Archive | February 2015

What Should be Disclosed…

The ongoing kerfuffle over Soon’s seeming ethical transgressions brings up a good point: the science being produced by corporate money can be perfectly good science. As a post in RealClimate notes, it is not the source of funding that matters but whether the science is any good.  That post argues that Soon’s science wasn’t very good and so scientifically his ethical problems are irrelevant.

But is that a naive view?

On one level, there is a level of trust that scientists share that when a scientist reports observations, that those were indeed the observations.  The interpretation could be wrong, there could be issues with how the observations were made, etc., but the basic notion is that there really were those observations.  Now, is that trust violated if the scientist has lied about his or her funding sources?

On the next level, it has become apparently that the use of non-disclosure agreements in medical science has hidden results that were unfavorable towards drugs or chemicals, which has led to increased calls for the results to be made available regardless of a clinical trial’s outcome. This kind of tool has been used to block medical analysis of impacts from oil and gas development, it would seem. If the fossil fuel industry is distributing research money with NDAs like those, then it is possible that some perfectly fine research is going unpublished because the funder can block it.  Is this actually happening?  Maybe we’ll learn from the Soon affair if such tools are being used, or if Soon, on his own, decided to hide his funding sources. And it is happening with studies of seismicity associated with injection wells: industry-funded seismic networks are not releasing their data; what little comes out of such projects could well be cherry-picked; we don’t know because we don’t see the raw data.  And, rumor has it, recently industry has used its funding of seismic monitoring to punish some who have said things industry dislikes: management of a network in the Salton Sea was transferred to a private company willing to submit to an NDA after the academic operators spoke out about how industry could be triggering seismicity. So this should be a real concern.

Long ago NDAs were a means for those in industry to share information that was simply a material advantage with academic studying something else.  So a seismic profile created at a cost of a few million dollars couldn’t simply be released or other resource companies would gain access to it for free; usually these profiles could be shared if the exact location was not published or some parts of the profile were not published.  This allowed researchers access to materials they otherwise couldn’t see.  Now, though, it seems NDAs are used for the opposite purpose: to be able to control what researchers say in any way, shape or form–not only about materials provided by industry, but any results those researchers create that might have no dependence on competitively important materials provided to them.

What we need is a total change in industry support.  It should be enough for companies to be steering the direction of many research projects simply by what they choose to fund; controlling what comes out of those studies should simply not be part of the program.  All data needs to be publishable and there should be no veto power of industry on that research. Anything less means that lots of folks will continue to view industry-funded research as tainted, and so controversies like Soon’s the the resulting black eye for any researchers accepting industry money–or even taking positions that might seem to favor industry in some way–will continue to emerge and complicate scientific discourse on controversial topics.

NDAs, COIs, witch hunts and dishonest brokers

A series of little things show just how tangled doing science can be getting.

First off, consider industry-standard non-disclosure agreements.  If you want, for instance, industry information on earthquake locations they have acquired or injection rates at wells or things of that nature, they want you to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  Part of the agreement is that you cannot disclose the existence of the agreement. So, one asks, if you publish a paper related to the fossil fuel industry in a journal that requires disclosure of a conflict of interest, what can you say? [Thankfully such NDAs cannot be signed by CU personnel, so there is not even the temptation to go that route here; this is probably true at most other schools].

Is this hypothetical? Probably not.  Consider Wei-Hock Soon at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who is now in deep hot water over failing to disclose that he took money from the fossil-fuel industry for doing work and publishing it, listing the papers published as deliverables to the organizations in question as he neglected to mention that he was being paid by these companies for this work. Now it is quite possible that his work was unaffected by the money he received (the companies no doubt sought out somebody saying things they liked to hear), but you have to own up to that potential conflict. [It is money like this that makes a lie of the “climate scientists say there is climate change to get more money”–there is loads of money to not do this]. Did he perhaps accept the money and sign one of these NDAs? It will be interesting to see if any of these papers get retracted over this ethical failing. And somebody at Harvard-Smithsonian should be facing some very hard questions about how this could happen.

So is it a witch hunt for Congress to ask about possible conflicts like this? Roger Pielke Jr. here at CU says so. Given that we have already seen lying by at least one scientist about the source of his cash, it seems reasonable on the part of Congress to ask where the source of money for research is of people who, like Roger, testify in front of Congress.  This is in fact a direct outcome of the Soon brouhaha (as can be seen in the letter from Congressman Grijalva).  (Pielke complains that they want his correspondence but this is a bit exaggerated: the correspondence in question is in regard to funding and is not a blanket request for all his letters; it is unclear whether the university is required to accede to that request.) Roger feels insulted by such a request, as any of us would feel (which is fair; a more balanced investigation would make the same request of all witnesses before the committee, for instance). The problem is that somebody else who was called before Congress and presented their views was not as forthcoming, so the statements of many witnesses would presumably now seem tainted.  Pielke is understandably pissed off that he is being painted with the same broad brush.

