Blogs > Liberty and Power > Peer Review, Publication In Top Journals, Scientific Consensus, And So Forth

May 7, 2007 3:32 pm


Peer Review, Publication In Top Journals, Scientific Consensus, And So Forth



In following the discussion of global warming and related issues at Liberty & Power in recent weeks, I have been struck repeatedly by the assumption or expression of certain beliefs that strike me as highly problematical.

I do not pretend to have expertise in climatology or any of the related physical sciences, so nothing I might say about strictly climatological or related physical-scientific matters deserves any weight. However, I have thirty-nine years of professional experience―twenty-six as a university professor, including fifteen at a major research university, and then thirteen as a researcher, writer, and editor―in close contact with scientists of various sorts, including some in the biological and physical sciences and many in the social sciences and demography. I have served as a peer reviewer for more than thirty professional journals and as a reviewer of research proposals for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and a number of large private foundations. I was the principal investigator of a major NSF-funded research project in the field of demography. So, I think I know something about how the system works.

It does not work as outsiders seem to think.

Peer review, on which lay people place great weight, varies from important, where the editors and the referees are competent and responsible, to a complete farce, where they are not. As a rule, not surprisingly, the process operates somewhere in the middle, being more than a joke but less than the nearly flawless system of Olympian scrutiny that outsiders imagine it to be. Any journal editor who desires, for whatever reason, to knock down a submission can easily do so by choosing referees he knows full well will knock it down; likewise, he can easily obtain favorable referee reports. As I have always counseled young people whose work was rejected, seemingly on improper or insufficient grounds, the system is a crap shoot. Personal vendettas, ideological conflicts, professional jealousies, methodological disagreements, sheer self-promotion and a great deal of plain incompetence and irresponsibility are no strangers to the scientific world; indeed, that world is rife with these all-too-human attributes. In no event can peer review ensure that research is correct in its procedures or its conclusions. The history of every science is a chronicle of one mistake after another. In some sciences these mistakes are largely weeded out in the course of time; in others they persist for extended periods; and in some sciences, such as economics, actual scientific retrogression may continue for generations under the misguided belief that it is really progress.

At any given time, consensus may exist about all sorts of matters in a particular science. In retrospect, however, that consensus is often seen to have been mistaken. As recently as the mid-1970s, for example, a scientific consensus existed among climatologists and scientists in related fields that the earth was about the enter a new ice age. Drastic proposals were made, such as exploding hydrogen bombs over the polar icecaps (to melt them) or damming the Bering Strait (to prevent cold Arctic water from entering the Pacific Ocean), to avert this impending disaster. Well-reputed scientists, not just uninformed wackos, made such proposals. How quickly we forget.

Researchers who employ unorthodox methods or theoretical frameworks have great difficulty under modern conditions in getting their findings published in the"best" journals or, at times, in any scientific journal. Scientific innovators or creative eccentrics always strike the great mass of practitioners as nut cases―until it becomes impossible to deny their findings, a time that often comes only after one generation's professional ring-masters have died off. Science is an odd undertaking: everybody strives to make the next breakthrough, yet when someone does, he is often greeted as if he were carrying the ebola virus. Too many people have too much invested in the reigning ideas; for those people an acknowledgment of their own idea's bankruptcy is tantamount to an admission that they have wasted their lives. Often, perhaps to avoid cognitive dissonance, they never admit that their ideas were wrong. Most important, as a rule, in science as elsewhere, to get along, you must go along.

Research worlds, in their upper reaches, are pretty small. Leading researchers know all the major players and what everybody else is doing. They attend the same conferences, belong to the same societies, send their grad students to be postdocs in the other people's labs, review one another's work for the NSF, NIH, or other government funding organizations, and so forth. If you do not belong to this tight fraternity, it will prove very, very difficult for you to gain a hearing for your work, to publish in a"top" journal, to acquire a government grant, to receive an invitation to participate in a scientific-conference panel discussion, or to place your grad students in decent positions. The whole setup is tremendously incestuous; the interconnections are numerous, tight, and close.

In this context, a bright young person needs to display cleverness in applying the prevailing orthodoxy, but it behooves him not to rock the boat by challenging anything fundamental or dear to the hearts of those who constitute the review committees for the NSF, NIH, and other funding organizations. Modern biological and physical science is, overwhelmingly, government-funded science. If your work, for whatever reason, does not appeal to the relevant funding agency's bureaucrats and academic review committees, you can forget about getting any money to carry out your proposal. Recall the human frailties I mentioned previously; they apply just as much in the funding context as in the publication context. Indeed, these two contexts are themselves tightly linked: if you don't get funding, you'll never produce publishable work, and if you don't land good publications, you won't continue to receive funding.

When your research implies a"need" for drastic government action to avert a looming disaster or to allay some dire existing problem, government bureaucrats and legislators (can you say"earmarks"?) are more likely to approve it. If the managers at the NSF, NIH, and other government funding agencies gave great amounts of money to scientists whose research implies that no disaster looms or no dire problem now exists or even that although a problem exists, no currently feasible government policy can do anything to solve it without creating even greater problems in the process, members of Congress would be much less inclined to throw money at the agency, with all the consequences that an appropriations cutback implies for bureaucratic thriving. No one has to explain all these things to the parties involved; they are not idiots, and they understand how the wheels are greased in their tight little worlds.

Finally, we need to develop a much keener sense of what a scientist is qualified to talk about and what he is not qualified to talk about. Climatologists, for example, are qualified to talk about the science of climatology (though subject to all the intrusions upon pure science I have already mentioned). They are not qualified to say, however, that"we must act now" by imposing government"solutions" of some imagined sort. They are not professionally knowledgeable about what risk is better or worse for people to take; only the individuals who bear the risk can make that decision, because it's a matter of personal preference, not a matter of science. Climatologists know nothing about cost/benefit cosiderations; indeed, most mainstream economists themselves are fundamentally misguided about such matters (adopting, for example, procedures and assumptions about the aggregation of individual valuations that lack a genuine scientific basis). Climate scientists are the best qualified people to talk about climate science, but they have no qualifications to talk about public policy, law, or individual values, rates of time preference, and degrees of risk aversion. In talking about desirable government action, they give the impression that they are either fools or charlatans, but they keep talking―worst of all, talking to doomsday-seeking journalists― nevertheless.

