Sunday, 3 July 2011

Compare and Contrast

First, let's look at this article.
Freedom of information laws are being misused to harass scientists and should be re-examined by the government, according to the president of the Royal Society.

Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse told the Guardian that some climate scientists were being targeted by organised campaigns of requests for data and other research materials, aimed at intimidating them and slowing down research. He said the behaviour was turning freedom of information laws into a way to intimidate some scientists.
A clear message; the climate scientists do not like FOI requests, and see them as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs; one that should be limited.  That caught my eye immediately, in a scientific context.

At first sight, this seems a reasonable request by them.  They have work to do, and they are being held up in that work by a torrent of incoming demands that they catalogue and release their information - worse, they need to release the information to bodies that are obviously critical of them and wish to use the information to pick their work apart.  Surely this is wrong?  Surely this is a waste, a diversion of scientific effort?

Well, let's see the contrary view, amusingly enough courtesy of exactly the same media organisation:
An Oxford academic has won the right to read previously secret data on climate change held by the University of East Anglia (UEA). The decision, by the government's information commissioner, Christopher Graham, is being hailed as a landmark ruling that will mean that thousands of British researchers are required to share their data with the public.
Why is this a landmark?
Critics of the UEA's scientists say an independent analysis of the temperature data may reveal that Phil Jones and his colleagues have misinterpreted the evidence of global warming. They may have failed to allow for local temperature influences, such as the growth of cities close to many of the thermometers.
And there, in a nutshell, is the basic point of science.  You don't just publish your findings, your conclusions, your recommendations for policy. You publish your data.  All of it.  All the data that you relied on in reaching your conclusions, and (in fact) all of the data that you discarded or disregarded because you thought it was flawed, false or irrelevant.  You do it for one, simple, reason.  There might be someone else out there who knows better than you.  Someone who spots something you didn't.

That is how science works.  The climate scientists at UEA don't understand that.  They don't understand how science works.  Their view is that a basic scientific norm should not apply to them.

Remember that.


  1. I would generally take the view that FOI requests for the scientific details of research are generally inappropriate until such a time as a scientist publishes his work or discusses the issues in the public domain.
    Questions covering other aspects, such as the objectives of the research, value for money, safety issues, etc, should surely always be allowed as one would normally expect such matters to have been discussed prior to the commencement of any research.

  2. It is all a sure sign that they took dubious assumptions or have messed up. It's weird though that having thought we would not be bright enough to understand, they are now withholding information on the belief that we would understand. I'll be nice though; that is an assumption they look almost certainly to be right on.

    I cannot believe that the rest of the scientific community have not come down on them like a tonne (metric) of bricks.

  3. EP - yes, but once they do (as UEA have been for years) the data must be released. But even then it should not need an FOI request, it should be released (in full) with the research publication, as a matter of course. It is an integral part of the research.

    M - Scientists are very trusting types. They're not like lawyers, they don't assume that that if something is left unsaid then it must have been worth concealing. This is (largely) what allows science to work so well and also what allows scientific frauds to get as far as they do.