A recent article in The Economist titled ‘How science goes wrong’ got me thinking about what their assertions mean to Climate Science as we know it.
In summary, the author of the article argues that the great success of the scientific method has bred complacency such that scientific hegemonies are rarely addressed. I guess we believe that the way we do science works, so why change it? Although scientific research has been enhanced and expanded exponentially over the years, the way we DO science has changed very little since the 17th century. Contrariwise the scientific community has changed substantially over the years – with academic life becoming a very different field than was practiced in early science days. The biggest change has been growth, there is competition in science like never before, and from what I have observed in my short time in the academic world, an obligation to ‘publish or perish’ (The Economist terminology) is overwhelming.
The increase in the number of researchers and increase in funding for research has fostered an immense growth of scientific research and many ground-breaking papers have been published over the years – but with this increase comes competition and careerism which encourages the embellishment and cherry picking of results. In order for popular scientific journals to defend their exclusivity, they impose very high rejection rates, in fact more than 90% of submitted manuscripts are rejected. Submitted papers with the most striking findings naturally have the greatest chance of being published. It is no wonder that so many researchers know of a fellow colleague or colleague of a colleague who has polished up their paper by excluding inconvenient data from results based on ‘a gut feeling’. Conversely, research where scientists have failed to prove their hypothesis are rarely offered for publication – let alone published. ‘’Negative results’’ now only account for 14% of published papers, down from 30% in 1990. Yet aren’t we taught during our undergraduate studies that knowing what is false is as important to science as knowing what is true? The failure to report failures means that researchers waste money and effort exploring dead end research paths that have in actual fact, already been investigated by other scientists. The pressure to publish sometimes prevents us from examining already published papers critically, when we neglect this responsibility we end up cluttering the knowledge base and hindering further analysis.
In Climate Science there is the added pressure of intense social and political interest in the results of climate research, and there is a media focus on climate research that perhaps is absent in science faculties such as physics and biochemistry. On the one side you have intense vested interests in the status quo which includes a shrill minority who are openly resigned to refuse to challenge their long held beliefs. This backdrop makes any review or adjustment of previous assertions by climate science even more challenging. Further pressure faced by climate scientists in particular is the pressure to present a coherent front. The intense political nature of climate science adds an enormous amount of pressure to scientists – with many scientists being overly cautious and some being overly eager with statements – all of which the media laps up.
I’m not sure what all of this means for us as climate scientists (oops I can’t call myself one of those yet but you know what I mean!) But I know how easy it is for the human mind to get stuck in comfort zones – especially when these comfort zones seem to be working so well and producing so much ‘stuff’. I guess the question that comes to mind is, is this mass of research we as a scientific community produce of a quality that is just ‘’acceptable’’ and what other people want to hear?, Perhaps we could expand our minds even further in the field of science such that the science we DO allows for a finer balance between creativity, innovation, and replication of methodology.
Read the article I make reference to here: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21588069-scientific-research-has-changed-world-now-it-needs-change-itself-how-science-goes-wrong