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31/07/2014

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Sceptics as true friends

Phil Willis contemplates science and non-science

The recent landmark ruling by the Court of Appeal, which upheld the right of Simon Singh to offer ‘fair comment’ without having to submit to ‘an Orwellian Ministry of Truth’, was not simply a blow to the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) but to all those who seek to silence science sceptics.

That scepticism goes to the very heart of science must never be undervalued, no matter how challenging or uncomfortable the process might be. Indeed, when scientists claim infallibility their science is inevitably flawed. Politicians frequently claim certainty but scientists rarely do, as science continues to evolve and open up new possibilities. It must therefore be the role of those making scientific claims either for products or research to be able to justify claims and provide evidence in the process.

Public funds mean free access

My committee’s latest report, which examined the so called ‘Climategate’ row at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at University of East Anglia, was an example of how, when scientists seek to deny the sceptics, they create far greater problems that those of compliance.

Professor Jones and his colleagues had every right to perceive requests for data, methods and codes as vexatious, but failing to respond appropriately merely added much-needed fuel to the sceptics’ fire. The fact that we concluded there was a prima faciae  case to answer under the Freedom of Information Act sends, I hope, a message well beyond the university. Any publicly funded data should be freely available, as is the case in the United States.

Public support or vested interests

Of course one can argue that there is a huge difference between challenging academic research and journalistic comment, but in reality that is not so. Climate science is perhaps the greatest area of public concern, affecting as it does the very future of our planet. The results emerging from CRU and other groups in the US, Japan and Russia will determine not simply the fees of local therapists, (which may have been the final outcome of Simon Singh’s legal action, had the BCA not dropped it altogether), but the trillions of dollars about to be spent in climate mitigation. Without public support, and that has been undoubtedly dented by the events at CRU, it will be vested interests that will prevail, not merely the sceptics.

Nor can we pick which sceptics we will engage with, though the less serious are often the most difficult. The recent accusation by Professor James Lovelock, that scientists have moved from investigating nature as a vocation, to being caught in a career path where it makes sense to ‘fudge the data’, was particularly close to home. That is exactly what Professor Jones and his colleagues were accused of, following the selective disclosure of some rather regrettable emails.

Open access and peer review

So how should scientists respond? In the case of climate science, by adopting first an open access policy to data, methods and codes to allow others more readily to replicate and challenge conclusions. Second, by re-visiting the peer review process. Whilst I recognise the intrinsic value of peer review, it is not beyond reproach, does not command universal support, is prone to cronyism and should be reviewed – hopefully by the Science and Technology Select Committee in the next parliament.

No article about sceptics would be complete with a return to homeopathy. Of all the areas my committee has examined over the past five years, none has evoked such orchestrated rebuke as this one. I have now a real sense of empathy with Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University following his run-in with Clarence House. It seems that being a sceptic of non-science is even more dangerous that being a sceptic of science itself.

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Phil Willis
Phil Willis MP chaired the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee in the 2005-2010 Parliament. He has retired from Parliament
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