argument.

    Just one comment, while Nature at least claims that it is in the citations race, it isn’t so much the bibliometrics mob that are a curse but the dimwitted administrators who take their numbers seriously.

    There is a big difference between “impacts” and “outcomes”. But that is another story.

  • 2 WildDonkey // Feb 18, 2010 at 15:54

    I would say there have been more problems with the IPCC report than merely the Himalayan glacial problem (which was particularly severe since this was a headline item used to urge action by policy makers)

    Take for example all the references to WWF material, which is not exactly peer reviewed science:
    The scandal deepens – IPCC AR4 riddled with non peer reviewed WWF papers

    There were also estimates of agricultural problems in Africa which have turned out to be largely fictional, annecdotal evidence from Alp climbers cited as fact, and a mishmash of other problems.

    Hardly a glowing summary of the state of peer reviewed climate science. Given the enthusiasm with which established climate scientists attempted to prevent publication of dissenting research (as revealed in the CRU emails), I find myself questioning whether a reliance on peer reviewed climate science from the established climate scientists would give a balanced perspective. Anyone closely following the story will be aware of several instances where reviewers of IPCC reports have very valid objections about material included simply brushed aside.

  • 3 cgr // Feb 18, 2010 at 16:24

    WildDonkey – would suggest you read


    from the RealClimate blog. Apart from anything else, the latest IPCC report (AR4) is from Working Group 2 – ” .. impacts of climate change on society and ecosystems, as assessed by social scientists, ecologists, etc”. It is not from WG1 which produces reports about the climate science.

  • 4 FrankO // Feb 18, 2010 at 18:18

    Great post, David. I agree with michaelkenward that it merits more mainstream exposure.
    Estimates of the frequency of scientific fraud are never easy to achieve with confidence, but I suspect the problem may be a bit more widespread than the ‘2 in 100 scientists aware’ you quote.
    In my own 40 years of experience in biomedical research I have encountered two unequivocal incidents. In both cases they were detected by another scientist trying to start a project by beginning where a publication left off. In both cases the fraud was acknowledged by the postgraduate/ postdoc who had done the work. One was an unequivocal ‘I made it up because I had to have something tangible for my thesis’ The second was more borderline, with a postdoc stating that a published figure was the sole occasion in dozens of repetitions of an experiment that the ‘desired’ result was obtained. That second example is a pretty clear case of a scientist deluding him- or herself and something that may well go on far more often than is generally realized.
    While it’s true that other scientists will inevitably ultimately straighten the record where fraud has occurred, there is often a considerable loss of time and money involved before the fraud is discovered.
    Your post points out the enormous (and ever-growing) pressures brought on scientists — particularly the young ones — to produce some sort of goods from their research. Perhaps we should be relieved if this situation doesn’t lead more commonly to fraud; but we should never be complacent, particularly if the true problem is more common than we think.

  • 5 Dangerous Conventional // Feb 18, 2010 at 19:52

    It’s good to know that “evidence” for man made climate change and homeopathy both have the Royal seal of approval.

  • 6 toots // Feb 18, 2010 at 22:28

    News to me that the general medical opinion is that the research literature shows homeopathy to be more effective than a placebo. Prince Charles only pays attention to evidence when it agrees with his pet beliefs.

  • 7 charlestonjigger // Feb 19, 2010 at 01:40

    Well, during my PhD ive found quite that quite often reproducibility is no longer a part of the process. Trying things that have been published just don’t work. Now, im not willing to believe people would just publish lies. But on one occasion it would have taken all of five minutes to discover what they were claiming in the method was untrue.

    There is no real right to reply though. And although i know I’ve had difficulties reproducing various things, me knowing that is where it ends.

    I thought i could build a website that pulls pubmed citations and adds a comment thread at the bottom, like this.

    Don’t know if its worth doing because a lot of web sciency things seem to have a lack of interest to them. Maybe people are not keen to rock the boat, i dont know.

  • 8 David Colquhoun // Feb 19, 2010 at 09:56


    If you have uncovered mistakes then you should publish them. I’d suggest first writing to the authors and if (heaven forbid) they don’t respond sensibly, or show you the original data, then publish. It isn’t true that there is “no right of reply”

    And why not start a blog. If you have interesting things to say, and you can document it properly, then people will read it.

