Standing Up for the Integrity of Science

October 16, 2017 · 0 comments

by Keith Seitter, AMS Executive Director

In carrying out its mission, AMS provides a broad range of support for the science and services making up the atmospheric and related sciences. As a part of this support, AMS has a long history of being a voice on behalf of science and the scientific method—as do most other scientific societies such as AAAS, AGU, Sigma Xi, and many, many others. This past year has been especially challenging for all of us as pressures and outright attacks on science have become far more prevalent. AMS has always been careful to be nonpartisan, to avoid being policy prescriptive, and to really focus on science. We have not, however, shied away from taking strong positions on behalf of the integrity of science.

The hope is that the community and society will view AMS journals, statements, and other material as reliable sources of information on the scientific disciplines AMS covers. AMS statements, in particular, are developed with the goal of being broadly accessible to those seeking credible summaries of current scientific knowledge and understanding on various topics. Beyond being a resource, however, it is vital that AMS proactively stand up for the integrity of science and the scientific process—especially when it is mischaracterized in ways that might impact policy decisions or mislead the public.

There is an extraordinary amount of misinformation being disseminated through many outlets on a variety of topics (but perhaps most notably those associated with climate change)—far more than one can effectively monitor or hope to address. With so many incorrect or misleading statements out there, it can be hard to know when to jump into the discussion. Recognizing that we cannot address all instances of misinformation, AMS has focused instead on taking a more public stance when policy makers in leadership positions make statements that mischaracterize the science. Thus, this past year for example, AMS has sent letters to the EPA administrator and the Secretary of Energy (see the “AMS Position Letters” for an archive of all letters that have been sent by AMS).

Protecting the academic freedom of researchers, and the freedom to present their scientific results broadly and without censorship, intimidation, or political interference, has also been important to AMS for many years. These fundamental precepts upon which scientific advancements depend have come under attack before, and AMS has maintained a strong “Statement on the Freedom of Scientific Expression” for a number of years to make the Society’s position clear.
Scientific advance requires that all data and methodologies leading to research results be openly and freely available to others wishing to replicate or assess that research. That said, AMS has spoken out to protect the confidentiality of discussions among researchers as they develop ideas and critically assess the work of others. These candid discussions are essential and must be able to happen without fear among those involved that comments might be taken out of context to attack the research or the researchers.

AMS membership is diverse and not all members have been supportive of these efforts. I can appreciate the concerns some may feel, and know there is a danger of acting out of bias, despite our putting a lot of time and energy into avoiding biases. I know, as well, how easily inherent biases can color the way one might read these statements or letters. I also know, however, that to remain silent in the face of clear mischaracterization of science or to fail to defend the scientific process is wholly inconsistent with the AMS mission of “advancing the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.” I’m proud to be part of an organization that has such a strong history of standing up for the integrity of science.

(Note: This letter also appears in the September 2017 issue of BAMS.)