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Is the science of climate change a conspiracy?

To claim that climate change is a conspiracy is to misunderstand science in fundamental ways. To even imagine a scientific conspiracy suggests a lack in science education that scares me. Science is not a monolithic voting body in which what presses forward goes through some voting process, nor is it vetted by some panel to pass muster. Science is made up of scientists who are in a dog fight to have their idea’s pushed to the front. This is not to say that scientists are not influenced by certain cultural trends, or that there are not research programs that become dominant and entrenched. No, every scientist knows this and these defects are well understood. There are checks and balances, principally credentialing through a rigorous educational process and peer review, both of which are in place to insure standards of methodological quality and which are breathtakingly demanding. The other factor in science is transparency. How the data are collected and analyzed becomes a record in the peer reviewed literature. Certainly there are flaws and mistakes made, but overall, as a process, it tends to weed out the bad and let the good bubble to the surface. However, the best way to make your career as a scientist is to be the one who smashes current paradigms, who finds the flaw in the way data are being analyzed, to be the one who overturns expectations and presses current understandings of how things work in new ways.

This is not the kind of environment where conspiracy flourishes. Nay, I’ll say it more strongly, this is not the kind of place where conspiracy could even get a foothold. Consider the following exchange reported in the Feb 5th, 2010 Salt Lake Tribune (linked at beginning):

Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Holladay, questioned Gibson about the “conspiracy” wording in the resolution. “A conspiracy?” he asked. “By whom? To what end?”

“I’m not sure we’ll ever know the depths of it,” said Gibson, adding that it was hard to separate the hype because “we only hear one side of the argument.”

Shocking. Science has no hierarchy as such. There is no one who could organize such silence or widespread agreement such as conspiracy demands. Sometimes those who have failed in promoting certain scientific ideas that have been deemed to have no merit (The Discovery Institute’s Intelligent Design trickiness comes to mind) take to the airwaves (or Internet) to cry that they were suppressed or that they didn’t get a fare hearing.

So let me conclude this quoting myself in my very first blog:

“Many people think scientists are in a grand conspiracy together—that we all secretly agree on some cabalistic agenda, including, but not limited to evolution, global warming, the cell theory of organisms (it’s still only a theory we are made of cells, you know, but I find the evidence compelling), etc. They then think we defend its boarders against those who aren’t part of the club. Well, it’s sort of true. Scientists are not likely to let the new kids on the block play with the regulars until the supplicant proves him or herself in the crucible of the playing field. But conspiracy? Heavens no. Scientists are a bloodthirsty lot. Their currency of exchange is fame and glory. Eternal life in the pages of history. To have your ideas spread are the passion that motivates every scientist I know. Truth is the playing field, the goal of the game though is to get ahead; to become the next Einstein, Darwin or the professor on Gilligan’s Island (The greatest scientist I know). And it is bloody. Reputations are made and broken. Pedestals are erected and smashed. Lives ruined, tenure denied, papers rocketed into the sky only to be shot down with anti-ballistic missiles in the form of data that doesn’t fit your project. It is an ugly world of fierce competition. Only the fittest ideas persist.
 
Here is a metaphor: The public picture of science is the Dog Party in the children’s book Go Dog Go, up in the tree all toasting one another’s success (as a side note I have read this little treasure more times than any other book ever). The more accurate view of science is to move the dog party to the Roman Coliseum. Now turn them into pit bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, and German shepherds. Maybe throw in one of those wolf hybrids if you want. Now set them at each others throats. That is science. Scientists are like a great gladiatorial arena of fighting dogs. Each scientist quickly assesses the strength of their opponent then goes for the throat. A quick kill is the surest way to dislodge a weak and insubstantial enemy. This arena is fierce and unrelentingly competitive. The best way to get ahead in the game is to focus your attack on the top dogs and take them down. If you can replace the alpha theory-hypothesis-notion with your own you have the won the contest. So scientists scrutinize each other carefully, try hard to understand what others are saying so they can throttle those ideas if they can. It is not a conspiracy, it’s not a dog party, it is a Hobbesian war of all against all.
 