    As i pointed out above, the met office responded immediately to some errors found by a blogger who wasn’t even a climate scientist.

  • 9 Jeff Aronson // Feb 19, 2010 at 11:00

    David, you write that “the Fanelli study found misconduct was most on in clinical pharmacological studies”. You cannot conclude this from Fanelli.

    1. Fanelli refers to “clinical, medical and pharmacological researchers” and “medical (including clinical and pharmacological) research” and not “clinical pharmacological research”. In fact, only two of the 21 studies he included in his systematic review are described as being “pharmaceutical”; a third item includes the term “biotechnology”; none is described as being “pharmacological”. Fanelli also writes that “eight [of the 21 studies] were more specifically targeted at researchers holding various positions in the medical/clinical sciences (including pharmacology, nursing, health education, clinical biostatistics, and addiction-studies)”. So pharmacology is by no means the only component, and it is not clear what proportion of all “medical (including clinical and pharmacological) research” is actually pharmacological; however, it looks as if it is probably a small proportion.

    2. The pharmacological “misconduct” referred to, when it occurs, is largely related to clinical trials, most of which are not carried out by clinical pharmacologists. I know of no evidence about misconduct in clinical pharmacological studies in, for example, human receptor studies, pharmacokinetics and drug metabolism, drug interactions, pharmacogenetics, pharmacoepidemiology, pharmacoeconomics, and so on. There are cases, however, in which drug companies have concealed adverse effects of drugs after they were discovered (rofecoxib being perhaps the best known recent instance); how often that happens is not known.

    For further reading, I recommend “Fraud and Misconduct in Biomedical Research” (3rd edition, BMJ Books, 2001), a collection of 18 articles edited by Stephen Lock, Frank Wells, and Michael Farthing.

  • 10 andyrussell // Feb 19, 2010 at 11:02

    I thought I’d attempt a quick defence of CRU about their (albeit inadequate) FoI responses…

    So, CRU don’t own any of the data they use in the gridded climate datasets they produce. 95% of it is freely available and the rest is owned by individual National Meteorological Services. CRU get permission to use the data from those services – anyone could do this if it’s for legitimate, not-for-profit research. The fact that most of the FoI requests that went to CRU were orchestrated simply to waste time to get data that’s available elsewhere seems to me to be an abuse of the FoI system.

    Fortunately, I’ve only ever been subject of one FoI request (CRU recieve 100s). If someone were to access my emails about this request they would find me being less than diplomatic about the person that put it in and the reason for it. [I then spent an hour or so sending them the info, which didn’t even give the journo the story he was probably hoping for.]

    Personally, I think that some (though not all) of the criticism being aimed at CRU about FoI is misdirected.

  • 11 David Colquhoun // Feb 19, 2010 at 11:57

    @jeff Aronson
    Thanks for correcting my excessively brief shorthand. I altered that bit now. We need more good clinical pharmacologists to evaluate drugs, without industry influence.

  • 12 David Colquhoun // Feb 19, 2010 at 12:01


    It’s very good to hear from a real expert in the area. The information you give is very valuable, The problem was, i think, that UEA gave the impression of clamming up when the crisis broke and that public perception. however unjustified, didn’t help at all

  • 13 Allo V Psycho // Feb 19, 2010 at 12:30

    Charlestonjigger wrote “Well, during my PhD ive found quite that quite often reproducibility is no longer a part of the process. Trying things that have been published just don’t work. Now, im not willing to believe people would just publish lies. But on one occasion it would have taken all of five minutes to discover what they were claiming in the method was untrue.”

    This is an interesting issue. Actually, I can’t find a time when straightforward replication ever routinely led to publication, unless there was already a controversy. I certainly puzzled over this during my own PhD! What did that say about the scientific process? Gradually, though, as a principal investigator, I came to realise that replication goes on all the time, but is rarely published. For instance, when we got hold of a cell line which reportedly didn’t respond to a particular growth factor, we first checked that (a) it didn’t respond to FGF and (b) it responded to other GFs, as described. It all panned out, so we went ahead with our new experiments, without particularly mentioning the replication. If it HADN’T worked, I would have contacted the source lab first to discuss it. If that didn’t resolve the issue, I would have sent someone (a hapless PhD student!) to their lab to see what they actually did (because the Methods are only a summary and miss out things which the lab just take for granted). Then I’d have my best researchers and technicians repeat it all again in my lab. if I still couldn’t get it to work, I would have published a paper along the lines of “Cell line not as previously described”. I think that’s the way it works (and I’ve done all the above steps at some point!).
    So, if I had been you, I would have spoken first to my supervisor, and if s/he were on the ball, they would have gone through the above steps….I don’t think there has been a recent culture change, and I don’t think it is about not wanting to rock any boats. Just in practical terms you build on other people’s experience.

