How scientists think — and fight

Today’s guest blogger is the best science writer in the country named Easterbrook.  Steve is a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto.  He wrote a much admired comment on RealClimate, which offers a rare look into the scientific mindset.

In the interest of bridging the two cultures, I asked if I could reprint it, and Steve expanded it to add context and links.  It has been posted on his blog with the title, “Academics always fight over the peer-review process.”

Note: This started as a comment on a thread at RealClimate about the Guardian’s investigation of the CRU emails fiasco. The Guardian has, until recently, had an outstandingly good record on it’s climate change reporting. It commissioned Fred Pearce to do a detailed investigation into the emails, and he published his results in a 12-part series. While some parts of it are excellent, other parts demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of how science works, especially the sections dealing with the peer-review process. These were just hopelessly wrong, as demonstrated by Ben Santer’s rebuttal of the specific allegations. In parallel, George Monbiot, who I normally respect as one of the few journalists who really understands the science, has been arguing for Phil Jones to resign as head of the CRU at East Anglia, on the basis that his handling of the FOI requests was unprofessional. Monbiot has repeated this more recently, as can be seen in this BBC clip, where he is hopelessly ineffective in combating Delingpole’s nonsense, because he’s unwilling to defend the CRU scientists adequately.

The problem with both Pearce’s investigation, and Monbiot’s criticisms of Prof Jones is that neither has any idea of what academic research looks like from the inside, nor how scientists normally talk to one another. The following is my attempt to explain this context, and in particular why scientists talking freely among themselves might seem to rude or worse. Enough people liked my comment at RC that I decided to edit it a little and post it here (the original has already been reposted at ClimateSight and Prof Mandia’s blog). I should add one disclaimer: I don’t mean to suggest here that scientists are not nice people – the climate scientists I’ve gotten to know over the past few years are some of the nicest people you could ever ask to meet. It’s just that scientists are extremely passionate about the integrity of their work, and don’t take kindly to people pissing them around. Okay, now read on”¦

Once we’ve gotten past the quote-mining and distortion, the worst that can be said about the CRU emails is that the scientists sometimes come across as rude or dismissive, and say things in the emails that really aren’t very nice. However, the personal email messages between senior academics in any field are frequently not very nice. We tend to be very blunt about what appears to us as ignorance, and intolerant of anything that wastes our time, or distracts us from our work. And when we think (rightly or wrongly) that the peer review process has let another crap paper through, we certainly don’t hold back in expressing our opinions to one another. Which is of course completely different to how we behave when we meet one another. Most scientists distinguish clearly between the intellectual cut and thrust (in which we’re sometimes very rude about one another’s ideas) and our social interactions (in which we all get together over a beer and bitch about the downsides of academic life). Occasionally, there’s someone who is unable to separate the two, and takes the intellectual jabs personally, but such people are rare enough in most scientific fields that the rest of us know exactly who they are, and try to avoid them at conferences.

Part of this is due to the nature of academic research. Most career academics have large egos and very thick skins. I think the tenure process and the peer review process filter out those who don’t. We’re all jostling to get our work published and recognised, often by pointing out how flawed everyone else’s work is. But we also care deeply about intellectual rigor, and preserving the integrity of the published body of knowledge. And we also know that many key career milestones are dependent on being respected (and preferably liked) by others in the field, such as the more senior people who might get asked to write recommendation letters for tenure and promotion and honors, or the scientists with competing theories who will get asked to peer review our papers.

Which means in public (e.g. in conference talks and published papers) our criticisms of others are usually carefully coded to appear polite and respectful. For example, a published paper might talk about making “an improvement on the methodology of Bloggs et al”. Meanwhile, in private, when talking to our colleagues, we’re more likely to say that Bloggs’ work is complete rubbish, and should never have been published in the first place, and anyway everyone knows Bloggs didn’t do any of the work himself, and the only decent bits are due to his poor, underpaid postdoc, who never gets any credit for her efforts. (Yes, academics like to gossip about one another just as regular people do). This kind of blunt rudeness is common in private emails, especially when we’re discussing other scientists behind their backs with likeminded colleagues. Don’t be fooled by the more measured politeness in public: when we think an idea is wrong, we’ll tear it to shreds.

