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The Scientific Method: Beliefs vs. Verifiable Facts

scientific_methodHow do we know what is true? How do we resolve our doubts?

In the physical world, we use the scientific method. At its most basic, the scientific method says that a hypothesis is held to be true when it can be confirmed via experimental testing. The results then are observed, measured, quantified, AND verified by others replicating the same outcomes by repeating the exact same test. All else is conjecture and theory.

• Define the question

• Gather information and resources (observe)

• Form hypothesis, a proposed explanation of how or why things are the way they are

• Perform experiment, holding as many variables constant as possible, collect data

• Analyze data

• Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis

• Communicate and publish results, undergo objective peer review (one hopes not endure subjective peer pressure to conform to accepted conventional wisdom!)

• Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

The scientific method is not a recipe. The formulation of a good hypothesis and the design of effective experiments requires experience, intelligence, imagination, and creativity. The scientific method also is an ongoing cycle: computer models and methods are continuingly evolving, ever more sophisticated tools and techniques are being created to test at ever more complex levels.

Given that people tend to see what they expect or want to see, the goal of the test or experiment is to DISPROVE the hypothesis. “Belief can alter observations; those with a particular belief will often see things as reinforcing their belief, even if to another observer they would appear not to do so.”

Thus a key part of the scientific method is transparency and openness. Not only are scientists not supposed to be offended when others challenge and test their data, they are supposed to welcome it as a necessary and desirable part of the process.

This review on the basics of the scientific method and its importance is sparked by the November 2009 massive leak of emails about global warming from the formerly highly reputable Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England. The emails revealed undisclosed flaws in data, observations, and computer models and related attempts to smooth over the discrepancies without full (actually no) disclosure. Unfortunately, scientists are as human as the rest of us and just as capable of excessive pride, arrogance, and hubris, even to the extent of cloaking their personal convictions and beliefs in a higher order of scientific certainty than the actual facts would warrant.

To make the best decisions in life, collectively and individually, it is vitally important that we are able to separate what we believe from what we know. As humbling as it may be, there is a different order of magnitude of certainty around our beliefs than there are facts that may be verified via the scientific method. It would behoove us to take that into account prior to making massive, irreversible decisions.

As always, healthy skepticism is a good companion in life.

Notes:

1) Since it is not possible for scientists to record everything that took place in an experiment they must select the facts they believe to be relevant to the experiment and report them. This may lead, unavoidably, to later problems if some supposedly irrelevant feature is questioned. The problem is that parts of the theory itself need to be assumed in order to select and report the experimental conditions. The observations are hence sometimes described as being “theory-laden.” (Source: Wikipedia)

2) Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), considered scientific inquiry to be a species of the genus inquiry, which he defined as any means of fixing belief, that is, any means of arriving at a settled opinion on a matter in serious question. He observed that inquiry in general begins with a state of uncertainty and struggles toward a state of certainty sufficient at least to terminate the inquiry for the time being. In human society, Peirce observed four methods for the settlement of doubt of which the scientific method was only one. Others include the method of authority, the blind acceptance of the word of the pope or the king or any recognized authority; essentially the institutional version of a parents’ “Because I said so.” Consensus is another method, in essence a form of conformity and group think. The fourth method is tenacity, the tendency of beliefs, once formed or accepted, to persist both in individuals and in cultures. (Source: Wikipedia)

3) November 24, 2009, 11:40 AM
Congress May Probe Leaked Global Warming E-Mails, by Declan McCullagh, CBS News.com

A few days after leaked e-mail messages appeared on the Internet, the U.S. Congress may probe whether prominent scientists who are advocates of global warming theories misrepresented the truth about climate change.

Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said on Monday the leaked correspondence suggested researchers “cooked the science to make this thing look as if the science was settled, when all the time of course we knew it was not,” according to a transcript of a radio interview posted on his Web site. Aides for Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, are also looking into the disclosure.

The leaked documents come from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in eastern England. In global warming circles, the CRU wields outsize influence: it claims the world’s largest temperature data set, and its work and mathematical models were incorporated into the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report. That report, in turn, is what the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged it “relies on most heavily” when concluding that carbon dioxide emissions endanger public health and should be regulated.

Last week’s leaked e-mails range from innocuous to embarrassing and, critics believe, scandalous. They show that some of the field’s most prominent scientists were so wedded to theories of man-made global warming that they ridiculed dissenters who asked for copies of their data (“have to respond to more crap criticisms from the idiots”),
cheered the deaths of skeptical journalists, and plotted how to keep researchers who reached different conclusions from publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

One e-mail message, apparently from CRU director Phil Jones, references the U.K.’s Freedom of Information Act when asking another researcher to delete correspondence that might be disclosed in response to public records law: “Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise.” Another, also apparently from Jones: global warming skeptics “have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.” (Jones was a contributing author to the chapter of the U.N.’s IPCC report titled “Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes.”)