In this connection, we might well bear in mind that the United Nations (and its committees and the bureaus it oversees) is no more a scientifc organization than the U.S. Congress (and its committees and the bureaus it oversees). When decisions and pronouncements come forth from these political organizations, it makes sense to treat them as essentially political in origin and purpose. Politicians aren't dumb, either―vicious, yes, but not dumb. One thing they know above everything else is how to stampede masses of people into approving or accepting ill-advised government actions that cost the people dearly in both their standard of living and their liberties in the long run.

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Gus diZerega - 5/15/2007

Yes - and largely because of science'sextraordinarily rapid growth in numbers and complexity that meant few editors could adequately judge much of what came in.


Tim Sydney - 5/15/2007

From the Wikipedia entry on Peer Review.

"10. History of peer review"

Peer review has been a touchstone of modern scientific method only since the middle of the twentieth century.[66] Before then, its application was lax. For example, Albert Einstein's revolutionary "Annus Mirabilis" papers in the 1905 issue of Annalen der Physik were not peer-reviewed. The journal's editor in chief (and father of quantum theory), Max Planck, recognized the virtue of publishing such outlandish ideas and simply had the papers published; none of the papers were sent to reviewers. The decision to publish was made exclusively by either the editor in chief, or the co-editor Wilhelm Wien—both certainly ‘peers’ (who were later to win the Nobel prize in physics), but this does not meet the definition of "peer review" as it is currently understood. At the time there was a policy that allowed authors much latitude after their first publication. In a recent editorial in Nature, it was stated that "in journals in those days, the burden of proof was generally on the opponents rather than the proponents of new ideas."[67]"


M.D. Fulwiler - 5/14/2007

There are many other examples of the scientific consensus being absolutely incorrect. Bleeding was thought to help cure all sorts of diseases for thousands of years, for example. A hundred years ago masturbation was widely believed to be harmful, even causing insanity.


Keith Halderman - 5/14/2007

There is a great book by Thomas Sowell called The Vision of the Anointed I think he was talking about you.


E. Simon - 5/14/2007

He also, ultimately, risks his cause itself.


E. Simon - 5/14/2007

You really don't seem to understand how basic argumentation works. DiZerega was right to give up on you before you made a soapbox out of every point with which one could offer countless rebuttals. Ad infinitum, apparently.

Nonetheless, for the benefit of any readers interested in how abundantly the rules of logic, careful reading and the avoidance of presumptuous declarations can be applied, and how abundantly they are in need of application here, I offer the following - as likely as it is to be in vain. The fisking will proceed in reverse order, just because mixing things up a little avoids the tedium that comes from having to reiterate such rudimentary things.


"Lastly, are you saying we should have attacked Japan and Afghanistan before Pearl Harbor and 9-11?"

Nope.


"Also, I have always heard the theory explained in terms of heat being reflected back towards earth by the CO2 particles."

It sounds like you most likely "heard" (and apparently thought) wrong.


"Well you did not offer any evidence to refute you merely restated the premise (your word)."

Well, if you don't refute CO2's lesser heat capacity or its increasing concentrations than the burden of providing an illogical theory for why such a scenario wouldn't lead to greater heat retention is on you.


"And what will you say to all the people you have unnecessarily impoverished when it is proven that sunspot activity, variations in orbit, or whatever caused the warming in ages past is proven to be the cause."

What an arrogant statement for someone so ignorant to make. "(W)hen it is proven"? !! Those are some cojones. I suggest that when you start thinking with your big head and learn how to appropriately qualify that statement with interrogative particles that make sense then we can talk. Especially considering how much qualification you throw at the alternative, much better substantiated theory - despite your lack of understanding of it. But yes, as someone for whom others' lives are entrusted based on the quality of scientific evidence I have for my recommendations, I certainly feel more comfortable taking the bargain of acting on the basis of research that has stronger evidence to support it than that which doesn't. When you are ever in a position to do the same, perhaps you will understand why. Until then, however, you will still be responsible for your unsupported statements that ignore the fact that coastal damage and spreading tropical illness affects many more lives than would your B.S. "impoverishment" scenario, and for some odd reason (hmm... because of sunspots, perhaps?), insurance companies agree. Also, economies are dynamic things, so it is better not to lie to people who have to adjust to them and tell them to rely on a mythically perpetual status quo and "hope for the best!" than to be frank about what kind of changes they might want to be prepared for.


"Let us not forget that back in the 1980s these models were saying that I would be under 100 feet of water right now."

Mmmm, yes. Back to science as a supposed exercise in retrogression where we should never act on what we know because it is different from what we knew. According to Mr. Halderman, the field apparently did not progress over nearly 30 years. Predictive capabilities did not improve. Well, actually they did. Who knows what uncited "models" this individual - who demonstrates again and again how little he understands of science - refers to. The correlations have obviously strengthened. Even if his mysterious "models" overshot their conclusions (or more likely, their timing) at the time, it does not mean that the evidence for anthropogenic climate change has become weaker. It does not mean the scenarios could be any less drastic. But understanding such things requires an understanding of the distinctions between events and the actual timelines on which they occur. These distinctions are apparently something some historians need to brush up on.


"Another point, are you comparing the prediction abilities of meteorologists and climatologists who can not with certainty tell whether or not it will rain tomorrow with the ability of a building engineer to determine whether or not a structure is safe?"

