Thursday, December 3, 2009

Process or Result?

I haven't read any of the climate research emails that were stolen and published, that reveal some of the ugly details at the sausage factory of science. I don't know whether the researchers were really massaging their data irresponsibly, or to what extent the emails represent good evidence of such goings-on.

As John Michael Greer discusses in his most recent post, the debate around the emails is serving to amplify the polarization of views about climate change. This polarization does not help us reach the best scientific or political decisions.

There is another polarization involved here beyond the issue of whether the weather is affected by fossil fuel combustion. Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms, discussed in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, comes to mind. Salatin advocated slaughter houses with glass walls. He goes so far as to invite his customers to slaughter their own chickens.

All too often, scientists want to present results to the public. It seems to enhance the prestige of the scientific community to keep the messy process of science hidden behind a curtain, and to present results as settled facts, laws, etc. But this wall between scientists and non-scientists is unstable and unhealthy. It is far too easy for a walled-off mess to fester. Eventually the general public will demand to know the source of the smell. Perhaps nothing is really rotten, but the public may well lose confidence either way.

The real answer may well be to invite the customer to slaughter a few of their own chickens, or at least let the wall of the slaughter house be transparent. This already happens quite wonderfully in astronomy - amateur astronomers regularly make important scientific contributions. The truth is, climate is one messy business. It might seem that the risks of climate change are so serious that climate scientists need to emphasize their certainty in their results, and to hide the inevitable uncertainties and caveats to do that. But the truth is, the risks are so serious that we cannot afford to have those uncertainties hidden.

Here's one idea. NASA has often invited the public to suggest experiments to be performed in outer space. Climate science often involves similarly expensive apparatus, e.g. supercomputers. Invite the public to suggest various experiments, then pick a few most promising suggestions for actual implementation. Invite the public to see and to participate in the messy process of doing climate science.

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