Social Aspects of Science

From the editorial at

Historians of science have long known that Gregor Mendel, the 19th century Augustinian monk who discovered how genetic traits are inherited, ‘fudged’ some of his data. His experimental methods were not as rigorous as they should have been and he failed to publish results of experiments that did not turn out as expected. Such revelations show that science is less exact than many people would like to believe. But they do not invalidate Mendel’s insights, which have become the cornerstone of modern genetics.

The same could be said of the ‘Climategate’ row that erupted last month after emails were hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The emails suggest that some university researchers may have selected favourable data in their publications to boost arguments about the severity of climate change and its origins in human activity.

Opponents of action on climate change have leapt upon the emails and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been forced onto the defensive, with its officials condemning publication of the emails as an illegal act intended to discredit the panel’s work. But dismissing the emails on the grounds that they were obtained illegally misses the important point that they show science to be a more human process than is usually portrayed. The emails reveal that the scientists who wrote them were frustrated by the attacks of critics and, like Mendel, were anxious to sharpen the strength of their conclusions.

To gain public trust, scientists are coming under increasing pressure to be open about how they achieve their results. However, if researchers are to be more transparent and avoid accusations of tampering with data as being unscientific, the public must also accept how science is actually practised. To achieve this, scientists must do more to present a human face when explaining their processes and practices instead of hiding behind the claim that science is entirely objective.

Climategate is teaching the IPCC this lesson the hard way. By relying excessively on the apparent objectivity of its research assessments to give the panel its authority, it has made itself and its conclusions politically vulnerable. Now any criticism that challenges the objectivity of research used by the IPCC, however minor, undermines the panel’s reputation.

The IPCC, to its credit, tries hard to be transparent in its own handling of scientific evidence by making good use of communication channels. For instance, it logged and replied online to each of the estimated 300,000 comments received on its latest assessment report, published in 2007. But unless it is prepared to accept a more accurate picture of how scientific evidence is compiled, such transparency will not be sufficient.

The media, too, must improve its understanding and description of science. It often demands a black-and-white picture of scientific evidence, rather than a more nuanced description based on the social nature of scientific inquiry. This undervalues the true robustness of the scientific process and undermines the strength of political decisions based on conclusions emerging from it.