Now, in climate science, all our conventions are being broken. Private email exchanges are being made public. People who have no scientific training and/or no prior exposure to the scientific culture are attempting to engage in a discourse with scientists, and neither side understands the other. People misquoting scientists, and trying to trip them up with loaded questions. And, occasionally, resorting to death threatst. Outside of the scientific community, most people just don’t understand how science works, and so don’t know how to make sense of what’s going on.

And scientists don’t really know how to engage with these strange outsiders. Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives; they don’t call it the ivory tower for nothing. When scientists are attacked for political reasons, we mistake it for an intellectual discussion over brandy in the senior common room. Scientists have no training for political battles, and so our responses often look rude or dismissive to outsiders. Which in turn gets interpreted as unprofessional behaviour by those who don’t understand how scientists talk. And unlike commercial organisations and politicians, universities don’t engage professional PR firms to make us look good, and we academics would be horrified if they did: horrified at the expense, and horrified by the idea that our research might need to be communicated on anything other than its scientific merits.

Journalists like Monbiot, despite all his brilliant work in keeping up with the science and trying to explain it to the masses, just haven’t ever experienced academic culture from the inside. Hence his call, which he keeps repeating, for Phil Jones to resign, on the basis that Phil reacted unprofessionally to FOI requests. But if you keep provoking a scientist with nonsense, you’ll get a hostile response. Any fool knows you don’t get data from a scientist by using FOI requests, you do it by stroking their ego a little, or by engaging them with a compelling research idea that you need the data to pursue. And in the rare cases where this doesn’t work, you do some extra work yourself to reconstruct the data you need using other sources, or you test your hypothesis using a different approach (because it’s the research result we care about, not any particular dataset). So to a scientist, anyone stupid enough to try to get scientific data through repeated FOI requests quite clearly deserves our utter contempt. Jones was merely expressing (in private) a sentiment that most scientists would share – and extreme frustration with people who clearly don’t get it.

The same misunderstandings occur when outsiders look at how we talk about the peer-review process. Outsiders tend to think that all published papers are somehow equal in merit, and that peer-review is a magical process that only lets the truth through (hint: we refer to it more often as a crap-shoot). Scientists know that some papers are accepted because they are brilliant, are others are accepted because its hard to tell whether they are any good, and publication might provoke other scientists to do the necessary followup work. We know some published papers are worth reading, and some should be ignored. So, we’re natural skeptics – we tend to think that most new published results are likely to be wrong, and we tend to accept them only once they’ve been repeatedly tested and refined.

We’re used to having our own papers rejected from time to time, and we learn how to deal with it – quite clearly the reviewers were stupid, and we’ll show them by getting it published elsewhere (remember, big ego, thick skin). We’re also used to seeing the occasional crap paper get accepted (even into our most prized journals), and again we understand that the reviewers were stupid, and the journal editors incompetent, and we waste no time in expressing that. And if there’s a particularly egregious example, everyone in the community will know about it, everyone will agree it’s bad, and some of us will start complaining loudly about the idiot editor who let it through. Yet at the same time, we’re all reviewers, and some of us are editors, so it’s understood that the people we’re calling stupid and incompetent are our colleagues. And a big part of calling them stupid or incompetent is to get them to be more rigorous next time round, and it works because no honest scientist wants to be seen as lacking rigor. What looks to the outsider like a bunch of scientists trying to subvert some gold standard of scientific truth is really just scientists trying to goad one another into doing a better job in what we all know is a messy, noisy process.

The bottom line is that scientists will always tend to be rude to ignorant and lazy people, because we expect to see in one another a driving desire to master complex ideas and to work damn hard at it. Unfortunately the outside world (and many journalists) interpret that rudeness as unprofessional conduct. And because they don’t see it every day (like we do!) they’re horrified.

