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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