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Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy

Filed under: — group @ 29 December 2010

Recent attention to NASA’s announcement of ‘arsenic-based life’ has provided a very public window into how science and scientists operate. Debate surrounds the announcement of any controversial scientific finding. In the case of arseno-DNA, the discussion that is playing out on the blogs is very similar to the process that usually plays out in conferences and seminars. This discussion is a core process by which science works.

The arseno-DNA episode has displayed this process in full public view. If anything, this incident has demonstrated the credibility of scientists, and should promote public confidence in the scientific establishment.

The story begins with a long-standing scientific consensus backed by an enormous amount of data: DNA is made with a phosphate backbone. Alternative backbones, such as arsenate, have long been considered unlikely for theoretical reasons.

Nonetheless, despite this consensus, reputable scientists have promoted the study of alternatives challenging the prevailing view. And NASA has willingly funded these studies.

Lesson one: Major funding agencies willingly back studies challenging scientific consensus.

The research team, Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues, behind this study collected data and concluded that they had sufficient evidence to demonstrate incorporation of arsenate into bacterial DNA. Although the data were preliminary in nature, Science accepted the manuscript (pdf). With a high profile, potentially groundbreaking paper about to be published, NASA announced a press conference to publicize the findings.

Lesson two: Most everyone would be thrilled to overturn the consensus. Doing so successfully can be a career-making result. Journals such as Science and Nature are more than willing to publish results that overturn scientific consensus, even if data are preliminary – and funding agencies are willing to promote these results.

Within days of the arsenic paper’s publication, strong criticism of the study began to appear on scientific blogs. These blogs attracted the attention of the mainstream scientific press. Soon thereafter, media reported the wide skepticism within the scientific community – with some scientists going so far as to say that the paper should not have been published.

These scientific criticisms opened the door to those wishing to discredit science and the peer-review process, with the contrarian blogs suggesting that this study demonstrates that peer-review is “broken”. A comment on Watts’ blog summarizes their thinking:

It’s amazing how fast the scientific community came out to attack NASA for what they claim is plainly flawed science. Then again, NASA isn’t funding any of the attackers.

In the Climategate mess however, we still have heard very little from an awful lot of so-called scientists who should have been saying a lot more about flawed science but are too afraid to lose their grant money.

This raises an interesting question: just who is critiquing the NASA study? It turns out that many of the critics are also NASA-funded. In fact, many prominent critics of this study are funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute – the very same program that funded the arsenic study.

Carl Zimmer gives us several examples:

  • Norm Pace offers the critique: “Low levels of phosphate in growth media, naive investigators and bad reviewers are the stories here”.
  • Shelley Copley suggested, “this paper should not have been published”
  • Roger Summons remarked that a critical experiment was left undone, and backed the critical blog analysis of his NASA-funded former student.
  • Michael Russell agreed with blogosphere critics, and offered his own critique of the study based on cosmic ratios of phosphorus to arsenic. Russell is a member of the Astrobiology Institute, as well as an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • Forest Rohwer observed, “the experimental evidence in the paper is pretty weak.”
  • George Cody says he “cannot accept this claim until such an experiment [mass spectrometry] (easily done) is performed.”
  • Steven Benner was an early skeptic. To NASA’s credit, they invited him to present his criticisms at the press conference. He has said “we are not expecting this result to survive”.

Each of these scientists is affiliated with NASA Astrobiology.

Lesson three: Scientists offer opinions based on their scientific knowledge and a critical interpretation of data. Scientists willingly critique what they think might be flawed or unsubstantiated science, because their credibility – not their funding – is on the line.

Regardless of whether or not ‘arseno-DNA’ survives the test of time and further study, scientists have shown that they will rigorously criticize science perceived as flawed, with no fear of reprisal from funding agencies.

This is the key lesson to take from this incident, and it applies to all scientific disciplines: peer-review continues after publication. Challenges to consensus are seriously entertained – and are accepted when supported by rigorous data. Poorly substantiated studies may inspire further study, but will be scientifically criticized without concern for funding opportunities. Scientists are not “afraid to lose their grant money”.

Finally, there is the issue of how scientists who publish papers that generate credible blog reactions should in turn react. In times past, it was simple to wait for properly crafted letters and comments to be sent in to the journal. This gave fixed targets to deal with and allowed for considered reflection and response; discussions would perhaps be published 6 months to year later. But today, serious criticisms can arrive immediately (as seen above). Nature (perhaps with a little schadenfreude) had an op-ed suggesting that the authors on this (Science) paper should be more strongly engaged in the reaction, while Science had a plea from the lead author for a little patience, since they were clearly a little overwhelmed.

