Advocacy Threatens Scientific Integrity
Robert E. Levine
Physicists, as well as the entire scientific community, should be concerned about the harm that advocacy is doing to scientific integrity. Certain aspects of the current discourse on climate change exemplify this harm.
In using the term “scientific integrity,” I refer to the integrity of the scientific process, as distinct from the public reputation of science. The latter is subject to societal forces that scientists cannot fully control. The former is solely the responsibility of scientists, whose actions and teachings will determine the future state of scientific knowledge.
One key element of scientific integrity is articulated in the APS statement that was adopted on 14 November 1999. The pertinent text on the APS Web site reads as follows:
“The success and credibility of science are anchored in the willingness of scientists to:
- Expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others. This requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials.
- Abandon or modify previously accepted conclusions when confronted with more complete or reliable experimental or observational evidence.”
I will refer to items 1 and 2 listed above as the “openness principles.”
Science institutions and leaders support the openness principles by administering peer review and publication activities in accordance with them, by acting to insure that the performance of these activities reflects scientific expertise and judgment, by making the publication process open to all qualified researchers and all results obtained by sound methods, by encouraging the maintenance of multiple centers of expertise rather than allowing centralized control over science, by fostering the development of multiple experimental and theoretical approaches to significant problems, and by working to prevent non-scientific considerations and external interests from influencing the scientific process or its results.
In numerous areas of research, the institutions of science demonstrate that the openness principles apply even when established scientific conclusions are challenged. In physics, the recent history of neutrino research is exemplary, because physics institutions encouraged and funded new research directions that could have led to either retaining or abandoning the initial and long-held understanding that neutrinos have zero rest mass. Likewise, physics institutions remain open to considering a variety of seemingly unlikely possibilities that differ from current understanding. Examples of these possibilities include time varying fundamental quantities, modification of the inverse square law for gravity, and alternatives to inflationary big bang cosmology.
In conflict with this well-known history, the statement on climate change adopted by the APS Council on 18 November 2007 appears to signal a startling change in direction away from the openness principles, for the following reasons:
- The APS statement on climate change contains important scientific assertions, but is written at a high level of generality that is typical of a public announcement of research results. Unlike most such announcements, this statement gives no reference to an underlying scientific document that supports its assertions with testable results.
- Readers of the APS statement on climate change appear to have generally construed the primary source of its assertions and the focus of its endorsement to be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports and the published research results that form the basis of their scientific content. The APS Council presumably accepts this interpretation, but has offered no scientific rationale for privileging these particular documents and results, to the exclusion of other relevant scientific output.
- The APS statement on climate change, because it has the effect of endorsing particular evolving research results, appears to be an unprecedented and unexplained deviation from the customary role of a scientific society as a neutral enabler of open scientific communication through peer review and publication.
- The APS statement on climate change appears to have the effect of deprecating any existing or future result that shows an anthropogenic climate influence less than that reported by IPCC and any report of a significant non-anthropogenic influence that might otherwise help explain observed climate data and trends. Concern about this effect is not hypothetical, because recently published results,1 results that have been accepted for publication,2 and new results that have been disclosed by a senior climate research scientist in advance of publication3 all conflict with key IPCC assertions.
- The linkage of scientific assertions to long-term policy recommendations in the APS statement on climate change appears to imply an endorsement that is open-ended. This endorsement, together with similar statements from other scientific societies, arguably has the effect of tending to establish the IPCC as the single top-level authority over the entire scientific process for study of the Earth’s climate, thereby terminating a key element of the open scientific process. This possibility appears never to have been acknowledged or debated in the scientific community.
The openness principles are too important to be abandoned or even waived for particular areas of scientific study. Moreover, maintaining them for study of the Earth’s climate will improve rather than harm this field of science. As an independent scientific society, the APS retains the right to undo its deviation from the openness principles by retracting the scientific assertions contained in its statement on climate change, by asserting its support for researchers to continue publishing work in this field whether or not such work supports the IPCC results, and by asserting its support for open scientific publication with no central authority over any field. If the APS Council acts now to reassert the primacy of the openness principles, it will undoubtedly be criticized by some climate change policy advocates. However, the longer the APS waits to reassert the independence of science from advocacy, the more difficult it will be to do so.
1. Richard S. Lindzen, “Taking Greenhouse Warming Seriously,” Energy & Environment, Vol. 18, pp 937-950 (2007).
2. David H. Douglass and John R. Christy, “Limits on CO2 Climate Forcing from Recent Temperature Data of Earth,” accepted for publication by Energy & Environment (August 2008).
3. Roy W. Spencer, Testimony before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee (22 July 2008).
Dr. Robert E. “Bob” Levine was awarded a PhD in physics in 1970, worked in physics and engineering, and retired in 2007. He began his professional career developing scientific instrumentation at Princeton Applied Research Corp. In 1973 he moved to the petroleum services industry, working in science and technology at the Schlumberger-Doll Research Center and then in engineering, initially at the Welex division of Halliburton Corp. and later at Dresser-Atlas. In 1986, he shifted to national defense work at Ft. Huachuca, AZ, first as a contract employee, subsequently as a civilian employee of the US Army, and later at an agency of the US Department of Defense. His defense work concerned development and testing of information technology systems, with emphasis on systems architecture, data management, test methodologies, and project direction.
This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.