You are mixing metaphors. (Among other things). The first was jocularly put out to address your insistence on relying on Rumsfeldian "unknown unknowns". The second had to do with expertise and responsibility. You should learn how to separate such things in your head. Then learn how to separate "meteorologists" from "climatologists". A pictorial diagram from a children's book on different occupations might help.

And a final point.

Your first points are rather vague and address how you think you can separate ideology from argument, whereas others somehow cannot. You think you can do this because you claim that your ideology is "special". That may be so. Your "ideology" may indeed provide insights on courses of action that are preferable in many or most instances to "others." But your ideology is not a substitute for argumentation and thought. And your ideology does not provide the answers to everything in life. And anyone who thinks that his ideology should be impervious to exceptions or who denies that valid perspectives exist for which his ideology is irrelevant, is by definition a fundamentalist who risks his own relevancy for the sake of his cause.


Keith Halderman - 5/14/2007

Eugene Genovese once wrote an essay called “On Being a Marxist and a Historian”. He argued that there was no contradiction because his study of history so far had led him to conclude that Marx was right as and that this would continue. Well guess what, he is no longer a Marxist but rather a devout Catholic but he still a historian. Nevertheless, his basic premise is correct there is no contradiction between ideology and being historian as long as you follow the evidence where it takes you. And, history is very clear on this point freedom works and central control does not. It is no accident that every communist society that has ever existed has been filled with miserable poverty stricken poverty. This fact comes from a systemic problem not a personnel one. Therefore unlike Genovese I am able to keep my ideology without sacrificing historical integrity. Another point, are you comparing the prediction abilities of meteorologists and climatologists who can not with certainty tell whether or not it will rain tomorrow with the ability of a building engineer to determine whether or not a structure is safe? I would say the latter is far more reliable especially when you look at the amazingly poor record of computer climate models that are generating so much hysteria, Let us not forget that back in the 1980s these models were saying that I would be under 100 feet of water right now. Also, when you write that you “explicitly said that it would be better to be safe than too late and sorry” it is easy for you to say because you most likely will not lose your job. No some machinist who makes $30,000 a year will because his small firm will not be able to handle all the new government mandated costs. And what will you say to all the people you have unnecessarily impoverished when it is proven that sunspot activity, variations in orbit, or whatever caused the warming in ages past is proven to be the cause. Will you apologize for making them less able to handle the increased heat? Lastly you accuse me of not responding to something specific in post #109523. Well you did not offer any evidence to refute you merely restated the premise (your word). In addition I do not think an increase of 170 or so to 320 parts per million is all that dramatic. Also, I have always heard the theory explained in terms of heat being reflected back towards earth by the CO2 particles. And, if we are talking about responding to specifics I noticed you did not answer the specific question that I asked in the last post. Lastly, are you saying we should have attacked Japan and Afghanistan before Pearl Harbor and 9-11?


E. Simon - 5/13/2007

Sides? So this is the game you want to play. What side? Oh right, it's the nefarious "side" of methodological naturalism prudential deduction that you're so skeptical of. And let's not forget who didn't make an argument. Post #109523 gave some at-length detailing on the science that you apparently believe to be so shoddy and ideological that you didn't even mention it. But you refuted no facts. You didn't even reply to it. And I never said it was "a serious immediate problem that requires...", but explicitly said that it would be better to be safe than too late and sorry after your less likely "null" hypothesis had a chance to work its way through its improbably contrarian course, a course to whose harmful alternative you would ultimately contribute responsibility, but apparently not remorse - let alone a rational for your lack of culpability. "I don't believe in it" is not a defense against harming others. It's an unacceptable argument from ignorance. Would a building inspector wait to confirm a "null" hypothesis of shoddy engineering not leading to a building collapse? Probably not. And "market friendly" insurance companies are also now adjusting their businesses in such a way as to avoid the folly of your approach. As for your nonsensical claim of how your study of history makes you an objective, apolitical observer par excellence in matters of weighing government inaction vs. harmful over-reaction, let me remind you that you are a contributor to a LIBERTARIAN group blog. I'm not sure how being of a libertarian political persuasion makes one any more objective in their historical observations than being one of a large school Marxist historians makes one objective in their historical observations. I also note the folly of the "wait and see" approach to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But that's just me - being subjective by actually being able to address both sides of an argument, and all. Something of which you're apparently not capable - no matter how objective you would apparently believe that makes you.


Keith Halderman - 5/13/2007

First off, I am not begging the question here. Your side is saying that human induced global warming is such a serious immediate problem that it requires drastic and costly changes in public policy. I am arguing that this conclusion comes from something other than disinterested scientific inquiry. My argument is not refuted but rather labeled as silly and it is legitimate for me to ask why. Secondly, my conclusions do not come from my politics, they come from my study of history. It is filled to the brim with examples of the politically expedient course of action triumphing over the scientifically correct one in matters of public policy. Do you deny that the last sentence is true?


E. Simon - 5/13/2007

I suppose that such a proposition is no sillier than claiming that one's very own intellect cannot be divorced from politics, either, which is precisely what you're demonstrating here. But while such circuitous thinking might appeal to some, one shouldn't further assume that begging the question is a standard format for intellectual discourse, or even acceptable intellectual discourse, for that matter.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question


Keith Halderman - 5/13/2007

Just exactly what is silly about the claim that when it comes to matters of public policy science cannot be divorced from politics?


Gus diZerega - 5/13/2007

Thank you for illustrating the utter intellectual collapse of your argument.
I am flabbergasted, amazed, and appalled that someone could make such a silly claim on an academic site - or any site for that matter.


Keith Halderman - 5/13/2007

The point is when it comes to public policy whether marijuana prohibition or governmental action on global warming there is no distinguishing between them.