Most people don’t understand this. That’s because there are usually a few whiners whose ideas haven’t survived the bloodfest and cry, ‘We didn’t get a fair hearing!’ Ideas like Intelligent Design (ID), or ESP try to enter the arena, then fail in the fray and so these little high-pitched barking Chihuahuas take the case to the ever kind and gentle public. The defeated little dogs paint the event like this scientific hegemony has formed a wall that won’t let there ideas in. The truth is it’s a free for all. There are lots of causalities. That wall is the wall of the battles and skirmishes formed by the fighting dogs. If you’re driven out, the easiest and cheapest claim is that ‘The dogs wouldn’t let me in.” True enough. If you aren’t willing to scrap with them, and not tough enough to compete, they aren’t going to give you a ‘bye.’ And they are not kind. These whooped types, with tail between their legs, start appealing to the public who are much more fair-minded, less critical in the judgments and much nicer when it comes to that noble sense of being fair. Science has no sense of fairness. Ideas are tested, fought over, and are kept or discard in competitive contests with reality. The fight has rules, but like in my dog analogy, these are more about the teeth, claws and sinew of the fighting beasts. To be accepted you must survive. There are occasional alliances but they are short lived and easily subverted.
 
The fact is things like Evolution and Global warming have survived. Evolution has survived some of the bloodiest battles in the history of science (and I don’t mean between creationists and evolutionists, I mean among evolutionists). It’s as solid as anything I know. There are a few yapping toy breeds still barking at it from the outskirts of the battlefield, like ID, but the second they enter the fight, they are bitten bad and they go yelping back to the safety of public opinion’s lap. In the fray itself they are seen as non-combatants. If their ideas didn’t keep slipping away into the security of their masters, those ideas would be killed without mercy.”

Conspiracy? Not a chance.

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38 comments to Is the science of climate change a conspiracy?

  • I believe in global warming, but given the winter we are having in Iowa, I am wavering just a wee bit on my stance.

    Why are some Latter-day Saints cafeteria consumers of science, picking and choosing their facts with the same kind of selectivity that my teenager uses when eating mixed vegetables on his plate?

    Why are some LDS afraid that our physical brain could be conscious?

    Did you see the awesome article in the latest New England Journal of Medicine that reports how to communicate with a comatose patient with the “locked-in” syndrome? The study used fMRI activity to differentiate yes/no answers to questions the patient could answer only if he was conscious. It is a must read.

  • It seems like more and more otherwise intelligent people are buying into this. Just today I was thinking that the last 10-15 years are a gold mine for psychologists and sociologists interested in how the public relate to science. Vaccines, HIV, evolution, climate change–all are alleged to be products of conspiracy. Some days I worry that our civilization will collapse out of self-inflicted madness.

  • ricke

    I’m sorry that I can’t wholly buy the idea that a field of science cannot become lopsidedly prejudiced toward one point of view. It seems that this would be particularly possible in a field that is controversial, where the data is not widely held, and where professors with that point of view dominate the primary institutions. Your argument that science is self-correcting seems analogous to the economic theory of efficient markets. However, even the efficient market theory admits that people can beat the market through mechanisms similar to those I described above.

  • Groups can and do dominate areas. I’d suggest you read through Taubes Good Calories, Bad Calories or review the climategate materials more for an example of how a group moves and acts in order to dominate an area and impose an agenda.

  • Stan

    If one dismisses scientific consensus that is not only significant but overwhelming, what could that dismissal be based on? Outlying opinions by discredited or under-credited scientists? Your own scientific research? A hunch? More likely it is the influence someone else with an agenda and/or a bias who isn’t a even scientist.

    As a layman I rely on scientific consensus. When it comes to scientific knowledge there simply is no other source, flaws and all, that comes close to being reliable.

    If 90%+ of climate scientists believe there is a warming trend after years of data gathering, debate, scandal, poor reporting by the media and all the standard messy details of science, I am satisfied and convinced.

    If all LDS members had their faith rattled by some little detail of church history or other scandal in the church as they are with this global warming scandal, no one would believe anymore.

  • S. Faux and Jared*! Two champions of science defense! (And for an excellent look at so called climate gate see Jared*’s post here).

    Stan that is exactly right. People don’t realize the intense debates among scientists themselves that has occurred in the primary literature. That a 90% consensus has been reached is an extremely important statement. And you were right-on the money in your point about their evidence for denying climate change. They don’t have any. That’s why it takes a whole scale denial of science to ignore climate change. That’s why it’s scary: It’s a movement back to the middle ages where beliefs are formed by rumor and opinion rather than by evidentiary analysis.

  • I don’t believe there is a vast scientific conspiracy. But there are small conspiracies that occur in science, just as they do in other areas of life.
    Do you think that the exposed emails from the University of East Anglia were not a conspiracy? Sure seems like it was to me. I just don’t think all climate change scientists were involved in it.