  • 14 WildDonkey // Feb 19, 2010 at 15:26

    “The fact that most of the FoI requests that went to CRU were orchestrated simply to waste time to get data that’s available elsewhere seems to me to be an abuse of the FoI system.”

    That is simply nonsense. CRU refused to give the temperature data en masse saying it was restricted by doing so by confidentiallity agreements. They would not say which data was under these restrictions though. Therefore, an orchestrated campaign was started, not to waste time, but to ask for the data for a few specific countries at a time using FoI requests in order to find out which ones were really covered by confidentiallity agreements, and get the rest of the data out.

    Of course it did not look too good when they later came clean with the fact they did not even have all the original data any more, only a “value added” version where they were not really sure what “value” had been added. Do you think that was the real reason for not releasing the data, rather than 2 or 3 confidentiallity agreements covering 0.1% of the data ?

    I think you need to read more from the “denialist” side of the fence; the majority really are only interested in the truth of the matter, and not as many of the “established climate scientists” would have you believe, crazy oil funded conspiratorialists trying to waste their time with FoI acts.

  • 15 Alan Bird // Feb 19, 2010 at 19:58

    Re the honesty of science don’t forget to include the suppression of data rather than outright falsification. I’m thinking of the Aubrey Blumensohn affair at Sheffield University. And, btw, one of the players in that saga, one Prof Richard Eastell, is exerting his malign influence in a more recent case – look up Guirong Jiang, also of Sheffield. Publish and be damned? It certainly looks as if she will be.

  • 16 DMcILROY // Feb 28, 2010 at 21:30

    Allo V Psycho gives a comprehensive resume of what needs to be done to replicate published results before even starting a new project.

    The whole thing consumes a lot of time and resources, so to take a short cut, I would guess that after getting some duff reagents from another lab, most people just mark that lab down as unreliable, and then tend to disregard results that come from there. I suspect that in the end labs and PIs get a kind of informal reputation that is not necessarily reflected in their publication record.

    Anyway, to get back to the point, the thing that shocked me the most in the leaked UEA emails was the message in which one of the UEA scientists, as editor of a journal, asked one of the reviewers for a strongly negative review, so that he would then have sufficient grounds to reject a paper. This appears to me to be a case of clear misconduct that weakens the integrity of the peer-review process. Or am I just being naive in thinking that this doesn’t go on all the time?


  • 17 David Colquhoun // Mar 1, 2010 at 08:32

    @Alan Bird
    Perhaps I should have mentioned the Blumsohn affair, which I have written about before. It is one of the best-documented cases of misconduct, and despite eventually getting to the GMC the miscreant still has his job and the honest whistleblower hasn’t. It is one of the worst cases that I have even come across, and the really worrying part of it is the way the university dealt with it.

    Heaven knows how many papers I’ve refereed It must be a lot, but I never once recall being asked by an editor to reach a particular conclusion, That. at least, seems to be a very uncommon form of misconduct in my field anyway.

  • 18 StuDavid // Mar 4, 2010 at 14:21

    I am interested that DC says that there was only one error in the IPCC WG2, I wonder if DC is aware of the complaints from the environment scientist Roger Pielke Jr about the IPCC representations of his work in WG2?

    Pielke Jr makes a strong case that there is a more systematic underlying problem in the quality of the last IPCCs summaries:


  • 19 David Colquhoun // Mar 4, 2010 at 15:27


    Yes I’m aware that a few more things have come to light now. It seems to me that, whether these mistakes are serious or not, the whole body of work needs to be checked again, and maybe even the IPCC replaced, simply to try to convince the denialists and to deny them any chink of credibility.

    This has to be done, despite the fact that many denialists well never be convinced however much evidence is produced because they aren’t really interested in the truth, but are simply advertising their Palin-esque politics.

