Friday, November 19, 2010

Distorting Science: BP's Buy Out

An investigation by the Mobile Press-Register revealed that BP has offered lucrative contracts to scientists engaged in research on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. According to one source, BP attempted to hire the entire marine sciences department at an Alabama university. The Press-Register reported that the contract "prohibits the scientists from publishing their research, sharing it with other scientists or speaking about the data that they collect for at least the next three years."

I find this a disturbing development in the ongoing oil spill catastrophe because it will allow BP to pretend that it is doing science, when it is not. Employing scientists for private purposes is not a new practice. Nor is the act of keeping data and results proprietary. Many scientists work for private companies and must uphold the terms of the contract agreed to by both parties. Open sharing of information is often not desirable because companies that invest in research should be the first to benefit from the results.

However, conclusions drawn from proprietary data are not necessarily scientifically valid. BP's contract is a deliberate attempt to control the publication of data on the effects of the Gulf oil spill, while at the same time invoking scientific authority for the conclusions obtained from the research. This is not how the scientific method works, and to pretend otherwise is dangerous.

The act of employing scientists to take data, publish results, and interpret findings, does not necessarily mean that valid scientific conclusions will result. Scientists are fallible human beings, prone to error and motivated, in part, by their own beliefs, prejudices, self-interests, and parochialisms. In other words, the work of science is hampered by the same human foibles that plague all human endeavors.

But in the past few centuries science has advanced at a remarkable rate because its method has a self-correcting mechanism built in. Scientists throughout the world usually work independently and openly share ideas and results. Independence and openness are two features of the scientific method that are little appreciated, but essential to scientific advancement. By reviewing and checking each other's work, scientists uncover errors and biases. Over time evidence accumulates to support valid results and interpretations. Ideas that are wrong get culled and eventually become relegated to the history books.

Independence and openness are qualities not typically valued by businesses, or for that matter governments and churches. In fact, these institutions tend to regard open sharing of information and independent questioning of established precepts as existential threats. But, these institutions often invoke scientific authority to buttress their own self-serving claims.

But, you cannot have it both ways. Scientific "authority" derives from a method that self-corrects because of a tradition of independent researchers openly sharing information. You cannot take away this part of the method and still claim that you are doing science.

Science is a method for interrogating nature. While people might answer questions incorrectly, nature never does. In fact nature never makes mistakes in the human sense of that word. Natural laws are obeyed at all times, and the natural laws are blind to human concerns.

To date, science has been a remarkably successful human endeavor, but we should not take for granted the continued advancement of science. Especially while the benefactors of science attack it. The recent phenomenon of people choosing scientific beliefs that are consistent with their choice of church, or career, or political party is deeply troubling. Obviously nature has no affiliation with any churches, corporations, or governments.

But, more and more, we see organizations of various types cherry-picking data to advance their own agendas. BP will be very careful in regards to the proprietary data it releases, in the same way that pharmaceutical companies are very careful about the results of drug studies that they release. Creationist/intelligent design advocates are quick to point out any problems with evolution theory, while ignoring reams of supporting evidence. In the United States, belief in global warming now falls along party lines, a situation that could not possibly occur if people were independently evaluating the evidence.

In fact, it would be remarkably coincidental if natural phenomena just happened to perfectly align with the economic self-interests of a particular group. Such a coincidence is highly unlikely. In the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the physicist Richard Feynman noted that political pressures contributed to the disastrous decision to launch that day. He warned: "Reality must take precedence over public relations because nature cannot be fooled." It is a warning we should all keep in mind.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy