Sunday, November 14, 2010

What it Means to be Objective

I’m not sure what post-modernists make of the Climate Change Fiasco, because it has thrown up some interesting discussion of scientific objectivity. The PMs reckon, I think, that ‘objectivity’ is a purely Enlightenment ideal, and those among the PMs who are Christians think that the Christian Church cannot possibly have a stake in being objective, either because there is no such thing, or because such a concern sells out to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

This very good letter from David Henderson to the Daily Telegraph on the Fiasco offers a fine account of how errors of observation and personal bias may be minimized, and objectivity approached.

Here is the letter -

Unwarranted trust

Sir, Your leading article of today (5 April) rightly makes the point that the conduct of climate science is currently in question. In this context, you note with good reason the contents of emails released in November from the Climatic Research Unit, and recent criticisms that have been made of the fourth and latest Assessment Report (AR4) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the problems have long been known, and they are more wide-ranging and fundamental than you imply.

In relation to climate change issues, the established official expert advisory process which governments have commissioned and relied on has shown itself, over many years, to be not professionally up to the mark. The situation is one of unwarranted trust.

The main headings of unprofessional conduct within the process, all identified and fully documented well before the recent revelations, have been:

Over-reliance on in-group peer review procedures which do not serve as a guarantee of quality and do not ensure due disclosure.

Serious and continuing failures of disclosure and archiving in relation to peer-reviewed studies which the IPCC and member governments have drawn on.

Continuing resistance to disclosure of basic information which reputable journals in other subject areas insist on as a precondition for acceptance.

Basic errors in the handling of data, through failure to consult or involve trained statisticians.

Failure to take due account of relevant published work which documented the above lapses, while disregarding IPCC criteria for inclusion in the review process.

Failure to take due note of comments from dissenting critics who took part in the preparation of AR4.

Resisting the disclosure of professional exchanges within the AR4 drafting process, despite the formal instruction of governments that the IPCC’s proceedings should be ‘open and transparent’.

And last but far from least

Failure on the part of the IPCC and its directing circle to acknowledge and remedy the above deficiencies, a failure which results from chronic and pervasive bias.

Comprehensive exposure of these flaws has come from a number of independent commentators down the years. Throughout, and even now, their work has been largely disregarded by governments and international agencies, as also by unofficial commentators including FT environment correspondents and leader writers.

In an area of policy where so much is at stake, and so much remains uncertain and unsettled, policies should be evolutionary and adaptive, rather than presumptive as they are now; and their evolution should be linked to a process of inquiry and review which is more thorough, balanced, open and objective than has so far been the case.

David Henderson, London W1

Reading it, I was reminded of these words. ‘Even scientific men are sometimes led to suppress or to pervert facts which militate against their favorite theories; but the temptation to this form of dishonesty is far less in their case, than in that of the theologian. The truths of religion are far more important than those of natural science. They come home to the heart and conscience. They may alarm the fears or threaten the hopes of men, so that they are under strong temptation to overlook or pervert them.’

Whose words? Why, those of Charles Hodge, of course. (Systematic Theology 1.12)