How can we usefully make judgements about science? Part 2

In the previous post I used some personal history to set out how judgments about science are made, when the point of the judgment is the spending of public money. When a big proposal comes up, for  example, the possibility of a gravitational wave observatory, a multi-million dollar venture, you would expect an excellent and clear exposition, support from all the principal likely users, and a lot of encouragement from people overseas.

That proposal will be scrutinised by panel after panel, but the decision may finally be made on other grounds entirely. I first saw just such a proposal in 1989, I think, and it was finally knocked on the head in 2011. Reason? Australia couldn’t afford it. Nothing wrong with the science. Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, and the proposal I saw in 1989 was a classic device to test a hypothesis. Captain Cook discovered eastern Australia while returning from a trip to Tahiti to undertake a comparable scientific task, observing the transit of Venus across the Sun.

It is quite pointless to suggest that only astronomers, to take an example, should sit in final judgment on astronomy proposals. They will have contributions to make, but at the end of the day, they will all be in favour of more money being devoted to astronomy. That rule applies to every research field, including, and perhaps especially, climate science. There has to be a group whose members more or less cover the bases, and have some sense of the whole research enterprise — and its social and economic context.

On one occasion a rather acerbic researcher, irritated by what he thought were simplistic or innocent questions from me, the chairman of the interviewing panel, wondered aloud why there wasn’t someone on the panel who really knew what he was talking about (there was one, as it happened, but he was enjoying the interchange, and stayed quiet).

My reply was that the Minister wouldn’t understand what his work was about either, but if I couldn’t provide a convincing explanation to the Minister, there was no way the researcher would be funded. He cooled down quickly.

It seems to me that ‘climate science’ has largely escaped the need for this kind of scrutiny. I can remember Ministers telling me of someone they met on a plane who had this brilliant idea… had we done anything like it? Another Minister told me that the system we provided might have its flaws, but it saved him from having to adjudicate. Joh Bjelke-Petersen famously met someone who told him that he had invented an engine that ran on water. He never lived that one down.

These judgment systems exist because they work. There is an almost infinite number of brilliant ideas that need public money to show their true value, and governments need a filtering system. What would ASTEC have done with a remit from the Prime Minister to look at this global warming thing (that’s how many of ASTEC’s inquiries started)? We would have set up a panel, asked for public comment, and written a report. Many of our reports required hours and hours of discussion, letters, and quiet chats before they reached finality. There was always disagreement and debate.

I was in ASTEC from 1986 to 1992, and I don’t recall the global warming issue ever being discussed. After the Rio Conference in 1992 the damage had been done, and Australia’s government, like the governments of most other countries, was convinced that the planet had to be saved, and that carbon dioxide was the villain. Before long buckets of public money were being used to send people to conferences about global warming, hold conferences here, set up journals to publicise the research that came from more public money, establish government departments to provide oversight, pay the Australian Academy of Science to add some academic muscle, and so on.

The same things happened in other developed countries. Prime Minister Howard didn’t fall for the frenzy, but even he set up in 1998 the Australian Greenhouse Office, after a little nudging from the Australian Democrats, to provide data on and standards for such emissions. I think that those in the public service who had their doubts eventually shut up: AGW became official doctrine. As I’ve explained in other posts, government departments and agencies tend become colonised by those who think that what they are doing is a great thing that everyone else should support, and it is hard to change their culture. And they choose as new staff people with the same set of values.

Nonetheless, my hunch is that in Treasury and Finance there are senior people who, given their druthers, would abolish tomorrow all subsidies to alternative energy, all RET targets, all research on anthropogenic climate change, and anything else they could find that seemed related to it. The problem is that these payments are set in a form of political concrete. Not only that, there are a lot of people out there who absolutely believe that the planet is threatened, and until their number diminishes, and their support from the mass media wanes, no elected government will want to antagonise them any more than it can help.

The truth is that ‘climate change’ and climate science have not ever been exposed to the kind of due diligence that is customary in every other form of science, let alone in the world outside. And we all suffer as a consequence.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    Thanks – an interesting pair of essays to someone from the other side who spent their career with their hand out asking for public money. The only aspect that is really missing is the internal politics/territoriality of the reviewers – most promote their labs, former students, and allies over competitors. So yes, scientists all believe more money should be devoted to their area of research, but not to competitors. I’m sure you were aware of this during your tenures.