E. Simon - 5/12/2007

You might not like the fact that in science (including economics) theory and facts are constantly merging into, accounting for and being integrated with each other - or that intelligent, knowledgeable people are capable of forming consensus on the meaning of those relations, but that is the way the enterprise works and no other, superior system has emerged, (at least, not to my knowledge), with which to reconcile observations of the natural world with the explanations that have competed for accounting for these observations.

The premise behind global climatology and atmospheric composition is quite simple, really. Gases, like many substances, possess a constant physical property known as heat capacity, which measures how much energy is required to change the temperature of that substance by a degree. CO2's HC is much lower than those of the other principle constituents of the atmosphere, and therefore, is much more easily raised one degree of temperature for every unit of energy inputted into it than for the others. And it is inarguable that the industrialized processes of combustion (ostensibly) required by modern civilization have raised and continue to raise that concentration dramatically.

In science you have to disprove well-established observations and theories such as these with equally strong or stronger lines of reasoning and observation, not with Rumsfeldian musings on "unknown unknowns". And the core issue around which this discussion revolves is CO2's heat capacity and its increasing concentration in the atmosphere. I understand if politically-motivated science novices can't or won't address something as technical as CO2's heat capacity - as fundamental as it is to the discussion - so they instead attach other, faulty lines of argumentation with little regard for evidence or proof, such as the vagaries of Rumsfeldian observations on the lack of predictability of weather. It's all very nice and poetic, but much more theological than empirical, when you get right down to it.

In the meantime, the empirically oriented among us will look conservatively at the water leaking into the canoe and not assume - on the basis of a contrarian and unlikely proposition that might never before have happened to have been demonstrated on such a large scale - that submerged watercraft float very well. Hoping for strong, opposing evidence is not the same thing as providing it.

But you are right on one thing; that correlation does not equal causation. But there is no way to control conditions for a CO2-stimulated global climate increase/non-increase experiment on this planet alone other than to continue down the path we are on right now. You are free to think that subjecting the earth to the great big, inane science experiment we are conducting now is more important for the tiny bit of extra knowledge it will - after the fact - generate and confirm, than accepting that what we know is sufficient enough to act prudently and and avoid what every other model would predict, but ethically you can't force that ridiculous proposition on others - at least not until such time as you either become the sole proprietor of this planet or assume collective responsibility for the consequences of your decision in this regard on everyone else.


Gus diZerega - 5/12/2007

(For some reason this got posted above the posts it responded to - I hope it does not this time.)

Keith-
You initially wrote
“In the 1930s there was a wide scientific consensus that smoking marijuana made one violent and insane. Anyone who disagreed did not get invited to the debate.”

This is utterly different from what you just wrote – that the actual studies – presumably scientific – concluded marijuana did NOT make people insane or violent, but the results were ignored for POLITICAL reasons. In other words, what you just wrote was in perfect agreement with the quote I gave above – and in perfect rebuttal to your initial claim. I could not have done better myself. My skepticism regarding your initial claim seems fully justified.

Please distinguish between science and politics.


Gus diZerega - 5/12/2007

Keith-
You initially wrote
“In the 1930s there was a wide scientific consensus that smoking marijuana made one violent and insane. Anyone who disagreed did not get invited to the debate.”

This is utterly different from what you just wrote – that the actual studies – presumably scientific – concluded marijuana did NOT make people insane or violent, but the results were ignored for POLITICAL reasons. In other words, what you just wrote was in perfect agreement with the quote I gave above – and in perfect rebuttal to your initial claim. I could not have done better myself. My skepticism regarding your initial claim seems fully justified.

Please distinguish between science and politics.


Keith Halderman - 5/12/2007

There was scientific research available on marijuana in the i930s. The British Indian Hemp Commission and the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal Zone both had done very through studies of marijuana concluding that that there should be no laws or regulations against its use. However that research did not fit the political needs of those sold the idea that there was a problem for them to solve, so it was ignored or buried and anecdotal evidence for violence and insanity was all that ever got heard. What makes you so certain that the same kind of crap is not going right now with regard to global warming? Because I have the temerity to say wait a minute we have been fooled before I am subject to vile naming calling and having my intelligence questioned on a daily basis. As far as you looking into this matter a little bit I just want tolet you know that I have copies of over 3000 pages of Harry Anslinger's files in my posession and I can say with absolute confidence that the overwhelming consensus of the experts on drug use who appeared in the media, as well as, the general public durning the 1930s believed that marijuana use caused people to become violent and insane.


Gus diZerega - 5/11/2007

I just did a little looking and found absolutely no evidence for your contention and some against it. There were one or two articles criticizing marijuana in the 30s - one in Scientific American, but apparently no debate and no detailed study. If my impression is correct, what the issue needed and did not get was scientific research, 100% the opposite of your argument.

Here is an excerpt from Laurent Laniel's article "The Relationship between Research and Drug Policy in the United States." http://www.unesco.org/most/dplaniel.htm

"Later, from the 1930s onward, with the advent of FBN Commissioner Harry Anslinger as America�s first (and longest serving) «Drug Czar» and the development of the anti-drug bureaucracy, doctors� power to prescribe drugs became increasingly restricted, and the drugs and crime nexus was gradually expanded to cover all drug use which came to be viewed as «un-American». According to historians, this was achieved by a coalition of Treasury Department bureaucrats, a new generation of «anti-vice» activists and newspapers who, playing on racist, ethnic and ideological fears (of communists), lobbied Congress into adopting a ban on marijuana in 1937. It is the debate that preceded the ban on marijuana that entrenched the notion that drugs lead to crime. Historians say that, in effect, Anslinger created and successfully promoted the idea � which has since graduated to the level of conventional wisdom � that drug use leads to crime in order to carve a larger turf, and therefore obtain more autonomy and prerogatives for his newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (33)."


Gus diZerega - 5/11/2007

Can you give some evidence - citations of extensive studies and many articles? urls wher we can see if you are correct?


