Monday, November 23, 2009

Do Corrupt Scientists Produce Corrupted Science?: The Climatic Research Unit E-mails

It's the question I've been asking myself since the University of East Anglia CRU emails surfaced last week. I don't have an answer despite having read about a third of the emails.
For guidance I sought out a bongo player-slash-raconteur.
Here's the musician riffing on science:
"...It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty -- a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid -- not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked -- to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another...."

Long time readers will recognize the words of amateur magician and author, Richard Feynman.

He had a wide variety of interests, for example in 1965 he was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for his work in quantum eletrodynamics.

The above snip is from his 1974 Cal Tech commencement address "Cargo Cult Science".

(here's the version at

We've linked to that speech a couple times, most recently in "Gates Puts Feynman Lectures Online"

During the same speech he went on to say:

"....I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you're not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We'll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of his work were. "Well", I said, "there aren't any". He said, "Yes, but then we won't get support for more research of this kind". I think that's kind of dishonest. If you're representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you're doing -- and if they don't support you under those circumstances, then that's their decision.

One example of the principle is this: If you've made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish BOTH kinds of results.

I say that's also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don't publish such a result, it seems to me you're not giving scientific advice. You're being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don't publish at all. That's not giving scientific advice...."

When Congress wanted to know why the hell the space shuttle Challenger blew up he was the one they asked. Something about integrity.

Here's a Feynman quote:

Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.
-Richard Feynman

Here's one he would have liked:

Feynman joke (okay, a bit deep)

If Richard Feynman applied for a job at Microsoft

Interviewer: "Now comes the part of the interview where we ask a question to test your creative thinking ability. Don't think too hard about it, just apply everyday common sense, and describe your reasoning process."

"Here's the question: Why are manhole covers round?"

Feynman: "They're not. Some manhole covers are square. It's true that there are SOME round ones, but I've seen square ones, and rectangular ones."

Interviewer: "But just considering the round ones, why are they round?"

Feynman: "If we are just considering the round ones, then they are round by definition. That statement is a tautology."

Interviewer: "I mean, why are there round ones at all? Is there some particular value to having round ones?"

Feynman: "Yes. Round covers are used when the hole they are covering up is also round. It's simplest to cover a round hole with a round cover."

Interviewer: "Can you think of a property of round covers that gives them an advantage over square ones?"

Feynman: "We have to look at what is under the cover to answer that question. The hole below the cover is round because a cylinder is the strongest shape against the compression of the earth around it. Also, the term "manhole" implies a passage big enough for a man, and a human being climbing down a ladder is roughly circular in cross-section. So a cylindrical pipe is the natural shape for manholes. The covers are simply the shape needed to cover up a cylinder."

Interviewer: "Do you believe there is a safety issue? I mean, couldn't square covers fall into the hole and hurt someone?"

Feynman: "Not likely. Square covers are sometimes used on prefabricated vaults where the access passage is also square. The cover is larger than the passage, and sits on a ledge that supports it along the entire perimeter. The covers are usually made of solid metal and are very heavy. Let's assume a two-foot square opening and a ledge width of 1-1/2 inches. In order to get it to fall in, you would have to lift one side of the cover, then rotate it 30 degrees so that the cover would clear the ledge, and then tilt the cover up nearly 45 degrees from horizontal before the center of gravity would shift enough for it to fall in. Yes, it's possible, but very unlikely. The people authorized to open manhole covers could easily be trained to do it safely. Applying common engineering sense, the shape of a manhole cover is entirely determined by the shape of the opening it is intended to cover."

Interviewer (troubled): "Excuse me a moment; I have to discuss something with my management team."

(Leaves room.)


(Interviewer returns after 10 minutes)

Interviewer: "We are going to recommend you for immediate hiring into the marketing department."