Scientists make mistakes, it is after all humans who actually do science, and science is a human construct by which to understand the world around us. And it is not perfect. Also, empirical data can be interpreted in a large variety of different ways, which leads to hypotheses, or theories about how something ‘works’.
Differences in data interpretation or analysis and indeed mistakes, happen all of the time in science – though usually not with so many press-related consequences – as the large body of scientific literature never makes it into the media and the mistakes or disagreements are by-in-large on a much smaller scale.
And it is usually fairly easy to spot obvious problems within the scientific literature (such as cold fusion). But this is part of the way science works – and why peer review is so important (see this blog from March 27 ).
The so called ‘climategate’ crisis has been resolved. The Climate Research Group (CRU) of University of East Anglia in Britain was vindicated by an independent research inquiry which says that they might have used better statistical tools but there was no scientific fraudulence.
While there will still be climate change nay-sayers (or indeed of lots of real science out there) the science is solid. The scientists could have used different and somewhat better techniques but this wouldn’t reportedly change the result significantly – different analysis, same answer, which actually shows the CRU has some pretty robust results.
Could they have done a better job? Perhaps, but then often you can do a better job as scientific interpretation tools and techniques are improving all of the time, but this doesn’t make results invalid.
Perhaps a better question is why anyone would believe the results weren’t robust: there are lots of other studies that show climate change is real; for instance see NASA, BBC; Energy saving trust UK and Science , just for a few examples….
Occasionally, some scientists do set out to willfully commit fraud, when comparing ‘climategate’ to real scientific fraud the difference is pretty obvious.
One of the most famous recent examples was in physics with Jan-Hendrick Schön , who performed work on single molecules semi-conductors with ‘ground-breaking’ results. And where was he caught? In the peer-review process, where a reviewer noticed that the ‘noise’ in his data didn’t change, ever (a physical impossibility). Schön eventually admitted to his fradulent results – he said he made ‘various mistakes in his scientific results’ and was stripped of his PhD and his papers in the Science, Nature and Physical Review Letters were withdrawn by the journals.
Will fradulence in science still happen? Most probably, as a recent article about pressure in China suggests an increase of fraud as well as plagiarism, but eventually, like Bernie Madoff, these things will come to light. Relatively few scientist commit fraud, and yes there are bad scientists, as there are bad anything, but just because some scientific methods aren’t perfect, doesn’t mean that the the results are crap.