Adventures in Ethics and Science

Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin lays into climate scientist Richard Lindzen. His post begins with reasons one might be inclined to take Lindzen’s views seriously:

Unlike nearly all “sceptics”, he’s a real climate scientist who has done significant research on climate change, and, also unlike most of them, there’s no evidence that he has a partisan or financial axe to grind.

But then, we find the 2001 Newsweek interview that gives Quiggin reason for pause:

Lindzen clearly relishes the role of naysayer. He’ll even expound on how weakly lung cancer is linked to cigarette smoking. He speaks in full, impeccably logical paragraphs, and he punctuates his measured cadences with thoughtful drags on a cigarette.

And Quiggin’s response:

Anyone who could draw this conclusion in the light of the evidence, and act on it as Lindzen has done, is clearly useless as a source of advice on any issue involving the analysis of statistical evidence.

I don’t want to get into a debate here about climate science (although the neighbors will likely oblige if you ask them nicely), nor even about the proper analysis of statistical evidence. Instead, I’d like to consider whether enjoying being a contrarian (or a consensus-supporter, for that matter) is a potential source of bias against which scientists should guard.

The basic problem is nothing new: what we observe, and how we interpret what we observe, can be influenced by what we expect to see — and, sometimes, by what we want to see Obviously, scientists don’t always see what they want to see, else people’s grad school lab experiences would be deliriously happy rather than soul-crushingly frustrating. But sometimes what there is to see is ambiguous, and the person making the observation has to make a call. And frequently, with a finite set of data, there are multiple conclusions — not all of them compatible with each other — that can be drawn.

These are moments when our expectations and our ‘druthers might creep in as the tie-breaker.

At the scale of the larger community of science and the body of knowledge it produces, this may not be such a big deal. There are loads of other scientists who are likely to have different expectations and ‘druthers. In trying to take someone else’s result and use it to build more knowledge, the thought is that something like replication of the earlier result happens, and biases that may have colored the earlier result will be identified and corrected. (Especially since scientists are in competition for scarce goods like jobs, grants, and Nobel Prizes, there’s no reason not to identify problems with the existing knowledge base.)

But each scientist would also like, individually, to be as unbiased as possible. One of the advantages of engaging with lots of other scientists, with different biases than your own, is you get better at noticing your own biases and keeping them on a shorter leash — putting you in a better place to make objective knowledge.

So, what if you discover that you take a lot of pleasure in being a naysayer or contrarian? Is coming to such self-awareness the kind of thing that should make you extra careful in coming to contrarian conclusions about the data? If you actually come to the awareness that you dig being a contrarian, does it put you in a better position to take corrective action than you would if you enjoyed being a contrarian but didn’t realize that being contrarian was what was bringing you the enjoyment?

What kind of corrective action do I have in mind? I’m thinking of a kind of scientific buddy-system, matching scientists with contrarian leanings to scientists who are made happier by consensus-supporting. Such a pairing would be useful for each scientist in the pair: Here’s they guy you have to convince! After all, one of the things serious scientists are after is a good grip on how things actually are. An explanation that a scientist with different default assumptions than yours can’t easily dismiss is an explanation worth taking seriously. If, on the other hand, your “buddy” can dismiss your explanation, it would be good to know why so you can address its weaknesses (or even, if it is warranted, change your conclusions).

Such a buddy-system would probably only be workable with scientists who are serious about intellectual honesty and getting knowledge that is objective as possible. You wouldn’t want to be paired with a scientist for whom having an open mind would be at odds with the conditions of his employment.


  1. #1 Barry
    April 23, 2006

    In my experience, ‘contrarian’ is just another word for ‘supporter of the powers that be, working against threatening truths’. It’s false courage and vanity.

  2. #2 Dave E
    April 23, 2006

    Contrarians are good in science. No one really would argue the point, I think, so long as the contrarians are not illogical or uninformed- they keep you on your toes, and often uncover weak or sloppy arguments, even when they are wrong.

    Climate science is seen as a place where science intersects important public policy, so maintaining a coherent narrative is considered important, since John and Suzy Q public will not be in any position to judge, and dissent is likely to be damaging to a political case.