Slippery slopes abound in this situation.  It is clear you can take oil money and do honest work (see Richard Muller’s history, as discussed on a previous post), so simply saying that you are dishonest if you take the money is an exaggeration.  Many times the money is there to investigate something the company is interested in, which is fine, but what we have seen (especially in medicine) is that NDAs allow companies to kill publication of results that they dislike, which is not defensible, and even hide that they even tried to get the research done. In contrast, when you deliberately hide such a relationship, as Soon appears to have done, you are admitting that this probably does mean your analysis was colored, whether or not you fell bound by the NDA. It makes those seeking advice want to know, who is being honest and playing fair?  This is true in medicine as well as climate studies. But now it means that the vast majority of the scientific community that does play fair and by the rules is subjected to scrutiny that does, as Pielke argues, discourage participation in public discussions.

Is there a lesson here?  Sure.  Don’t sign non-disclosure agreements. Period.

War on Science–or War Within Science?

National Geographic’s March cover story is “The War on Science.” This continues the proud tradition of American media making any controversy into a “war” (see: the War on Christmas, the War on Women, etc., etc.), but that isn’t really what is attention grabbing.

Look at the topics that are part of the war on science.  Global warming. Evolution. Genetically modified food. Vaccinations. (They also list moon landings, but that is really a separate paranoia).

Notice anything?  Is there a war on particle physics?  A war on chemistry? A war on aerodynamics? A war on optical physics? A war on superconductivity? If this is a war on science, the front lines are incredibly narrow.

Consider, for instance, those denying that there is global warming or that humans play a significant role in causing it. Much of this is funded by fossil fuel companies or those who have earned fortunes from fossil fuels (e.g., Koch brothers). Are these organizations at war with science? Are they now employing dowsers to locate oil? Shoring up mine tunnels with breadsticks? No.  They are using science in the form of geophysics, geology, rock mechanics, etc. So to say they are at war with science is incorrect.  They are arguing against science that, if accepted, would jeopardize their core business.

How about evolution? No monetary stakes here, but a central precept of many strains of Protestant Christianity is a literal reading of the Bible. These folks are arguing against science that, if accepted, would jeopardize their core beliefs. (The less literal reading of the Bible, and in particular the Catholic Church’s belief that the Bible should be interpreted by the clergy, is a big part of the reason that Catholic schools teach evolution). Yet many of these people would no more board an airplane based on faith instead of aeronautics than an atheist. Some are in fact scientists.

If this is a war, it is a most peculiar one.

Read More…

How is College Different from High School?

Arguably one of the most successful innovations in education has been the American model of postgraduate education.  This occurs within colleges and universities, so it is worth contemplating how complaints about undergraduate education in colleges might impact the higher levels of college education.  Part of this is motivated by Third Way’s advocacy for, in essence, pushing solutions attempted for K-12 onto colleges. Part of it is from the tension between those advocating that college education itself is a great good worth lots of money and those arguing that the financial burden is far too great for an education producing no gains in life [see the comments on the first column to see this point of view from multiple angles].

So first, how is college different from high school? Long ago, college students were fundamentally different in that they could afford to defer beginning a career in order to obtain a greater education.  They were in college by their own choice; their commitment to being in class meant that they could reach a professor halfway, while a high school teacher might have to find a way to drag uninterested students into the educational mainstream. This distinction, if it is still present at all, has greatly faded.  More and more students and their families believe, arguably with good reason, that a college education is increasingly a necessary prerequisite for a successful career.  But this has shifted the expectations and the kinds of financial stress that students now endure.  Having students in class who really have no interest in that material is getting more and more common. So the distinction from the student side of the podium is getting to be pretty small.

How about the instructor side? This is where there is a profound difference, and this is part of what programs like Third Way’s seek to reduce or eliminate. K-12 instructors are not the people generating the knowledge they teach.  The skills they bring are in communication and motivation, in getting students engaged, in getting ideas through to them.  These are difficult skills to master and, arguably, acquiring them remains a distressingly hit-or-miss kind of thing.  Good K-12 teachers are very valuable elements of the educational system.

So what is the deal with college faculty?

Read More…

QuickNotes: Movie Facts and Gondwana

Just a couple of little topics showing up in the New York Times than might be of interest.

First, we’ve already noted that movies including earth science often have a lot of rubbish in them. Is this just trivia, or do these blunders actively misinform?  A column in the Times argues that erroneous movie moments in historical movies tend to produce strong memories, even if you are aware that there are possible inaccuracies; one study found that asking students to identify inaccuracies actually made them more prone to assimilate the mistakes. The only thing that worked was for an expert to actually call out the errors as they appeared.  So GG looks forward to paleontologists crying out in theaters when Jurassic World is released… (Coincidentally(?), the BBC has a piece more or less arguing that movies don’t alter things that much and should be free to do so).

