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Climactic change in objectivity?

Posted by: | December 3, 2009 | No Comment |

News of Tiger Wood’s automobile accident and the White House party crashers blanketed the airwaves and front pages of newspapers. Sure, it was Thanksgiving holiday and not much happens during that time, so media need to find something to feed the masses.

Something else newsworthy happened over the same time period.  The servers of the University of East Anglia‘s Climate Research Unit were hacked.  Thousands of e-mails were stolen and the contents made public.

As I was writing a review for the introduction to Michael Schudson‘s book “Discovering the News,” I couldn’t help but notice one sentence concerning objectivity.  “Discussion of objectivity as an ideal (or ideology) in science, medicine, law, the social sciences, journalism, and other pursuits tends to two poles: either it seeks to unmask the profession in question or glorify it.”

Schudson goes on to state, in certain circumstances “science, generally understood as opposed to ideology, threatens to become ideology itself.”  I immediately thought about the issue of climate change and the hacked emails.

Phil Jones, Director of the Climate Research Unit, is reported to have said, “My colleagues and I accept that some of the published emails do not read well.”  That’s an understatement.  What some of the e-mails show is that there are two poles to climate science — the colleagues and the skeptics.

The colleagues are scientists such as Jones and Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State.  The skeptics are any scientists that disagree with or refute their data or findings.

What was most surprising in the e-mails was not the utter lack of objectivity from the colleagues, but it was the conspiracy of the colleagues to silence the skeptics.  This conspiracy didn’t involve rebuking published material by the skeptics.  This conspiracy involved silencing the skeptics through a form of prior restraint.

One supposed e-mail shows that the colleagues had long criticized skeptics for not being published in peer-reviewed journals.  When one skeptic paper was published, the colleagues called it a skeptic coup of the journal, moved to have the journals board members removed, proposed to publicly de-legitimize the journal and encourage colleagues not to submit or cite papers from that journal.  Talk about a coup!

John Stuart Mill would have a field-day with this.  Mill’s argument is let everyone have their say — regardless of accuracy.  The search for the truth will show which argument is correct and which one isn’t.  The colleagues, however, failed to understand one simple fact.  Silencing others because you disagree, even if you are right, only leads others to believe that either you are lying, you have something to hide or you’re hiding the fact that you’re lying.

Science, like journalism, could use a little more objectivity and transparency.

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