Keith Halderman - 5/11/2007

Your analogy to the stock market crash is not apt. The crash is an historical fact but global warming is a theoretical prediction. You write “or else we should just never act on what we know at any one point in time.” However, I do not concede that at this point we know the cause of whatever warming is taking place or how long that trend will continue. I am not impressed with the fact of a consensus. The object of good research is to disprove the theory, you test for the null and if you cannot sustain it then the theory is valid. In the case of man made global warming this has not been done. Al Gore’s film is very big on correlation but very weak on causation. It does nothing to eliminate the other possibilities. Additionally, it deals with the fact of early warm periods in the absence of human generated CO2 by simply repeating that there is correlation. In the 1930s there was a wide scientific consensus that smoking marijuana made one violent and insane. Anyone who disagreed did not get invited to the debate. That consensus has caused and is still causing people a great deal of hardship, as well as, contributing mightily to the grow of government. I just do not want to see this new consensus do the same sort of thing.


E. Simon - 5/11/2007

In 1929 I read a book about the stock market. That book said that economists did not know whether there would be an impending crash or a continuing boom. It asserted either one was possible.

We had to wait a year to find out, but gee that book still stands out in my mind, because as we all know, evidence should only be a perfect snapshot of all knowledge ever - (even though knowledge always increases and is therefore always imperfect) - or else we should just never act on what we know at any one point in time. Of course! And as proof of the merit of such circuitous logic, we only need to go back to a point in time when knowledge was even less than what it is now, to show that we should never act on what we know. Eureka! Grok and Lothar would be proud of such intellectual retrogression, if only they didn't so much mind the interruptions from their cave drawings, astrology and navel gazing that are provided by such deep and splendid - if not very useful - insights.

If this is the kind of gobbledy-gook mentality that you guys can come up with, I'd prefer to discourse with the climatologists. But the difference is I've bothered to understand their arguments. In the meantime, it would be nice to see if you guys would bother trying such an approach - if only to find the difference between what you know and what you assume, should defining such distinctions even appeal to you - but as with accumulating and integrating knowledge, you've shown me that aspiring to rational behavior can also apparently be an imperfectly followed endeavor. But with the added distinction of being a bit more deliberately negligent.

Stop trying to typecast "what scientists do" as a substitute for seriously debating what they say. No one here is looking any better on the former count than they are the latter, which, at least - and as a token credit to the intellectual honesty of this blog's participants - both the original post and subsequent comments seem to have given up on.


Andrew D. Todd - 5/10/2007

I think I would add a qualification: there are significant areas of science which are both falsifiable and the subject of ongoing work, notably Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Physical Chemistry. The definition of science is that science is falsifiable-- if it's not falsifiable, it's not science. Students spend a lot of time replicating experiments for the benefit of their own training, and it is no big deal to have them check out some debatable results. These areas of viable science tend to have an associated engineering, and are ultimately falsifiable by the market. The exciting work in these fields frequently seems to have to do with automating the discovery process by reducing what scientists know into a computer program. Some of the most interesting recent work involves wiring a robot up to a computer running an artificial intelligence program, so that the program can formulate hypotheses, and direct the robot in carrying out the experiments necessary to test these hypotheses, and then repeat the process. The Bruno-LaTour-ian analysis adopted by Thomas Gold is only valid for a certain limited range of sciences, notably Earth Sciences and certain areas of Modern Physics, mostly characterized by the extreme difficulty of conducting actual experiments, and, by extension, the impossibility of actually building a useful object derived from the science. Cold Fusion did not go very far, because it was a table-top experiment, and it did not replicate.

Thomas Gold wanted to drill down twenty miles to the earth's mantle, to find out what was there. This would unavoidably have been about as expensive a proceeding as building the biggest and best atom-smasher. He could never find anyone to pay for the project. There is a kind of extension of Occam's Razor, which says, in effect, that if you cannot find a way to do an inexpensive experiment, you are likely to be off the path, not doing science anymore. It involves a combination of clear insight and scrounged (liberated) equipment. The best science, therefore, tends not to reach major funding agencies such as the NSF or the still richer DARPA.

Another point is that scientists are not anything like as tied to their theories as a certain type of humanist is. Much of a scientist's identity rests in his technical skills, and if he finds that a field is worked out for some reason, he can easily switch over to something completely different, the way Francis Crick did, going from Physics to Biology. Most humanists do not really have a skill orientation of that type-- the nearest analogy would be a speaking command of a fairly obscure language, say Bulgarian. A Bulgarian scholar could switch from Bulgarian military history to Bulgarian epic poetry, or something like that. However, most humanists do not speak odd languages. A good scientist like Crick could somehow sense that there were too many grant committees, and too many security clearances, and therefore it was time to get out of physics.

Now, as to Global Warming, the dispute seems to be about a fairly bogus issue. I'm not a hard scientist by training, I was trained as a mechanical engineer (specifically, Engineering Science). Engineers have a certain pragmatic cast of mind, and mechanical engineers are firmly grounded in thermodynamics, the study of energy. The most basic law of thermodynamics is the first law, saying, in effect, that energy has to go somewhere and come from somewhere. It doesn't just appear and vanish. The implication is that large energy flows are rather like floods in a river-- they tend to work their way down the river, and to create potential problems both upstream and downstream. The kind of practical actions I would recommend on the assumption that Global Warming was real would tend to have a whole range of benefits, most of which would not depend on whether Global Warming was real or not. Case in point: better sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian bridges, etc., are justifiable from the standpoint of global warming, energy independence, traffic safety, urban biodiversity, social alienation, and heart disease. Take your pick.

Here's a rather funny story. Back at the time of the last energy crisis, in the 1970's, a university physicist somewhere in upstate New York decided to see if he could heat a building by wind power. So he built a windmill, which was all well and good as far as it went, but then he could not think of any better way to turn shaft horsepower into heat than by producing friction. When all this was eventually published in a magazine (Popular Mechanics or Popular Science, I cannot remember which anymore), someone pointed out the obvious, that a commercially available heat pump would do three times as well as the friction mechanism. Duh!


Gus diZerega - 5/9/2007

Taking these figures as accurate - I have no time to look up what I have read somewhere and no apriori reason to believe what I read is more accurate than what Prof. Higgs reports - one would think that the policy priorities of an administration that has injected political criteria to an unprecedented degree into matters of policy would look kindly on studies attempting to rebut the global warming hypothesis.

To the extent this is true, there should be money enough available to skeptics.


Robert Higgs - 5/9/2007

Gus DiZerega states: "I do notice that the Bush administration, which might be presumed to be skeptical of global warming and has no observable animus to government spending, has cut back on funding this kind of research. The only reasonable explanation, I suspect, is that research tends to strengthen the case that global warming is happening. Therefore in the case of global warming research, the complaints of the deniers seem pretty weak."

Although comprehensive, comparative data on the government's spending for climate-change science and technology are difficult to obtain (see the GAO's report at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05461.pdf ), the data that appear to be the most comprehensive (at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/legislative/fy07_climate_change.pdf ) do not show any substantial cutback. With some slight ups and downs from year to year, the U.S. government spent roughly the same amount each year, just under $5 billion, during FY 2003-2007 for climate-change science and technology research. Inflation ate away a bit of the real value of this nominal spending stream, but not enough to make a great difference.


Robert Horn - 5/9/2007

Another characteristic of real meteorological science is a discussion of the predictive skill of models. In apolitical discussions of weather models there is always a skill discussion. Climate discussions have either included this, usually noting that the model has no demonstrated skill, or in the politically charged discussions this is left out.

You find the same concept in many other fields. Medicine has discussion of specificity and sensitivity of diagnostic procedures. Other sciences discuss false positives and false negatives.

Some serious climate modelers do attempt to measure predictive skill, but this can be political suicide. The process is fairly simple: initialize the model for say 20 different starting times (20Kyrbp to 1kyrbp). How well does it predict the known past if you don't cheat by building in the answers?

The results are generally very disappointing. The models show very little skill at present. It is enough to make a few very broad statements, but mostly it is useful guidance to indicate where more scientific work is needed to improve the modeling.

N.B. There was no consensus about climate at all in the early 70's. It was then that the consensus was growing that there were limits to predictability, and the focus was working very hard on determining what was predictable and what was not.


Gus diZerega - 5/9/2007

I agree that hierarchical funding is a problem whether, as Gold wisely observed, the hierarchy be government corporate, or rooted in foundations. The only ameliorative is to have a variety of alternative funding sources, each with their biases.

Gold's "science courts" would be good for a particular funding organization - as he observed. They would be impossible for science as a whole.

I do notice that the Bush administration, which might be presumed to be skeptical of global warming and has no observable animus to government spending, has cut back on funding this kind of research. The only reasonable explanation, I suspect, is that research tends to strengthen the case that global warming is happening. Therefore in the case of global warming research, the complaints of the deniers seem pretty weak.

But setting that aside, as my last substantive post explained, even the examples Gold gave only supported half the issue - that bias exists and is not always reasonable. What he did not acknowledge was that his own examples were self-correcting. In the case he gave involving neutron stars, in a very short time.

To say there is something amiss with science because it sometimes takes off on unproductive tangents and blind alleys is like criticizing the market because unsuccessful businesses are started and then go bankrupt. To say that it is an error to give more weight to estanlished theories than to new ones is akin to saying lenders should make business loans with the same interest rate regardless of the experience of the applicant. EXACTLY the same logical error.

In both science and markets the likelihood of progress seems far higher than the likelihood of error. Both are discovery processes and socialists and laypeople who are global warming deniers alike commit the same error of believing they know more than they do. (A scientist who is a global warming denier or proponent may be wrong - but on different grounds.)


Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 5/9/2007

Your response is odd in at least two ways. First, you act as if my reply to your disparaging remarks was uncalled for with your "Jeezus." Rather, I think your remarks were uncalled for. And second, what...you want me to write a scholarly article that cites all of the relevant comments and sources on this blogpost and linked to it? You've read them, haven't you? Must I duplicate them all in one comment? I asked a few serious questions and you simply attempt to dismiss them rather than addressing them.


Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 5/9/2007

As I mentioned in response to TokyoTom, it is not the peer review process so much that is the problem. A major part of the problem is the extremely hierarchical and centralized nature of the funding process.


Gus diZerega - 5/9/2007

Jeezus.

This thread is on Dr. Gold's paper. Did you read it? Where is your reference to it?

Where are your references either to posts in this thread or to relevant examples? All I get is an claim as to what the duties of scientists should be and why they, sadly, do not livbe up to your dictates.


Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 5/9/2007

How about using yourself as an example then? This particular comment of yours is a perfect example of how many environmentalists attempt to dismiss their critics. It's a ridiculous accusation.

For other examples, perhaps you should peruse Professor Higgs's post again. I assumed you had read it, since you commented on it. Here is another from this blog. There are many more that I'm sure you can find if you try. I shouldn't have to point them all out to you, unless you're keeping your head in the sand?


Gus diZerega - 5/9/2007

There is always the problem on these lists of people jumping into the middle of the discussion and muddying the water with irrelevant rhetoric amd a marked absence of actual examples, either bacause they are lazy or because they know of none. Their irrationality is breathtaking.

Alas.


Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 5/9/2007

The problem with the global warming debate is much more serious than some astronomers not being ready to hear the suggestion that pulsars are rotating neutron stars.


Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 5/9/2007

It is worrisome that you find my questions a "worrisome load of confused/confusing rhetoric," TT. Of course, I'm aware of the comment you link to. It is in response to Higgs's post. And I don't see how it alters the import of my questions, which had nothing to do with peer review as such.

