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Scientific Smoke Screen

February 4, 2010

As someone interested in the intersection of technology and policy, I found the proposal that simulated volcanic explosions could cut solar radiation and global warming at 100 times less cost than cutting emissions to be pretty typical of the way science can almost moot politics if the politicians only paid attention. What’s even more interesting about this proposal is that our politicians need not even take notice.

…the cost of solar radiation management was 100 times lower than the price tag for cutting emissions to achieve the same effect, raising the risk that small groups of nations or even rogue states could act alone.

They wrote: “It is plausible that, after exhausting other avenues to limit climate risks, such a nation might decide to begin a gradual, well-monitored programme of deployment, even without any international agreement on its regulation.

A rogue state could take the lead on solving global warming?! Oh noes!11one! Thank goodness for the inherent game theory and prisoners’ dilemma associated with shouldering the cost burden.

Unfortunately, I have seen many more examples than I’m happy to dignify where policy preempts science, rather than the other way around. For example, recent allegations have arisen that a small group of scientists are blocking stem cell research from getting published in peer-reviewed journals.

…at a recent stem cell scientific meeting, 14 of the world’s leading stem cell researchers said that journal editors hadn’t seen through what they described as “unreasonable or obstructive” reviews. In an open letter to the journals, they proposed that if a paper was published, the accompanying reviews should be provided as supplementary material online.

“Editors should be able to see when reviewers are asking for unnecessary experiments to be carried out and if it’s the difference between an opinion of the referee and a factual problem. But what tends to happen is that the editor takes the opinion of an editor rather than the factual substance,” he said.

One of the main reasons for this, according to Professor Smith, is that journals are in competition. Editors have become dependent on favoured experts who both review other people’s stem cell research and submit their own papers to the journal. If the editor offends these experts, they may lose future papers to a rival.

When respect for the individual peer-reviewer precludes an editor’s honest appraisal of the quality of the counter-argument, the method is reduced to a mere ad hominem rationale. If Popper taught us anything, it is that science is inherently not about the speaker, but about the simple, objective and repeatable falsifiability of the hypothesis. Such principles would be reinforced by making the review process open, transparent and repeatable as well. Otherwise, science as a force is reduced to just another religion reliant on a chain of accounts and storytelling from one person to the next.

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