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Keeping Up with the Scientific Joneses


Science is a human activity, and expectedly sloshes about within a wide ethical landscape. Reading scientific journals, and listening to the rhetoric of scientists asserting that science sits on a shining, ethical hill, offers a false image of scientists as if apart from other human actors. To be sure, many scientists are indeed humble and honest (as is the "general" public), but it’s false to characterize any human activity that is as competitive, hierarchical, and patriarchal as science as free of undesirable human behavior. Scientists are people-mostly men (regrettably)- and are no further distant from dishonesty, theft, power maneuvers, and manufacturing of "information" than is other people outside the practice.

 The strength of science-quite apart from some other human activities-is that because scientific work is relatively open and highly scrutinized (within "sexy" and moneyed disciplines such as climate change) those who engage in the more egregious deviations from ethical behavior are sometimes "outed."
 
What Phil Jones was thinking when he wrote the emails in November of 1999 is only known to Phil Jones, but what strikes me as the bright side of climate research is that so little manufacturing of data has been discovered. In any other discipline carrying so much prestige, power, and money, I’d expect much more concern about possible activities of a devious nature than what has been publicly churning to date. More. I’d expect much, much more discourse and controversy, not less.
 
Some scientists have done wrong. Scientific work has been stolen, data has been manufactured out of thin (hot) air, and some scientists have blatantly blocked the publication of work by rival researchers. What would be helpful in this context is the recognition that science is no more ethical in the short term or on an individual basis than any other human activity. How could it be otherwise? 
 
So, should we not temper our expectations? I have no clue as to what Phil Jones was doing, and cast no aspersions in his direction, but this media incident is useful for adjusting the false image of scientists as different or better than others. Science-the practice of science-is different from other human activities, but scientists are not. In the long run, the practice of science is less vulnerable to lies-in the long run. In the short term, every manner of Machiavellian machination has been conducted with impunity. Some pass on interminably undiscovered, but the more active disciplines are subject to self-rectification more often through the discovery of irreconcilable discordant "finding" than through disclosure of falsification. 
 
One can be concerned about what Phil Jones said, without being much concerned about the science of global climate change. I don’t know, and do not and could not assert to know, whether or not Phil Jones has breached an ethical standard, but what is important here is that, understanding this nugget is to understand science. Science is self-correcting, or practices ethical and factual self-policing. This is what got the Bush administration in trouble, wherein they were making assertions of fact about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein. This wasn’t a policy position based on values, but rather a statement of fact, and as such, was subject to verification (regrettably, so few journalists have any understanding of science, and the concept of verification). We all know the results of the process of verification in Iraq. We also know the answer with respect to the verification of global climate change (global warming). The consensus is that long-term global warming is real within a seemingly contradictory subtext of expected, short-term climate unpredictability with respect to any specific locality (what is surprising about Phil Jones’ statement in the emails is that, apparently, he didn’t understand this principle).
 
So paradoxically, the institution of science marches on in a similar fashion. Seemingly self-contradictory, but robust, as both an honorable system of truth management, whilst the individual human components are awash in the pettiness and perverseness characteristic of every human vanity.
 
While pondering the proper fate of Phil Jones, let’s keep this cultural activity in perspective. The one massive pink elephant in the scientific lab that hasn’t received due attention in the corporate news media is Big Oil. If you’re looking for a nefarious source of information manipulation, looking toward the scientific Joneses is to miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Big money has been spent by Big Oil/Big Coal ion deceptive advertising, shameless public relations, and in funding "astroturf" opponents of the theory of global warming. Some institutions do possess internal motivations toward bending facts to benefit a few. These institutions do not have self-correcting mechanisms. Taking note of the difference between the institutions of science and the institutions of corporate technology is a useful effort. While we’re asking what Phil Jones did or did not do ethically, keeping up with the actions of the corporate Joneses may be a productive practice of deflecting ecocide. Reading a few choice emails from Chevron might be instructive.

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