    Two things come to mind here- first, scientists are deluded if they think that they are any more than political pawns, and won’t really be setting the political agenda. Climate change, regardless of its seriousness, will function mostly as a bludgeon.

    Second, consensus means dick when it comes to reality.
    (BTW, I am a scientist, PhD in chemistry, and I think climate change is serious, but as an issue is in serious danger of being hijacked by people that want to use it for political gain. Hysteria-mongering will lead to complacence which may lead to big trouble).

    You wouldn’t want to be paired with a scientist for whom having an open mind would be at odds with the conditions of his employment.

    Or with someone in a field where hewing to a party line determines grants being funded? Careful, or you will eliminate us all.

  3. #3 Sean Carroll
    April 24, 2006

    I would strongly argue that taking enjoyment in being a contrarian for it’s own sake is a source of bias against which scientists should guard — exactly as being a knee-jerk defender of the consensus status quo is a source of bias against which scientists should guard. It’s much more intellectually respectable to be a contrarian because you have good reasons to oppose some consensus, than because you simply enjoy the stance.

    I don’t think that anything should actually be done about it, in any systematic way — people just need to be on guard. Scientists are human beings, and they all have their predelictions, and those predelictions invariably color the spin they put on all sorts of things. The data, at the end of the day, are still the data.

  4. #4 Barry
    April 24, 2006

    Somebody over on the CT thread did what I should have done – checked Sourcewatch. Guess who’s linked to the oil industry?

    I don’t disagree that there are people who are contrary for good reasons. However, somebody who makes a good living from being contrary, in a way which doesn’t respect the truth, doesn’t deserve my respect.

  5. #5 Lab Lemming
    April 24, 2006

    Such a buddy-system would probably only be workable with scientists who are serious about intellectual honesty and getting knowledge that is objective as possible.

    So you want to pair both of those researchers together?

  6. #6 Kenny Easwaran
    April 25, 2006

    Discovering any bias in yourself is a dangerous and difficult epistemic situation to deal with. Andy Egan and Adam Elga recently wrote a paper on this topic (at a fairly abstract level) called “I Can’t Believe I’m Stupid”.

    I suppose a buddy system of this sort would be good for any sort of bias – the person who loves formal mathematical techniques teamed with the person who’s always skeptical of them, etc.

  7. #7 John Quiggin
    April 25, 2006

    This is a nice commentary, Janet. I have a tendency towards excessive contrarianism, which I’ve tried hard to balance with an effort to make constructive proposals and recognise that the conventional wisdom is right more often than not (but not always!).

    Barry, I was aware of the Sourcewatch article on Lindzen, but it didn’t seem that convincing to me. I’ve added a reference to my post.

  8. #8 Barry
    April 25, 2006

    John, the biggest thing that I watch for is genuine moral courage on the part of the ‘contrarian’. For example, we’ve seen a zillion ‘decent leftists’ emerge after 9/11, supporting a right-wing regime in the USA. They all seem to make a decent living at it, and get lots of media attention, despite protestations to the contrary. We’ve seen lots of ‘scientists’ who make a good living from junk science groups by bucking the consensus; frequently not by doing contradicting research, but by being the ‘dissenting non-PC scientist’ who goes on TV and writes op-eds.

  9. #9 John Quiggin
    April 25, 2006

    Indeed Barry, it’s striking how many brave dissenters seem to have emerged to defend the interests of the rich and powerful against their oppression by the poor and weak.

    Kenny, your link seems to be broken

  10. #10 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 26, 2006

    I’ve fixed Kenny’s link, John, as well as my spelling of your last name. (You’re allowed to point that kind of thing out, you know!)

  11. #11 John Quiggin
    April 26, 2006

    Thanks, Janet! I’m not too fussed about my name, except when the people mis-spelling it are making snarky nitpicks about something I’ve said (a surprisingly common combined event).

    I enjoyed the Egan-Elga paper thanks Kenny. I’m pretty sure we covered some of the same ground either on CT or on my blog a few years back.