Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Should scientists share their data and method? EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stirred a hornet’s nest when he issued a demand for the end of secret science. But isn’t open sharing of data and method the way we have all been taught science is supposed to work?
Back in 2016, a team in Hungary thought they might have detected a new force of nature. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – so the Hungarian team published all their data and method, to assist other teams to review and try to reproduce their work.
Physicists Think They Might Have Just Detected a Fifth Force of Nature
Get ready for next-level physics.
FIONA MACDONALD 26 MAY 2016
Physics can be pretty intense at times, but one of the most straightforward aspects is that everything in the Universe is controlled by just four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear forces.
But now physicists in Hungary think they might have found evidence of a mysterious fifth force of nature. And, if verified, it would mean we’d need to rethink our understanding of how the Universe actually works.
Evidence of this fifth force was spotted last year, when a team from the Hungarian Academy of Science reported that they’d fired protons at lithium-7, and in the fall out, had detected a brand new super-light boson that was only 34 times heavier than an electron.
As exciting as that sounds, the paper was mostly overlooked, until a team in the US published their own analysis of the data at the end of last month, on pre-print site arXiv.
The US team, led by Jonathan Feng from the University of California, Irvine, showed that the data didn’t conflict with previous experiments, and calculated that the new boson could indeed be carrying a fifth fundamental force – which is when the science world started to get interested.
That paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed as yet, so we can’t get too excited, but it was uploaded so that the other physicists could scrutinise the results and add their own findings, which is what’s happening now.
As Nature magazine reports, researchers around the world are racing to conduct follow-up tests to verify the Hungarian discovery, and we can expect results within around a year.
Contrast the excitement and openness displayed by the Hungarian physics team, to the culture of secrecy which seems to prevail in the climate and environmental science communities.
… Scientists’ concerns stem from past calls for transparency that were then used against them. Epidemiologist Colin Soskolne, emeritus professor at the University of Alberta, has been on the receiving end of industry efforts to, in his words, “cast doubt and foment uncertainty.” He said scientists have good reason to be concerned about industry efforts to force publication of their raw data sets.
In the late 1970s, Soskolne found strong associations between oil refinery workers at an Exxon plant in Louisiana and incidence of throat cancer. The key connection: exposure to sulfuric acid. Exxon, which initially underwrote his work, hired a consultant to challenge his data (the consultant’s finding confirmed the cancer link, though with a lower correlation) and sent an executive to critique his work as sloppy before Soskolne’s academic advisers.
“They accused me of not being careful in doing the research,” Soskolne said. In the end, Soskolne received his doctorate, published his work and had his findings independently corroborated. But he offers this lesson to epidemiologists harassed by opponents to release their data: their findings will be twisted by corporate or ideological interests. This is the fear of science groups opposing the HONEST Act.
“The issue of sharing data has enormous implications for the researcher,” Soskolne said, “because anyone with malevolent intent can take your data, without you being party to it, and do with it what it wants.” …
Outrage at demands data be provided to “scientific competitors” is a regular theme in the climategate emails. For example, from Climategate email 1231257056.txt (Ben Santer speaking):
1. In my considered opinion, a very dangerous precedent is set if any derived quantity that we have calculated from primary data is subject to
FOIA requests. At LLNL’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI), we have devoted years of effort to the calculation of derived quantities from climate model output. These derived quantities include synthetic MSU temperatures, ocean heat content changes, and so-called “cloud simulator” products suitable for comparison with actual satellite-based estimates of cloud type, altitude, and frequency. The intellectual investment in such calculations is substantial.
2. Mr. Smith asserts that “there is no valid intellectual property justification for withholding this data”. I believe this argument is incorrect. The synthetic MSU temperatures used in our IJoC paper – and the other examples of derived datasets mentioned above – are integral components of both PCMDI’s ongoing research, and of proposals we have submitted to funding agencies (DOE, NOAA, and NASA). Can any competitor simply request such datasets via the U.S. FOIA, before we have completed full scientific analysis of these datasets?
Read more: Climategate Archive (Wikileaks)
As far as I know the evidence for the hypothesised new force of nature is still under investigation.
My point is, nobody has the right to demand their data not be “used against them”. The Hungarian team placed the quest for truth above their personal pride; from what I have seen they behaved in an exemplary fashion, the way scientists should behave. They would rather be proven wrong, suffer a little embarrassment, than deny their fellows the information they need to properly reproduce and investigate their intriguing results – even if that means others end up using details of their own research to prove them wrong.