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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

May-June 2018

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Editorial - Distorting the Integrity of Scientific Publication

In this issue Ken Dodd exposes the dark procedures of aligning scientific publication with government agency missions. These days there seems to be a widespread practice whereby almost all research outputs by scientists seeking reputable publication over topics linked to government agency programs are screened by both peers and officials for the degree of consonance with their agency policies and practices. Dodd suggests that this has been a long-established routine, but that it is now in the process of becoming even more aggressively and universally pursued. In the United States in particular, government scientists are increasingly being scrutinized for their use of language and interpretation. The purpose is mendacious. Scientific findings are expected to reinforce government ideology and policy, under the guise of independence and integrity.

The diagram here is based on the premise that science has long been practiced in a political arena, though its protective strength has generally been that it presents accurate information, without bias. That view is now being challenged. Over the past half century scholars have shown how patterns of collectively reinforcing outlooks and ideological perspectives have shaped dominant scientific interpretation to the point of cults and prejudices, blindspots and distortions, all of which have operated on a widespread scale. Dodd touches on this with regard to research on tobacco and lead and public health, and with regard to pesticides and comparisons of risk more generally. Indeed, this magazine has long championed the cause of exposing intolerance and deafness in the scientific community by means of strengthening the role of journalism and extending the independent scrutiny of research findings and their interpretation. Examples include recent articles on the Flint, Michigan, water pollution disgrace and the long history of mercury poisoning.

Another point made by the diagram is that the science profession has sought to respond to this through processes of peer review, verification of evidence, replication of experiment, and greater transparency of public and political discourse. Its aim is to preserve the integrity and independence of science in a media clamor of increasingly incoherent argument and rancor.

The diagram also suggests that contemporary science must constantly fight against political interference and accusations of bias. The escalation of this troubling practice is most evident in the climate change arena, where almost every study is peeled open for its evidence of credibility and for its policy interpretations. Science is increasingly in danger of becoming a struggle for political negotiation. This distortion is made even more prominent with the growing public revelations that popular belief patterns are being shaped by the megaphones of the talk show and social media. Indeed, it is becoming all too likely that many citizens do not seek to discover “the truth” by quizzical enquiry. They receive “the truth” through carefully programmed and targeted algorithms that identify and magnify their explicit prejudices.

Ken Dodd raises important themes for us all, and in particular for sustainability science. At the heart of his case is a worrying trend whereby scientific dissent created by employees over agency missions is eliminated either by bending authors to the agency will or by removing their name from a list of collaborating contributors. In a world where peer respect is a vital part of scientific career progress, this is a deeply dangerous practice. What is more troubling is that such interference is becoming the norm, contaminated by embedded mechanisms for challenging well-constructed research that neither fits an institution's goals nor is politically acceptable. This is placing the next generation of scientists in a double bind. They either override their moral integrity (as we raised in a previous issue), or they may be eased out of authorship and at worst threatened by lack of publication credit.

It is heartening to see that established science is striking back. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is conducting a campaign to challenge such practices and to reward scientific integrity. Other science academies are following suit by generating much attention to the management probity of vast arrays of complex data. The British Academy has urged the UK science policy community to improve public educational capacities, saying, “providing citizens with the means to understand, analyse and criticise data becomes ever more integral to the functioning of a democracy … creating a generation of citizens, consumers, students and workers as comfortable with numbers as they are with words.”

Support of science journalism is equally important, as science writers provide a bridge between the scientific community and the public. In an era when many people get their information from social media, serious science journalism can play an important role in informing the public. Such articles can be tweeted and put on Facebook and Instagram, as well as appearing in their original form.

This is a vital bulwark against prejudice and instant reaction. It is also critical that the science community exposes any form of interference in a systematic manner, and that those who honestly do so are treated with respect and attention.

There is much more to this than meets the eye. We are in danger of creating a scientifically insensitive society without the enthusiasm or even the desire to question, to analyze, to converse, and to act in the cause of bettering ourselves or our offspring. For this magazine these vital attributes form the fundamental purpose and cause of sustainability science.

—Alan McGowan and Tim O'Riordan

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