21 January 2010

Is "Nature" apologizing for disparaging by its edict against disparagement?

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It seems almost emblematic of how poor Nature's communication skills are, that it can only bring itself to, sorta kinda, say sorry for its recent disparagment of sceptics, by sermonising to scientists about the perils of disparaging others:

"...scientists should be careful not to disparage those on the other side of a debate: a respectful tone makes it easier for people to change their minds if they share something in common with that other side..."

Maybe Nature could benefit from some research into how to communicate more effectively. But these clever scientific folk seem to have already thought of that. Here's Nature's prescription for preventing this malady of disparagement:

..Even as climate science advances, it will be just as important to invest in research on how best to communicate environmental risks. Otherwise scientific knowledge will not have the role that it should in the shaping of public policy...

But the communication bibful that this Nature editorial unexpectedly dribbles, is that it thinks science is about shaping public policy. Some of us thought science was about the rigourous pursuit of scientific truth, even if it loses you a role in the shaping of public policy. Could it be that it is this self glorifying public policy role that Nature  sees for itself has distracted it from its former central mission: publishing unimpeachable peer reviewed scientific research? Just asking. Maybe if it had stayed focussed on the importance of the science rather than the importance of scientific knowledge's role in shaping public policy, Nature might have avoided the embarrassing predicament it now seems to be in. It looks like it's now going to have to walk back from its recent open advocacy of a settled scientific position on AGW.  The clear damage that has been done to the credibility of science with the public, now that a more sceptical and less definitive perception of the state of climate science than previously openly espoused by Nature, seems to be emerging in the wake of Climategate, might have been prevented if Nature had been more focussed on the science and less on the policy.

Maybe some of the investment that Nature is looking for in how best to communicate climate risks can be spent in teaching Nature to at least look like it is capable of taking its own medicine a little more manfully when, say, apologising for disparaging sceptical scientists as "denialists".

For yes, Nature did overstep the mark and diminish its standing by taking an activist's role in the climate debate by launching ad hominem attacks on scientists it disagreed with.  It's not just that it resorted to labelling appropriately sceptical scientists as "denialists", which alone is pretty egregious, it's that it continues to openly champion a hypothesis even it seems to concede is built largely on computer models' projections of nature.   Yet, whilst making this seemingly quite significant concession (which seems to make these hypotheses quite speculative and vulnerable) Nature would still seek to punish those who participate in the scientific process of testing and critically analysing these models. This looks especially bad for Nature and its fellow travellors, when, as this season's unexpectedly bitter Northern winter has shown us, these models fail to accurately predict nature. This hypothesis testing process used to be called the scientific method, not denialism.

And no, this purported apology by Nature is not adequate. A truly rigourous self aware journal would  be prepared to openly acknowledge its own transgression of a standard that it now sets for others. We are expected to live by the standards we publicly espouse for others if we are not to be called hypocrites.

Lid dip: Bishop Hill

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