In our view, this needs to be thought about clearly on a case by case basis. Some criticisms (that for instance accuse the authors of deliberate fraud or misconduct based on a dislike of the conclusions) are not worth rapidly responding to, but it is worth trying to head off any misinterpretations that might be emerging. Short form papers (even with copious supplementary information) do not provide full context for the results in themselves, and so putting together a response to frequently asked questions is certainly useful (as Dr. Wolfe-Simon and colleagues have). This doesn’t replace the need for technical commentary to pass via the peer-review process though. In the end, that is what people will refer back to.


203 Responses to “Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy”

  1. 51
    Bob says:

    Thanks for your reply. But I was asking something more personal, a “come to Gaia moment”. Why you?

    [Response: Now you've lost me, what 'come to Gaia moment'? I don't recall ever having discussed 'gaia' at all. Can you be more specific? - gavin]

  2. 52
    Torbach says:

    The argument that studying CO2′s effects on climate is an environmentalists presupposition is like saying studying evolution steams from an Ape-fetish.

    As if only people who are in love with the fact that humans share ancestry with Apes would study/accept it…Or people who studied the linear response from the carcinogenic effects of smoking tobacco are just anti-smokers.

    And the one about scientists being flawed stating it is “proven” they must be corrupt; i.e some who worked with oil/tobacco… well lets actually cite some of that.

    A think tank called the George C Marshall Institute, scientists like Fred Singer and Fred Sietz who (afaik) never contributed any positive evidence, research or experiments to the Reagan defense initiative, Cfc’s link to ozone depletion, acid rain, tobaccos link to lung cancer and climate science… that was actually not their role. Instead their entire effort was advisory to political wheels, motivated by anti-regulatory politics. Their entire effort was to debate and confuse, stalling government from making regulatory decisions.

    They did NO research on these subjects, they just argued with established research in public arenas, taking entirely scientific issues and simply debating them politically. “Reasonable doubt”, a legal tactic, become their best tool to undermine decades of hard research on capitol hill.

    to cite those individuals contributing NO scientific data, as proof that ALL scientists ALWAYS conjure/argue false information is just a short-cut in thinking.

  3. 53
    Hank Roberts says:

    > NASA, which is where early global warming theory started

    ROTFL. You can look this stuff up.

    http://web.lemoyne.edu/~giunta/arrhenius.html

    Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927)
    “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” (excerpts) Philosophical Magazine 41, 237-276 (1896)[1]

    … the question, that has long attracted the attention of physicists, is this: Is the mean temperature of the ground in any way influenced by the presence of heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere? …. too wide a use of Newton’s law of cooling, must be abandoned, as Langley himself in a later memoir showed that the full moon, which certainly does not posses any sensible heat-absorbing atmosphere, has a “mean effective temperature” of about 45°C.[6]

    The air retains heat (light or dark) in two different ways. On the one hand, the heat suffers a selective diffusion on its passage through the air; on the other hand, some of the atmospheric gases absorb considerable quantities of heat. These two actions are very different. …”
    ———-

    “Shooshmon” Turing test fail.

  4. 54
    Rod B says:

    This is a good insightful article and does a good job of describing the high-level scientific process as it pertains to publishing, peer review, and controversy. However, I think there is a significant piece where the comparison to the scientific process of climate change is not correct. Equitable funding of both camps within climate science is not shown just because NASA (or anyone else) funds fringe science in some other field. Fringe science is akin to basic research and funding constraints are simply a matter of budget allocation based on broad curiosity and interest. Unless the study is scientifically about something far far outside the world of normalcy, funding is not withheld because the study is distasteful to many but only because there are not enough funds available.

    On the other hand skeptical global warming scientists have an even more difficult time getting funding because their area of study is, while not far far outside the world of scientific normalcy, is outside the strongly felt desired political expectations. The arseno-DNA episode has been criticized, even including the suggestion of withdrawing funding, but solely on proper (right or wrong) scientific questioning grounds as the post points out. But it was not criticized for heresy. Nor were the authors demonized or threatened with criminal prosecution. Nor was the funding organization itself demonized or threatened with criminal prosecution; at worst it was criticized for wasting its money but with no concerted effort to try to assure it doesn’t happen again. The two situations are not comparable in this instance.

    As what some might see as an odd epilogue, I would like to point out that IMO most of climate science funding ought to go to the AGW proponent camp. A reasonable but small amount of funding can go to recognized scientists who are clearly out to disprove current AGW — this in the vein of basic research. But the preponderance should go to proponents with an attempt to refine the current analyses, improve the models, address the areas of uncertainty, and even study specific areas of skepticism within the broad presumed accepted science (and this funding ought to be greatly increased from current levels.) This because there are many areas of uncertainties and looseness (IMO). In other scientific endeavors it wouldn’t really matter one way or the other. There is no earth-shattering result coming whether DNA is arsenic based or not. But the potential impacts from AGW might be great — maybe even literally earth-shattering. Even with my bold caveats this deserves a helluva lot of attention.

