Whence professional integrity?

Over the past several years there have been claims that a group of climate scientists–most of whom are federal employees with NOAA–have been hyping global warming as a way to get more grant money. Aside from ignoring the way scientists think (and the fact is, a lot of scientists enjoy showing that the current group think on anything is wrong), this questions the integrity of these scientists.  And in the earth sciences, at least, scientists are pretty good about avoiding conflicts of interest or material gain from their sponsored research.  In GG’s field, if you really want to make money, you just go into the oil industry.  Working as an academic or government scientist is not nearly as financially beneficial–there are other perks, but money isn’t one of them. And even if scientists were doing this, on the professional integrity scale, this is small potatoes.  It isn’t steering a contract to a friend’s company in order to get a kickback equal to a few years’ salary or doing insider trading.

As a rule, professional earth scientists are surprisingly free of questionable conduct. Rumble through the Retraction Watch website and it is hard to find an earth science entry (the latest you could construe as such as of this post was, ironically, a paper claiming that global warming would produce economic gains, which is really an economics paper and a search of the site turned up three hits on “geology”, two from overseas researchers and one hydrologist from the Kansas Geological Survey). Biology is right now the big hotspot for unethical science, but even fields like physics and chemistry have a lot more bad behavior going on.

Now maybe a lot of this is that earth science is a smaller group or that it is less cutting edge, but part of this seems to be the culture.  And where did that culture come from?

Arguably it comes from one of the easily ridiculed geologists of the 19th century: Josiah Dwight Whitney, he for whom Mt. Whitney was named. Whitney was taken in by Calaveras Man (a hoax that produced a sly Brett Harte poem), got into a name-calling argument with John Muir over glaciers creating Yosemite Valley (though the origin of the widespread attribution to him calling Muir an ignorant shepherd is hard to locate), managed to miss the significance of the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake while simultaneously alienating the local populace, and managed to demonstrate perhaps the most tone-deaf relationship with a political body that was funding him of any scientist in U.S. history (Whitney called the Legislature lots of names while they were considering whether to continue funding his survey of the state).

And yet the reason Whitney’s name was advanced for position as State Geologist of California is that he was recognized as the most incorruptible geologist of the time.  Around the 1860s, mines were booming all across the west, making fortunes for many.  A chief geologist could in many ways leverage his knowledge and connections to gain favor with mining magnates. Whitney had made the unusual choice of distancing himself from any appearance of self-interest prior to gaining the position of State Geologist; this allowed him to access many mining areas in the east, making his volume on the Metallic Wealth of the United States far more authoritative than other similar works.  When he created the survey, he insisted that knowledge gained on the public’s payroll belonged to the public and not to these individuals. This extended to Whitney’s relations with other members of the government; Whitney bridled publicly at a request of the governor, saying that the survey would not be the personal prospecting party for the governor (a politically unwise utterance).  There was never any indication that the survey members engaged in personal enrichment from their work.

One member of the survey was a young Yale graduate, Clarence King.  King left to create his own survey, the Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, that followed the new railroad across Nevada and Utah.  King too insisted on a level of professional integrity not widely found in the early days of the Gilded Age. This was underscored by efforts he and his staff made in uncovering a major diamond hoax (and King’s insistence that this be made public in a manner where some of the misguided investors could not pass off their shares to the unsuspecting public). Not long afterward, when the various western geology surveys were consolidated into the U.S. Geological Survey, King was made chief of the new survey. And, no doubt, he again insisted on professional detachment from any personal gain.  He showed how he expected his staff to behave when he resigned so that he could honestly pursue personal gain as a mining geologist (unfortunately for his story, this didn’t prove to yield the windfall he hoped for).  And so the credo for the U.S.G.S. was established and largely continues to this day.  The various state geological surveys mainly modeled themselves after the U.S.G.S. and so, for the most part, government scientists have been expected to be free of conflicts of interest, a code of conduct that has served the profession well.  And, arguably, we have Whitney to thank for that.

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2 responses to “Whence professional integrity?”

  1. mike risk says :

    I have just come across this post and, as a Canadian earth scientist, have to say the reasons are inadequate. This may explain western-US professional ethics, but the US is not the world.

    I would agree-and my experience verifies this-that earth scientists are probably a more ethical (less unethical?) bunch than the others. I feel this springs from the joined-at-the hip relationship between geology and economics.

    Paleontology/biology has Darwin, who was able to live off his wife’s fortune while he ruminated. We have, for example, W. E. Logan, who was sent out to chart the mineral resources of Canada at about the same time. From the very beginnings of “geology”, there has been a link between the science and the economics. This imposes a certain rigour to one’s thinking-plus the fact that much of the work had to be open to the public.

    The field work may also have something to do with it-but concluding that worldwide differences in ethics are due to the actions of one man in California won’t cut it.


    • cjonescu says :

      You make a good point; I wasn’t intending to be so bold as to claim the ethical origins for the entire field globally and should have qualified things a bit (I don’t think it had any impact on Chinese or Indian ethics, for instance–and the differences in scientific ethics between the US and those countries has driven some not-so-insignificant friction)–but I’m not sure that the USGS model had no influence outside the US. It would be interesting to explore the same issue from the Canadian viewpoint as the GSC is older than the USGS–there certainly was crosstalk between geologists of the two countries (for instance, the first meeting of the Geological Society of America was in Canada), but the contrast between the wide open mineral exploitation of the US West and the more state-controlled efforts in Canada also probably played a role in minimizing misbehavior north of the border, no? I haven’t seen an indication that the behavior of the GSC influenced the ethical expectations in the U.S., but that would be an interesting thesis to pursue (it would probably take diving into the correspondences of various US geologists to see if there is anything there). Whether either survey had an impact on European scientists seems unlikely–though the amount of money British investors lost on US mining stocks might well have turned their attention to questions of ethical behavior in the U.S.

      FWIW, its not like all the geologists of the time were well-behaved, so I find it hard to assume that “geology” by its nature would be less prone to poor ethics. Whitney’s career was advanced when his boss and former mentor was forced out over problems in the Michigan survey (Jackson got in hot water with lots of folks for claiming scientific discoveries others were more entitled to). Whitney got into quite a fight with Silliman Jr. over the latter’s tendency to write glowing reports that were used to pump up mining and oil stocks. Part of the reason Whitney was widely endorsed for the California Survey was the suspicion that some other candidates were more inclined to make some money on the side (Agassiz wrote this pretty specifically). I’m pretty sure there were many other lower profile geologists who were willing to be more direct in seeking financial gain. But what did happen was that the survey did incorporate the ethical standards Whitney espoused and not those Silliman followed–and given that at the time there was ample opportunity to be a government employee and look out for yourself (this overlapped with the Gilded Age), the USGS standards do stand out for the times. Did that effect anybody outside the US? I don’t know.

      I am curious about the “much of the work had to be open to the public” part of your post and your assumption that this would keep a geologist honest, for it was *time* as much as information that was crucial in many of the more underhanded of mining operations. You could provide your work to the public after you had bought (or been paid in) mining stock, so it isn’t like that is a guarantee of ethical behavior.

      Maybe some professional ethics came from those early geologists who rose from the ranks of the well-to-do, where a more ethical behavior was expected and noblesse oblige something many took seriously. It could be that such a root, common to much North American and European geology, might have influenced the science more broadly.


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