Adventures in Ethics and Science

On Stranger Fruit, there’s a response by historian of science Naomi Oreskes to recent criticisms of her 2004 paper in Science discussing the consensus position regarding anthropogenic climate change. While the whole trajectory of these sorts of “engagements” is interesting in its way — attacks on claims that weren’t made, critiques of methodologies that weren’t used, and so forth — the part of Oreskes’ response that jumped out at me had to do with the kinds of issues on which scientists focus when they’re talking to each other in the peer-reviewed literature:

In the original AAAS talk on which the paper was based, and in various interviews and conversations after, I repeated pointed out that very few papers analyzed said anything explicit at all about the consensus position. This was actually a very important result, for the following reason. Biologists today never write papers in which they explicitly say “we endorse evolution”. Earth scientists never say “we explicitly endorse plate tectonics.” This is because these things are now taken for granted. So when we read these papers and observed this pattern, we took this to be very significant. We realized that the basic issue was settled, and we observed that scientists had moved on to discussing details of the problem, mostly tempo and mode issues: how fast, how soon, in what manner, with what impacts, etc.

You don’t waste ink on the stuff everyone in your scientific field takes as more or less settled (or at least as a reasonable enough assumption to let you get traction on the puzzles you’re most interested in solving). Rather, you use the literature to work out the questions that are still open and the assumptions that are still contentious.

The whole response is interesting so you should, as they say, read the whole thing.

William Connolley and Tim Lambert also weigh in.


  1. #1 Frederik
    August 31, 2007

    This isn’t really new. Kuhn wrote about it a long time ago:

  2. #2 Kim
    August 31, 2007

    I just re-read Oreskes’ introduction to a book that collects the memories of the geoscientists involved in developing the theory of plate tectonics (Plate Tectonics: an insider’s history of the modern theory of the Earth). She says a lot of interesting things there, as well, about what scientists say and don’t say in the peer-reviewed literature. I love her discussion of the questions of how scientists develop insights (and how they call each other at 2 am to talk about them).

    And Oreskes’ experience with the literature of plate tectonics probably left her quite able to recognize the transition to a new consensus. She’s seen it before.

  3. #3 Francois Ouellette
    September 5, 2007

    Well, it’s interesting that, in his expert testimony in the Dover ID trial, Steve Fuller used the same argument (that biologists never endorse evolution explicitly in their papers) to say that evolution theory is not particularly relevant to a biologist’s everyday work. To him, it means that they don’t necessarily endorse evolution, and as a consequence, don’t necessarily reject ID. But hey, that’s Stever Fuller…

    And of course, Oreskes does all this because she is pro-AGW, and everyone is pro-AGW. So no one is going to argue with her: she is on the “right” side. All the climate skeptics are bad guys, everybody knows that…

    But wasn’t Wegener a bad guy too?…