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Interpreting Only the Good News

July 18, 2011

I caught this one in The Register today. Hmmm.  You don’t think that scientists would do something only for political reasons, would you?

The chief of the world’s leading physics lab at CERN in Geneva has prohibited scientists from drawing conclusions from a major experiment. The CLOUD (“Cosmics Leaving Outdoor Droplets”) experiment examines the role that energetic particles from deep space play in cloud formation. CLOUD uses CERN’s proton synchrotron to examine nucleation.

CERN Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer toldWelt Online that the scientists should refrain from drawing conclusions from the latest experiment.

“I have asked the colleagues to present the results clearly, but not to interpret them,” reports veteran science editor Nigel Calder on his blog. Why?

At the heart of this is an assertion that some of the climate change effects seen in the last few years might be brought on by changes in the sun.  If the sun had a strong effect on the global weather patterns, then that would put pressure on some of the theories that it’s us humans who are totally at fault.  After all, if people don’t suck, then we can’t do anything about climate change.

Mind you, there’s nothing to this supposition until there’s actual data out there.  At this point everything’s speculation until someone publishes.  As Nigel Calder notes, it could just be that the results are “really, really boring.”

All that said, I do find it interesting that it’s so obvious that politics could play into the publication of scientific results.  For the most part, the scientific community likes to talk about openness and how important it is to provide data and conclusions together so that people can recreate the conclusions and test the theories.  In actuality, it mostly ends up that only conssensus gets widely — if at all — published.  This means that grant dollars only go to proving the consensus and not the opposite.

Mostly I get concerned about losing the thread of the discussion due to the need for “context.”  But the more interesting thing is if this results in raw data that can be put out for people to see.  From the interpretive standpoint, maybe it’s good that a lot of data gets published.  Let’s see if it’s “really, really boring,” or actually pretty exciting.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2011 11:08 am

    Dear Jim,

    you may be underestimating how much expertise is needed to actually evaluate what those observations mean for the climate. It’s a kind of interdisciplinary question that needs some knowledge of atmospheric physics as well but the knowledge of the particle physicists will be crucial.

    I am afraid that if particle physicists will be banned from doing science in this realm, no one else who is sufficiently competent will be able to apply Kirkby’s paper to the actual climate science. If DG wins, the paper will be formulated as a collision lab experiments where you won’t even be able to determine that it is about the climate science. Particle physicists elsewhere will understand the wording but they won’t be interested in doing climate research because they have never done that – and climate scientists won’t really understand the paper because it will be too particle-physics-like for them.

    Heuer’s ban is killing much of the science here. It’s a strike on the most painful place that may de facto transform the 9 million euros invested to be this experiment another package of wasted money.

    Best wishes

    • July 18, 2011 11:29 am

      That’s a valid point. Most of the data produced by any one scientific sectors tends to be impenetrable by any other.

      I’d be significantly concerned if the answer was to not publish any of the data, but your concern that the data alone can’t help is something I’ll have to consider.

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