Letting Scientists Benefit Us All

December 9, 2015 · 0 comments

Lately you may have noticed that AMS has garnered media attention by standing up for NOAA scientists who are the focus of Congressional scrutiny. This scrutiny was initiated after the scientists re-analyzed global surface temperatures with newly corrected data and found that the warming trend of the second half of the 20th century has been continuing unabated since 1998 instead of experiencing what sometimes has been portrayed as a warming “hiatus.”

AMS doesn’t step casually into political arenas. As a non-profit scientific and professional society, we remain solidly grounded in the world of science. We help expand knowledge and understanding through research and, as our mission states, we work to ensure that scientific advances benefit society. We engage the policy process to help inform decision making and to help ensure that policy choices take full advantage of scientific understanding.

This case is slightly different, however, because the scientific process itself is at risk. When the scientific process is disregarded or, worse yet, possibly derailed, a political issue can become an AMS issue.

The scientific process that AMS and other like-minded institutions have championed over the centuries is about taking careful observations, conducting controlled experiments, separating personal opinions and beliefs from evidence, and, perhaps most critically, exposing scientific conclusions to rigorous and repeated testing over time by independent experts. These repeated cycles of distribution and “trial by fire” happen most notably at meetings, in peer-review, and in publication.

Crucially, the process systematically removes as much as possible of our human tendency to see what we want to see and puts the burden of proof on reproducible steps. It is a disciplined, particular way of finding truths, no matter how elusive, while rendering biases, opinions, and motivations as irrelevant as possible.

This systematic approach to separating fact from opinion occasionally goes astray, of course, but its iterative nature means that science is continually self-correcting and improving; better data and understanding ultimately replace older thinking. Science encourages people to question and challenge thinking, certainty, and accuracy—but it requires they focus exclusively on what they can detect and measure and reason.

Even though all the data, logic, and methodologies are publicly available, the paper rejecting the global warming hiatus inspired Congressional requests for additional email and discussions. Asking for these correspondences—especially from scientists themselves—can easily weigh down the ingenious process by which science has continually advanced. And so AMS made public statements in favor of letting science freely work its wonders. It’s not the first time AMS has done so, and it probably won’t be the last.

We owe much of modern prosperity to an unencumbered scientific process, and it continues to provide some of the most profound and dramatic advancements in the world. This includes medicine, biology, chemistry, computing, agriculture, engineering, physics, astronomy, and, of course, meteorology, hydrology, oceanography, and climatology. Every one of us benefits every single day from what scientists have learned, shared, and provided.

And that’s yet another reason why occasionally AMS must speak out—because of our mission “for the benefit of society.” The point is not just to protect science but also to protect the benefits that knowledge can provide to all of us, no matter what we think of the results. In this, our scientific society actually has much in common with the politicians and policy makers in Washington, D.C.

AMS stands behind the scientific process and will defend that process when necessary, but our goal is to work with policy makers to promote having the best knowledge and understanding used in making policy choices.