Watt about the con-men?

There is a recent Watts Up With That (WUWT) post called how a scientist becomes a con-man. This was about a Dutch psychologist called Diederik Stapel who carried out research in the general area of sociology. Some of his work suggested that various external stimuli could promote stereotyping and discrimination. Other work suggested that meat eaters were more selfish than vegetarians. However, it turned out that much of the data that he claimed to have collected was not real and that he was essentially making it up. This was a genuine case of academic fraud. The WUWT post, however, ends with

A lesson for climate science.

I find it somewhat absurd to use the fraudulent activities of an individual researcher in a largely unrelated area, to suggest that there is widespread fraud taking place amongst climate scientists. There is absolutely no evidence to support the suggestion that climate scientists are committing academic fraud. There are those who would clearly like this to be true, but that doesn’t make it so.

Having said that, there are some issues with how researchers conduct themselves today. Peer-review is not really very effective anymore. There are too many papers and everything has become so much more complex that, quite commonly, a reviewer will be unable to check properly whether or not the claims in a paper being reviewed are correct. There’s also lots of pressure on researchers today. Universities want them to get funding to pay for their salaries and to cover all sorts of overheads. Universities tend to see themselves as businesses and hence have a goal of maximising research income. This means that a researcher’s career could depend on how easily they can get funded. Governments also want researchers to justify the money spent on them by indicating the impact of their research. All of these factors do mean that some will be less than honest about their research in order to make it seem more interesting than maybe it deserve.

This, however, does not apply especially to climate science. It is a problem across almost all research areas today. It also doesn’t necessarily imply that we’d expect more fraud. It’s more likely that researcher will be less rigorous so as to publish more and maybe over-interpret their results in order to make their work seem more interesting. If anything, given the scrutiny that climate science is exposed to by skeptics, it might be the least likely area to suffer from any major fraudulent activities. This could be regarded as a positive aspect of the role played by the skeptical community. Admittedly, they also put a lot of effort into convincing policy makers that there are major problems with most of climate science, which tends to negative any of the positives. If we could get them to focus on the positive aspects of what they do, we might eventually get somewhere.

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2 Responses to Watt about the con-men?

  1. Rachel says:

    My husband is an academic and I recently interviewed him on the peer review process for my blog – http://quakerattled.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/peer-review-and-hot-cross-buns/

    The situation in pure mathematics (his area) is slightly different though because it is possible to check correctness of results in a way that cannot be done in other disciplines where the results might be the culmination of possibly years of experimentation and observation.

    It is a shame that Universities all over the world are shifting over to a business model as I can see what impact this might place on academics and the pressure to publish relevant research. The famous British mathematician, G.H. Hardy described his own research as completely useless. But some 50 years later, it has provided the essential foundations for cryptography on which the whole of ecommerce depends.

  2. Interesting post. Even in my field it is sometimes possible to go into quite some detail in reviewing a paper, but it is getting more difficult to do this.

    I do think the desire for measurable “impact” is potentially very risky. Much of what we do could have significant impact in the future, we just don’t yet know in what way. If we start doing work this has predictable impact, we risk – in my opinion – damaging the potential for (as yet unknown) long-term high-impact.

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