I thought I would highlight an essay that some of my regulars might find of interest. It’s by Adam Briggle in Issues in Science and Technology and is about Fear mongering and fact mongering. The article is essentially about responsible research conduct. We typically regard research misconduct as being falsification, fraud or plagiarism. The article suggests that we should expand our sense of research ethics to include responsible research and innovation. The idea being that researchers should be conscious of the potential impact of their research and should do the right thing.
The article then focuses on responsible rhetoric of research. Researchers can engage in fact-mongering, where they present information that is factually correct, but that leads people to draw conclusions that are not really consistent with all the available evidence. In some sense, the suggestion is that researchers should be aware of how the manner in which they present information might influence how people interpret the significance of that information. On the other hand, some could engage in this type of rhetoric intentionally so as to encourage a conclusion that suits their narrative, even if it isn’t actually consistent with our best understanding. The examples provided might be of interest to regular readers of this blog.
Although I think that this is indeed an issue, I can’t see any way in which we could, in most cases, objectively determine if someone has engaged in irresponsible rhetoric. I also think that this runs the risk of challenging aspects of academia, such as academic freedom, that we regard as extremely important. I think we probably just have to accept that there will be cases where we disagree with the manner in which some people choose to engage publicly.
I do think, however, that the author is slightly too generous to some of those he uses as examples. The suggestion is that although they might be engaging in irresponsible rhetoric, their thesis is logically, or empirically, flawless. I don’t think this is true. I think there are many fundamental problems with the arguments of those highlighted. However, the topic is sufficiently complicated that this isn’t always obvious.
I think the problem is simpler than some engaging in irresponsible rhetoric; I think there are some who simply present flawed arguments that suit some preferred narrative. The real problem is how one deals with this, and I don’t think there is a simple way. If there are critiques from the scientific community, then there are accusations of bullying, consensus enforcement, and/or there being some kind of science police. If you ignore it, then people can get away with making potentially convincing, but flawed, arguments. Even though I’ve been writing about this kind of thing on this blog for quite some time, I don’t really have any good suggestions. Even I’ve found myself getting tired of dealing with this kind of thing.
You might think that this would be something that social science could help with, and the article I’m discussing is clearly an attempt to do that. However, I also think that many social scientists regard this as simply illustrating a diversity of views and that it is an indication of a vibrant social discourse. It’s hard to see how we can develop ways to deal with something if there isn’t even really agreement that it’s a problem worth addressing. I may be wrong about this impression, so happy to be corrected if I am.
As usual, I’ve gone on way too long. I do think that the article highlights something that is a real issue, but I don’t really see any simple way to deal with this. Although I agree that we should expect/encourage responsible research rhetoric, I don’t see any way in which we could introduce some kind of formal procedure that would censure those who are assessed as having engaged in fact-mongering.
Letters responding to the Briggle article (some of which might, again, be of interest to regular readers of this blog. Kate Marvel’s is particularly good).
Criticising the critics – an older post of mine about this kind of issue.
The Science Police.
Watt about climate models running way too hot – post highlighting one of Bjorn Lomborg’s slip-ups.
Bjorn Lomborg, just a scientist with a different opinin – Realclimate post highlighting some more of Bjorn Lomborg’s blunders.
Lukewarmers – a follow up – a post about some discussion of Lukewarmers.