Scientific Bias and Other Worries

Let’s admit it. Bias exists in science. Much of it just may not be as open and obvious as some think it is.

Many say that scientists, notably climate and energy scientists working in public universities and national agencies, shouldn’t be trusted because their research is government funded. The general assertion is that many scientists tailor their findings to meet some political criteria, to receive further funding or, worse yet, to advance their own left wing, anti-capitalist, one world agenda or whatever. I admit to having difficulty understanding this line of thought since, in the US at least, scientists, many with tenure, perform research through both Republican and Democratic administrations.

On the other hand, I’m openly skeptical of research funded by corporate or political organizations. I suggest we trust them even less than the government funded scientists if only because the corporate or politically funded scientists are openly beholden to employers unlikely to be voted out of power every few years.

As an example, here’s an article to consider. It’s from the online version of the Copehagen Post:

Oil Industry behind Critical Wind Energy Report
Friday, 19 March 2010

Conservative think tank admits that report critical of Denmark’s wind power industry was commissioned by US think tank

A controversial report critical of the wind energy industry from conservative think tank CEPOS was commissioned and paid for by an American think tank with close ties to the coal and oil industries, according to trade journal Ingeniøren.

The report, which was published last September and concluded that Danish wind energy figures were misleading, was taken by CEPOS members to the US media in the months leading up to the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen. The message behind the report indicated that the Danish wind turbine industry model was not effective.

Numerous experts have since strongly criticised the report’s conclusions, challenging many of the figures and the means in which those figures were obtained.

But now it appears that the report was indirectly commissioned and paid for by the American coal and oil lobby.

A press release from the Institute for Energy Research (IER) indicated that it had commissioned the report from CEPOS.

IER reportedly receives funding from the American oil and coal lobby. The think tank has posted a summary of the CEPOS report on its website which includes the claims that ‘in 2006 scarcely 5 percent of the nation’s electricity demand was met by wind. And over the past five years, the average is less than 10 percent — despite Denmark having carpeted its land with [wind turbines]’.

CEPOS CEO Martin Ågerup admitted to Ingeniøren that the report was both commissioned and paid for by IER. But he said he was not aware of IER receiving funding from the coal and oil industry.

‘I don’t know who supports them. That doesn’t interest me. They contacted me and so we did the report,’ Ågerup said.

Ågerup admitted, however, that during his company’s tour of the US last autumn, he and one of the report’s authors, Hugh Sharman, were made aware of the relationship between IER and the American coal and oil industries.

‘I was told that IER was supported by coal and oil interests, but I don’t know the specific sponsors,’ he said. But then it’s common for people to have sponsors for a project – just as we have also had, for example, for reports dealing with integration and the school system.’

‘The only condition we impose is that we are allowed to be fully independent in our conclusions and the assessments we make,’ said Ågerup. ‘And IER has fully lived up to that condition.’

Perhaps the IER did, but consider that Ågerup heads the conservative think tank CEPOS. Could that have shaded the conclusions and assessments? Even if these were tinkered with, did the scientists do the tinkering? For example, a relative of mine once worked in the forecasting department of a major corporation. After the economists in the department sent in their figures, the corporate types routinely rejected these figures, often suggesting the numbers they WANTED to see.

Could something like that be going on here? I don’t know, but I’ll admit I’m biased against corporations. But while I am openly dubious about corporate types, I don’t believe for a moment that most scientists are anything other than people trying to find answers. I do, however, I believe our brains can play tricks on us. If anyone thinks that’s not true, I suggest reading that Wikipedia list of cognitive biases I’ve mentioned before.

Right now, I have no informed opinion on this study of Danish wind energy. However others such as DeSmogBlog are weighing in on it: “Institute for Energy Research Admits It Was Behind Anti-Wind Study”

For now though, again for the sake of argument, let’s shift the emphasis from bald assumptions of open bias to something else, something both more obvious and more subtle: Human beings have biases, conscious or unconscious. We expect certain things to be true because of emotion. Consequently, scientists, if they are human, and I think many of them are, will have biases.

I remember watching the late Stephen Jay Gould lecture on the subject. As an example, he talked about the 19th Century scientists who studied human intelligence using brain size as their measure. Bigger is better, right? They poured seeds into skulls to measure the volume of the brains that once filled them. Gould explained that the biases of the day meant that most of these dedicated and decent scientists knew in their hearts that men were smarter than women and that whites were smarter than blacks. He envisioned these scientists unconsciously giving the small skull of a white male another couple of taps on the table to make room for more seed. Similarly, they’d gently pour seed into the distressingly large skull of a black man and quickly dump it out without those taps. These scientists also failed to note that the skulls of women are smaller than those of most men because men are typically larger than women. Gould said that these scientists were almost certainly honest people who were simply unaware of their biases. He went on to say that future scientists will laugh at us for biases we have yet to recognize.

I hope they’ll have the luxury of laughing. I’m not so sure because, while the process of discovering biases is one of the values of the scientific method, it’s time consuming. Sooner or later–generally later–the biases are discovered and pounded out through new discoveries, repetitions of experiments, refinements of methodology, and such.

A related problem of bias today hits the non-scientific public in the form of unrepresentative weighting. Dozens or hundreds of climate change studies from the world are balanced equally with the voices of a loud few, many of them clearly political or corporate and few of them even scientists.

The prevalence of familiar faces among the climate change skeptics continues to bother me. For example, scientist S. Fred Singer was once a major voice for the tobacco industry. Now he’s one of the leading climate change skeptics. Senator James Inhofe represents an oil-industry state. Bias? Frankly, I’m not happy that Al Gore is out there either because he represents such an easy target. I have more respect for scientists, for example, John Christy and Michael Mann who started RealClimate .

Speaking of Mann, here’s a paragraph from “Behind the Hockey Stick,” a profile of this prominent climatologist best known for his “hockey stick” temperature chart. The article was published in the March 2005 issue of Scientific American.

Mann thinks that the attacks will continue, because many skeptics, such as the Greening Earth Society and the Tech Central Station Web site, obtain funds from petroleum interests. “As long as they think it works and they’ve got unlimited money to perpetuate their disinformation campaign,” Mann believes, “I imagine it will go on, just as it went on for years and years with tobacco until it was no longer tenable–in fact, it became perjurable to get up in a public forum and claim that there was no science” behind the health hazards of smoking.

What bothers me is that Mann’s right. This situation “will go on, just as it went on for years and years.” That’s the scientific method. Unfortunately, I’m just not sure we have years and years to wait.

Cassandra

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