OPINION: The Big Chill

There’s not much point for me to rerun this article, though I got permission earlier in the day, given that Joe has it and David has it. I figure an article with three URLs is going to get seen almost as much as one with four. But it’s important and I urge you to follow one of the links.

This week, in a courtroom in Prince William County, Virginia, a hearing will take place that could have implications for the privacy rights of scientists at colleges and universities across the country.

It’s part of a lawsuit brought by the American Tradition Institute, a free-market think tank that wants the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud. Filed against the University of Virginia, the suit seeks emails and other documents related to former professor Michael Mann, an award-winning climate scientist who has become a focus of the climate-denial movement because of his research documenting the recent spike in earth’s temperature.

By suing the university, the American Tradition Institute wants to make public Mann’s correspondence in an effort to find out whether he manipulated data to receive government grants, a violation of the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.

But a Facing South investigation has found that the Colorado-based American Tradition Institute is part of a broader network of groups with close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas regulation. Our investigation also finds that ATI has connections with the Koch brothers, Art Pope and other conservative donors seeking to expand their political influence.

This is important not just because of the specific network of people acting to malign Mike Mann. Nor, despite my immense sympathy for him as an a innocent victim of persistent calumny, is it important mostly because of Mike Mann, his work, or his subdiscipline, although these things are worthy of note in themselves.

The crucial importance of all this is the violation of the social contract that attracts people into science in the first place. The deal is simple: you find yourself smarter than the average, and you have the choice of taking risks and trying to compete in commerce, or being risk averse and being more or less guaranteed of a comfortable life and a pursuit of your own personal interest in exchange for production of some social utility in teaching and managing the scientific collective.

When a country starts treating its scientists as if they were politicians, mistrusting everything they say and digging into every detail of their conduct, when the academy is no longer trusted to maintain its own boundaries, the contract breaks down. It simply isn’t worth it. There were always drawbacks to the trade, and they have been getting worse. Funding is tighter, more overhead goes into competing for grants, administrations are lawyer-infested and spooked and absurdly bureaucratic, students are unappreciative and increasingly ill-prepared, time for peer-review saps your energy and lack of it saps the capacities of those reviewing your work and your grants, and so on. So the deal has not been getting better.

But now the young person contemplating a life in science finds a risk that district attorneys and senators’ offices and a whole contentious subculture are on your case, stealing your correspondence and deliberately misrepresenting what it means, exaggerating your flaws and concealing your merits and dragging your name through the mud in national media. That is, the tradeoff, of limited wealth but a safe and fulfilling life, is ruined. There is no safety, in case what you discover is found inconvenient to some political stripe.

Politicians of all stripes say they value the capacities of the society in terms of science and technology. Yet, they raise the stakes in this ridiculous way. It seems grossly unfair to encourage young people to pursue a scientific career under the circumstances. The absurdity of cutting the budgets by a half dollar per capita, ultimately displacing a few thousand grad students for no good reason, just adds insult to injury, and ices the cake.

Young scientists have a great deal of international mobility. If your career is just starting, you may wish to seek to avoid the sort of country where this sort of thing is likely to happen.


Image: Brooklyn Blizzard 2 by Jason Persse (CC-BY-SA-2)


UPDATE: Please see also the compelling summary of the Mann story by Shawn Otto at Huffington’s. Nature also has a <a href=”http://blogs.nature.com/news/2011/11/climate_scientist_wins_his_day.html”>thorough account</a>.

Comments:

  1. "The deal is simple: you find yourself smarter than the average, and you have the choice of taking risks and trying to compete in commerce, or being risk averse and being more or less guaranteed of a comfortable life and a pursuit of your own personal interest in exchange for production of some social utility in teaching and managing the scientific collective."

    Huh? where on earth did that come from? if you are *much* smarter than average, you have a *chance* of such an outcome. At the point in time where this decision is made, science is hardly the "low risk" choice IMO.

  2. I would happily split the difference: If you are considerably smarter than average, you have a good chance of such an outcome. Or did have, when I was a young man. That it's gotten worse is stipulated.

    But nobody signed up to be a target of ignorant rage and baseless blame. That, you'll admit, makes the proposition far less attractive.

  3. "...deliberately misrepresenting what it means, exaggerating your flaws and concealing your merits and dragging your name through the mud in national media."

    Can't help but think of Muller, and wonder whether what's going on to him now might open his eyes a little to how he was thinking before. He does appear to be getting the full-on attack treatment, national press articles included.

    Also: scientific brain-drains may happen for different reasons, but are you sure encouraging that is better than arguing people should fight? Easy for me to say, perhaps, I'm not a climatologist...

  4. Politicians of all stripes say they value the capacities of the society in terms of science and technology. Yet, they raise the stakes in this ridiculous way.

    Oh, they do value science and technology very much, as long as the science and technology you're working on ends up in the service of rich people. Just look at the "national security" industry.

    Young scientists have a great deal of international mobility. If your career is just starting, you may wish to seek to avoid the sort of country where this sort of thing is likely to happen.

    Perhaps, but which countries will you recommend? Phil Jones of the UK experienced SwiftHack; Australian climatologists are getting rape threats against their children; and Canada's Harper administration doesn't seem too willing to provide money for climate research either.

    -- frank

  5. About a year ago, I became very interested in Cuccinelli's witchhunt, and even speculated at the time that his attacks on Mann and UVa would *benefit* a possible run for the governor's seat in 2013. It’s an amazingly frustrating (fascinating?) political process that allows a government- and politician-averse constituency to tolerate blatantly political attacks on the relatively apolitical scientific process. The trick, simplified, is to link science to taxes and taxes to individual scientists (piñatas), while continuing to insist that you and your backing organizations are government “outsiders.”