    When scientists were considered fair brokers, then perhaps, scientific research was not so badly distorted by the media. Now, of course, every university and research institute has a publicity office that hypes and exaggerates the importance of their research. The MSM is so monotonic, that I doubt their support for CAGW will change unless Labor changes their platform. It would be nice if policy makers and the public had somewhere to turn to for objective information, but that will never happen unless the ABC can be freed from Labor/Green hegemony and made to follow its charter.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I have become really sceptical about all appeals for money, especially within academic and the research industry!

  • Patrick Caldon says:

    It seems to me that ‘climate science’ has largely escaped the need for this kind of scrutiny. … These judgment systems exist because they work. …. What would ASTEC have done … ? We would have set up a panel, asked for public comment, and written a report. Many of our reports required hours and hours of discussion, letters, and quiet chats before they reached finality.

    Would ASTEC have done something like this – the Charney report of 1979?

    Perhaps the damage was really done long before 1986.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Many thanks for this reference! Nothing much has changed, has it. Clouds were a real variable in 1979, but nonetheless the authors are confident that a doubling of CO2 will lead to an increase of temperature at around 3 degrees C, range 1.5C to 4.5C. I wonder if that estimate has stuck in people’s minds, for it’s still there 35 years later.

      I must have seen a reference to this paper in the IPCC reports, and presumably ASTEC would have seen it had we been asked to do something in the 1980s. There is no reference in it to the possibility that a warmer world would be in net terms a better world for living things.

      Thanks again.

      • Patrick Caldon says:

        Perhaps I should have been more explicit in my point. You seem to be claiming implicitly that “climate science’ has escaped a “panel style” analysis where a group of reasonably sensible non-experts-in-the-field with experience in judging science go over the evidence, invite comment from interested parties who’ve got a range of viewpoints and after hours of discussion produce a summary report. And you’ve also started out (in pert 1 of this series) by saying that typically people round on you claiming that you’re in no position to judge – and then just now you bring up the absence of this kind of report. From which I infer that you’d be satisfied, at least to some degree, if this kind of report were to exist.

        But (clearly!) this kind of report does exist, and its production predates by a fair margin your presence on whichever committee. There were other reports out of the US from around this time.

        So the question is, does the existence of this kind of report, an embodiment of the judgment system that works – which seems to be what you’re asking for in this essay series and which you seem to be stating in your last paragraph never existed – not satisfy you to some degree?

        My suspicion – and please forgive my cynicism – is this. You will Identify some failing of this report. I’m sure it has many, it being a product of human enterprise. Then I could find another report and panel that satisfies what you raise to some degree there have been innumerable such reports. But you will find a failing in that too and on we go. In any event here’s a report from the JASON group from the same year that talks about the benefits a bit more – these guys were commissioned in the late 70s to construct their own intermediate complexity climate model as a “double-check” of everyone else’s model:

        I’d suggest to you that much of climate science went through the kind of scrutiny you’re looking for in the 70s and 80s, and many of the reasonable questions you’re asking were asked then – and perhaps answered.

        • Don Aitkin says:


          Your question is an excellent one. I almost wrote in my essay that had ASTEC dealt with AGW in say 1888 it might well have concluded that the science was serious, and that we needed to give some serious consideration to the implications. I chose that year because it was Hansen’s year in Washington, where he convinced a top-level audience that doom was coming.

          ASTEC would not have been asked to get into the tax arena. But (i) ASTEC was not asked to deal with AGW, and (ii) by 1992 there was no prospect that any assessment panel would do so, because the Keating Government had decided that Australia would join the rest of the world. Since then it has been impossible to get any real consideration of the issue, and governments and the academies have committed themselves so badly that it is hard for them to retreat.

          And the earlier American study didn’t go into policy implications either, nor did it say that the outlook was either dangerous of catastrophic. It just gave the best scientific appreciation of the time.

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