Climategate’s Lesson For Science

This post was originally published on The Washington Post’s Short Stack blog on December 17, 2009.

From the standpoint of the science, the recent “climategate” flap is a nonissue. Unfortunately, from other perspectives, it is not.

By focusing on only the technical content, science has failed to solve the right problem. While the technical content is obviously important — it must always be gotten right — the public’s perception of the social aspects of science is just as important, if not even more so. This is the primary lesson that science needs to learn.

The institution of science rightly deserves praise in that it ultimately got the data right that led to a strong consensus with regard to global warming. For all intents and purposes, the debate has been over for some time. Only the scientifically illiterate continue to doubt global warming. What remains is the highly daunting task of what to do about it. And this is precisely where the failure of science to educate the public can come back to haunt it.

But, in a significant sense, the institution of science has failed miserably once again to educate the public as to the process of science. This is the real tragedy of the flap over irrelevant emails.

The actual practice of science is always messy; it doesn’t conform to the sanitized, simple-minded textbook, super-idealized images that scientists themselves have concocted to promote the discipline as the most unbiased, objective way of knowing, and therefore deserving of high prestige and major funding.

The history of science shows again and again that individual scientists are highly partisan advocates of pet hypotheses. They are not super-rational creatures devoid of all biases. Indeed, science needs individuals who have strong views and will defend them to the death lest their often brilliant and controversial insights die prematurely. Nonetheless, this does not mean that science as a whole is biased and not objective.

The interesting thing that most lay people and even scientists don’t understand is how unbiased knowledge as a whole emerges from individual scientists who are biased. It is still one of the greatest mysteries of science.

It’s not just that opposing biases cancel out — which they do — but that opposing passions prod scientists to collect more data and invent new theories to see who’s right. Without such passions, science would grind to a halt. After all, science is done by all-too-human beings.

Again, what’s truly sad is that the scientific community has not seen fit to educate the public as to how science actually gets done. If this were done, it could in fact be one of the most important outcomes of global warming.

Science finally needs to grow up. It cannot sit back and allow crises to hit it unprepared. It needs to be proactive, not reactive especially if it to help in overcoming one of the worst potential calamities of all times.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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