Who are the alarmists? The people who aren't acting like proper scientists. To quote myself from my blog: "When scientists, no matter how distinguished or elderly, rally around an idea with great fervor and emotion, announce a crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions is imminent, call for drastic and coercive action now, and denounce skeptics as ignorant laymen, partisan hacks, or enemies of science - they probably haven't looked in the mirror in a long time."

What is worrisome is that so many scientists who study GW have become activists, certain of the truth, and closed to alternative explanations to the point that they dismiss them, denounce them, or attempt to suppress them.

As for the "extreme weather events becoming more common" comment, I don't think there is solid evidence for that, at least not across the board.


Tokyo Tom - 5/9/2007

Geoff, did you see Gus diZerega's other comment here?

http://hnn.us/comments/109328.html

Your questions offer a worrisome load of confused/confusing rhetoric: who are the "alaramists"? What scientists' positions are NOT tempered by awareness of alternative positions and by the new information being continually added? Is government funding somehow making scientists find evidence that glaceiers are melting, the Arctic is thawing, growing seasons are shifting and extreme weather events beocoming more common?


Tim Sydney - 5/9/2007

Geoffrey Allan Plauche's comment reminds me of Nobel prize winning chemist Kary Mullis wrote in his book "Dancing Naked In The Mindfield". See his chapter "Whatever happened to the Scientific Method?". The chapter is luckily available online here.

Interestingly for L&P readers, Mullis sees a James Buchanan - style 'public choice' process at work in the anthropic global warming (AGW) field. We've seen this kind of thing elsewhere of course too. The old Strategic Defense Initiative people were pushing hard to develop an asteroid collision defense system there for a while, once the Cold War gravy train stopped.

On the contra side, against Mullis's argument, the fact that vested interests are merrily making hay on both sides of the AGW debate shouldn't surprise economists or anyone with a realistic perspective on public policy. Currently both sides of the argument point to the existence of selfish interests at work on the other side as a sign of wrong doing, the implication being that their own camp is pure as the driven snow.

It's appropriate to highlight the various forms of self interest at work, but the existence of hay making by one, two or more sides, by itself, doesn't invalidate a scientific argument.


Tim Sydney - 5/9/2007

Geoffrey Allan Plauche's comment reminds me of Nobel prize winning chemist Kary Mullis wrote in his book "Dancing Naked In The Mindfield". See his chapter "Whatever happened to the Scientific Method?". The chapter is luckily available online here.

Interestingly for L&P readers, Mullis sees a James Buchanan - style 'public choice' process at work in the anthropic global warming (AGW) field. We've seen this kind of thing elsewhere of course too. The old Strategic Defense Initiative people were pushing hard to develop an asteroid collision defense system there for a while, once the Cold War gravy train stopped.

On the contra side, against Mullis's argument, the fact that vested interests are merrily making hay on both sides of the AGW debate shouldn't surprise economists or anyone with a realistic perspective on public policy. Currently both sides of the argument point to the existence of selfish interests at work on the other side as a sign of wrong doing, the implication being that their own camp is pure as the driven snow.

It's appropriate to highlight the various forms of self interest at work, but the existence of hay making by one, two or more sides, by itself, doesn't invalidate a scientific argument.


Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 5/9/2007

Okay, science is conservative. But are the alarmists simply being conservative in rejecting alternative or more tempered positions? Is the scientific process not corrupted by the moralization and politicization that we see in the global warming debate? Is it not corrupted by government funding that is dispersed by bureaucrats and like-minded scientists in a process resembling groupthink?


Gus diZerega - 5/9/2007

Thomas Gold’s paper is an interesting read, and an excellent analysis of the weaknesses in the referee system, though it’s oriented more towards grantsmanship than publishing – which may be its greatest over sight as we shall see. But even with what I hope to show is a significant oversight, it’s an excellent paper. I am grateful to Robert Higgs for bringing it to our attention. However, in keeping with my gadfly task, here I will focus on a central theoretical weakness – but to argue he would have a better understanding of the social process over time if he understood Austrian theory better.

Dr. Gold describes a number of personal horror stories regarding referees and what he terms the “herd mentality.” I can add a bunch of my own. But one example of his is particularly interesting. He writes “Shortly after the discovery of pulsars I wished to present an interpretation of what pulsars were, at this first pulsar conference – namely that they were rotating neutron stars. The chief organizer of this conference said to me, ‘Tommy, if I allow for that crazy an interpretation, there is no limit to what I would have to allow.’ I was not allowed 5 minutes of floor time, although I in fact spoke from the floor. A few months later, this same organizer started a paper with the sentence, “It is now generally considered that pulsars are rotating neutron stars.’” Gold gives other examples, usually with a far greater lag time between the explanation that later won approval being proposed and when it was finally accepted as the best explanation, most sadly in the case of Alfred Wegner’s theory of continental drift, adopted after his death. My personal favorite is Harlan Bretz’s theory of the Missoula floods, where he was finally vindicated in his 90s. So Gold is actually pretty lucky!

Dr. Gold is making an analytic error identical to the one market critics make when they argue that because huge businesses dominate the market, there is no competition. At any given point in time science is dominated by many entrenched orthodoxies, just as at any given point in time there are huge businesses that dominate their fields of production. But if we look over time we find that the position of beneficiary of the status quo changes. There are always some that dominate others, but they change. My favorite economic example was John Kenneth Galbraith’s New Industrial State, where he argued big business was so powerful no competition existed, and the only real question was whether corporate or elected people would plan the economy. His example was the Big Three in auto manufacturing: Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

A few years later Volkswagens and Japanese cars were everywhere, Chrysler was sliding into bankruptcy, and Ford and GM weren’t looking any too healthy either.

In the short run the market seems dominated by established businesses and ways of doing things. In the long run it is transformative. Science, as a spontaneous order, is the same kind of critter, and Dr. Gold’s examples back me up. He pays the price of an innovator in his field – but his field advances. Because it is a discovery process relying on human judgment as to where the best avenues for research are, it will always look inefficient in retrospect. The same is true for the market for the same reasons.