  5. 55
    Didactylos says:

    Rod B makes some good points!

    (Probably not the ones he intended to make, but if you waffle on long enough, you have to rub against a few obvious truths eventually.)

    So, on the one hand we have NASA providing funding to Spencer and Christy, not to mention CERN going to great efforts to do further cloud research. On the other hand, we have Cuccinelli trying to start a witch-hunt against Mann, and the US House of Representatives trying to do the same against the whole of climate science…. it’s easy to see who is doing the demonisation.

  6. 56
    Maya from the peanut gallery says:

    “…skeptical global warming scientists have an even more difficult time getting funding…”

    I haven’t looked, but I’m betting that if you compare the available funding from the big oil companies to the available funding from NASA …

    Oh, wait, I know. Google. Let’s go look, shall we?

    Total NASA budget in 2010: $18.7 billion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_Budget Total oil company income? Well, the first one that pops up is from 2007, so it isn’t quite comparable, but here http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/103679.pdf under “integrated oil companies” I see a net income of 127.9 TRILLION dollars. ExxonMobil *alone* has a net income more than twice the total budget of NASA, and if you compare 2007 to 2007, it’s nearly three times.

    Don’t feel sorry for the deniers not being able to get funding. And, I understand that oil companies don’t put all their available money into “studies” that are anti-climate-science, just as NASA’s budget gets spread around to all its different divisions. Still, when it comes down to who has the deeper pockets, well, as they say, follow the money.

  7. 57
    Dan says:

    re: 54.

    There are no “camps”. There is science. Hypotheses, data collection, analysis, peer-review, conclusions, more hypotheses, etc. After all this time, you seem to still believe that scientific analysis and results are predetermined. That is NOT how science is done, for the umpteenth time. You have been told this over and over again yet you plod right along.

    As for “On the other hand skeptical global warming scientists have an even more difficult time getting funding because their area of study is, while not far far outside the world of scientific normalcy, is outside the strongly felt desired political expectations”,…please. This has been refuted time and time again. Furthermore, from 2000-2008 the US had a presidential administration that was quite friendly to the “skeptical” scientists (and even got briefed about it from a science *fiction* writer). And the amount of funding that has been provided from the vested-interest think tanks (e.g. Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation) and the private sector (e.g. Exxon/Mobil) to skeptics and deniers is nothing less than staggering.

    As an aside, what we have seen here is classic denier talk: Bringing up long-refuted denier talking points again and again and again, with no apparent learning curve over time. Classic.

  8. 58

    Rod, this paragraph confuses me:

    On the other hand skeptical global warming scientists have an even more difficult time getting funding because their area of study is, while not far far outside the world of scientific normalcy, is outside the strongly felt desired political expectations. The arseno-DNA episode has been criticized, even including the suggestion of withdrawing funding, but solely on proper (right or wrong) scientific questioning grounds as the post points out. But it was not criticized for heresy. Nor were the authors demonized or threatened with criminal prosecution. Nor was the funding organization itself demonized or threatened with criminal prosecution; at worst it was criticized for wasting its money but with no concerted effort to try to assure it doesn’t happen again. The two situations are not comparable in this instance.

    Is there support for the contention that skeptical studies struggle to get funding? I’ve heard it said, but never seen it substantiated. Is this more than “everybody knows” handwaving?

    Further on you mention accusations of heresy, the demonization of authors, threatening them with criminal prosecution, and similar threats to the funding organization.

    What confuses me:

    1) I haven’t heard of anyone being accused of “heresy;”

    2) The other actions mentioned bring to mind those like the abominable Cuccinelli–or the equally abominable Limbaughs and Becks–whose threats and actions were directed against mainstream climatologists, not skeptics. Is that what you meant? Or is there some instance (hitherto unknown to me) of prosecution threatened against, say, Roy Spencer?

  9. 59
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B.,
    Have you learned absolutely nothing about how science is done? Do you honestly think that granting agencies dole out funding based on what this scientist believes vs. that scientist?

    Good Lord! You get funded if you produce frigging results. Results mean understanding of your subject matter. If your research means we can do what we couldn’t before, you will get funded–and even moreso if it challenges comventional ideas.