The other is an animated piece about Wegener and Pangea. Kind of unusual thing to find in the Times. The piece emphasizes that Wegener was an outsider and so was ignored for that reason, which seems too trite (if it was as simple as that, the different levels of acceptance of continental drift in different geoscience communities would be hard to explain). But it is nice to see something like this show up in a general audience publication.

Working vacations–in 1903

Much has been made in recent years about how attached to the office many workers are, with expectations of checking email and texts and such not even while on vacation. Its not even clear Americans know how to go on vacation anymore (when working in New Zealand some years back and getting to know a number of Kiwis, some of whom worked in meeting with tourists, it was said that the most uptight, demanding and annoying tourists were either Americans or Israelis; the most relaxed and easygoing were the Aussies).

So a quick visit to the past is in order.  Consider the 1903 Sierra Club High Trip, which, in retrospect, is sort of an odd combination of a wilderness backpack and a cruise. The trip lasted four weeks, with more than 200 participants. The party rode stages to Mineral King and then walked over Farewell Gap and Coyote Pass to reach the Kern River near the Kern Canyon Ranger station.  Camp was set up on private land that would later host the Lewis Camp backcountry store and tent-hotel, a site now reduced to some pounded down coarse sand near the century-old ranger station. The 30,000 pounds of gear for this group came on mules over the same trails.  A group of cooks were employed (dominantly Chinese) and there was a commissary, where Sierra Clubbers lined up to get their drinks, bread, soup and meat.  After their meal, they would gather around a bonfire for camp songs and to hear a lecture from one of the members of the party. It wasn’t all cushy: the High Trippers slept in sleeping bags that were, often, just that: canvas bags surrounding their blankets.

A major attraction of the trip was to climb Mt. Whitney; most of the party took a roughly week long sojourn up to Crabtree Meadow and on up to Whitney.  Otherwise the vacationers would fish or take day hikes or just enjoy the vicinity of camp.  There was a postal run that came and went a few times by mule, but by and large the group enjoyed their time with little regard for the outside world.

It is hard to imagine taking a month off for most of us in this day and age.

But there were some on a working vacation even then.   Read More…

Is the U.S. the Most Anti-science Country?

Its been a tough week for science in the U.S. from both the left and the right.  We’ve learned that vaccination rates against diseases like measles are lower in the U.S. than many poor third-world countries, with some of the richest and best-educated areas among the worst at vaccinating (Colorado, for instance, is #3 in percentage of college educated adults and #50 in measles vaccination rate, though that widely cited number is based on a very small survey, and Silicon Valley daycares have surprisingly low vaccination rates). We continue to have arguments over global warming (here in Boulder, a former President of the University of Colorado claimed that global warming was unlikely to be due to human activity, which elicited a response from the climate science community; contrast this with the pledge by the main three political parties in the UK to pursue policies to reduce carbon emissions regardless of the outcome of upcoming elections). And just to drive home the point and restore to prominence an older science belief controversy, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker allowed himself to be interviewed while visiting Britain, he was asked if he believed in evolution; Walker said that he would “punt,” his non-answer (reinforced by a later press release) clearly attempting to avoid alienating a large fraction of his party’s faithful who will choose a presidential nominee next year (whether it was the fraction that doesn’t believe in evolution or the one that does is a bit unclear). (One can only hope that the NFL’s penetration into Britain is sufficient to avoid the impression that by “punting” he is gambling on evolution).  The BBC-employed moderator then noted that any British politician would have readily accepted evolution.

Sigh. We seem to like science except when it tells us ways to stay healthy, protect the planet, and combat evolving diseases.

Last year’s NSF science literacy report included the amazing number that a quarter of Americans think that the Earth does not orbit the Sun (perhaps even more distressing: more than 10% of those with advanced degrees think the Sun orbits the Earth; you have to drill down into the appendices to find this). You can find several other depressing statistics in there (astrology as a science, for instance, is accepted as strongly scientific by 10% of Americans, and nearly half–and a quarter of those with graduate degrees–think it is at least somewhat scientific; in contrast, less than 20% of Chinese accept any of a number of fortune-telling devices and only 8% would believe horoscopes).

Well, on the bright side, the NSF report claimed that overall science literacy was comparable to Europe and better than much of the rest of the world, and Americans are more accepting of nuclear power and genetically modified organisms (though both of those issues are a risk-reward calculation and not really science literacy). In earth science, continental drift (plate tectonics–the question would apply to either) is understood to have happened by 83% of Americans. And roughly a third of respondents felt that more money should be spent on scientific research.