In addition to e-mail messages, the roughly 3,600 leaked documents posted on sites including Wikileaks.org and EastAngliaEmails.com include computer code and a description of how an unfortunate programmer named “Harry” — possibly the CRU’s Ian “Harry” Harris — was tasked with resuscitating and updating a key temperature database that proved to be problematic. Some excerpts from what appear to be
his notes: “I am seriously worried that our flagship gridded data product is produced by Delaunay triangulation – apparently linear as well. As far as I can see, this renders the station counts totally meaningless. It also means that we cannot say exactly how the gridded data is arrived at from a statistical perspective – since we’re using an off-the-shelf product that isn’t documented sufficiently to say that. Why this wasn’t coded up in Fortran I don’t know – time pressures perhaps? Was
too much effort expended on homogenisation, that there wasn’t enough time to write a gridding procedure? Of course, it’s too late for me to fix it too. Meh.

I am very sorry to report that the rest of the databases seem to be in nearly as poor a state as Australia was. There are hundreds if not thousands of pairs of dummy stations, one with no WMO and one with, usually overlapping and with the same station name and very similar coordinates. I know it could be old and new stations, but why such large overlaps if that’s the case? Aarrggghhh! There truly is no end in sight… So, we can have a proper result, but only by including a load of garbage!

One thing that’s unsettling is that many of the assigned WMO codes for Canadian stations do not return any hits with a web search. Usually the country’s met office, or at least the Weather Underground, show up – but for these stations, nothing at all. Makes me wonder if these are long-discontinued, or were even invented somewhere other than Canada!

Knowing how long it takes to debug this suite – the experiment endeth here. The option (like all the anomdtb options) is totally undocumented so we’ll never know what we lost. 22. Right, time to stop pussyfooting around the niceties of Tim’s labyrinthine software suites – let’s have a go at producing CRU TS 3.0! since failing to do that will be the definitive failure of the entire project.

Ulp! I am seriously close to giving up, again. The history of this is so complex that I can’t get far enough into it before by head hurts and I have to stop. Each parameter has a tortuous history of manual and semi-automated interventions that I simply cannot just go back to early versions and run the update prog. I could be throwing away all
kinds of corrections – to lat/lons, to WMOs (yes!), and more. So what the hell can I do about all these duplicate stations?….”

As the leaked messages, and especially the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file, found their way around technical circles, two things happened: first, programmers unaffiliated with East Anglia started taking a close look at the quality of the CRU’s code, and second, they began to feel sympathetic for anyone who had to spend three years (including working weekends) trying to make sense of code that appeared to be undocumented and buggy, while representing the core of CRU’s climate model.

One programmer highlighted the error of relying on computer code that, if it generates an error message, continues as if nothing untoward ever occurred. Another debugged the code by pointing out why the output of a calculation that should always generate a positive number was incorrectly generating a negative one. A third concluded: “I feel
for this guy. He’s obviously spent years trying to get data from undocumented and completely messy sources.”

Programmer-written comments inserted into CRU’s Fortran code have drawn fire as well. The file briffa_sep98_d.pro says: “Apply a VERY ARTIFICAL correction for decline!!” and “APPLY ARTIFICIAL CORRECTION.” Another, quantify_tsdcal.pro, says: “Low pass filtering at century and longer time scales never gets rid of the trend – so eventually I start to scale down the 120-yr low pass time series to mimic the effect of removing/adding longer time scales!”

It’s not clear how the files were leaked. One theory says that a malicious hacker slipped into East Anglia’s network and snatched thousands of documents. Another says that the files had already been assembled in response to a Freedom of Information request and, immediately after it was denied, a whistleblower decided to disclose them. (Lending credence to that theory is the fact that no personal e-mail messages unrelated to climate change appear to have been leaked.)

For its part, the University of East Anglia has posted a statement calling the disclosure “mischievous” and saying it is aiding the police in an investigation.

The statement also quotes Jones, CRU’s director, explaining his November 1999 e-mail, which said: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Jones said that the word trick was used “colloquially as in a clever thing to do” and that it “is ludicrous to suggest that it refers to anything untoward.”

Also unclear is the ultimate impact of the leak, which came before next month’s Copenhagen summit and Democratic plans for cap and trade legislation.

On one hand, over at RealClimate.org, Gavin Schmidt, a modeler for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been downplaying the leak. Schmidt wrote: “There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research … no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords.”

On the other, groups like the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, the target of repeated derision in the leaked e-mails, have said: “We have argued for many years that much of the scientific case for global warming alarmism was weak and some of it was phony. It now looks like a lot of it may be phony.”

ScienceMag.org published an article noting that deleting e-mail messages to hide them from a FOI request is a crime in the United Kingdom. George Monbiot, a U.K. activist and journalist who previously called for dramatic action to deal with global warming, wrote: “It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow. The emails extracted
by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia could scarcely be more damaging.”

Complicating matters for congressional Republicans who’d like to hold hearings is that East Anglia, of course, is a U.K. university. The GOP may intend to press the Obama administration for details on how the EPA came to rely on the CRU’s predictions, and whether the recent disclosure will change the agency’s position. Another approach lies in e-mail messages discussing grants from the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to East Anglia; one says: “We need to show some left to cover the costs of the trip Roger didn’t make and also the fees/equipment/computer money we haven’t spent otherwise NOAA will be suspicious.”

The irony of this situation is that most of us expect science to be conducted in the open, without unpublished secret data, hidden agendas, and computer programs of dubious reliability. East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit might have avoided this snafu by publicly disclosing as much as possible at every step of the way.

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