Paltridge on the changing character of science

He starts this chapter with a reference to the 1950s “Two Cultures” debate kicked off by C P Snow when he said that the scientists and the literary folk had stopped talking to each other. That was an interesting sideshow and Paltridge’s more important point is that things have changed a great deal since that time.  Paltridge suggested that this period was in some ways the high tide of quality science before it became a part of the “military-industrial complex”. President Eisenhower coined the term and warned the scientists against being corrupted by it.

The CSIRO was young and full of enthusiasm.

These were the halcyon days when members of the Executive of CSIRO spent a lot of their time visiting individual scientists in the laboratories, and somehow left the impression that they ‘mere cyphers who came only to serve the requirements of the man-at-the-bench’. p 82

[A small aside on that. Second in charge of the Radiophysics Laboratory was a man called Pawsey. His visits to the laboratories had a small downside because he liked to get “hands on” with the equipment and it is recorded in the history of the CSIRO that some researchers build prominent dummy knobs on the apparatus so it would not have to be re-calibrated in the wake of Pawsey’s compulsive knob-twiddling.]

In contrast with those days, when the CSIRO boffins were in full flight beween visits by the likes of Pawsey and university professors ruled the roost in their own departments, Paltridge reports that managerialism has infected science to a remarkable degree – that is a combination of over-management, political correctness and parallysis by analysis. He suggests that this has contributed to the rise of the “climate change bandwagon” and the difficulty in gauging the reliability of statements by scientists.

Too many scientists

Partly driven by the Commonwealth payment for a PhD graduate which is twice as much as the payment for training an undergraduate we are producing an excess of people who are competing for places as research scientists. Paltridge used a figure of 4000 for the annual output of PhDs which is five to ten times the  number required for vacant positions for independent researchers.

He regards this as a mistake for several reasons. One is a tendency to over-specialization. Another is over-credentialism, so PhD graduates may be employed at the expense of less “qualified” candidates who may be just as good on the job. Alternatively  doctoral graduates may  be employed in jobs which they regard as incommensuate with their deserts and their aspirations. There is the treadmill of short-term contracts which may abruptly terminate when the researcher is in the early forties. Finally there is the question of quality when so many research students are going though the system with so much incentive to ensure that they emerge fully qualified.

Competition gone over the top

The pressure to publish is intense, resulting in a lot of publications which contribute very little, to the extent that many journal articles may only be read by a single person. The hustle to produce means that there is no scope for serendipidy, researching side-alleys and long shots, which is where real progress is quite likely to occur, by thinking outside the square, intruding on “other fields”, “the poachers getting the fattest rabbits”. Supporting this, Paltridge notes that some research found that ten of the very top UK scientists had very few publications in their early careers. They had been able to sit back and work for the length of time required to make a significant contribution. He suggests that scientists and their managers may have to choose between significant research or lots of papers.

The problem of political decision-making

Paltridge suggests that the pressures of  modern science, possibly over-resourced with the practitioners over-stressed to produce publications to survice and thrive professionally in a tightly managed environment, have evolved a new performance criterion – political impact.

And some scientists and their interpreters have taken to the process as ducks take to water. They have become experts for instance at generating doomsday scenarios which capture the public imagination. Their international connections and their access to reputable international organizations give them a poliltical clout which the typical activist in other spheres could only dream about.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the problems of politicians who have to make decisions based on scientific input. Since they do not have the  capacity to make judgements on technical matters they are forced to accept what looks like the consensus unless they have access to alternative advice of a very high quality. Paltridge notes that some scientists revel in this situation  and enjoy the feeling of being players in the big political game but the responsible majority find it very hard to give simple answers to complex questions that do not have a definitive answer.

The politicians for their part feel that they can’t wait for ever to make decisions while the scientists refuse to provide a quick answer “but mumble instead about having to do more research on the matter, and please, can it have more money?’