Gold writes as if it is a flaw that ideas that currently seem workable are given greater attention than ideas that are very new. I would disagree. Those currently in favor have already gone through and survived a process of winnowing. The new ones have not yet. At the individual level this seems unfair to the innovator – but at the systemic level it is a kind of gyroscope. This seems a basic characteristic of the human mind, and has nothing to do with the herd mentality. Where science excels – as do other free institution – is in providing a way to effectively challenge entrenched orthodoxies – but at any given point and in any given community there will always be a (momentary) orthodoxy. In living processes these orthodoxies change independently of the will of those in charge. In dead ones they do not.

In science as in the market the counter force to orthodoxy and the herd is openness. In the example Gold gave, somehow, in a few months, a theory once regarded as too outlandish for discussion became common knowledge. Gold ignores this process in his paper, yet I personally find it the most interesting.

Again – reading Polanyi (a chemist) and Ziman (a physicist) would be a good place to start to see how science is a spontaneous order that seems conservative at any given point but transformative over time.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/8/2007

The URL's fixed now, courtesy of your roving Assistant Editor!


Robert Higgs - 5/8/2007

To access the obituary, you'll need to delete the close-parenthesis mark at the end of the URL, so that it ends simply html. Sorry about putting this URL in my message without noticing this mislisting (done automatically by the software).


Keith Halderman - 5/8/2007

In 1989 I took a course in Physical Geography and the textbook dealt with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Green House Effect. That book said that scientists did not know whether it would lead to global cooling or global warming. It asserted either one was possible.


Robert Higgs - 5/8/2007

After my remarks on science and scientists were posted, I received a message from Tim Gillin of Sydney, Australia, calling my attention to an article by Thomas Gold, "New Ideas in Science," Journal of Scientific Exploration 3, no. 2 (1989): 103-12, available online at http://amasci.com/freenrg/newidea1.html.

Gold, who died in 2004, was one of the most brilliant natural scientists of the second half of the twentieth century (see Cornell University's very interesting obituary notice at http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/June04/Thomas_Gold_obit.hrs.html).

Gold's observations on peer review, scientific consensus, and related matters parallel my own to a remarkable degree, although he elaborates at much greater length, gives several fascinating examples from his own career, and, of course, deserves a hearing on these issues much more than I do. I highly recommend his article.


Sudha Shenoy - 5/8/2007

Bob: Extremely well said. Thanks for bringing these matters out so clearly.

For my part, I was concerned that those scientists who were _not_ part of the IPCC consensus, were being seen as self-published kooks & cranks, or as purveyors of dishonest findings. Also, there are in fact substantially larger numbers, in responsible academic positions, than the one or two names known through the popular press alone. Hence my stress on 'peer-reviewed': i.e., their work is up to the same scientific standards as other scientists'.


Robert Higgs - 5/7/2007

I don't presume to know firsthand what "a majority of scientists" (which ones form the denominator?) thought in 1975, but it's difficult to believe that all those drastic proposals scientists were making to head off the impending ice age were inspired by an article in Newsweek. Randy Holcombe's article in the Fall 2006 issue of The Independent Review has some additional details and citations on this episode.


Max Schwing - 5/7/2007

Regarding your remarks towards scientists thinking of a new ice age, I must say that this is not quite right. A majority of scientists did not believe in a new ice age, but were rather ambigous about predictions. However, the media exploited one study that feared a new ice age in order to get headlines.

More on it here:

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/10/global-cooling-again/


Gus diZerega - 5/7/2007

For once we agree, at least in the abstract.

Peer review is the best of the flawed alternatives scientists have for pursuing research as a community of scholars. Any of us who have published much in peer reviewed journals can give many accounts where papers have been rejected for specious or arbitrary reasons, or set up for defeat by the editor, just as Higgs describes.

In the social sciences, where the problems Higgs describes are worse than in the physical sciences, Aaron Wildavsky told me years ago he always kept the envelope to the next journal ready after sending a paper out for publication. Once comments came back, if his paper was rejected he read them to see if they were useful, and if they were not simply mailed out the next letter. That was a good strategy.

Peer review's best defense is that no better alternative has arisen for evaluating papers in a world where knowledge is fragmented.

This point needs to be thoroughly absorbed - no better alternative has arisen. The best defense against editors who think they know more than they do is to have multiple journals. The physical sciences have a great many journals. More than the social sciences. If something canbnot find publication in any peer reviewed journal, its claims to be taken seriously are much much weaker. Not zero, but much weaker.

Like another fallible process for evaluating a different kind of dispersed and uncertain information, the market, the points in peer review's favor are that over time error tends to be weeded out and nothing better has been found to replace it.

For those readers who are interested in "comparative spontaneous orders," the work of Michael Polanyi and John Ziman, both practcing scientists, is vital. Both extensively discuss peer review and related processes in science.

Now to a point where we may not agree.

While physical sceintists are not experts on public policy, and so their views are no more intrinsically worthwhile than any of the rest of us, neither are they any less qualified. This is because one element of public policy is what values we, all of us, think should apply within a political community. The values of scientists are no less importabnt than the values of non-scientists. And regarding issues of global warming, where the fundamental issue is a claim as to the nature of physical phenomena, evidence the scientific community emphasizes is ignored at peril.


Keith Halderman - 5/7/2007

Very well said, thank you.


Aeon J. Skoble - 5/7/2007

Ditto here. Great piece.


Sheldon Richman - 5/7/2007

Excellent, Bob. You're playing Toto to the Wizard of Oz. "Ignore that man behind the curtain."


Mark Brady - 5/7/2007

Thank you, Bob. If you hadn't published your essay here, I'd post a link to your article. As it is, I shall email some friends who are not regular readers of this blog, and tell them to check it out.

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