Monday, January 25, 2010

Circle-jerks, academe-style

It turns out that the faulty data about the Himalyan glaciers disappearing in 2035, was admitted to have been included in the UN report for clearly political, self-interested reasons *gasp*.  In a fit of irony, the Intergovernmental Panal on Climate Change (IPCC) Chair, Rajendra Pachauri, called dissenting reports about the glaciers 'voodoo science'.  What makes all of this a little more interesting to me, is not that it got so far, but the fact that the only way it was discovered was because Graham Cogley from Trent University, followed the paper trail back to the original reports and found out that they were crap.

The thing is, this type of process is endemic to academia and apparently to science as well.  Someone writes something, it's picked up by someone else who rarely, if ever checks out the original's primary sources since it matches with their particular agenda, data is hand-picked, and scientific method goes out the window.  And then it passes to the next person for the next iteration and it grows from there into a huge congratulatory, self-sustaining circle-jerk until the chink in the armor is found and then it becomes a huge, finger-pointing, every-scientist-for-themselves clusterfuck that we know today as Climate-gate.

But I do have to wonder what other 'big causes' :  AIDS research, H1N1, even things like nutrition--have been subject to the above processes.  If no one goes back to the beginning, can we ever be sure?  It reminds me of a very old joke:
A monk moves to a monastery that copies the Bible by hand.  He can't read a certain word and goes to the Abbot, who also cannot make out the word.  The abbot says... "I will go down in the catacombs and will compare this with the absolute original document."  Days pass and the abbott does not return.  The concerned monks go into the catacombs and they hear the sound of the abbott sobbing as if his heart would break.  They follow the sound to the back room and find the abbott, tears running down his face, with the original document illuminated by a single candle.  "Father, father, what is wrong??" ask the monks.  Gathering himself, the abbott says...  "Dear God, the word is CELEBRATE".
 Old joke, but a good lesson.

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