Guest Opinion: Dr. Tim Ball
The corruption of climate science by some misguided individuals in the quest to “save the planet” is the most egregious example of the larger problems facing science in general. The problems are causing rapid erosion of credibility in science and environmental issues. Some are talking about the growing problems, but few even want to acknowledge them until it directly impinges their work and career. The public is becoming increasingly aware and angry about the intellectual and political elitism that is the source of the decline in standards and values. A central theme to the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of Donald Trump is the rejection of the elite trio of the financial, political, and academic enclaves that are destroying people’s lives.
After 40 years of working, watching, and dealing with the misuse of climate science; studying the history of science; working to improve education at all levels, and dealing with real world issues, I developed a sensitivity and much wider awareness. I also adopted George Washington’s slightly less cynical than Machiavelli’s observation that
“We must take human nature as we find it, perfection falls not to the share of mortals.”
From personal experience and involvement with the education system from Kindergarten to post-secondary, I know the problems of science are entwined with and amplified by the failures of academia. The ivory tower of the University of East Anglia and the lesser ivory tower (minaret) of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) are examples of the problem. Read the leaked emails and see how they worked together to hide the truth. In most cases of academic malfeasance, the administration, mostly comprised of academics, cover up obfuscate and fail to hold the miscreants to account. I stopped going to department meetings when it was discovered that a colleague had taken a student’s term paper and used 97 percent of it word for word as the basis for a research study for which he received payment from the government. Over my protests they did nothing except to say unless the student made an accusation, there was nothing they could do. I spoke to the student who said he was not going to become known as the student who ‘fingered’ a professor because he wanted to go to graduate school. I fully understood having gone through that political exercise (fiasco).
I know from my experience and discussion with others that such stories are endemic throughout academia.
The major problem is the always present, but widening disconnect between universities and the real world. The Ivory Tower has divided into discreet specialized towers not able to communicate with each other but collectively inured against examination from the real world. They won the town and gown fight centuries ago, particularly at the Battle of St. Scholastica Day in Oxford on February 10, 1355, and haven’t been back to town since, except to demand more money or impose unrealistic theories and unworkable ideas. The public is increasingly resentful of institutions that promote illogical, unrealistic, theories that negatively affect their lives, including costing many lives.
There are a widespread malaise and loss of direction in western society promulgated by bizarre ideas and theories produced by completely unaccountable academics. How can anyone promote ideas that were so wrong and did so much damage, like Paul Ehrlich, yet continue to practice? Most non-academics know they would lose their jobs immediately. Of course, academics wrote the rules on tenure so they cannot be held accountable. It is another of those anachronistic ideas from the Middle Ages. As Prince Philip said, universities are the only truly incestuous systems in our society. Sadly, and devastatingly, all these academic ideas permeate and undermine society, and virtually none add to the greater good, including preparing young people for the real world. In every other phase of education, the person must be trained and qualified to teach, but not at the universities. They are hired on the basis of a research degree, which requires a level of introspection and character that is generally the antithesis of good teaching. Most pass off the teaching to more unqualified graduate students and a majority do very little research in the time made available. I know first hand how little most of them do. Even if they teach, it involves a few hours a week for about one-third of the year.
Lack of accountability is endemic among the financial, political, and academic elite trio. It is no wonder that the modern attitude, especially among the young, is that you only broke the law if you got caught. Even then, it is most likely nothing will happen to you or anyone who benefits from your absolution if you are in the elite trio. So the malfeasance expands as the practices and false rewards continue.
A misguided article titled “The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists” begs a multitude of questions that speak to the wider problems. They begin with a quote from neurosurgeon Paul Kalanthi.
“Science, I had come to learn, is as political, competitive, and fierce a career as you can find, full of the temptation to find easy paths.”
The article lists the seven problems. (My comments in regular font.)
1. Academia has a huge money problem.
No it doesn’t.
2. Too many studies are poorly designed.
3. Replicating results is crucial – and rare.
4. Peer review is broken.
5. Too much science is locked behind paywalls.
6. Science is poorly communicated.
7. Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful.
The authors fail to note that most of these problems are self-inflicted. All these problems and much more exist in climate science. Remarkably, the authors conclude that “Science is not doomed,” which tells you what is wrong with academia and science.