    Science is also an arena where incompetence and cheating come into play, just as in any other field. The “fact” that the glaciers in the Himalayas would disappear by 2030 ended up being a throw away, non-peered comment that was intentionally placed in scientific articles.

    I’m open to the idea of climate change. However, I pause when I come to the conclusion after several events like these to wonder: just what do we do with the data? What is real, and what is made up?

    I hope they scrub the data, peer review it intensely, and then present it anew to the world, so we can feel confident about the actual facts.

  • rameumptom,
    “Science is also an arena where incompetence and cheating come into play, just as in any other field.”

    Very true. But these things will be cleaned up by the scientific process itself, by scientists who are familiar with the data and modes of analysis.

    The emails were unfortunate (Look at Jared*’s work on this referenced above and his more recent posts on this), but there is a such thing as private discourse and public where short hands, bias are used among friends that are not used in public discourse. Fact is scientists are human. However, the process is fierce with strong motivation to find the flaws, mistakes, and harms in other people’s work.

    The Himalaya claims were not in peer reviewed literature and that was the problem.

    “However, I pause when I come to the conclusion after several events like these to wonder: just what do we do with the data? What is real, and what is made up?”

    I find that a healthy attitude and commend you on your spirit of openness and skepticism. Keep an eye on the scientists rather than the media and radio pendents. They are working on cleaning it up. They really are. But the things the media care about and the hard science they are working on are too different things.

  • Casey

    I suggest you read the concluding chapter of Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method.” Here is one salient quote which helps explain why there is a perception of conspiracy:

    “Basically, there is hardly any difference between the process that leads to the announcement of a new scientific law and the process preceding passage of a new law in society: one informs either all citizens or those immediately concerned, one collects ‘facts’ and prejudices, one discusses the matter, and one finally votes. But while a democracy makes some effort to explain the process so that everyone can understand it, scientists either conceal it, or bend it, to make it fit their sectarian interests.”

  • Casey, I have read, “Against Method” and as a good scientific anarchist you of course believe that the discourse of any myth is as good as science and that science is just a force for power justifications and is not really saying anything other than making sociological cultural statements like might be had from, say, the ancient Greeks. Bully for you. Then of course from your perspective, science’s claims to climate change are not based on anything but opinion, so are as good as saying that maybe the weather is caused by angry witches empowered by Zeus, so yes seeing it as a vote would make sense. But I happen to believe that science is at least attempting to engage with a real world and so must disagree.

  • Dusty R

    Great stuff, Steve. I actually posted a link to this on Glenn Beck’s facebook page. Hope you don’t mind. :-)

    Here is some of the dialogue (thought you MIGHT be interested to see, if you can’t sleep one night.) :-) (i might have borrowed a line or two — it’s hard not to steal from you!). Here it is:

    Glenn, you do a lot of good, and you’re correct about a lot of issues. But it does a lot of damage to pit religion or ideology against science — because science is neither of those, and it HAS to be that way for science to work. I don’t blame you for your thoughts…most people don’t understand exactly how the peer-reviewed scientific process works unless they studied it in college. This post on a blog by a BYU professor of Biology (named Steve Peck) sums up nicely the reason many people are hostile to science. http://sciencebysteve.net/?p=1523

    Dani Harris
    No offense Dustin, but how do you explain why many scientists were threatened if they spoke out against the fact humans were causing global warming. How do you explain the fact that Al Gore’s most enlightening documentary being shown in schools across the world must now have a disclaimer in the UK that it is for entertainment purposes only. You can still brainwash with entertainment and the entire scam was nothing more than a way for a few folks to make a fortune off our backs.

    Dustin Daniel Rhoads
    Dani said: “No offense Dustin, but how do you explain why many scientists were threatened if they spoke out against the fact humans were causing global warming.”

    Dani, please send me to a link to the instance that you’re referring to, and I’m sure I’ll respond eventually.

    Dani said: “How do you explain the fact that Al Gore’s most enlightening documentary being shown in schools across the world must now have a disclaimer in the UK that it is for entertainment purposes only.”… See More

    This is how I see the problem here:

    A non-scientist politician (like Al Gore) knows the power of science to persuade, and so he manipulates SOME facts about REAL science to push his own agenda.

