Thursday, August 12, 2010

David Hull And The CRU Emails

Philosopher of Biology/Science David Hull passed away today after a long illness. His book Science as a Process, which covered the "clade wars" that raged within evolutionary theory during the 1970s/1980s, should be made mandatory reading for any of the science writers who looked at the CRU emails and were actually surprised at the pettiness, the back-biting, and the rude behaviour occasionally displayed by the scientists behind these emails.

Put bluntly: the debates in climate science are a slappy-fest compared to the epic displays of general assholishness taxonomists got up to a few decades back.

And yet the system worked! From a comment at biologos:

As for scientists being “advocates” in terms of lobbying for their pet theory, sometimes irrationally - sure, in some ways that’s a problem—but in other ways, this very thing is what drives science forward! Other scientists say “that yahoo can’t be right” and try to shoot him down. The emotions, the quest for fame, the desire to be right, etc., are all part of the process. The process is very competitive, and might well work better when it is metaphorically “red in tooth and claw” like this, than when everyone is completely circumspect about every last thing. Read David Hull’s classic “Science as a Process,” for goodness sake.

But, you might say (like Judith Curry, for example): there is too much at stake policy-wise for this kind of thing to go on within climatology. It must change! However, as noted above (in a more general context) to force this kind of change might actually impede the progress of the field. Science can, like many human endeavours, be crippled by an excess of civility. Best let the girls fight it out and let the weak fall by the road-side.

4 comments:

dizzy said...

Or read Watson's story of the discovery of DNA.
Or the American, Kenyan & South Africans arguing over whose fossil is in direct line to Homo sapiens.
At my university, a physics graduate student got beaten up at a post-conference party for having to vociferously defended some cosmological theory.
Objective science doesn't depend on objective scientists, rather on the method which incudes someone being willing to make his career on dismantling yours.

Steve Bloom said...

Second-rate science, the sort JC mostly engages in, doesn't draw a lot of argument simply because it's not very interesting.

Penguindreams said...

It's odd to think that people think that important national and global policy decisions should be made by the mud-wrestling process that is politics. But, at the same time, unravelling the nature of the universe should be done by inhuman automatons who have absolutely no human emotions.

There are some important differences, of course. Politics is conducted much more (particularly today vs. 40 years ago) as an adversarial debate, while science is conducted much more as a (sometimes adversarial) discussion -- in the sense of my discussion vs. debate article.

Still, for better and worse, both scientists and politicians are humans. In science, that's why peer review actually is important. Humans are fallible, and review by people who aren't necessarily your pals is a way of protecting against that.

Steve:
No need for talking about 'second rate science'. Plus, the American Meteorological society seems to disagree with you -- Judy has been made a fellow of the AMS, a fairly exclusive distinction: http://www.ametsoc.org/memdir/fellowslist/get_listoffellows.cfm and as a winner of the Houghton award (1992) http://www.ametsoc.org/getpastawards/get_allawards.cfm
an even more exclusive distinction.

Rather, if you wish to criticize her, go to the substance of your criticism.

sharonapple88 said...

Rather, if you wish to criticize her, go to the substance of your criticism.

Like they did here and here.