Monday, November 30, 2009

Prisoners to the System

As the Climategate scandal continues to unwind, a few thoughts on how these (pseudo?) scientists were hoisted by their own petard.

The main trap that Dr. Mann, et al, fell into was that they got into Big Boy power politics using science as their claim to legitimacy. Their claim that "the science is settled" on climate change and then their efforts to help promote major government restructuring to deal with it made them big players on the world stage. They seemed to relish the role as gatekeepers of policy and information and were ruthless in their treatment of those who disagreed with them.

Others who dive into power politics use claims as masters/mistresses of "family values" or as populists or as people who are "tough on crime" or their position in a religious hierarchy to bolster their claim to having that special something that gives them the background and know-how to lead and make policy. The problem is that whatever cover story you use, you have to at least play lip service to the underlying principles of that cover story if you can't actually live those principles.

Religious-based authorities are vulnerable to scandal if their private behavior turns out to not match up with their rhetoric on good behavior. Populists are vulnerable to getting co-opted by the "system" and the massive corporate funding that goes with it. Family values types have a little more leeway than religious-based authorities, but not much.

Science has its own set of rules. Science demands transparency in both source data and methodologies. It demands that others be able to reproduce that work and it demands a level of honesty and integrity of a much higher level than most other professions are held to.

Dr. Mann, Dr. Jones and the rest of their Team probably started off a reasonably good scientists - but apparently the intoxication of power politics and their anger at the skeptics (who, by the way, have not always played by the rules of good science either) led them into the swamp of data manipulation, obfuscation and, possibly, outright fraud (we'll see as the data are gone over in the coming months). When, say, a populist gets science wrong, that is usually not too damaging to his or her credibility. When a scientist is shown to be a petty hack and someone who plays fast and loose with the data, this undermines their claim to legitimacy, sort of like a bishop that is outed as a closet atheist. Using the claim of science requires one to behave as such. When "scientists" are shown to be politicians first, data manipulators second and scientists third, their legitimacy erodes like a sand castle facing the incoming tide.

What next?

This will add fuel to the fire on the climate debates, but in the end could wind up helping the cause of science, though at the expense of some nice political careers. Anything that adds to transparency is a good thing, in my opinion.

This story also holds meaning for then entire governing class in the United States. Much of the legitimacy for government from the local level on up is based on promises of a high level of material well-being, good transportation infrastructure, affordable gasoline (either cheap prices or a "good" job) and 500 channels on the television set. As the great bear market erodes all the underlying deliverables for legitimacy, watch for more leaks, for more database hacks and for the crowd-sourcing of efforts to show the political class as incompetent.

What might follow in the wake of the de-legitimizing of the current system holds both fear and promise. Should be a wild ride getting there.


David said...

Michael, I think you can generalize further: Any endeavor that serves to rationalize the "do it or else" operation of political systems is on a fast track to popularity within that system (the poster child for this is Keynes, whose absurd "economic" theories carried the day when they justified central planning in not-overtly-communist states, as opposed to Austrian economic theories, which because they ascribe much economic malaise to political intervention, were shunted to obscurity). AGW served the aims of those who wish to arrogate power, so it was deemed "good science." As scientific research has gone to almost 100% tax-funded (AKA political control), the risk is that all science is tainted with such objectives and obfuscation. Look at the debate over vaccines; it's nearly impossible to tell what truth really is now, given that everything the CDC's mouthpieces spout bears suffocating conflicts of interest.

I'm afraid I don't share your optimism about the path of science and its treatment in the culture. I think that science was hijacked by power-addicted would-be Caesars and by the time the rabid hyenas therein relinquish their grip on scientific inquiry, the common man may have near total distrust of it. I say this as one who has two science degrees and decades of lab and industry experience.

Flagg707 said...

@David: Great observations. I tried to be optimistic at the end of the blog post, but I have a feeling you are correct and that things will get a lot worse in the realm of climate "science" and government power before it gets better...