    Of course, anything that a liberal (like Al Gore) says is NUTS to a conservative. And so conservatives do what anyone would expect from either camp, and they bash the other camp AND (unfortunately) the science. Al Gore is no different than any other politicians, except for the fact that he got lucky when he picked the science he wanted to use. If he would have picked FALSE science (like Intelligent Design), then he’d certainly have a lot of scientists up in arms (for good reason), would not have had a leg to stand on, and he would have won no award (the scientists should have won it — not him).

    Dustin Daniel Rhoads
    If you want to be angry at someone, just be angry at Al Gore, not the scientists. I personally haven’t seen the Al Gore video, so I don’t know much about it, but if the general message is that humans are destroying the earth, then there is overwhelming evidence for that from MANY fields — not just climate change — and the one thing I could concede is that at least he got that one single fact right. But if other aspects of his video were overblown, then I wouldn’t know since I haven’t seen it.

  • Bradly A Baird

    I have to say that I tend to agree with your original post, Steve. I spent a great deal of time in College studying the natural and material history of the world – and now again redsicovering the world of science as a new student of biotechnology – I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like a conspiracy in this world. Your “fighting dogs” analogy seems particularly appropriate. In fact, what always amazed to me was the way that the debate over scientific knowledge and evidence carried on in the classroom. I have vivid memories of my professors – often distinguished scientists in their own right – openly questioning the methodology and conclusions of their peers during class; weighing in with their own opinions and bringing their own studies on a particular subject to the table. In my mind, this is what makes science compelling- the constant evolution of knowledge and ideas through the method, debate, and a constant testing of the hypothesis (perhaps I am naive, though).

    I am not going to weigh in with my own personal ideas about climate, but I am keeping an eye open to watch the science of climate change as the whole field moves forward and am paying attention to what it means for our world.

    Thanks, also, to the other commenters.

  • Peter

    Ack,

    Frustrating because this post shows wholehearted faith in its self-promoting conclusions. The fact that 90% of scientists agree was probably quoted in Time Magazine and disseminated to the masses. The politics and business of science make it just as suspicious as anything else. What about the granting mechanisms and foundations that push money down rabbit holes that hold for promising conclusions that support agendas. Sure, true scientists maybe scrapping dogs that rip and tear until they reach the top, but others are denied tenure when they even start to research or use the word, “ID” in a classroom setting. That harks a little conspiratorial to me. The effects of economic implications of one certain outcome can make peer review a megaphone. Who is reviewing the peer reviewers? Better yet, who is peer reviewing the science reporters who twist abstracts and research data to fit a preconceived conclusion that then goes into distribution where armchair scientists pick it up and take it as gospel truth. Troubling indeed. I was one who was coming around to Darwinism but now I don’t know anymore. My trust levels have been compromised. All institutions are fallible and to think otherwise is quite naive.

  • jack

    Over time, conspiracies simply don’t hold up. Eventually, someone tells, blabs, brags, squeals etc.

  • Peter, The survey that established the 90% consensus among climate scientists is here. As for denying tenure for teaching ID in the class room, likely tenure denial was a lack of publishable research, if you can actually find a case for that claim. You will find that astrologers also run into the same problems getting past peer review, with mainstream astronomers keeping them out because of preconceived conclusions about what counts as science. Oddly the only ones believing that science claims it is infallible are caricatures made by the anti-science crowd. Can you find a scientist anywhere that makes that claim? Science’s greatest claim is using fallibility to test it’s theories, hypotheses, and data. Scientists know this and use it in everything they do. Too bad you are abandoning Darwinism, you will miss all of modern biology and that’s a terrible loss.

  • I would note that there are factors in at least some scientific fields that make new ideas sometimes difficult to get published or off the ground. Michael Coe, a leading Mayan scholar, wrote about how deciphering the Maya language took decades longer than it should have, simply because the top professors in the field insisted that Maya was indecipherable. There was no hidden conspiracy. It was out in the open, where if you disagreed, you risked never getting tenure in the field, etc.
    So, science conspiracies do occur. They just are not global, and usually seem to finally come out in the open (as the emails from the Univ of East Anglia recently did).

  • SteveP, we are agreed. Climate change is not a conspiracy. But I wonder how The Conspiracy might be using global warming in its quest to control the world.

    “I testify that wickedness is rapidly expanding in every segment of our society. (See D&C 1:14–16; D&C 84:49–53.) It is more highly organized, more cleverly disguised, and more powerfully promoted than ever before. Secret combinations lusting for power, gain, and glory are flourishing. A secret combination that seeks to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries is increasing its evil influence and control over America and the entire world. (See Ether 8:18–25.)” (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, Nov. 1988, p.87.)

