Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Players make poor referees

The recently leaked emails between Phil Jones and Michael Mann raise a number of issues about scientific progress. I'd like to address two of them.

As background, the emails are between major researchers and activists in the climate change debate. Here is a sample of what has observers excited:
In one e-mail, the center's director, Phil Jones, writes Pennsylvania State University's Michael E. Mann and questions whether the work of academics that question the link between human activities and global warming deserve to make it into the prestigious IPCC report, which represents the global consensus view on climate science.

"I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report," Jones writes. "Kevin and I will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

Here we see two people influential with the IPCC conspiring to eject papers that conflict with their preferred conclusions. As a result, we cannot believe that the IPCC is giving a balanced summary of the research that is outstanding, thus undermining what the IPCC claims to do.

What to make of it? What I'd like to emphasize in this post is that it's not bad, by itself, that Jones and Mann are taking sides. The problem is that they are trying to wear two hats, two hats that are particularly incompatible.

To make an analogy, think of scientific claims as sports teams. How do you find out whether a particular sports team is any good? Really, there's no other way than to field the team against other sports teams that are also believed to be good. No amount of bravado, no amount of popularity, is really going to convince an unbiased observer that the team is really good. Ultimately, it needs to play against good teams and win.

The tricky part is here: What counts as playing against a good team? To resolve this, sports have rules that are laid out to be as objective as possible, and they have referees adjudicate the games to make sure the rules are followed. Referees are monitored to make sure that they are applying the rules correctly and fairly, but since the rules are objective, this is a relatively straightforward task. The team players, meanwhile, can try a variety of strategies and techniques. It's hard to judge whether the strategies and techniques are good by themselves, but it's not hard at all to tell who won a fairly refereed sports game.

Bringing it back to science, if Jones and Mann are to be faulted, it's because they are claiming to act as referees even though they are actively taking sides. I don't know the particulars of how the IPCC is organized nor of what influence these two have in it, but it doesn't take a specialist to know that players make poor referees.

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