    This stuff reeks, and I believe that scientists-in-training need some dedicated training to prepare. Additional components of the wider apprentice program, as I imagine them:

    (1) Learn early on that many an American politician *does not care* about advancing knowledge or the public good – but do so in a way that improves your ability to view entrenched political problems with some lightness. In other words, learn how to be productively cynical. (Strategy suggestions welcome.) I know that I basically just hit a wall one night, recently—ten years late, perhaps, after a late-night rage against something dumb that Rick Perry said—but would have appreciated some hand-holding from experienced navigators throughout my younger, more idealistic years.

    (2) Study Gavin’s immediate post-hack RC comment threads. Focused, measured, firm, wonderful. They represent that middle path to which aspiring climate (and other) scientists should aspire. Other examples…?

    (3) At the same time, a recent David Roberts piece really resonated with me:

    "For my part, when I see people denying facts and bullying scientists in order perpetuate the dominance of fossil fuel interests that are killing people and threatening my children's futures, I am inclined to tell them to go f*ck themselves. That won't resonate with their social/tribal perspectives, but that's because I find their social/tribal perspectives repugnant and worthy of social censure. I want to beat them."

    We should encourage aspiring scientists to prepare to defend their work, to not back down in the face of ignorance or willful misdirection or attacks by special interests. On one hand, this can be exciting. On the other, distressing. But aspiring scientists are being trained in how to pursue truth—and that skill, coupled with specialized training in non-academic communication, affords scientists a reliable anchor when knowledge is politicized.

    - Nick P.

  6. An offline comment raises a lot of interesting points regarding the use of FOIA to investigate science.

    It's my opinion that FOIA is a legal mechanism, and thus applying it to academics is a violation of the implicit social contract between the academy and the society at large. I am dismayed to see tu quoques and tu quoque quoques and so on.

    On the other hand, I absolutely think that science should be open, and that all the secrecy and "embargos" and so forth that have become habitual are outdated, connected to slow publication times, and therefore absurd.

    There's no justification for prying into private emails, but the default medium for discussing the substance of science should be the web when it is not the pub, not email. However, like any enterprise, science is subject to human problems, and human dignity requires privacy therein.

    So, stuff that was closed in the past really ought to stay closed, but going forward, we ought to push for considerably more openness.

    So I don't agree with using FOIA. We need some other way of opening up science that doesn't actually throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    This is my point here: if science is made too unpleasant, nobody will do it. Most people who can do science can do something else.

  7. do so in a way that improves your ability to view entrenched political problems with some lightness. In other words, learn how to be productively cynical.

    I don't have any prepackaged strategy texts, but this reminds me of something I wrote:

    Science is about fact-finding (discovering the underlying facts of an issue), while conflict resolution is more about horse-trading (simply finding some solution that makes everyone happy).

    And politics in general, too, is generally about horse-trading -- and horse-trading can seem weird to budding scientists who are more familiar with fact-finding behaviours.

    By the way, just to wonder out aloud: how hard will it be to link up the Michael Mann brouhaha with the cause of the 99% movement? Is this too 'radical' an idea?

    -- frank

  8. “The deal is simple: you find yourself smarter than the average, and you have the choice of taking risks and trying to compete in commerce, or being risk averse and being more or less guaranteed of a comfortable life and a pursuit of your own personal interest in exchange for production of some social utility in teaching and managing the scientific collective.”

    Uh, say what?

    First of all, scientists are not necessarily those who find themselves to be “smarter than average”. There are a whole bunch of factors that collectively determine why an individual becomes a scientist, or any other occupation, particularly one’s available opportunities and background culture, and there are many very smart people who are not scientists.

    Secondly, the choice of an academic lifestyle doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of comfort or social utility, and if this weren’t a public forum I’d give you some very personal examples.

    “Young scientists have a great deal of international mobility. If your career is just starting, you may wish to seek to avoid the sort of country where this sort of thing is likely to happen.”

    Or alternatively, you may wish not to run,m thereby not allowing the jackasses that be to easily have their way.

    You are writing some very strange stuff at this site quite frankly.

  9. "there are many very smart people who are not scientists."

    Obviously. But if you aren't the sort who does very well in high school you aren't going to consider being a scientist. This means several things, but among the requirements is actual intelligence.

    "doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of comfort or social utility"

    Not anymore. But that means we do a worse job of attracting people with the potential to be good scientists.

    "Or alternatively, you may wish not to run, thereby not allowing the jackasses that be to easily have their way."

    Quite so. But that means the selection mechanism is for self-righteous sorts like you and me, which eliminates the people you most want to be scientists, who are detached and unideological. So this isn't a win either. Plus if scientists are seen as being in opposition to the status quo, that gives the status quo (who signs our paychecks) plenty of excuse to cut us off.

  10. MT:

    But that means the selection mechanism is for self-righteous sorts like you and me, which eliminates the people you most want to be scientists, who are detached and unideological.

    No, this is totally wrong, MT, this is totally wrong.

    I want to see scientists, journalists, soldiers, citizens, who are willing to stand for what's right, who are willing to speak truth to power. I don't want to see a horde of "detached and unideological" drone workers with no character and no soul!

    -- frank

  11. I'm working on a lengthy rebuttal to Frank. It's working out to be a bit long so I plan to do more editing than I usually do in the hopes of making my message clear. So it may take a few days. I think this is important.

    If anyone cares to respond, meanwhile, you know what to do...

  12. MT, I grant that you may be (a bit) right in your general thrust that if climate scientists organize themselves politically, then they risks becoming nothing but a power-hungry faction. But to go to the other extreme, to claim that good climate scientists have to remain politically na&#iuml;ve, ineffectual, and vulnerable, is just plain wrong.

    -- frank


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