Some people have suggested that scientists need to wise up, and learn how to present themselves better on the public stage. Indeed, the Guardian published an editorial calling for the emergence of new leaders from the scientific community who can explain the science. This is naive and irresponsible. It completely ignores the nature of the current wave of attacks on scientists, and what motivates them. No scientist can be an effective communicator in a world where those with vested interests will do everything they can to destroy his or her reputation. The scientific community doesn’t have the resources to defend itself in this situation, and quite frankly it shouldn’t have to. What we really need is for newspaper editors, politicians, and business leaders to start acting responsibly, make the effort to understand what the science is saying, make the effort to understand what really driving these swiftboat-style attacks on scientists, and then shift the discourse from endless dissection of scientists’ emails onto useful, substantive discussions of the policy choices we’re faced with.

— Steve Easterbrook

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35 Responses to How scientists think — and fight

  1. Sou says:

    This is a brilliant piece. You have to wonder that a scientist in an ivory tower has such insight into the world outside. (Just kidding.)

    I was very surprised a year or so back when doing some work with academics at a university (in a social science discipline) to be copied into emails between colleages, which were very blunt and included strongly worded criticism of a head of school, plus tactics of how to deal with a sticky in-house issue.

    This was a complete contrast to behaviour in my normal circle (business and government), I and most people I know don’t commit anything to paper or email that we wouldn’t want the world to read – more or less. I’ve been in situations where I won’t even say something over the phone – I’ll wait till I can talk in person. It might be paranoia, but it’s justified! Certainly we are not as open to anywhere near the extent that my academic clients were. When I raised the issue it was shrugged off as if to say, that’s the we’ve always done it.

    Then I remembered that computer correspondence started in Universities long before it was unleashed on the rest of the world. It’s how academics communicate. Where many of us still pick up the phone, people in academia shoot off an email – even if the person they are talking to has an office next door! To read private emails is like eavesdropping on personal conversations. It’s a total invasion of privacy.

    Congratulations to Steve Easterbrook for this terrific article. I hope it’s spread far and wide. It is much more insightful than the entire 12-part series printed in the Guardian.

  2. mike roddy says:

    This needed to be said, thanks, Steve. It puts Monbiot into clearer focus- I had loved his journalism, and was angry about his being so “shocked” over Phil Jones. I accused Monbiot several times of choking. It turns out that he just doesn’t spend enough time with scientists. I’m not a scientist myself, but have Cal and Ivy League PhD friends, and my experience with them confirms everything said here. This particularly includes the blunt and no-time-for-bullshit style in their private emails to me.

    It’s a shame, because Monbiot is so much better than most journalists, and actually does his homework on the science. We need dozens more Monbiots with this knowledge added and, especially, more Joe Romms.

  3. June R says:

    I’m delighted that CP is reprinting this. It does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of scientific culture. That “messy, noisy process” is how knowledge gets built up from a myriad of individual studies. It is in scientists’ self-interest to push each other to be as rigorous as possible. The better the quality of the study, the more reliable the results, the more likely to be a fruitful area of research.

    The point that scientists remain cautious of research results until they’ve been tested and refined should be emphasized. The way the media trumpets individual study results as if they’re each the final word, is bound to leave the average reader confused.

    To paraphrase…it takes a scientific community to “raise” a body of knowledge.

  4. Chris says:

    Steve – this post also helps graduate students remember it’s rarely personal, even after heavy critique. Though it can be tough to tell that sometimes!

  5. ken levenson says:

    Great read.

    My take away: The scientists are doing the required science – it is our leaders (political, religious, business, military etc…) that are failing to live up to their responsibilities.

    Sounds about right to me.

  6. Marion Delgado says:

    Joe thanks for this, the small RC comment you bring up really said what I had experience and was trying to communicate very concisely.

    I have even, in working with scientists, heard people call their advisors or mentors dummies or said what they were saying was trash, and heaven help third parties that are making an error in the opinion of a scientist.

    It’s not like blog fighting, there’s an exaggeration either way – that’s great! that’s stupid1 will be said within a half hour of each other.

    [JR: Anybody who has been through an oral defense of their thesis or presented a paper in front of a room of world-class experts on the subject knows how rough it gtes.]

  7. Leif says:

    Another corollary is the way doctors talk among themselves. I am quite sure that statements taken out of context in private communication would shock most folks. As would the conversations of any other high stress occupation. All have to let their “hair down” during the course of the day. It is quite simply impossible to function on a razors edge continuously. That does not mean that when the time comes to step up to the plate that those folks do not “turn to” and do their utmost to save your life or bring your plane out of the sky safely.

