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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fire the lying profressors

There is one way to settle the question raised about the quality of science in climate change: 

     1.  Fire any professor who is proven to have fabricated, distorted, or otherwise manipulated data.  

     2.  Insure that any such firing be attended by the most meticulous academic due process.  

Such due process would require that anyone making accusations of academic misconduct to come forth with the evidence  and to explain their reading and analysis of the evidence.  And such presentations and examination and rebuttal of the evidence would done before and decided upon by a jury of peers.  In this case, peers would be defined as disinterested professors of equal professional stature and qualifications to examine the data at issue.

I do not know exactly what are the rules are for the European and Asian scientists involved  in the charges against professors,  but I know well what rules apply to American professors--although most institutions of higher learning try to avoid the expense, embarrassment, and turmoil of such proceedings as rigorous applications of the rules involve.  I have sat on panels that consider evidence brought against professors and make assessments and recommendations, and I am familiar with many cases.  Many cases of misconduct involve matters of felonies, sexual involvements and sexual harassment, or gross negligence of duty.  Such cases are generally resolved by the professor resigning and quietly withdrawing.  

Cases involving professors charged with academic misconduct in scholarship and teaching are less frequent.  The established reasons for firing or taking other disciplinary action against them include instances of:

  • Plagiarism;
  • Fabrication of data or manipulation of data to lead to a foregone conclusion;
  • Gross incompetence;
  • Gross negligence of defined duties;
  •  Scholarly slovenliness;
  • General mendacity in the role of professor, whether on campus or in extra-mural settings.  
The first two rules listed above are the most serious in their effect on scholarly integrity, and a professor proven to violate them will not be a professor any longer or ever again. 

The  general public does not often hear of cases of professors being fired or disciplined for such misconduct because colleges and universities go to great lengths to suppress any hint that something is academically amiss on their campuses.  The cases with which I am familiar often involved a professor who was at odds with an administration, was dismissed, but claimed there was no reason of academic performance in the firing.  Some cases are upheld, but in those where no basis in academic performance is found, a quiet cash settlement is generally made.  The South Dakota Board of Regents made such a settlement with a professor whose dismissal from Northern State was found to be in violation of academic freedom.  In cases where the firings are upheld, the matters centered on plagiarism or the misrepresentation and misuse of data.

The most recent and familiar case of such dismissal was that of Professor Ward Churchill who was dismissed from the University of Colorado for falsifying and misrepresenting materials he cited from other scholars.  The matter probably would not have come up had Churchill not enraged a portion of the  public by publishing an essay in which he called the victims of 9/11 'little Eichmanns."  Although complaints about his use of source materials had been registered, the Colorado regents and administration did not pursue them until the political furor over his "little Eichmann" comment called them into attention.  Churchill claimed that his dismissal was for making that comment and was a violation of his right to free speech and academic freedom.  The professors who reviewed the charges found that his misuse of scholarly materials was sufficient cause for his dismissal.  

However, the case of the e-mails between scientists who developed the global warming theory rests upon a different basis.  Ironically, the invention used to expedite research and scholarly work is being used against them.  The World Wide Web was invented by scientists to permit them to have convenient access to information and to have a means for exchanging ideas and information about theories they are pursuing.  Part of its purpose was to allow them to exchange comments and criticisms over long distances as if they were working next to each other in their labs or offices.  They were looking for a way to exchange the casual comments and concerns that occur to them in the  early, pre-formative stages of analyzing data. In other words, they used e-mails and listserves to exchange what they call "lab chatter," which is the scientists' equivalent of the chatter and banter exchanged between all workmen as they go about the performance of their jobs.  Much of what is said is just venting, which may or may not be relevant to the tasks at hand.

However, when scientists  formalize their theories and prepare them for publication, their work is taken out of the context of lab chatter and the petty politics that is the bane of academic organizations.  Their work is presented in formal papers which review all the literature pertinent to the subject they present, and they build a case for the theory being advanced through a careful and critical analysis of the data.  And because it is a theory, their conclusions will be open to the inclusion of new data and to criticisms and evluation by other scientists.

When the e-mails of the scientists were hacked into, which is in itself illegal, the hackers found statements that they construed to be evidence that the scientists were manipulating and falsifying data that conflicted with the theory of global warming.  The scientists claim that the e-mails were taken out of context and do not represent any substantive information about the global warming theory, and are largely matters of incidental lab chatter that does not bear on the theory itself.

An example is that one of the e-mails cautions scientists to be careful about any information that they copy to the science reporter for The New York Times.  Scholars are always careful about what information they give to reporters because reporters are not necessarily interested in the integrity or the precision of the science when they report on it.  Most scholars prefer to withhold information until they publish their own papers on their work.  Much of the press is interested in finding conflict and sensation and gossip than in reporting the actual science.   The New York Times has an informing overview of the e-mail hacking incident.

The biggest problem is that politics has become a part of this theory.  And so, the tactics of political propaganda have entered into its discussion.  At the outset, a favorite technique of the conservative movement is apparent in the propagandic use made of the e-mails.  The critics find an e-mail that they can construe as an admission that the scientists are not telling the truth to the public.  Then they launch an attack on the character of the scientist, rather than explain and substantiate their reading of the e-mails and the process by which they justify their condemnation on the character of the scientist.  They divert the discussion away from the scientific evidence and the facts at hand to a slandering and libeling of the scientists.  The scientists claim that the comments are deliberately misconstrued and have no bearing on the scientific evidence or the way they have arrived at their theory.

Some websites have called the scientists frauds and are calling for their exposure and dismissal.  

If the academic world operates as it should, these critics should be allowed to make their case where it counts--in a proceeding where they can make their accusations and in which the professors accused have an opportunity to face them and require an accounting.

There is a huge difference in science and the rest of the academic work between having a different viewpoint based on the evidence or of being wrong and deliberately falsifying or manipulating the data.  

Unfortunately,  the internet is a culprit in allowing the intrusion of politics into science.  In a medium where plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification has become a characteristic, some professors have abandoned the precepts of their disciplines in order to satisfy their political perversities.  On the local blogs, one professor blithely plagiarized a newspaper editorial, which also had misrepresented some data it cited. Plagiarism and falsification of data are considered fair and clever practices by some professors when they venture onto the internet.

The universities and agencies involved in the study of the global warming theory have a responsibility to insist that the charges of misconduct of the professors be prosecuted with substantive evidence and the e-mail hacking incident be given full examination.  

The academic world needs to restore itself by getting rid of dishonest and incapable professors.  But first, it has to decide who they are.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States