Monday, November 9, 2009


By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, november 9th, 2009

The scandal was very well timed: one month before the United Nations climate change conference took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, some hackers, probably Russian, broke into the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University, in England. They extracted one thousand e-mail messages and two thousand assorted documents, that were then published over the internet.

The objective? To "prove" that climate change experts manipulate data, hide information, ridicule and insult their adversaries –climate change denialists that oppose the fact that global warming is real, or consider it as natural phenomenon, not caused by human activity– and prevent them from publishing their arguments.

And it's true: some documents seem to show evidence of these kind of manipulations. The issue is being investigated to determine if there has been bad scientific practice. If it's confirmed, it will be punished. Also, published data is being verified, to ensure it's reliable.

But it's very probable that we're dealing with a discredit campaign to weaken the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations, the scientific community and the governments which, right now, are discussing in Copenhagen the urgency of taking measures to diminish the greenhouse effect emissions to attenuate, as much as possible, the damage global warming is already causing.

Sadly, for people who are not specialists, the exhibition of the dirty laundry of scientists in action can be scandalous. In contrast with the pure and untainted –but false- image of science as an infallible method to discover absolute truths, to see researchers as human beings, who commit mistakes and have envies and political interests is a good way to challenge the results of their investigations. But they forget that the reliability of such results it is not given by the personality of individual scientific people, but by a very hard to manipulate collective, international and public quality control process.

It is easy to discredit something by inventing conspiracy theories and exhibiting isolated and out-of-context data. But, independently of the very high economical and political costs of modifying our industry, to play the fool before climate change is an inadmissible risk.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Scientific intolerance

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, november 4th, 2009

A month ago I criticized the fraud commited by people who promise to cure to almost any disease by using a machine called SCIO (against, of course, of a good amount of cash).

As always when pseudoscience and charlatans are attacked, I received some congratulatory e-mails, and some other (not many, luckily) that accused me of being dogmatic, intolerant and of disqualifying "other" forms or rationality "that deserve the same respect as the scientific worldview".

It's common to accuse science, and the people who practice it, promote it or communicate it, of being intolerant. But we must remember that science seeks only to study nature, in order to produce reliable knowledge that allows us to understand it and maybe predict it. When referring to the intolerance of science, normally what is questioned is its refusal to recognize practices such as astrology, the study of paranormal phenomena, miracle therapies based on principles "that go beyond science" or conspiracy theories, as scientific.

This exclusion is due in part to the fact that the methods of these disciplines ar not rigorous enough, or their data do not look reliable (in case they are not straightforward fakery). Sometimes, what is not acceptable are their study objects, since science studies only natural phenomena, not supernatural ones.

In science, for a statement to be accepted, it has to go through a complex process of peer review that involves the verification of data and methods, and the discussion of results. The reasons why scientists accept a affirmation have to do with its logical coherence, its plausibility within the existent scientific frame of knowledge, the reproducibility of experiments in which its based, and other reasons (among which some dose of politics and ideology are not excluded).

However, nothing makes a scientist happier than to discover that something that was known turns out to be incorrect. To find mistakes and inconsistencies in scientific theories forces researchers to find even better explanations. This is the force that pushes science forward.

But, for the process to work, it has to be subject to a highly rigorous quality control. The first duty of a scientist is not to delude himself. Science has an unavoidable commitment with reality. If, sometimes this sounds like intolerance, that's not a problem of the scientific method, but of the disciplines that try to pass as scientific... when they are not.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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