    Rod, 97.5% of climate scientists who publish in the field agree with the consensus theory of Earth’s climate. An unfortunate corrolary of that theory is that we warm the globe when we produce CO2. Most of the 2.5% who dissent from the consensus get their funds from the same place the 97.5% get theirs–and yes, as Gavin has pointed out, they get funds.

    Why don’t they get more funds? Because frankly their research is crap. It does not add understanding. For Chrissake, Rod, get real!

  10. 60

    Maya 56,

    Wouldn’t 126 trillion be greater than word gross product?

  11. 61

    Sorry, “Gross World Product.” It was about 56 trillion last time I looked, although I’m sure it’s gone up by then. But not enough for the oil companies alone to be making $126 trillion a year. I think the whole fossil fuel industry makes about $2 trillion a year. Still motive for murder, but we have to get the magnitudes right.

  12. 62
    Maya from the peanut gallery says:

    Eh, obviously I can’t do move-the-decimal-place math when I have a cold.

    NASA budget 2010: 18,724 million = 18.7 billion
    Integrated oil company profits 2007: 127,994 million = 127.9 billion, not trillion.

    My apologies. However, the basic point stands. If the oil companies want to fund “studies” they have more than enough money to do so.

    Out of curiosity, I looked up XOM’s (Exxon Mobil’s) net income summary. The numbers are annual, in thousands (don’t forget to move the decimal the right number of places!), Dec 2009, Dec 2008, and Dec 2007.

    Net Income From Continuing Ops 26,423,000 45,220,000 40,610,000

    Ok I’ll stop before I’m told I’m beating a dead horse or wandering OT.

  13. 63
    Didactylos says:

    BPL: Maya just made a typo. Check the source.

  14. 64
    Rich Creager says:

    Thanks for posting on the self-correcting nature of science. Perhaps I’m hair-splitting, but I feel that this formulation can provide a mistaken notion that the overall movement of science follows a “scientists make mistakes, then others correct them” trajectory. I believe the idea of Successive Approximations is a more powerful meme, where movement toward a more robust representation of reality occurs incrementally despite the limitations, biases or questionable motivation of individual scientists. Successive approximation is the organizing principle underlying science. Please see Steven Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man”

    [Response: Not hair splitting IMO, and a point I strongly agree with. IMO, the vast majority of science is incremental advancements/improvements in the state of knowledge. Sometimes there are outright conceptual or other mistakes that need to be corrected (often involving math or statistics issues in my experience), but most of the time, it is instead advancements in technology (more or better data, better analysis tools etc) that lead to incrementally better understanding. A related point is that scientists do not commonly go out of their way in some conscious effort to "overturn consensus" on some topic, which is difficult in proportion to the amount of attention that has already been paid to it. You might have a chance at so doing in some relatively ignored backwater area, but good luck doing so on anything with a long and strong history to it.--Jim]

  15. 65
    John Mashey says:

    re: #48
    1) The “It’s a few bad scientists, vilify them” approach is most virulent in North America, unsurprising given the location of many of the thinktanks and fronts that help organize this.
    Despite the attacks on Phil Jones, I’d say it’s still less bad in UK, among other things possibly because defamation law is so messy in USA compared to UK.

    2) But “It’s a few bad scientists” was common enough, even in in the Wegman Report, that when I wrote SSWR, I gave it a Meme label (Meme-d, since Skeptical Science didn’t have one for that), and the Index on p.8 lists 7 pages where it appears.

    3) In any case, the definitive study remains Monty Python witch scene.

  16. 66
    David B. Benson says:

    GDP (purchasing power parity): $70.17 trillion (2009 est.)

    GDP (official exchange rate):
    GWP (gross world product): $58.09 trillion (2009 est.)

    from
    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html

    Sum of nine integrated oil companies net income was $0.128 trilllion on revenues of $1.6 trillion in 2007 CE. (source: Robert Pirog, Congressional Research Service) [Does not include ARAMCO, PetroChina, and other majors which do not operate in the USA)

  17. 67
    Rick Brown says:

    Walter Pierce #43 & #49 re: Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article and the “decline effect.”

    Tamino has a post — The Power — and Perils — of Statistics — that predates Lehrer’s article but discusses the phenomenon in a way that I found helpful.

  18. 68
    observer says:

    [As I said, the possibility of something occurring does not prove its actuality. - Jim]

    And this is why there needs to be more openess in climate science, especially in regards to making data and code available. Scientists may feel they are wasting their time and energy being so open as in actuality they are doing nothing wrong, but the possibility that they are is why they should be.

    Climate science journals should be following policies like those of econometric journals. For example from the Journal of Applied Econometrics: “Authors of all papers published in the JAE are required to submit the data they used, unless they are confidential (see below). Authors are also encouraged to provide whatever other material is needed to ensure that their results can be replicated without excessive difficulty. This might include computer programs or technical appendices that are not part of the paper itself.”

