Thursday, December 20, 2012

Great piece by David Whitehouse: "The baloney detection kit is in ten thousand parts and is on the internet. Science needs to find a way to encompass this new reality"

Climate Science: Opinions, Baloney And Bloggers | The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF)
[David Whitehouse] The fact is that the internet is changing science and the debate about climate science is a good example of it. You can be a professor of anything these days but there will be someone out there in cyberspace who is smarter, better at statistics and computing, and has more time to focus on key problems. Someone who will ask for the raw data and mercilessly pick away at it, pointing out mistakes that before would have gone unnoticed. This might be uncomfortable for some, but it is undoubtedly good for science that cares nothing for personal feelings. The baloney detection kit is in ten thousand parts and is on the internet. Science needs to find a way to encompass this new reality.

Science has benefited from this. The so-called hockey stick graph showing global temperatures unchanging for over a thousand years and then an almost exponential recent rise – a graph that for years was an icon of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and hugely politically influential – was shown to be wrong by a blogger not by an academic climate scientist or by a journalist. There are other examples.

In the past the paper on the hockey stick would have been published in a journal after peer-review and stored in a library. But peer-review is not infallible, very many papers published in peer-reviewed journals turn out to be flawed. Access to the paper would be difficult for non-scientists. You could get a photocopy of the paper, but where is the data? How could it be checked? Scientists were forced into silos with the public forced to accept the conclusions of the priesthood with no way to check. False avenues in science took years and decades to correct, if at all. With the internet I suspect that the story of transposons, bacterial ulcers, continental drift, and smoking and cancer would have been different.

Because of the Internet and the demand for free access to scientific data (that is after all paid for by the taxpayer) science is becoming more open. It is the bloggers who are science’s new auditors. Many do not like it and have a cultural difficulty in accepting that the times are a changing. But as the new generations take over science will become more participatory and more appreciated.

All scientific conclusions are open to revision, especially those of climate science. Only today that revision is no longer exclusively in the hands of the scientific priesthood, or in the overvalued opinions of those on TV. Richard Feynman, once said, “It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.” He and Carl Sagan would have loved these times. They would be looking at the data, and writing blogs.

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