Sunday, January 10, 2010

Neuroscience meets global warming

See this at Wizbang:

ClimateGate (Inadvertently) Explained

Via a link from InstaPundit, here is an eye-opening article from the current issue of Wired: "Accept Defeat - The Neuroscience of Screwing Up":

Kevin Dunbar is a researcher who studies how scientists study things -- how they fail and succeed. In the early 1990s, he began an unprecedented research project: observing four biochemistry labs at Stanford University.

... Dunbar brought tape recorders into meeting rooms and loitered in the hallway; he read grant proposals and the rough drafts of papers; he peeked at notebooks, attended lab meetings, and videotaped interview after interview. He spent four years analyzing the data. "I'm not sure I appreciated what I was getting myself into," Dunbar says. "I asked for complete access, and I got it. But there was just so much to keep track of."

Dunbar came away from his in vivo studies with an unsettling insight: Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) "The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen," Dunbar says. "But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn't uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn't make sense."

You really need to read the rest, because it provides a fascinating insight into the frustrations encountered by research scientists on a regular basis. I spent the better part of a decade working in a testing and analysis laboratory. We never did "pure research" -- all of our work was based on well-known analysis methods and verified by standard quality control procedures. Still, we occasionally had to re-do entire sets of tests if our quality controls indicated errors. Researchers can sometimes trace unexplained results back to commonly encountered problems with laboratory equipment, reagents, or calibration standards, but many times there is no clear understanding of why the results of carefully planned experiments end up being "wrong."

The Instapundit reader who emailed this story to Glenn Reynolds wryly noted, "Wired Magazine unknowingly explains Climategate." How true. As I have previously noted, the ClimateGate scientists, most notably Michael Mann and Phil Jones, seem to have fallen prey to the temptations of celebrity recognition and unlimited research funding that are promised by those in power when scientific research seems to be producing the "right" answers. Mann, Jones, et. al. undoubtedly believed that they were on to something significant, but chose to disregard objectivity when confronted with the fact that much of their research data apparently resided in that damnable 50% - 75% category of errant or unexpected results.

There is more.


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