    Or perhaps you would rather have Glen Beck do your next operation, flight control, bomb defusing, rocket launch… ?

  8. Jeff T says:

    “You have to understand; we’re different” is just not a winning argument. Nearly all the CRU e-mail just showed scientists going about their work. I have felt the same emotions expressed in those few messages that have received so much attention, but I have been careful not to put those feelings in writing. We scientists are on notice: just as an unintended racial slur can cost a business millions of dollars, open antagonism (even if justified) toward FOI requests can damage a scientist’s public credibility.

    One way to push back on this issue is to demand, repeatedly, that those who scream loudly about the CRU e-mails must establish their own credibility by revealing all their private correspondence over the same period.

    Unfortunately, FOI requests can be abusive. When the law requires it, we must comply, even if the requester is a lazy idiot.

  9. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bravo to Steve Easterbrook, And …


    Steve hits the nail on the head in these summarizing comments:

    “What we really need is for newspaper editors, politicians, and business leaders to start acting responsibly, make the effort to understand what the science is saying, make the effort to understand what really driving these swiftboat-style attacks on scientists, and then shift the discourse from endless dissection of scientists’ emails onto useful, substantive discussions of the policy choices we’re faced with.”

    Keep in mind, also, that because of the nature of newspapers and magazines, the nature of TV, the amount of writing and commentary that goes into the public record, the obviousness of certain corporate decisions, and so forth, it is clear (and will be increasingly clear as time passes) who is writing and saying and doing what with respect to the climate change problem. In other words, if you are a major newspaper or its editor, or a writer in the media, your choices are on record and will be so for a very long time to come. Unless the science itself turns out to be incorrect (and it’s not), the reputations of many people will be in trouble, including yours, if you are writing sloppily or incorrectly or irresponsibly. So, if you are writing to the public about climate change, it would be a very good idea to understand what you’re saying, to say it clearly and responsibly, and to say it keeping in mind the main unique justifying aim of the news profession, presumably, which is to responsibly serve the public good.

    Great piece, Steve Easterbrook.



  10. LucAstro says:

    M. Estarebrook. Finally, somebody is describing the inner workings of scientific research, whitout romanticizing it. It does take many years to somehow grasp what you are attempting to describe. Getting a PhD in my experience is akin to an initiation process. Publish or perish is a fact of life for young scientists, until they eventually make it.

    Having said that, we should actively support new trends in modern Science when they favor better Science. Two come to mind:

    1– global access to data. In Astronomy, owing to space astronomy (Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Obs., Spitzer IR Obs…), we have gotten used that all data gathered become freely available after one year of being obtained (this gives one year to the team that asked for the observations in the first place). This resulted in a boon of new results and research projects never considered before. Unfortunately, most earthbound observatories have generally not been following this trend and a lot of data remains simply unused and lost for mankind.

    2– reduce the costs of publication. In Astronomy, we are lucky in that most of our Journals are not privately owned by companies like Elsevier, who are in the game just to make money. Astrophysical Journal or Astronomical Journal for instance are run by collective bodies like The American Astronomical Society, who charge libraries just what is needed to break even. In any case, after a period of 3 to 5 years, most astronomical litterature becomes freely accessible online (you have to be a suscriber in the case of recent articles). The next step would be to publish electronically without a printed edition and therefore reduce the publishing costs to a negligible fraction of current costs. New scientific journals have appeared that do this, but it will take them quite some time to build a strong reputation where scientists would want to publish there (high citation index). Note that a seminal article by J. Hansen was published in 2008 in such a freely accessible journal
    (”Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?” in the Open Atmos. Sci. Journal).