    [Response: As we have discussed many times, much of this is indeed already available (but it's much easier not to bother to look before pronouncing upon our perfidy). And it would be naive to think this insulates scientists from spurious criticism. For instance, all the GISTEMP data and code is available, and it has been independently replicated multiple times. Yet every week brings another spurious insinuation or accusation of malfeasance. The opposition to climate science has nothing to do with science, the scientific method, openness, transparency or any of the issues that you are apparently alluding to, and so progress in any of those areas (and progress can always be made), is irrelevant for the wider issue. - gavin]

  19. 69
  20. 70
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rick Brown: “Tamino has a post — The Power — and Perils — of Statistics — that predates Lehrer’s article but discusses the phenomenon in a way that I found helpful.”

    As opposed to Lehrer’s piece, which was sensationalist crap. Another journalist I must watch out for lest I accidentally direct my piss stream toward them if they are on fire.

  21. 71
    JiminMpls says:

    #54 On the other hand skeptical global warming scientists have an even more difficult time getting funding because their area of study is….outside the strongly felt desired political expectations.

    Bullsh_t. Just the opposite is true. The $13 TRILLION fossil fuel industry is the single most powerful financial and political interest in the world. Science threatens the fossilists quest for total world domination.

  22. 72
    Rod B says:

    Didactylos, I did not say there is currently no funding of skeptics, though I think it ought to be more available, and increased — while still keeping it small. Nor did I say AGW proponents have a monopoly on demonization. The skeptic/”denier” camp has some; I just don’t see a lot of it. But then I spend little time on skeptic blogs.

    BTW, I have commented that Cuccinelli, who strangely seems very astute in other areas, is way off base with his witch hunt of Mann.

    Maya from the peanut gallery, you’re comparing apples and tractors. Plus you should bone up on either your decimal points or reading financial statements. None-the-less, the 2007 net income of about $130 BILLION was exceeded by their tax payments, some of which certainty went to fund AGW science. Though I don’t know how that compares to the $20-25 MILLION they sent to skeptic groups over about 15-20 YEARS. Even devil Koch is reported to have funded “denier” groups to an estimated (unverified) $40-50 MILLION over the past 15 or so years while simultaneously funding 2-3% of NOVA’s (which ran a decent hour on Antarctic ice and sea rise the other day) budget.

  23. 73
    Rod B says:

    Dan (57), your meme and mantra is wrong and getting tiresome. Tell me how much government funding went to climate research between 2000 and 2008, and how much funding went to true skeptic/”denier” sites from the three or more entities you mention.

    Rich and Jim (64): interesting and helpful comments.

  24. 74
    observer says:

    [As we have discussed many times, much of this is indeed already available (but it's much easier not to bother to look before pronouncing upon our perfidy).]

    Which of the leading climate science journals have something similar to the Journal of Applied Econometrics Data Archive ( http://econ.queensu.ca/jae/ ) which dates back to at least 1995?

    [And it would be naive to think this insulates scientists from spurious criticism. For instance, all the GISTEMP data and code is available, and it has been independently replicated multiple times. Yet every week brings another spurious insinuation or accusation of malfeasance. The opposition to climate science has nothing to do with science, the scientific method, openness, transparency or any of the issues that you are apparently alluding to, and so progress in any of those areas (and progress can always be made), is irrelevant for the wider issue]

    The issue isn’t whether more openess would insulate scientists from spurious criticism, which it clearly wouldn’t. In fact more openess with data and code would most likely lead to more spurious criticism. However it would also lead to more valid criticism and transparency that the possibility of self interest, peer pressure and groupthink has not become an actuality. In my opinion the benefits of more openess far outweigh the costs, even though I acknowledge the costs are not minor.

    [Response: Yes, open-ness is good and we should strive to maximize it. The problem is the gross distortion and biasing of the overall issue by certain elements, who completely ignore the vast amounts of publicly available data (which continues to come online in profusion on a daily basis). They favor instead, to make mountains from molehills about this that and the other, usually being flat out wrong in the process. They have zero objectivity. I defy you to find any field in the environmental sciences having the the amount and quality of publicly available data at large spatial scales as does climate science.--Jim]

  25. 75
    dhogaza says:

    Rod B:

    though I think it ought to be more available, and increased

    Why? Why should mainstream science denialism be given prejudicial funding?

    The quack medical people have managed to do so, do you personally believe that studies into the placebo effect of distilled water is a particularly fruitful place for MY TAX DOLLARS to be spent? (homeopathy).

    Why should government science funds go to, for instance, geological research meant to “prove” the worth is 6,000 years old?