    He was Prophet. He was speaking in General Conference. It’s in the Book of Mormon. But do we care?

  • Yep. He was NOT talking about big oil.

  • JonB

    Who was he talking about?? Al Gore???

  • Nope. Gore is just a side show.

  • Rich

    I’m pretty certain he was talking about R. Gary.

    Meanwhile, proof that the Utah Legislature is also [R-word deleted by admin].

  • Rich

    Actually, R. Gary’s Benson quote is further evidence that most anti-GW arguments have NOTHING to do with science, and EVERYTHING to do with politics.

    Turns out Satan was right — you actually CAN have anything in this world for money, including the “dissent” of a handful of otherwise credible climate scientists critical of IPCC findings who (more often than not) are bankrolled by big energy companies — companies with very big financial incentives to maintain the status quo. Much like the medical doctors that were paid by big tobacco “research” conducted back in the 1950′s, who went on record to say there was “no conclusive proof” that cigarettes caused cancer.

  • I was just about to start talking about doctors who didn’t find the science linking cigarette smoking with cancer “unconvincing” when I got the the last paragraph above.

    Those unconvinced doctors have taught me to be wary when overwhelming scientific consensus is being doubted by people close to influential corporate interests.

    Even if human contribution to Global warming has been zero, what about ocean acidity? I am very worried about that, since rising acidity in oceans is going to disrupt oceanic ecosystems in a way unprecedented by anything since the last mass extinction of species.

    My idea of why people are such easy prey for the climate change deniers is that they don’t like what they hear. They hear that they should be more energy efficient, and it doesn’t take much to figure that means fuel efficiency in cars, better built homes, filtering power station exhaust (and getting rid of those 50″ plasma TVs). It is exactly what Al Gore said, An Inconvenient Truth (NB! I may or may not like Al Gore and/or his political views; he just happened to use a most fortunate turn of phrase in this context).

    But back to conspiracy and science. Sure, there are things like political correctness, that get blamed when someone doesn’t get tenure or a grant. And, quite honestly, humans being human, I can see something like that happening once in a while. But a real scientist would be the last one to call science (as in, “the accepted science” or “scientific consensus”) infallible.

    However, the scientific method, if rigorously adhered to, and practised by the larger community, is quite close to being infallible; it will simply expose its own weak spots eventually.

    For all the stories of unfairly treated scientists, we actually have very few ones, who have done their homework, published research and then been pooh-poohed by the community for years only to be vindicated by a fair-minded newspaper/radio/TV/blogosphere journalist on a crusade to expose the latest conspiracy.

  • David H Bailey

    Here is a long but surprisingly well-written overview of the issue, evidently written by a student. He lists several well-known figures in the global-warming-denial community, and shows how each is associated with one of a handful of politically conservative “research institutes” funded by large corporate interests. Fred Singer, the most prominent figure of the group, is touted as a PhD scientist, but he hasn’t published any real, peer-reviewed science for 35 years, and takes money from large oil companies (you read the rest).

    http://climatesight.org/category/how-science-works/

  • David H Bailey

    Here is another nice two-part overview of the science of global warming, written by a leading NASA climate scientist.

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/17/lacis-at-nasa-on-role-of-co2-in-warming/

  • Re: “However, the best way to make your career as a scientist is to be the one who smashes current paradigms, who finds the flaw in the way data are being analyzed, to be the one who overturns expectations and presses current understandings of how things work in new ways.”

    Mr. Peck,
    I think I have identified a source of your acrimonious attitude towards scholars who disagree with you, especially with regard to evolution.

    I work for a very large research organization, doing research, planning studies, evaluating studies, and running analyses. Let me say that it is not common courtesy to intentionally look for flaws in the way others analyze data. This attitude communicates distrust in another’s ability to conduct science in a rigorous manner.

    Science does not proceed by attempting to smash the opposition’s paradigm or to find fault with others’ data gathering and analyses. You’ve set up a false caricature that is not healthy for science in general. I certainly hope you don’t teach this approach to your students.

    Perhaps this attitude is a spill over of over zealous Popperian falsification. Sure, we should try to falsify our own hypotheses, but we should not “lock ‘n load” and go head hunting others’ viewpoints just because they take an opposing viewpoint. Is this approach the source of your hostile attitude toward ID?