  • 20 Liam // Mar 4, 2010 at 18:26

    This is my first post here, so apologies if this question has been answered before.
    If science does not need more PR, then why redo the entire WG report, and replace the IPCC, to deny the denialists any chink of credibility, even though many of them will never be convinced by evidence anyway? Isn’t that just a way of managing public perception? Isn’t that just PR?
    If the number of errors in the IPCC report do not warrant redoing the whole thing, then redoing it will backfire; it will be forever hailed as proof they were right by the denialists. No-one will believe that the IPCC was replaced just so Caesar’s wife could be above suspicion; they’ll conclude she must have been guilty after all.

  • 21 Q // Mar 4, 2010 at 20:47

    David, I enjoyed reading this piece (as I have your others over the years).
    I don’t think climate sceptics think there is an organised conspiracy, but it is worth considering that there is a certain type of groupthink involving “post normal science” (PNS). The Marxist mathematical philosopher Jerome Ravetz who first characterised/described (some say invented) PNS has written an excellent piece on this in relation to climategate – see: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/02/09/climategate-plausibility-and-the-blogosphere-in-the-post-normal-age/

  • 22 Brandon Shollenberger // Mar 7, 2010 at 15:11

    Normally I don’t care to post on blogs. That said, I wanted to point out something people seem to have missed. FOI requests were avoided long before many were sent to CRU. That people like Hank Roberts, dhogaza and Andy Russel try to blame CRU’s actions on those making requests is silly. That people actually listen to them is absurd.

    It seems people are somehow not paying any attention to those who made the requests, even though they ought to be the ones most sought after. In an attempt to help rectify this, I’d like to post a link to a piece written by Willis Eschenbach, one of the major players in the FOI efforts. Once one reads it, it will be obvious how ridiculous the defenses of CRU are.


  • 23 David Colquhoun // Mar 7, 2010 at 15:39

    @Brandon Shollenberger

    I posted your comment because I very rarely censor comments as a matter of principle. Nevertheless I suspect we have rather different motives. You seem to assume that the data, if released, will show that AGW is a myth and you’ll be able to drive gas-guzzlers for ever.

    My presumption is that even if there are a few errors in the analysis, it won’t change the overwhelming reasons to think that GW presents a real and present danger.

    My aim in this post was to offer a bit of friendly advice to the climate science community about how best to persuade moderate politicians that action is necessary. If that means more taxes, I’m happy to pay them.

  • 24 Brandon Shollenberger // Mar 8, 2010 at 05:35

    I am baffled by your response David Colquhoun. Nothing in my post could possibly be taken to support the assumption you mention. I did not make any claims about AGW as a whole, nor did I suggest the incidents at CRU were particularly important as far as the science of global warming is concerned.

    I cannot understand your reaction. My comment was made simply to show CRU’s actions were unjustifiable. People offered defenses for CRU which were incorrect. I wanted to show those defenses were incorrect.

    If you would like to know my “position” on global warming, I will gladly share that. However, I don’t see how it could be relevant in regard to whether or not CRU behaved appropriately.

  • 25 David Colquhoun // Mar 8, 2010 at 15:51

    @Brandon Shollenberger

    Everyone seems to have a ‘side’ in this business, though some comments are so heated that it’s hard to see which side they are on.

    Perhaps I over-reacted to yours. I haven’t enough information to judge the excuses for refusing the FoI request, I do think that it was very unfortunate that they did refuse.

  • 26 Brandon Shollenberger // Mar 9, 2010 at 16:17

    There are two important things to realize about the refusal of FOI requests. First, the FOI requests were only made after informal requests were turned down. Second, the decision to avoid FOI requests preceded the requests. Knowing this, there is no way to excuse CRU’s actions.

    Problems only get worse if they aren’t dealt with. Once people admit CRU misbehaved, this issue will mostly go away. The only people who benefit from the continued defense of CRU’s actions are the “denialists.” The best way to advance science, and to combat global warming, is to admit and fix mistakes when they are found.

    “The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.”

  • 27 An Astonishing Ascent | Reciprocal Space // Dec 27, 2010 at 00:17

    […] languishing on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years. But only recently, when I came across a blog post by David Colquhoun, was I propelled into action. The post was a fascinating reflection on the […]
  • 28 Scientia Pro Publica 22 | Reciprocal Space // Feb 15, 2013 at 14:07

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