    You really believe in equal time?

    Tell me how much government funding went to climate research between 2000 and 2008, and how much funding went to true skeptic/”denier” sites from the three or more entities you mention.

    Hopefully no funding went to the equivalent of “6,000 year old earth” people.

    The reason why government science funding has gone to science is … because that’s where it’s supposed to go to.

    Do you have a problem with that?

    Yes, obviously.

    You’ve been here for years, and every day you post just solidifies the reality that you’re driven by politics, not science.

  26. 76

    JiminMpls #30. Exactly. The only reason climate science is “controversial” is a massively profitable industry stands to lose big time if the mainstream findings translate to policy. The same happened with CFCs and tobacco.

    Edward Greisch #35: the reason arsenic is poisonous is it’s close enough to phosphorous chemically to substitute for it in molecules but not so close as to actually work for the all biochemical processes. I personally don’t see why it’s such a big deal for As to replace P in the DNA backbone except it’s not been observed before. The DNA backbone is not as I understand it deeply involved in cellular biochemistry though I don’t claim expertise in that area and could be wrong.

  27. 77

    Dod B #73: how about this for starters:

    nearly $16 million ExxonMobil spent between 1998 and 2005 to bankroll more than 40 groups to quell claims of global warming. Exxon Mobil spent nearly $27.5 million in lobbying last year alone, their second-highest year on the books after the election year of 2008

    Funding doubt is a lot cheaper than funding research: no satellites, no supercomputers, no PhD students, no postdocs, no research staff, only office space, PR firms, market research and overheads.

    Given that climate change threatens the lifeblood of the fossil fuel industry, why are they not funding genuine research to overturn the mainstream? Here’s a hint: they learnt a good lesson from the tobacco industry. Your own researchers will only confirm the bad news, so don’t listen to them, and confuse the public debate instead.

  28. 78
    Edward Greisch says:

    38 Barton Paul Levenson: OK I deleted that phrase in my document. I didn’t think it would ruffle feathers here.

  29. 79
    JCH says:

    Rod B. – the way an international oil company pays taxes is fairly complicated. If they collect 30 billion in sales tax and remit 30 billion to various governments, they’re counting that as a tax they’ve paid. I believe it is the same for gas taxes at the pump. These mount up to huge numbers, but they have nothing to do with how much income tax the international oil company pays. The international oil company is happy to have these customers buying their products and they do not mind being the conduit for these taxes, which are obviously being paid by the customers, not the international oil company. The international oil company could lose gigantic amounts of money on operations, and those taxes would still be remitted to the state governments in full. It has nothing to do with their business profit or loss (admittedly there are situations where there are exceptions here, but dire corporate financial situations are not the subject.)

    Most international oil companies still own some gas stations. They sell candy.

    Collect 7 cents in sales tax from a customer on a candy purchase of $1; claim $1.07 in sales; remit 7 cents to the state government. Net sales after this slam-bam accounting: $1.00

    Maybe you’re impressed by this 7 cent in and out. I’m a shareholder of several international oil companies and I really don’t get why you’re impressed. Their income on the candy is $1.00, and from it they will deduct the expenses of earning it. That’s where I, hopefully, get impressed. I don’t mind at all if they owe 20 to 40 cents in income tax on that candy sale.

    On the funding of skeptic science, I agree with you. XOM the evil doers reports its giving, so there is no reason to throw around any numbers other than the reported numbers.

  30. 80
    JCH says:

    Should be:

    I don’t mind at all if they owe 20 to 40% in income taxes on the net profit of that candy sale.

  31. 81
    Edward Greisch says:

    74 Philip Machanick: So As works OK in the DNA but not in other places? The backbone part of DNA is not critical to function? The bacteria must have special enzymes for that to happen? Do you know any good links for this?

  32. 82
    mrlee says:

    On the subject of the relations between scientists and politicians: Lately in Norway there have been a couple of cases in the media about politicians trying to influence (dictate) the conclusions of scientific surveys they’ve ordered. The result? The scientists went complaining to the media, and the politicians will hopefully remember the political cost of trying to dictate science.

  33. 83
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Problems with peer review:

    1. It is not transparent.

    2. It is too slow.

    3. It perpetuates silo thinking.

    4. It encourages ad hominum arguments.

    As a brief example take the flyer on Benzodiazepines on the Institute of Psychiatry website.

    http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mentalhealthinfoforall/treatments/benzodiazepines.aspx

    It gives a view of these drugs, supported by five references from peer reviewed journals and three other references that to the lay person have similar weight. The tone of the flyer would be strongly disputed by campaigners against the way benzodiazepines have been prescribed. A recent article in The Independent on Sunday (7th Nov 2010) gave some voice to their views:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/drugs-linked-to-brain-damage-30-years-ago-2127504.html

    Uncritical believers in the peer review process would naturally give much more weight to peer reviewed information than to campaigners, many of whom have been prescribed benzodiazepines for conditions related to their capability to cope with mental strain. If it were to be the case that the campaigners are right and there is something fundamentally flawed with the peer reviewed information or the way it is used, doubts might be raised about the status of peer review as it currently exists.