    Finally, there are additional aspects that you did not describe and could be covered in a subsequent version of your essay:
    1– if a paper is rejected, what happens? You can ask to have it reviewed by a second referee or you could send it to a different journal…
    2– it is ok to criticize journals, it does not mean that scietists are censuring the refeering process, it means that Journals are not equal and that Scientists’ opinion of them does matter: in short, there is a feedback loop through the citation index which characterizes each journal. If a Journal accept too many flawed papers, they will loose their credibility, their citation index will eventually come down and they will become a less atractive option when a scientist is looking for the best journal to publish his newest paper. This works well, provided the edition process is not governed by private interests. Why? Because big publishers tend to oil the system with money, lavishly paying scientific editors who join the journals. The huge publishing costs of those publishers is then passed to libraries and conference proceedings, and their articles usually never become freely accessible.

  11. It is particularly satisfying to me in reading Dr. Easterbrook’s essay to note that he consistently discusses academic research and academic culture, not just the narrower scientific one. The inclusiveness is important and appropriate, for while I am not a climate scientist (nor do I pretend to play one on TV) I have direct experience with the peer-review process such that I believe I can speak sympathetically to what the people who are scientists go through.

    (For my own part, I believe I’ve been relatively fortunate in my “wood shed” experiences. But I certainly have had experience defending a thesis and then a dissertation; presenting papers on topics where my commentor was one of the leading experts in the world; wrestling with editors over word usage; and having papers returned to me with less than enthusiastic peer-reviews.)

  12. paulm says:

    Do we sacrific humanity for democracy?

    Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change

    ‘One of the main obstructions to meaningful action is “modern democracy”, he added. “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”‘

    … he has little sympathy for the climate scientists caught up in the UEA email scandal. He said he had not read the original emails – “I felt reluctant to pry” – but that their reported content had left him feeling “utterly disgusted”.

    “Fudging the data in any way whatsoever is quite literally a sin against the holy ghost of science

  13. Turboblocke says:

    #12 If Lovelock is prepared to adopt a position based on reports of the e-mails, rather than the e-mails themself, he is being spectactularly unscientific!

  14. Bryson Brown says:

    It’s worth saying (though maybe implicit in some of Easterbrook’s comments) that this doesn’t apply just to science– at least some other fields (analytic philosophy is mine) also accept high levels of critical interaction, including dismissal of arguments elsewhere taken seriously as (to borrow an antipodean turn of phrase) ‘complete crap’, criticism of editorial decisions and the quality of some journals (even highly ranked and influential ones). Odd that the value of ‘competition’ is so widely invoked in business and government, when the actual level of criticism and challenge to ideas and established opinion is so low in those areas compared to healthy academic environments.

  15. paulm says:

    #14 yet he is one of the great scientist of our time!

  16. Sable says:

    June R. says:
    “The point that scientists remain cautious of research results until they’ve been tested and refined should be emphasized.”

    While I agree with this, how many times have we heard “we need more study” used as an excuse to delay or thwart necessary action? The opponents of scientific results, those who refuse to acknowledge facts, have no intellectual integrity. They will take any word, any process, any result, any fact – and twist it to their selfish aims.

    Easterbrook is right, the press, politicians and other leaders should be stepping up to defend science here. But our culture, built on the industrial revolution and the ideals of the enlightenment, seems to be changing into a parody of its former self. A screaming, writhing mass of whining special interests, most clinging to myths that no longer serve, who can’t see the forest for the trees.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Small point, but Toronto is in Canada.

  18. Riccardo Reitano says:

    I couldn’t express my feelings better. A big thank.

  19. paulm says:

    Its worth going over the more indepth part of the interview…bearing in mind the guy is 90+

    I have seen this happen before, of course. We should have been warned by the CFC/ozone affair because the corruption of science in that was so bad that something like 80% of the measurements being made during that time were either faked, or incompetently done.

  20. Maggie says:

    This is lovely. Thank you. My question, one that I’ve had for a while: if journalists have to be trained in ethics and 1st amendment legalities, and work place supervisors have to be trained in worker safety, etc, why isn’t it part of science education to learn about communication and public opinion and public perceptions? More and more, these skills seem to be needed with the job.

  21. Steve L says:

    “They don’t call it the ivory tower for nothing.”
    You mean they have to pay?

  22. Jeff Huggins says:

    Dear Maggie (Comment 21) …

    There are many considerations involved in the points/question you raise, of course.

    In general, the idea of a liberal education has been taking a beating, unfortunately.

