Matt Ridley: Beware The Corruption Of Science

  • Date: 08/12/14
  • Matt Ridley, The Times

Environmental researchers are increasingly looking for evidence that fits their ideology, rather than seeking the truth.

As somebody who has championed science all his career, carrying a lot of water for the profession against its critics on many issues, I am losing faith. Recent examples of bias and corruption in science are bad enough. What’s worse is the reluctance of scientific leaders to criticise the bad apples. Science as a philosophy is in good health; science as an institution increasingly stinks.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report last week that found evidence of scientists increasingly “employing less rigorous research methods” in response to funding pressures. A 2009 survey found that almost 2 per cent of scientists admitting that they have fabricated results; 14 per cent say that their colleagues have done so.

This month has seen three egregious examples of poor scientific practice. The most recent was the revelation in The Times last week that scientists appeared to scheme to get neonicotinoid pesticides banned, rather than open-mindedly assessing all the evidence. These were supposedly “independent” scientists, yet they were hand in glove with environmental activists who were receiving huge grants from the European Union to lobby it via supposedly independent reports, and they apparently had their conclusions in mind before they gathered the evidence. Documents that have recently come to light show them blatantly setting out to make policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy.

Second example: last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a supposedly scientific body, issued a press release stating that this is likely to be the warmest year in a century or more, based on surface temperatures. Yet this predicted record would be only one hundredth of a degree above 2010 and two hundredths of a degree above 2005 — with an error range of one tenth of a degree. True scientists would have said: this year is unlikely to be significantly warmer than 2010 or 2005 and left it at that.

In any case, the year is not over, so why the announcement now? Oh yes, there’s a political climate summit in Lima this week. The scientists of WMO allowed themselves to be used politically. Not that they were reluctant. To squeeze and cajole the data until they just crossed the line, the WMO “reanalysed” a merger of five data sets. Maybe that was legitimate but, given how the institutions that gather temperature data have twice this year been caught red-handed making poorly justified adjustments to “homogenise” and “in-fill” thermometer records in such a way as to cool down old records and warm up new ones, I have my doubts.

In one case, in Rutherglen, a town in Victoria, a recorded cooling trend of minus 0.35C became a reported warming trend of plus 1.73C after “homogenisation” by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. It claimed the adjustment was necessary because the thermometer had moved between two fields, but could provide no evidence for this, or for why it necessitated such a drastic adjustment.

Most of the people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in their views on climate policy, which hardly reassures the rest of us that they leave those prejudices at the laboratory door. Imagine if bankers were in charge of measuring inflation.

Third example: the Royal Society used to be the gold standard of scientific objectivity. Yet this month it issued a report on resilience to extreme weather that, in its 100-plus pages, could find room for not a single graph to show recent trends in extreme weather. That is because no such graph shows an upward trend in global frequency of droughts, storms or floods. The report did find room for a graph showing the rising cost of damage by extreme weather, which is a function of the increased value of insured property, not a measure of weather.

The Royal Society report also carefully omitted what is perhaps the most telling of all statistics about extreme weather: the plummeting death toll. The global probability of being killed by a drought, flood or storm is down by 98 per cent since the 1920s and has never been lower — not because weather is less dangerous but because of improvements in transport, trade, infrastructure, aid and communication.

The Royal Society’s decision to cherry-pick its way past such data would be less worrying if its president, Sir Paul Nurse, had not gone on the record as highly partisan on the subject of climate science. He called for those who disagree with him to be “crushed and buried”, hardly the language of Galileo.

Three months ago Sir Paul said: “We need to be aware of those who mix up science, based on evidence and rationality, with politics and ideology, where opinion, rhetoric and tradition hold more sway. We need to be aware of political or ideological lobbyists who do not respect science, cherry-picking data or argument, to support their predetermined positions.”

If he wishes to be consistent, he will therefore condemn the behaviour of the scientists over neonicotinoids and the WMO over temperature records, and chastise his colleagues’ report, for these are prime examples of his point.

I am not hopeful. When a similar scandal blew up in 2009 over the hiding of inconvenient data that appeared to discredit the validity of proxies for past global temperatures based on tree rings (part of “Climategate”), the scientific establishment closed ranks and tried to pretend it did not matter. Last week a further instalment of that story came to light, showing that yet more inconvenient data (which discredit bristlecone pine tree rings as temperature proxies) had emerged.

Full op-ed