    Watch this space.

  34. 84
  35. 85
    JiminMpls says:

    #76 The same happened with CFCs and tobacco.

    But the stakes are much higher for the fossilists. 9 of the largest 15 public and private businesses are fossilist industries. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_companies_by_revenue

    It boggles any rational person’s mind that this idea that climate scientists are in it for the money and fossilists are not continues to be repeated over and over again. It’s a form of mass insanity.

    BTW, I can’t remember where I found the $13 trillion figure for the global fossil fuel industry, but if you add up all the oil, natural gas and coal producers and processors; utilities; the mfrs of production and refining equipment and machinery, plastics, paints and solvents, agricultural fertilizers, and fossil fueled vehicles; AND the distribution and retail channels required to support all of the above, and I’d say $13 trillion or 25% of the global economy is if anything, a conservative estimate.

  36. 86

    Re: 67. Thanks for the Tamino link, Rick Brown. Just what I was looking for.

  37. 87

    Re: #54. “…skeptical global warming scientists have an even more difficult time getting funding because their area of study is, while not far far outside the world of scientific normalcy, is outside the strongly felt desired political expectations.”

    Ah, Mr. Straw Man again. Got a cite for the statement above, or at least a few specific examples of funding denied? Shock us by backing up your statement.

  38. 88
    Ray Ladbury says:

    observer@74,
    Absolute horsecrap! Denialists have terabits of data available to them and have done bupkes with it. By all means, data should be archived and freely available. Code should be archived, but quarantined to avoid propagaton of any errors therein (if you can’t write your own code you have no business mucking about).

    Still, the idea that denialists would make the whole problem of climate change disappear if only they had access to data is fricking hilarious.

  39. 89
    Ray Ladbury says:

    So, Rod, how would you suggest we dole out the research funds to denialists?

    “Here, Sonny, I see you have never published anything vaguely related, but you think there’s a vast international conspiracy of scientists. Here’s a million for ‘research’.”

    -or-

    “Oh, I see you think you’ve disproved global warming because your thermometer was below 20 degrees F. To whom shall I make out the check?”

    -or-

    “Ah, I see that you haven’t published anything worthwhile in 20 years, but…yes, you still have a pulse. I’d better send your funding on a weeklyly basis.”

    Rod, here’s the secret of the global scientific cabal. I’m sure I will have hit men after me over this. Oh, look, there’s a ninja! Rod, the secret to tapping into research money: Publish! And op eds in the Wall Street Urinal don’t count.

    The few denialist scientists have a terrible record of publication–they usually don’t and when they do, it leads nowhere. This is not because they are unintelligent. It is because they have nothing to add in terms of understanding, because their opposition to the consensus model handicaps their own understanding. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go dodge some poison darts.

  40. 90

    Re: #89. Ray Ladbury, it appears that Rod B. is advocating additional wasteful government spending.

  41. 91
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff Beacon,
    I don’t think the criticisms of the peer review process are universally applicable. Certainly, for many journals the peer-review process is as transparent as it can be while still preserving anonymity–also a priority.

    It CAN BE too slow, but it needn’t be and often takes only a couple of weeks.

    I certainly see no evidence that it promotes silo thinking or that it encourages ad hominem attack/argument. If it does in some field, I would contend it reflects a problem in the field that reaches much deeper than peer review.

    Peer review is intendes as a second hurdle (the first being the author’s/research group’s own integrity and skill). There are many more on the way to scientific consensus. If regulatory agencies are making decisions based solely on publication of one or a few studies, then I would contend that the regulatory agencies are pushing peer review into a role it was never intended to fulfill. Isn’t that more of a regulatory problem? Perhaps regulators–and the public–ought to be taught how to consume scientific information. And while we’re at it, maybe we could teach them a bit of the scientific method.

  42. 92
    gavin says:

    #43 On the NY Lehrer article, PZ Myers has a good comment.

    Also worth looking at is the ‘how to have a discussion‘ flow chart. Maybe we should adopt that here…

  43. 93
    Bill DeMott says:

    “The DNA backbone is not as I understand it deeply involved in cellular biochemistry though I don’t claim expertise in that area and could be wrong.”

