Sunday, September 4, 2011

Attacking the Messenger

The lay public’s trust in the work of scientists generally is eroded when there is evidence of fraud or another form of ethical lapse by any scientist or group of scientists. As I’ve written in Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science, science’s capacity to exercise authority in the affairs of society is grounded on the presumption that scientists speak reliably and with good intent. This means that when scientists make claims based on their experimental or theoretical work, their representations of what they have found, and the conclusions based on them, are as full and true as they can make them.

For the most part, scientists share their work via talks and papers presented for the benefit of other scientists, in particular those working in the same or closely related fields. Individual contributions meld with others to form, over time, a more or less consensual understanding of what is going on in a given problem area. For that process to work individual scientist’s accounts must be as accurate and faithful to the findings of the research as possible. Futhermore, those individual accounts and claims must be subject to skeptical scrutiny by other scientists to ensure, insofar as possible, that they are correct. In this way, something that the philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi called “scientific opinion” is formed. The epistemic authority of science as a voice in society’s affairs depends on a general acceptance of this idea. The process of vetting within the scientific community has the effect of producing stronger scientific accounts, but in addition it goes a long way toward rooting out fraud and unethical behaviors such as plagiarism.

A recent story of fraud within the field of chemistry may help to show how this works in at least one case. A former Columbia University graduate student, Beng├╝ Sezen, working under the tutelage of Professor Dalibor Sames, was found to have fabricated nearly the entirety of her doctoral thesis research. By the time her fraud was exposed, her thesis had been accepted, she had been awarded the Ph.D. degree and was the lead author on three research papers published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, one of the most prestigious chemical journals in the world. Her thesis project dealt with a hot topic in organic chemistry. She seemed to have made some major breakthroughs in getting difficult reactions to occur in productive ways. She produced evidence in the form of spectra, analyses and so forth in support of her account. Sames, her thesis director, an up-and-coming young faculty member, was delighted with her work.

But there was a problem, uncovered by fellow graduate students in the Sames research group: no one could reproduce her results. Sames did not want to hear that Sezen’s work was suspect, and he was inclined to lay the blame for the failure to reproduce her work on the newer students. But Sezen’s labmates were more aware than Professor Sames that Sezen was committing fraud, and eventually they were able to convince Sames of that fact. A long and protracted investigation, involving a committee assembled by Columbia University, was undertaken. Because the research had been supported by federal research dollars, the Office of Research Integrity of the Department of Health and Human Services was involved, and eventually a notice was published in the Federal Register stating that she had falsified, fabricated and plagiarized research data in three papers and in her doctoral thesis. Her doctoral thesis was in due course revoked by Columbia University. Sames had to withdraw a total of six published research papers because no one could reproduce the work. His reputation has been severely damaged by the affair. For example, see the comments in the blog ChemBark.

Much has been written about this episode, but I wish to focus on what it might have to teach us about the trustworthiness of science. Sezen, a pathological liar, produced huge amounts of scientific garbage, and got away with it – for a time. She was extremely clever in forging data from other spectra, falsifying analytical results and so on. In the end, though, the fact that the work could not be reproduced, even though attempts were made by several graduate students, triggered the kind of closer look into her files, notebooks and other records that made the deceit completely evident. This case is small potatoes in the large scheme of things, but it serves to illustrate that fraud in science will be caught out eventually. Science does not owe its reliability to the fact that all individual scientists are error-proof or free of moral and ethical lapses. Rather, its organizational structure and ways of forming consensual scientific opinion lead to exposure of errors and fraudulent practices.

All of this has some relevance for the ill-considered criticisms of climate science by many who come to the discussion with biases against global warming based on partisan politics, economics or an ultraconservative aversion to anything that might suggest the need for collective, global actions. The likes of Rick Perry, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Newt Gingrich or Senator James Inhofe, collectively have no expert understanding of climate science. They also do not seem to understand how science actually works. This has not prevented them from declaring that global warming is some kind of scientific hoax. The community of scientists with expertise in one of the major areas of science, such as atmospheric science, oceanography , chemistry or meteorology, that bears in an important way on questions dealing with climate change, is huge, highly diverse and international in scope. Climate change is a very complex, difficult problem to attack. All these scientists working away at the part of the problem that falls within their expertise have to eventually pull together all the results and projections to produce a complete story. That has been done, and it continues to be done through international efforts as more and more evidence accumulates, and as the tools for making projections grow more reliable.

Given the best projections climate scientists can make there is plenty to be said about what we should or should not do. However, we cannot start talking about climate change with a childish pique that we don’t like what we are being told. The people I have mentioned above, and others like them, have nothing constructive to bring to the scientific aspects of the discussion, nor does it seem that they are interested in grown up considerations of climate policy. It’s sad that society’s responses to the challenges of climate change are held hostage to demagoguery, and self-interest. In time nature will deliver its verdict, and our grandkids can pass judgment on what we might have done.