    But, the only thing I’d like to point out, presently, is that society has a double standard when it comes to science, in this sense:

    If a scientist discovers some new principle or technique, and if she (or he) shows up at a corporation, along with the engineer who has used the new principle or technique to make a “better mousetrap” (e.g., a more accurate missile, a better-tasting soda, a lower-fat butter, or whatever), then the corporation does not care much about whether the scientist and engineer can speak well, can be brief, are dressed nicely, smile a lot, or whatever. In other words, when science “gives us what we want”, we don’t complain about the communications skills of scientists or use the excuse that “well, the scientist didn’t explain it well”.

    On the other hand, when science and scientists tell us that what we are presently doing is not healthy to future generations and to other species, and indeed is not sustainable, we (too many people) just don’t want to hear it. In that case, all of a sudden, we try to explain that “I don’t understand”. We call for scientists to develop better communications skills. We don’t want to hear the message, so we blame the messengers.

    I find it fascinating — indeed amazing — indeed embarrassing (for them) — that some professional science writers blame the scientists for not communicating well and/or blame the public for not “getting it”. After all, the main task of scientists is to do excellent science. It’s the main task (presumably) of THE SCIENCE REPORTERS THEMSELVES to write in a way that conveys genuine understanding to readers. The task of a science reporter is not merely to put ink on a page or on a website. (Do the reporters themselves know this?) The success of science reporters should be measured by how well their audiences UNDERSTAND the matter being discussed, and understanding includes that of the subject’s importance, relevance, implications to life, and so forth.

    More than one major and noted science reporter simply does not “get” this point, I’m convinced.

    So, although it would help if everyone could become better communicators, people are naturally good at different things, and their training and professions call for them to be good at different things. (I would not make a very good NBA basketball player, even if I tried real real hard.)

    When it comes to communication, and to conveying understanding, the media (and journalism) must naturally and unavoidably shoulder most of the blame for the lack of effectiveness. What amazes me is that their names are in print, their faces on TV, and etc. In the very course of doing their jobs, they are documenting their own ineffectiveness and (in some cases) downright negligence. Oh well, at least the evidence will be plain and available, when it’s needed by future academics and (in some cases) in their courts.



  23. Jeff Huggins says:

    Sorry: In that last line, I meant to write “in the courts”.

  24. this is simply one of the best pieces i’ve read in a long while – thanks for posting it!

  25. Ronald says:

    what Easterbrook is probably all true, but almost none of the deniers cares. the value of the E-mails is to embarrass the scientists and those pushing for reductions in the use of carbon fuels for energy enough to cause political stoppage.

    Deniers aren’t going to say “oh I was wrong, it was my misunderstanding of how science worked that I got so worked up.” Hardly. They’ll just laugh and say how much fun they’re having and move on to the next denier farce.

  26. Richard Brenne says:

    What Easterbrook (Steve, not Gregg) writes is very helpful.

    I’d add that all great or good scientists want to see the science in their field advanced as much as possible during their careers and lifetimes.

    So when something they consider junk science from Lindzen, Christy or Piekle, Sr is published it understandably frustrates them. It’s like, “We’ve established that human CO2 emissions are contributing to global warming. You’re trying to take us backwards to before Arrhenius in 1896 and that’s frustrating and idiotic.”

    And then everything Easterbrook accurately writes before the last paragraph assumes equal good faith shown by all parties. In fact because most scientists are operating in good faith themselves, they’ve bent over backwards to accommodate those not working in good faith.

    Whether from contrarianism so strong that Lindzen remains a half century-long smoker who denies that there’s a link between smoking and cancer or the strong evangelical beliefs of Christy, it appears to me that Lindzen and Christy are no longer operating in good faith. In fact they and those like them have been accommodated to death, possibly the premature deaths of all in future generations.

  27. This is an interesting, useful and well-written commentary and though, as Steve says, I don’t have experience of the world he describes, it has the ring of truth about it.

    I agree with many of his points. But – and this is a big but – there’s a world of difference between expressing an opinion and acting on that opinion. I don’t have any problems with the insults the scientists use against their opponents – let everyone say what the hell he wants about other people.

