Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On morals and ethics and climate science

Both 'ethics' and 'morality' have their roots in a word for 'customs', the former being a derivative of the Greek term from which we get 'ethos', and the latter from the Latin root that gives us 'mores', a word still used sometimes to describe the customs of a people. - Peter Singer.
The recent behaviour of O'Donnell et al (referred to in my previous post) raises issues of morals and ethics. Even when a person has a different set of morals, it is expected that they abide by professional ethics. If a person seeks to publish in a professional journal, then it is expected that they will abide by the code of ethics of that profession, even if it is not explicitly stated in the policies of said journal.

For example, in the case of a journal that has a policy of anonymous review of papers submitted for publication it would be expected that the norm is to not publicly reveal the names of those reviewers even if they became known to the authors of the paper. (Two of the authors who each published posts naming and personally attacking Prof Steig sought and received written confirmation that naming reviewers is a breach of professional ethics. The author who wrote the attack stated that he did this despite making a personal commitment to Prof Steig that he would not reveal his name.)

Scientists rarely vilify other scientists on the basis of differing professional views. As individuals, scientists might express strongly their personal view of the behaviour and/or opinions expressed by others, but when it comes to discussing differences in the science itself, they are almost invariably polite in public. They argue the merits of the science rather than the attributes of the person, as in this example.

As far as I am aware, all professions have a similar code of behaviour. For example, it is rare to find a doctor criticising another doctor (which is one reason why it can be difficult to press for medical malpractice). In my own profession, to criticise a competitor to a client would be considered very bad form. The way around this, when one is asked by a client for an opinion about a competitor not held in high regard, is to suggest also considering 'xyz' individual or firm and refer to their experience (without criticising the less-than-adequate competitor). This allows one to to take account of one's responsibility to the client while complying with the professional code of ethics.

On science blogs, scientists commonly do exactly that. For example, a query as to why scientist xxx is considered 'wrong' would more commonly elicit a referral to papers expressing a different finding rather than a retort such as 'because they are a ning-nong'. (The reference to evidence is how scientists typically respond in public. Non-scientists might use the 'ning-nong' retort! And one might presume that between themselves in private conversation, scientists are not averse to the 'ning nong' retort either.)

Owners of blogs that cater to climate change deniers and delayers (denier chums) often have no compunction at all about personal vilification of climate scientists. Because they are unable to argue against the scientific facts, many people seem to think the only option they have is to personally attack specific scientists, often even resorting to telling lies about them. Such behaviour should never be tolerated, regardless of one's personal 'beliefs'.

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