    In sum, the best way to make a career as a scientist is to work hard on developing and testing your own ideas and then making these public for the scientific community to analyze in a well-intentioned, critical manner.

  • Being a support statistician is much different than being a scientist. I know I’ve done both.

    “Science does not proceed by attempting to smash the opposition’s paradigm or to find fault with others’ data gathering and analyses.”

    Wrong.

  • Dave C.

    “Being a support statistician is much different than being a scientist. I know I’ve done both”

    - I am not sure what point you are trying to make.

    You have a too limited view of scientific activity, my friend. Scientific activity is not just work that takes place in a laboratory. Scientific activity covers a wide range of activities.

    Scientific activity is cogitating in one’s chair over a new theory and performing thought experiments (e.g., Einstein), true experiments in the laboratory, quasi-experimental designs, qualitative designs, and doing background literature research, to name a few.

    By the way, not long ago I was observing a trauma physician, trauma nurses, and a paramedic from behind a one-way mirror performing a ressucitation in a simulator, at a major medical facility in Utah. There were lots of expensive high tech equipment on site. Afterward I discussed how our team of researchers could create publishable results on the transfer of clinical skills into a real world setting. This study could save your life if you ever need critical care in Utah. Doesn’t sound like just a support statistician, does it?

    I am starting to notice an elitism among biologists and others in the physical sciences, but I hope I am mistaken.

    “Science does not proceed by attempting to smash the opposition’s paradigm or to find fault with others’ data gathering and analyses.”

    -Correct for the sciences I work in. Perhaps the sciences you work in are more in the tradition of WWF wrestling, dog eats dog, and eye for and eye, nasty comments style sciences.

    Sincerely,

    Dave C.

  • Stan

    “I work for a very large research organization”

    Which planet is that on? =:)
    Just reading pop-sci books it’s easy to see the pleasure scientists take in debating theories. Some are friendly bouts (Bohr v Einstein) and some are nasty, personal, territorial and egotistical which is probably a good thing. Having nothing but harmonious debates would probably leave science more prone to human bias.
    The whole point of pier review is for independent scientists to put down their own work and spend a great deal of time and effort to try their best to dismantle someone else’s work. If it stands up, then something has been added to our body of knowledge. Surely this concept is not foreign to you. Science cannot work if the only thing scientists did was work on their own theories with nothing but friendly support from other scientists. Perhaps in your lab criticism isn’t encouraged.

    “say that it is not common courtesy to intentionally look for flaws in the way others analyze data”

    Sure sounds that way.

    “Science does not proceed by attempting to smash the opposition’s paradigm or to find fault with others’ data gathering and analyses.”

    Holy Halelukila, that is precisely how science proceeds, otherwise all we’d have is a bunch of ideas with no fiercely debated independent verification.

    “I think I have identified a source of your acrimonious attitude towards scholars who disagree with you, especially with regard to evolution.”

    I’m no scientist, but I could have nothing but an “acrimonious attitude” towards those debating a flat Earth, homeopathy, Scientology etc etc… There are too many cranks trying to pass pure crap as science to even begin to take them seriously. And yeah, that’s an elitist attitude which can only be deflated by… good pier reviewed science. Whining won’t do it.

  • Kreed

    I really did not like the junkyard dog metaphor much. However, my personal experience might be enlightening. I was a post-doc at University of Washington. I was working on an International Biological Program (IBP) funded coniferous forest biome project. I was a “modeler” and developed a model of photosynthesis that I was proud of. It used nonlinear regression to fit the physical model to experimental data. It wasn’t bad and we were able to publish it. One of the reviewers, Paul Jarvis, was coming to UW for a sabbatical, and he and I re-worked the math a bit and I included him as an author. When I presented the model in a AAAS national meeting, a friend of mine viciously attached the model, focusing on an omission. It was a trivial point; I defended the omission and went on. But Leo was right – there were assumptions made in the formulation that were shaky and needed more research.

    Watson and Crick, on the other hand, were racing to publish their work on the structure of DNA against another team. Darwin finally got of the dime and published Origin of Species when he felt pressure from a competitor. Competition is a major motivator.

    While on the faculty at Yale, I participated in some discussions about acid rain. Concerns that lower pH rainfall might damage plants triggered some funding. I personally was suspicious because the acidity was low and the cause was thought to be sulfur dioxide; sulfur is a required nutrient for plants. Point is: available funding is a big motivator.