    Comment by Philip Machanick — 31 December 2010 @ 12:35 AM

    Philip: DNA is transcribed into mRNA which is translated into protein. Besides its function in reproduction, DNA is obsolutely essential in protein synthesis.

  44. 94
    Bill DeMott says:

    I completely do not understand the suggestion that “skeptics” and “proponents” should have different funding sources and different research agendas.

    Let’s say that some key analysis might support or conflict with current scientific views on climate change. Whether the scientists undertaking the research expect a positive (supporting) or negative (conflicting) results hardly makes a difference. The fact that most reseach is supporting the “concensus” is largely due to the results from data, no who is doing the research or the researcher’s prior expectations. In general, the best way to support an hypothesis is to undertake research that has a good chance of falsifying the hypothesis. I do mostly experimental research that gives easier to interpret results than most climate research. Still, scientific discoveries depend more on the quality of the planned research and “luck” than the expectations of the scientists doing the reseach. Everyday, scientists find and publish results that they personally found quite unexpected. In fact, these are the kinds of results tha can make one’s career. NSF and other federal agencies are indifferent to the outcome (i.e., which hypotheses are supported) of the proposed and funded research. The only point is that if you want to get a new grant, it’s important that earlier grants resulted in good publications. It’s very common for scientists to get great results from a grant-supported research project that are completely counter to their original hypothesis. I describe the results as “great” because they resulted in important publications that advanced scientific knowledge.

  45. 95

    Re: #92. “Pushing at the boundaries of uncertainty” is a powerful way of thinking about the scientific method. Thanks for the link!

  46. 96
    Didactylos says:

    Rod B, it’s all very well complaining that “sceptics” don’t get enough funding. But who is asking for funding and not getting it?

    All the serious sceptics seem to be well funded. Maybe not as much as they would like, but I’ve never met a rich scientist ever. Who is going around claiming to have groundbreaking results if only they could be spared some cash?

    Most of the semi-credible sceptics seem to be content to sit out their retirement sniping from the sidelines. They aren’t seeking grant money.

    I’m sure a few people at Climate Audit would love some grant money. But are they applying for it? Of course not – they have no credible grant proposal to submit.

    So who does this leave?

    Governments and research organisations don’t generally thrust large quantities of money into the hands of a partisan group and say “go forth, overturn science as we know it”.

  47. 97
    DVG says:

    To assert “Scientists are not ‘afraid to lose their grant money’” is just not credible. Certainly, some scientists aren’t afraid all the time, and some aren’t afraid some of the time. It may even be that as to most issues and most scientists, the statement is generally true, but it certainly isn’t true for all scientists all the time. And it certainly isn’t true for all scientists as to politically charged subject like climate change.

    This post is a persuasion ploy: scientists challenge without concern for $ repercussions as to this issue; thus, they always challenge without concern for $ repercussions as to all issues. Don’t bother pointing out the really big differences in the issues, as well as the politics and economics surrounding those issues.

    [Response: In my experience I see the exactly the same behaviours in every field I've had contact with - whether they are in the forefront of some key policy-relevant question, or working on an obscure detail that is a long way removed from the fray. If you want to make the case for the contrary, then actually show some evidence. Show us the grant applications at NSF that got funded because they were 'alarmist' or the ones that didn't because they weren't. Show us where scientists have bent their opinion depending on the party in control of the administration. Show us where any scientist has been defunded because they voiced reasonable criticism of something 'popular'. Absent such evidence, you are simply giving voice to your prejudices and assuming that because you can imagine something to be true, it must actually be so. That isn't however the way science works. - gavin]

  48. 98
    Hank Roberts says:

    > the ‘how to have a discussion‘ flow chart.
    > Maybe we should adopt that here…

    It’d be a sad day for those who can’t or won’t cite sources.

  49. 99
    Didactylos says:

    Bill DeMott: People who base their understanding on the current state of knowledge naturally fall into the consensus view. As such, there is no reason why they should be biased for or against the consensus view – it is what it is.

    People who base their understanding on rejecting the consensus view are on more slippery ground. They often make public statements about their rejection of the consensus, so when inevitably they discover errors in their research, or find the mounting evidence against them too much to deny, changing their position impinges on their personal reputation. They have to admit that they themselves made errors of judgement. Contrast this to a “consensus” scientist – when they find errors or break new ground, then either they add support to the consensus, or they move the consensus. It is altogether a more positive experience.

    This is why it is unwise to tilt at windmills.

  50. 100
    Ray Ladbury says:

    [edit - I understand the temptation, but please don't post comments which are exclusively attacks on other commenters, regardless of egregious their perceived faults. - gavin]


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