The mote in someone else’s eye
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/10/11
how wilt thou say to thy brother,
Let me pull the mote out of thine eye;
and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
— Matthew 7:3
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, has written a number of unexceptionable, insightful essays about the limitations of peer review and the need for open discussion of scientific matters, for example:
Peer review . . . is simply a way to collect opinions from experts in the field.
Peer review tells us about the acceptability, not the credibility, of a new finding
(Health Wars: On the Global Front Lines of Modern Medicine
New York Review Books, 2003, p. 306)
In the same book Horton dismisses HIV/AIDS dissidence in unequivocal terms — evidently basing his faith in orthodox HIV/AIDS theory on the opinions of experts. And as editor of The Lancet, Horton approved the rejection on several occasions since 2005 of short pieces by Gordon Stewart that referred to unquestioned data about HIV and AIDS confirming the accuracy of Stewart’s projections from the 1980s and the wildly wrong nature of official projections. (Stewart has known Horton well enough to be on first-name terms. Nevertheless, the rejections came in the usual bland non-substantive boilerplate, e.g. asserting that the submission contained nothing new).
In a more recent piece in The Guardian, Horton points out that the Climategate affair demonstrates a need for something like a revolution in the way science deals with matters of public interest:
1. “Simply accepting a scientist’s assurance that data are accurate and reliable is no longer enough. Scientists will have to make their data available for independent audit.”
2. “[S]cientists must redefine who is a legitimate critic and who isn’t. . . . some critics ask tough and illuminating questions, exposing important errors and elisions. These critics have an important part to play in shaping scientific debate and dialogue.”
3. Scientists should resist the public’s wish for certainty, not pander to it. “Uncertainty may be uncomfortable, but its admission builds trust. It demonstrates integrity. One of science’s great strengths is its quantification of doubt.”
4. “[S]cientists need to take peer review off its pedestal. As an editor, I know that rigorous peer review is indispensable. But I also know that it is widely misunderstood. Peer review is not the absolute or final arbiter of scientific quality. It does not test the validity of a piece of research. It does not guarantee truth. . . . the prevailing myths need to be debunked. . . . If we treat peer review as a sacred academic cow, we will continue to let the public down again and again.”
5. “A scientist’s training will need to include ways of engaging citizen scientists constructively, making their data more widely available, putting uncertainty at the forefront of their work, and managing public expectations about what science can do.”
Nevertheless, Horton accepts that Climategate does not cast doubt on the dogma that global warming is caused by human generation of carbon dioxide; even though there were “failures, evasions, misleading actions, unjustifiable delays, and pervasive unhelpfulness” by the climate scientists at East Anglia University.
Thereby Horton fails to acknowledge, presumably fails to understand that the results that emerge from scientific activity are only reliable to the degree that they are not “failures, evasions, misleading actions, unjustifiable delays, and pervasive unhelpfulness”, which in the Climategate case included a refusal to furnish raw data and assertions that the raw data had not been retained — which in itself would constitute an extraordinary breach of accepted and acceptable procedures.
I bring Horton in neither to praise nor to bury him, but as a striking and humbling illustration that we are all capable of discerning others’ blind spots and misperceptions and intellectual biases while remaining unaware of our own. Even as we understand generalities, we fail to apply them to specific topics on which we hold firm views.
When scientists or scientific associations provide advice to policy makers, it is their obligation not to press their own convictions but rather to make plain the range of existing competent views, emphasizing that science does not deal in absolute truths and that policies must be made with that understanding of fundamental uncertainty. For a comprehensive discussion, see for example The Honest Broker by Roger A. Pielke, Jr. (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
When not acting as an adviser, of course, it is perfectly proper for each of us to argue vigorously for our views: so long as we do so by presenting the evidence on which we base those views and so long as we do not indulge in polemic irrelevancies like personal attacks or trying to invoke guilt by association (e.g., Bauer is a pseudoscientist’s pseudoscientist who believes in Loch Ness monsters, and a homophobe who opposes affirmative action — see writings of Seth Kalichman and of anonymous contributors to Wikipedia).
The only sensible, potentially productive way to move toward better understanding is to engage in unfettered, evidence-based, public discussion. That not only serves the public good, it can help each of us to realize it when we are going astray, when we have fallen into dogmatism, when we have drawn unwarranted conclusions, when we’re simply wrong.
When that happens, embarrassment is perfectly natural; but it can be eased by recalling that to err is human.
It’s much easier to acknowledge being wrong and to accept correction from friends. That’s a further reason to eschew polemic tactics like invoking guilt by association and making personal attacks: those make it all the more difficult for the other side to appreciate the strength of your argument; it’s counter-productive; the difference of views becomes a personal battle instead of a substantive impersonal scientific argument.
When people do invoke guilt by association and do make personal attacks, a reasonable inference, of course, is that they cannot support their views by sufficiently convincing evidence.