As everyone knows, Professor Phil Jones, the director of the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia, has sent some unwise emails. In one he boasted of using statistical “tricks” to hide declines in global temperatures, in another he advocated the deletion of certain data, and in yet another he proposed a boycott of journals that published inconvenient papers. Consequently Professor Jones has had to step aside from his directorship while his conduct is investigated.
But much of the criticism directed against Jones is naïve. What do people suppose scientists are? Disinterested followers after truth?
The great myth about scientists is the one propagated by uncritical readers of Karl Popper’s 1934 book The Logic of Scientific Discovery. There Popper argued that scientific statements are only provisional and that science progresses by their falsification. Hence the statement “all swans are white” was once true for Europeans but it was nonetheless falsified when Captain Cook reached Australia, whose swans are of course black. Thus does knowledge advance.
But that does not necessarily mean that individual scientists appreciate their theories being disproved. Indeed, one characteristic of many great scientists is that – unlike ordinary researchers - they are brave enough to disregard inconvenient facts. Consider the age of the earth.
During the 19th century Sir Charles Lyell had, by his study of the rate of erosion of cliffs and the creation of sedimentary rocks, proposed the earth to be hundreds of millions of years old. Yet, as we know from volcanoes, the core of the earth is red hot. And when contemporary geologists calculated the rate of heat loss, they concluded that the earth could be only a few millions of years old. Had it been any older, its core would have cooled. Lyell had been falsified.
But Lyell’s followers simply ignored the falsification, and to widespread derision they continued to assume that the sedimentary rocks, and the fossils they contained, were hundreds of millions of years old. Then one day somebody somewhere discovered radioactivity, somebody else discovered the core of the earth to be radioactive, and somebody else discovered that radioactive reactions emit heat, and hey presto the discrepancy was resolved. The core of the earth generates heat, which is why it is still hot, and the earth is indeed very old.
Lyell had demonstrated that great scientists are not necessarily falsifiers. But they are verifiers. They conceive of theories and they seek to verify them – and it is for others to falsify them. Obviously scientists should never fabricate data but many researchers will ignore inconvenient results. Indeed, if individual scientists were not passionate verifiers, they would not be driven to do the difficult experiments that push the boundaries of knowledge. Individual scientists, in short, are advocates, not judges, and their reluctance to self-falsify was recognised as early as 1667 by Thomas Spratt in his History of the Royal Society:- “For whosoever has fix’d on his Cause, before he has experimented; can hardly avoid fitting his Experiment, and his Observations, to his own Cause, which he had before imagin’d; rather than the cause of the truth of the Experiment it self.”
But if falsification can be the death of great science, it can also be the death of bad science, and must thus be embraced. Which brings us back to Professor Phil Jones. His behaviour may have been only typical of verifying scientists but it becomes dangerous when it is harnessed in defence of a powerful status quo.
Carbon-driven global warming is now a dominant narrative yet, as Professor Jones’s emails reveal, the evidence in its favour is not impregnable. Thus one of the emails on his system worried that “we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty that we can’t” while another admitted that “we can have a proper result – but only by including a load of garbage.” One of Jones’s email correspondents, moreover, was Professor Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University who, famously (or infamously), re-drew the conventional ‘wobbly’ graphs for recent global temperatures to represent them as showing a ‘hockey stick’ effect of sudden contemporary warming. This redrawing has been widely criticised.
But if the scientific evidence is imperfect, our response should not be to slate Professor Jones, who is obviously an honest man who has been enslaved by a hypothesis that is failing to make the expected predictions, but rather to encourage sceptics in their counter-advocacy. Only thus will truth eventually out.
Scientists are advocates, and they will not necessarily broadcast contradictory findings, so it is for the rest of us to adjudicate between competing results, not to swoon when advocates advocate.
Dr Terence Kealey is a biochemist, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University, and adviser to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. His books include Sex, Science and Profits (2008)