    My experience in science was mostly cooperative – as a modeler it was necessary for me to team with people who had more subject matter expertise.

    So not really junkyard dogs, but competitive and sensitive to funding. Oh yeah. I forgot – fighting for funding was doggy all right.

  • Rich

    I really enjoy these — an important message relevant to this discussion:

  • David H Bailey

    Some have questioned whether science is really a highly competitive system, wherein scientists continually attempt to invalidate other scientists’ theories.

    I have to side with Dr. Peck on this one. While scientists are generally rather gentlemanly (sadly there isn’t a good gender-neutral term), the scientific enterprise really is all about demonstrating that some previous study’s findings were a bit (or a lot) off-base, and offering new and better data that leads to a clearer conclusion.

    One of the best demonstrations of this is the recent debate over “hobbits” (Homo florensis). This debate (which actually did get a bit acrimonious at one point) is nicely summarized in an earlier post on this site:

    http://sciencebysteve.net/?p=1137

    You really ought to read some of these individual studies (or at least semi-public summaries of them). One recent study is described here:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090120144508.htm

  • Dave C.

    Stan,

    There is a difference between constructive criticism and attacks on one’s data analysis. Science is all about open discussion and critical analysis. It is not about attacking for the sake of taking someone else down.

    Let me be clear, don’t paint science into a smack-down wrestling phenomenon. While there are attempts to disparage other people’s work, the majority of scientists do not proceed this way. When this sort of thing does happen, as in the case of Newton and Liebniz, it is usually viewed as SCIENTISTS BEHAVING BADLY, not the way science usually works.

    I find it interesting that you, a self-confessed non scientist, would counter my statements to Mr. Peck. While I appreciate your willingness to comment, your reactionary reply misses the mark terribly, which leads me to think that you have misread what I wrote, or that you do not understand critical analysis in the scientific community, or that you are a MormonOrganon “groupie” who is out to attack dissenting voices on this site.

  • No Dave it’s Stan that understands science, while you the self-proclaimed ‘scientist’ misses it entirely again and again. And again.

  • Rich

    Dave C., I’m curious, what exactly are YOUR scientific credentials? Specifically, the credentials to speak with any kind of authority regarding the science of biological evolution? Not that non-biological scientific credentials matter all that much; I have a friend with a PhD in Astronomy who is convinced that the only valid reading of Genesis is a literal one (including the idea that the earth is very young, and that all fossils were laid down in the great Deluge of Noah, etc.). He is welcome to such BELIEFS, but I refuse to let him get away with calling them science, any more than I would let you get away with calling I.D. science — there’s nothing scientific about filling knowledge gaps with deity (or space aliens or flying spaghetti monsters, etc.), however plausible or tempting that might (seem to) be.

    Stan’s personal “non-scientist” disclaimer needs some context. Like me, he actually has a scientific degree (he’s a friend and colleague), and while it’s not in evolutionary biology, he certainly understands scientific processes. He is a voracious reader, and has read numerous books on science, including those on biology and evolution (he’s recommended several good titles to me, so I know that for a fact). Funny, your dismissal of his (rather informed and reasonable) arguments therefore is the only thing around here that smacks of elitism.

  • Dave C.

    Steve P.,

    “No Dave it’s Stan that understands science, while you the self-proclaimed ’scientist’ misses it entirely again and again. And again.”

    -Once again, we completely disagree, but that doesn’t mean that I hate you or that I am going to accuse you of not understanding science.

  • Rich,

    You are welcome to peruse my scientific credentials at my website.

    “Funny, your dismissal of his (rather informed and reasonable) arguments therefore is the only thing around here that smacks of elitism.”

    - I am dismissing the way he jumped all over me with snarky comments like: Which planet is that on? =:) and Sure sounds that way.

    I am surprised how acrimonious the discussion here can be at times, which is unfortunate because I think that if we met by chance in a social setting and started talking science, we would get along nicely and not resort to ad hominem attacks like “Oh, you don’t understand science” whenever disagreements arise.

    I respect your rational opinions and think that you all understand science quite well. However, our discussions have led to me believe that you don’t respond to criticism that well, especially criticism of evolution. There are many different perspectives in science – these should be welcomed and challenged with rational arguments, not blown off with personal attacks.

    Have a nice day.

  • This sounds like the “quality science is ideas being selected for” conversation Dr. Peck and I had on Thursday! It also reminds me of Kenneth Miller’s writings.

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