The moral imperative of science

Most people don’t think of science as moral.  In fact, for many people, science is quintessentially amoral.  Science does not submit the validity of its findings to any religious belief and does not claim the right of judgement over the personal conduct of scientists.  Except in relation to one totally non-negotiable demand.

Science demands that scientists tell the truth about what they claim they have observed.

This may sound obvious.  But the skeletons in the closet of scientific history suggest that it is far harder to tell the truth than it might seem.  Lured by promises of promotion, professional recognition, honour, fame, and sometimes simply stubborn conviction, scientists have not always been able to resist the temptation to message the data or even to fabricate it.

And it’s just happened again.  Not only has it happened again, but it has happened in relation to one of the most critical issues facing humanity today among scientists held in the highest international regard.

The summit on global warming held in Copenhagen last month was riveted by a warning from the  United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that climate change would melt most of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035.   Since millions of people in India and China depend for their very livelihood on the water generated by these glaciers, it was a claim of terrifying significance.  In fact, one of the key points of disagreement which the conference was unable to resolve was the extent to which rich nations should pay the underdeveloped nations for damage which was being inflicted by global warming caused by policies of developed countries.

Since then, scientists behind the warning have admitted that this claim was wrong.

Okay, scientists make mistakes, and scientists studying global warming have been clear that their predictions are not absolute.

But what is so critically wrong is that the IPCC knew before the Copenhagen conference that their claim was wrong.  If the Himalayan glaciers continue to melt at their current pace, they will last for at least another 300 years.  Not the 25 years they claimed.

Presumably the IPCC argued that rescinding this claim before the conference would do more harm than good for the case of scientific credibility related to global warming.

It’s far more likely to have the opposite effect, giving another boost to those who think global warming, if it is occurring at all, is not the result of human action.  But even if the effects of this particular deceit had not been so demonstrably negative, pretending that the data suggested what it did not was a lie.

And that kind of lie violates the one non-negotiable moral imperative of science.


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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