In defence of scientists

In recent times, thanks to some of those who don’t accept the science of climate change, there has been a portrayal of scientists as greed-driven fabricators of untruths driven by money and a desire to hoodwink the general public. Such claims are guaranteed to get my blood boiling. The scientists I know are driven by a quest for knowledge, not a quest for personal wealth. That’s not to say that scientists are all altruistic heroes – I could spend a long time ranting about some of my former colleagues in academia – but to claim that scientists just decide on a story and then collectively perpetuate a lie just to win grant dollars is just ridiculous.

First of all, although science can be pretty conservative (if you’re making a big claim that goes against a widely accepted scientific theory, then your evidence needs to be pretty damn good), there are plenty of scientists out there who dream of overturning the current theory with a paradigm-shattering discovery of their own. In the early stages there is naturally some resistance, but as evidence for the new hypothesis builds the ‘accepted wisdom’ gradually changes: just think of plate tectonics or relativity. An interesting example of this process in action is the story of the faster than light neutrinos – when the researchers on the OPERA experiment had results that seemed to show neutrinos travelling at faster than the speed of light, they presented their results to the scientific community so they could look for potential flaws, and have been repeating the experiments to rule out potential sources of error. This process is still ongoing, and I’ll be very interested to see how it turns out.

This process is no different when it comes to climate change science. Part of the difficulty when it comes to climate change science is that it is hugely complex, so a lot of factors need to be taken into account. Just because one bit of data doesn’t support the global warming hypothesis doesn’t mean that the whole theory will immediately come tumbling down. When considering such a scientific problem, the weight of evidence needs to be balanced as a whole, not just in isolated parts. This complexity is what makes it so easy for those who don’t believe climate change is occurring to cherry-pick data to support their case. Saying to someone a particular graph doesn’t disprove global warming is not head-in-sand blindness or a cover-up, it’s just an acknowledgement that there many factors to consider.

Contrary to the claim of ‘climate change sceptics’, scientists also tend to be sceptical by nature. Whenever presented with a claim, a scientist will nearly always ask for some kind of evidence. It’s not enough to just be told something is so, we need to know the why and how as well. If scientists conduct an experiment that seems to show one thing, we like to rule out any other factors that could be affecting our results (listen to Act One of this episode of This American Life for an example). A theory like global warming doesn’t just magically pop into existence to piss off the coal miners, it develops over time as a whole range of scientific studies all seem be pointing in the same direction. These days, the climate change debate has become so polarised by ideology that the scientists don’t really get a look-in, but I feel it is worthwhile to point out that if a scientist is saying climate change is happening and it is a big problem, it’s going to be because that’s what the weight of evidence shows, not because they’re leftists who love JULIAR or something something. In this case, the science definitely preceded the political debate by a fair margin.

That’s not to say science isn’t at all political – but when I say political I mean it more in the generic strategic sense rather than the party political sense. Competition for grants and funding is fierce, and sometimes the right strategic collaboration is as helpful as good and interesting science. This competitiveness is a big part of what drove me out of academia – I loved science, but not enough to become a workaholic to survive in the field. However, as helpful as the right collaboration may be, dishonest science is just not going to survive in such a competitive environment. Science isn’t some huge club where everyone works together to scam money from the government. Other scientists are the competition, and so if there’s any sign that data is bad it’s not going to be covered up, it is going to be used to discredit your competitor. Instances of data fabrication do occur, but they are few and far between and are inevitably uncovered as other scientists are unable to replicate the results. If you hear a claim that scientists are supporting a particular hypothesis just so they can get the grant dollars, I’m going to call bulls**t. Competition for grant funding may affect the way scientists write their grant applications (I’m interested in this because it can help with national security, not just because I like playing with new materials, ok?), but it doesn’t make their experiments and data any less valid.

While I’m talking about grant funding, I should point out that winning a grant does not mean a scientist is going to live a life of luxury for the next few years, pushing their money around with a bulldozer Scrooge McDuck style before flying off to a conference on a tropical island where they sip cocktails by the beach. Winning a grant simply means that you can survive for a few more years, continuing to work all hours so you can publish enough papers to get the next grant. This is why you have to LOVE science to work in the field, because otherwise the stress simply isn’t worth it. Money isn’t easy to come by either. When I was a PhD student, I was keen to spend a few weeks at Virginia Tech working with my collaborators there. My research group couldn’t afford to send me from existing funds, so I applied for funding of my own. I was lucky to receive two (small) grants to cover my travel: one from the ARC Nanotechnology Network and another from my University’s postgraduate association. The shortfall I made up with the money I received from supervising a group of visiting students for a week. I was glad I did it – in the three weeks I was at VT I learned how to use an instrument that allowed me to conduct experiments that provided valuable supporting evidence for my PhD hypothesis, and I also met with some mathematicians, providing data that led to the publication of a paper [PDF]. I was grateful for the opportunity to travel and the benefits it provided me with, but it was also a lot of work for a few thousand dollars.

These days I’ve left academia, and am thoroughly enjoying my work in the public service, even though I no longer get to play with ferrofluid. I have no end of respect for the people I know who still work in science, as they work very hard for very little reward other than the satisfaction of new knowledge. So next time you hear the claim that scientists are greedy liars who are only in it for the money, call people out on it. Scientists aren’t perfect, but they’re certainly not greed-driven fabricators of untruths.

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6 Responses to In defence of scientists

  1. bret treasure says:

    People who believe scientist make this stuff up to get grants are wicked, evil baddies.

  2. O'Shea Green says:

    People who think anyone gets rich from grants or public funding has never attempted vital work on a government funded project. I often wonder if people just don’t want to admit that they don’t understand a topic, & so fixate on simple answers instead of trying to grapple with a complex problem. I may as well have “Arts Degrees” stamped on my head, but I’m willing to listen to lectures & read the abstract & try to engage with a topic.

    • bogurk says:

      That’s a good point about never having attempted work relying on government funding – I suppose it’s reasonable that people who haven’t wouldn’t know what it’s like. I’ll still get angrypants at those who use the myth to manipulate though.

  3. laurieormond says:

    What a great post – I may direct people to it, to get out of increasingly circular arguments in the future!

    • bogurk says:

      Thanks Laurie. I wish convincing people that scientists aren’t evil were as simple as rational discussion, but unfortunately that often isn’t the case.

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