    What concern me are the instances where they go beyond opinion. To take one example, Phil Jones asked for material subject to a Freedom of Information request to be deleted. As the information office pointed out, if the time limit hadn’t expired, Jones would have faced criminal prosecution for that. Even if you put everything else to one side, that email gives sufficient grounds to demand his resignation.

    FoI requests might be shrugged off by scientists in the way you describe. But to us journalists they are damn near sacred. We fought for years, against almost the entire political establishment, to get FoI laws passed in the UK. The Guardian waged a massive campaign across several years. This isn’t just because it makes our job easier, but because we see FoI as an essential component of democracy. If the public can’t see what politicians and public servants are doing, they will shaft us. The passing of those laws was one of the greatest recent democratic victories we’ve won in this country (there haven’t been many others).

    Academics have their own culture, as you show. So do journalists and democracy campaigners. What you might regard as trivial and annoying, we regard as central and irreducible. This supports your wider point – that it’s hard for us to understand each other – but, like it or not, scientists have to remember that they are not a separate species. There’s a world out there, from which they receive their funds and in which their findings have enormous resonance: political, economic, social, environmental. Concessions have to be made – not in terms of intellectual rigour or the scope of your enquiries – but in terms of engaging with and understanding the public context in which you operate.

    Here’s the deal: I’ll try to understand your world better if you try to understand mine.

  28. George – many thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m a big fan of your work, so your comments on Prof Jones took me by surprise; it was probably the first time I ever felt you’d completely missed the real story. But your reply here really helps to explain – I hadn’t considered how central the FoI laws are to the journalists’ profession. And going a little beyond what you say above, I would imagine that, in a journalist’s experience, anyone who makes light of FoI laws, or shows contempt for them, almost certainly has something to hide. Boy, do we have a big gulf of understanding to bridge! I’ll happily take you up on the deal – we’ll need to think of some suitable mechanisms to improve the mutual learning.

    On the one hand, nobody has really addressed the question of how much we need to crack open the ivory tower, because science is never normally done in a fishbowl like this. And on the other hand, nobody has really considered what happens when FoI is used to harass, rather than to seek truth. Great topics for healthy discussion…

  29. Frank says:

    Steven Easterbrook is a computer scientist who obviously knows his way around the publish-or-perish world and big egos of academic science. Unfortunately, computer science is a field more closely related to mathematics and engineering; not the hard physical sciences where progress is made by rigorous testing of theories and hypotheses. Furthermore, Dr. Easterbrook appears to have given little thought to how scientists, with their egos, should change their modus operandi when they are dealing with issues effecting the future of the planet. When Dr. Easterbrook concentrates on how scientists “think and fight”, he loses sight of what they DID. Actions are more important than words.

    Dr. Easterbrook says that Dr. Jones reacted “unprofessionally” when he withheld information requested in a British FOIA. As George Monbiot asserts above in #28, Dr. Jones’ actions certainly seem to be illegal, rather than merely unprofessional.

    Dr. Easterbrook tells us that “anyone stupid enough to try to get scientific data through repeated FOI requests quite clearly deserves our utter contempt”. Why? The transparency produced by FOI laws has limited the ability of governments to hide uncomfortable information from the public. Publicly-owned companies are required to disclose business data to the market (and the failure to do so has resulted in numerous scandals and crises). If CEO’s and politicians with big egos are compelled to disclose information to the public, why should we exempt scientists with big egos working on the most important scientific issue facing the planet? One sensible explanation is that scientists do have a very strong tradition of integrity – and a FOI request certainly represents a challenge to any scientist’s integrity. When speaking to each other, the eminent climate scientist Stephen Schneider says scientists “are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts.” Unfortunately, when talking to the public, Schneider also says scientists “have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have”. When scientists abandon their integrity when dealing with the pubic and start acting like politicians, lawyers and used-car salesmen, they should not be surprised when the public, the press, and even other scientists begin to treat them as such. Dr. Easterbrook complains that his privileged academic world is changing when scientists can be subjected to FOI requests, but climate scientists have only themselves to blame for this problem.

