Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The experts weigh in

Vranes of Prometheus review The Barton Letters (my emphasis):
First, if House E&C had made the same request of S. Baliunas and W. Soon or the Idso's, we'd be having a different conversation (although we'd certainly still be having it). By any reasonable measure of the consensus of the climatology community, the Baliunas and Soon papers were far more controversial and scientifically questioned than the Mann et al. papers. That this request is being made of one group of authors concerning one study out of thousands of studies and authors makes this clearly motivated not by fact-finding but by the politics of climate change.

Second, the letters to Drs. Mann, Bradley and Hughes stop just short of accusing them of scientific fraud. If the committee was truly interested in investigating such, it could start with investigating something much closer to its purview. How about starting with Hubbert's Peak and how various sources, some funded by the U.S. taxpayer, have come to wildly different conclusions about remaining reserves of light crude?

Third, Congressional meddling in science research has been happening science Senator Proxmire (D-WI) began giving away Golden Fleece Awards in 1975. By ridiculing specific NSF awards (among myriad other federal expeditures, see this link), Sen. Proxmire was essentially putting pressure on the scientific community to fund more "relevant" work. Senator Inhofe's proclamations of hoaxes and other comments on climate change are in a similar vein. However, this is congressional meddling taken to a whole new level and has the potential to set a bad precedent for the future, when the topic and stakes are different and the parties in power have switched. Furthermore, while some Sens and Reps have spoken vociferously against climate change, expressing their opinions of the research, none have yet used the dais to harass climate researchers.

Which brings me to my final point: the letters are primarily meant to embarrass and harass and the hearings, if they ever happen, could be seen as an abuse of power. The science policy system in the U.S., largely unchanged since Vannevar Bush's day, gives the science community the ability and obligation to police its own ethics. In extreme cases, such as questions of fraud that cannot be resolved internally by NSF/NIH, Congress should make their own inquiries. This case does not come anywhere close to fraud (see the affirmations of Mann et al.'s work here), is clearly a technical dispute of data analysis, and thus plainly belongs within the scientific community.

Barton's letters denigrate this self-governing system and signal that any technical dispute is worth a look from the top. I doubt that in the long run this will serve as a chilling effect on climate research, but it is another extraordinary event in a interannual trend toward increasing politicization of science.
Prometheus is the science policy blog, so again, these guys know whereof they speak, and they are upset about these letters. It's an issue of tone, content, and equity. Mann, et al. are not the only paper on paleoclimatology, nor is theirs the only one with questions around it. As Vranes says, this is a technical dispute, and the different teams do not seem to get qualitatively different results.

Write to your congresscritters and ask them to stand up for academic freedom and a fair process for debating science, not one-sided hatchet jobs.

Climate change is a controversial topic, and the controversy stretches from the details of what will happen (though no scientific dispute exists over the fact of climate change because of human activity), to what the appropriate response will be.

To get the best answers to every question, scientists need to feel free to pursue their research where it leads them. Veiled threats and backhanded accusations of impropriety coming from Congress is not the way to get the best possible evidence to base our decisions on.

And that's why the letter is such bad news.