Three of the issues, 2, 3, and 4 are so fundamental that unless they are corrected science is doomed. Also, they are not the only problems. A partial list would include;
· the use of science for political agendas;
· the willingness of scientists to produce science to support those agendas;
· the willingness of scientists to let their political bias color their science and their public activities – there is no better example than James Hansen;
· the willingness of scientists to participate in scientific research primarily to advance their career;
· the willingness of scientists to remain silent when they must, or should know that what the public is told is incorrect – I am unaware of any government or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientist who challenged Al Gore’s movie and especially his claims about sea level rise;
· they mention poor communication of science to the public but fail to mention the constant stream of contradictions on almost every topic;
· they fail to mention the role and bias of the media or how some scientists exploit that bias;
· they fail to mention the failure to follow the scientific method of asking a question, carrying out a review of the literature, constructing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis by gathering evidence, analyzing the data and reaching a conclusion;
· they appear to consider only the opinions of academic scientists when much of the damage is done by bureaucratic scientists
Items 1 and 7 mention funding and academia. In the article, they explain,
Their gripe isn’t just with the quantity, which, in many fields, is shrinking. It’s the way money is handed out that puts pressure on labs to publish a lot of papers, breeds conflicts of interest, and encourages scientists to overhype their work.
Today, many tenured scientists and research labs depend on small armies of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to perform their experiments and conduct data analysis.
These grad students and postdocs are often the primary authors on many studies. In a number of fields, such as the biomedical sciences, a postdoc position is a prerequisite before a researcher can get a faculty-level position at a university.
These outlines the feudal system that exists in universities. You have patrician tenured faculty, most doing very little work. I know because I was there for 25 years. They use “graduate students and postdoctoral researchers” as feudal serfs. This is all confirmed at graduation ceremonies when they appear in their Elizabethan finery.
There is no shortage of money in academia in the US. One graph in the article illustrates the point by showing a steady increase since 1970 (Figure 1).
The problem is not adequate funding. It is too many people getting too much money for useless projects because there are too many people in universities. It is too many people going to university. The blunt truth is that for the majority of students it is a socially acceptable form of unemployment. Students getting less than a B average should not even be in university; for them, it is simply Grades 13, 14, 15, and (16). Some of this over attendance is because immigrant or newly successful middle-class families want their children to attend university. How many times do we here of graduates saying they are the first in their family to attend university? This creates the mentality that every child that enters Kindergarten is going to end up in university. Inherently, this makes any that don’t get there, failures.
One of many incorrect assumptions made in education is that it can increase a person’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ). The difference is between nature (IQ) and nurture (education). Aristotle defined the issue when he pointed out that you can have a mathematical genius of five years old, but you will never have a five-year-old philosophical genius. Aristotle’s point was that most of the subjects’ students study in school require life experience, which they don’t and can’t have.
A. E. Wiggan explained,
Intelligence appears to be the thing that enables man to get along without education. Education appears to be the thing that enables a man to get along without the use of his intelligence.
The academics also convinced the public that only their narrow definition of IQ is relevant. It is intelligence that has little or nothing to do with the real world. Most academic research is done purely to get degrees, promotion, and tenure. Most add nothing other than volume to the cacophony of incomprehensible data. The article quotes Michael Burel, Ph.D. student, New York University School of Medicine.”
“Far too often, there are less than 10 people on this planet who can fully comprehend a single scientist’s research.”
And that is the problem, but it is the problem of Burel and science, not society. The inability of science to explain their work is the scientist’s problem. However, one of the reasons most people don’t “comprehend” is because most of science is of no consequence to people. If science wants the public to continue funding and prevent political exploitation the onus is with science to show the relevance of their work; and there it is, that dreaded word, “relevance.” The failure of academia is exposed by their argument that they don’t have to show how their work is relevant. Most of the science that benefits people is produced by business and industry.
The give away in the entire climate debacle were the actions taken before and after the emails were leaked. The resort to denial of freedom of information requests for data, use of intellectual property claims to prevent other scientists replicating results. The examples in climate science appear to be extreme. The list of seven indicates it is simply an exposed example of a widespread failure in academia, promoted and protected by the financial and political elite. This does not mean it is restricted to a particular political belief; it is equally problematic in institutions of the rich and poor, left and right because it is a complete society breakdown. Ironically, it was Osama bin Laden who said the West had lost its moral direction. He was right. The problem is I don’t want his moral system either.
We can solve many of our problems quickly by closing down 75 percent of our universities. Recognize that there are a multitude of skills and abilities far more important than those pursued by academia. Make those who remain in academia show the value and relevance of their work.