The bigger question that Paltridge did not address is why governments think they have to make big decisions quickly – like the decision to take drastic action about a  temperature change that will most likely not be preceptible, even if it measurable, in the lifetime of my children. The bigger issue is Big Government and the Obsession with Activism and Intervention.

Chapter 6 – Why is it so?

Paltridge wrote that most of us may abhor political correctness but none can ignore the pressures and most of us trim our sails for convenience, survival or popularity. He referred to some work on political correctness which found that a part of the problem is to think too much in terms of “black and white”, so if you are not on the side of the angels then you are a really bad kind of person.  That pretty obviously applies to the devotees of the climate scare when they refer to people who beg to differ.  Strong protagonists obtain a sense of virtue and “the bottom line is that the addictive nature of publicly expressed virtue ensures that many people prefer to accept arguments based on political correctness rather than commonsense or on scientific observation.”

Political agendas

He notes several political agendas in play.  He lists the concern to preserve resources for future generations; the possiblity of world government morphing out of the international carbon control movement (citing President Chirac, add Bob Brown); the socialist aim to redistribute wealth; powerbrokers of the EU seeking legitimacy for their central control; bureaucrats who see the scope for personal power and influence; and finally “those driven by a  need for public expression of their virtue”. (95)

 He points out that the many scientists who predict dire consequences are in a very awkward situation if one of them proves  tomorrow that it is all nonsense. Obviously such an act would call for the perpetuator to be cast into the pit with the  deniers, at the very least there would be massive pressure to bury the result “for the sake of the overall reputation of science”.

The ‘ reputation stakes’ have become so high that it is absolutely necessary for some form of action (any action at all, whether sensible or not) to be forced upon mankind.

[They are lucky to have a government in Australia that is so under the influence of Greens that they may get that result, here if nowhere else in the world (well, maybe Spain and Portugal).]

He refers to the standard argument that deniers are stooges of the energy industry, sometimes with some “basis” of funding (as if it is a crime to conduct research for private agencies. He points out that the force of the argument blows back the other way. If  your really think that scientists can be  bought, then follow the money. No private funding has been located that is more than a tiny fraction of the government funding worldwide.

Where in Australia for instance can be found the industry equivalent of the ten million dollars made available to the Climate Institute a few years ago specifically for spreading the word about global warming disaster? To say nothing of the nearly 90 million dollars annual cost of running the federal government’s Department of Climate Change.

Chapter 7  –  Conclusion

In conclusion, Paltridge observes that the “consensus” amounts to the view that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will be associated with a higher temperure than otherwise, in the order of a degree or so in the rest the century.

The consensus goes no further down the chain of political correctness than this. It is rather naughty of the greenhouse lobby either to say outright or to imply by judicious ommission, that it does…Even accepting for the sake of argument that some significant degree of warming may be observed in the future, it is certainly not the consensusof the majority of scientists that the actual impact on humans will be significant – or indeed that it will be detrimental. p 105-6

This is due to the defects of models in forecasting, defects that are magnified when you go beyond global temperature to forecast regional effects, on rainfall for example. But still we are subjected to “what if” scenarios that have virtually no scientific justification. They have great propaganda value, as long as the public and the politicians accept them -Where it is dry we wil get more droughts, where it is wet we will get floods – the seas will rise and flood the beachside suburbs etc.

He has a special word on the scientific administrators who play a leading role in interpreting the science of climate change to politicians and the public, via largely scientifically illiterate and credulous journalists. People wrongly assume that they know what they are talking about, however in the nature of the case the specialities are so specialised that the administrators are in no position to have independent views across the range of relevant disciplines.

They are not just subject to the political correctness that affects everyone, they thrive on it. “Many of them have been appointed to their position because of their ‘feel’ for the views and needs of the community rather than their ‘feel’ for science.

The ordinary bench researchers also have good reasons not to rock the boat. “Basically they boil down to the need to eat”.

He ends with an extract from a speech by President Eisenhower in 1961

Today the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolutin in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of dominance of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also  be alert to the equal and  opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

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