    Dr. Easterbrook ignores the fact that Dr. Jones’s misconduct didn’t begin with FOI requests. Dr. Jones acted unprofessionally when he earlier refused Warwick Hughes’ EMAIL request for a list of the stations used to compile the surface temperature record published by the IPCC. This surface temperature record was essential to the IPCC’s theory that most 20th century warming was due to man, particularly anthropogenic GHGs. Warwick Hughes wanted to determine if urban heat islands had influenced Dr. Jones’ record and therefore could invalidate the IPCC’s theory. Rigorous experimental tests of theories are an essential part of the scientific process in the physical sciences. If Jones had shared the requested information with Hughes and others, he wouldn’t have faced FOI requests. (Later, Jones asserted that his data was subject to confidentiality agreements (which conveniently could not be found), even though he shared the same data with other scientists.)

    Dr. Mann created a “trick” for combining temperature reconstructions in such a way that his IPCC graph provided a more convincing case that late 20th century warming was unprecedented. As we now know, Dr. Jones applied Mann’s “trick” to “hide the decline”. The words “trick” and “hide” are not the central issue; the actions of these scientists are. Did the graphs these scientists produced accurately represent the data and its uncertainties? Did these scientists provide adequate disclosure of how the graphs were made? Did they respond appropriately when an IPCC peer reviewer recommended that they make corrections? Dr. Easterbrook doesn’t consider these actions – he is only concerned with how the public might misinterpret private words that shouldn’t have been disclosed.

  30. Sounds good Steve. Take a look at this, where I try to address a couple of these points:

  31. Doug Bostrom says:

    Mr. Monbiot, if you’ve not already done so I hope you’ll take a moment to visit Steve McIntyre’s site and ask him and his followers to please not abuse the FOI/FOIA processes you correctly identify as a precious resource for accountability.

    You may not be aware, McIntyre organized a campaign to divide what could have been a single FOI request into multiple demands, dozens actually, a program clearly intended to harass as opposed to being a sincere elicitation of information otherwise unobtainable. Sadly Dr. Jones appears to have lost patience as the victim of McIntyre’s fling, behavior few of us could honestly say we’d not imitate in similar circumstances.

    Beyond Jones’ loss of composure, there’s a much larger problem with efforts such as McIntyre’s. Others (Competitive Enterprise Institute, for example) are eagerly exploiting the FOI/FOIA harassment tactic even now. If you value FOI/FOIA laws and regulations as a journalist, I encourage you to defend them elsewhere as passionately and cogently as you do here. These tools are being exploited for purposes other than what lawmakers intended and will surely be revisited if such abuses as McIntyre launched are continued.

  32. Kevin Meaney says:

    Didn’t Jones make a clear statement that he didn’t delete any data that was part of a FOI request. Don’t we therefore not have to wait until the conclusion of the investigation to find out if he actually did delete the data or not before making a judgement. Jones had already demonstrated hyperbole over blocking papers from being published that were demonstrably published or redefining peer review to keep papers out of the IPCC which were demonstrated to be included in the IPCC reports. In other words what he wrote at a time of frustration and his actions appear to be two different things.


  33. Steve,

    Thanks for a very insightful post. It explains the scientific culture very well imho. Robert Grumbine has touched on similar issues, focussing on the difference between scientific and blog discussions, also very worth the read: .

    What struck me in your last paragraph is that you dismiss the idea that scientists have to become better communicators. I agree with the importance of the context of attacks on science (e.g. and ). But I don’t see how that necessitates the conclusion that scientists don’t have to “wise up, and learn how to present themselves better on the public stage”.

    In that way, I think Randy Olson is right, that the nature of the game has changed, and that scientists who do communicate to the public better be aware of how the public filters and digests information these days, and shape their message accordingly. ( )

    Yes, the media, politicians and the public need to do their part as well. But so do we. It’s not either-or; it’s and-and.

  34. Doug Bostrom says:

    Hmmm, I guess we can’t after all expect George Monbiot to visit Climate Audit to deliver a sanctimonious, tear-jerking lecture about journalism’s fight for freedom, encouraging McIntyre and his merry band of pranksters to respect the spirit of the law. Tsk, tsk. Soft targets only, it appears, unless writing from behind the bastion of a byline.