In response to the mounting evidence of fraud, data falsification, and criminal conspiracy by the “hockey team” clique of climatologists pushing anthropogenic-global-warming (AGW) theory, there has been serious and concerned speculation that the collapse of this scam may damage the credibility of science in general.
This is a reasonable thing to be concerned about, given that the species of toxic slime mold known as “creationists” have been oozing all over the blogosphere with suggestions that evolutionary biology is just as bogus. I think there are three important lessons to be drawn here: one is some reassurance from the history of major scientific frauds, another is a heuristic about when we should be suspicious of “science”, and a third is the importance of transparency.
There have been major scientific frauds before. You have to go back a ways to match the AGW fraud in scale and audacity, but the nearest parallel example — Lysenkoism — is instructive in several ways.
The good news, for those inclined to worry, is that Lysenkoism did no permanent damage to science or its reputation. It failed to cast biology into disrepute because it became understood as a political creation serving political ends. Not that non-politicized frauds have been more damaging — Piltdown Man, anyone? — but the example of Lysenkoism is reassuring. It suggests that the political angle of AGW (that is, its close association with environmental statism) will mitigate the long-term consequences of its collapse.
Lysenkoism is also instructive in another way. It teaches us a lesson which, if heeded, might have accelerated the exposure of the AGW fraud — or, perhaps, prevented it from getting traction in the first place. The lesson is this: always, always, always distrust the “science” that accompanies a political power grab.
This is actually a narrower category than politicized science. To see how, contrast creationism with AGW. Creationism is certainly politicized science, but it is marginally less noxious than AGW because it is not cannot effectively be used as a rationalization of control by the permanent political class, a weapon against free markets and individual liberty.
For many AGW boosters, as with previous environmentalist scares, rationalizing coercive control was precisely the point. If it saves just one polar bear…and this was our lesson from Lysenko, too. When science becomes the instrument of political ambitions, science is either already corrupted or will be as soon as makes no difference.
Therefore…the next time we hear a ginned-up panic over some vast environmental crisis, the prudent thing to do will be to remember Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” It will be prudent to suspect that the science is probably already corrupted and demand extra-stringent scrutiny of it under that assumption.
(My bet is that the next bogeyman will be “environmental estrogens”. Watch for it…and remember that I called AGW bullshit back when that was a genuinely prescient and difficult position to take.)
And that brings us to process transparency. I discussed this with particular reference in Open-Sourcing the Global Warming Debate, but there’s another point that deserves attention. Strictly speaking, the rules of science require complete disclosure of all experimental methods, data, and analysis tools so that others can peer-review and replicate the work. We may find it an acceptable to relax those full-disclosure rules to some extent for corporations doing commercially-focused R&D. But that IPR exception should never be granted to scientists whose research touches public policy. Because the stakes are so much higher, disclosure standards must be as well.
If the “hockey team” had been required to make their primary datasets and modeling code available for unrestricted inspection, the AGW fraud could never have turned into a political monster. If Michael Bellesisles had been required to make all his primary data open for inspection, the fraud that was Arming America would never have won a Bancroft Prize. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and full disclosure is the final and deadliest enemy of junk science.