Subterranean War: Some Reasonable Questions and Answers

Further authors: Gerard Hastings and Linda Bauld, University of Stirling

The “Subterranean War” article that we published earlier this month caused considerable interest. Notably, we received much further confirmation of the common pattern underlying attacks on scientists from colleagues in multiple disciplines, including in particular medical research. One article in the New England Journal of Medicine from 1997, entitled “the messenger under attack—intimidation of researchers by special interest groups” reads like a prequel to our own article.

There have also been critical voices on the internet, not all of which were constructive. We take up some of the more incisive questions that have been raised by various commentators, in particular by Warren Pearce.

Warren raises three points that we take up in slightly different order:

2) 3rd party re-analysis of data is surely a staple of science. Of course, those doing so may have particular motivations (as in the Philip Morris example), but one would have a hard time preventing this taking place. Recent history shows the perils for scientific credibility of not making data available.

We agree and like most scientists, we make all our data are routinely available upon publication of an article. We agree that this is a healthy staple of science. (There are some important discipline-specific exceptions involving confidentiality of participants which are important to understand but need not concern us here.) We are however concerned with the way in which this basic scientific principle can be abused. It is helpful to underscore those abusive techniques here:

  • There have been many instances of re-“analyses” of epidemiological data (or other data with regulatory import) by industry bodies or their affiliates, in which inconvenient results were “sanitized” by elimination of data or other statistical statistical sleight of hand. This is well documented and is an abuse of the transparency of the scientific process. It may not be possible to prevent this from occurring, but it is possible to draw the public’s attention to those strategies so it can make an informed choice about how much credence to lend to such activities.
  • Similarly, if requests for data persist after all results of any potential scientific value have been made available, those requests are difficult to reconcile with good-faith attempts to contribute to new knowledge. Such requests are more likely to be harassment than attempts to aid in scientific discovery. Recent decisions by the UK Information Commissioner support this perspective by rejecting requests for prepublication data quite decidedly.
  • Finally, if requests for data have been met by scientists, but they are nonetheless accused of “hiding data,” this is a fairly clear fingerprint of denial. (We wonder what “recent history” Warren is alluding to; this might well be mythical problem rather than an actual one.)

3) The piece vividly depicts some troubles and tribulations of science (and indeed, life) in the modern world. However, it might benefit from a stronger counterpoint than the final paragraph’s nod to the “public’s right to access to information”. The activities of climate sceptics may well represent an “insertion into the scientific process”, and I do not offer a blanket defence of their multifarious criticisms and approaches. In particular, where bullying is identified it should not be tolerated anywhere in modern society. However, the arrival of online fora has demonstrated that the public are not always a passive group waiting for the latest scientific knowledge to be visited upon them. On occasion they can be somewhat unruly and, if sufficiently motivated, they may wish to “insert themselves” in any way they can with the limited tools available to them; especially as members of the public do not enjoy the same access to journals as academics. This may be an inconvenient truth, but it is also a fact of modern life. With better systems for dealing with this, we can hopefully focus more on transparent and robust methods of managing conflicts – both legitimate and otherwise – between science and society, rather than seeking to devise new laws to protect the former from the latter.”

We agree that the public need not (indeed, should not) be a “passive recipient” of knowledge. There is nothing wrong with vigorous public debate in blogs or elsewhere. Both of us contribute to public debate on an on-going basis, and we regret that our time commitments are insufficient to engage even further and in more detail. There are however clear boundaries between vigorous (perhaps even polemical) debate and the fingerprints of denial. To give but a few examples,

  • Posting email addresses of scientists or executives of universities on the internet with the explicit or tacit encouragement to launch complaints, on the basis of the flimsiest of accusations, is not a means of public discussion. It is difficult to consider this to be anything but harassment. It is also a waste of the tax-payers’ money because someone has to respond to whatever correspondence to a university ensues.
  • Refusal to follow proper paths by which complaints and concerns can be redressed—e.g., by refusing to make a formal approach to a university but continuing nuisance email correspondence—is not a matter of public debate. It is harassment, pure and simple.
  • Refusal to take note of the outcome of complaints, by continuing to air concerns that have already been adjudicated, is not a meaningful contribution to debate but, likely, a further tool of harassment.
  • Refusal to submit one’s criticisms of academic work to peer-review, while at the same time seeking to suppress research by bullying of editors is not public debate. It is harassment, and it constitutes an intolerable and unethical interference with due scientific process. More than anything else, this issue of seeking to suppress academic work must be tackled in light of the scholarly evidence that climate scientists are unduly risk averse. If there is one thing the public must be protected from, it is scientists who have been bullied into downplaying the true risk societies are facing, be it from tobacco, HIV, or climate change.

1) How does one differentiate between ‘vexatious’ or ‘trivial’ requests for data and those which are merited? The authors give the example of timestamps for blogposts as trivial, but one could imagine occasions when such information might be quite important. There appears to be an appeal to lawmakers to act in the final paragraph. Is this really the best way to proceed? An ethics committee containing a rich mix of personnel drawn from different sections and strata of society (i.e., not just academics) might provide better, context-specific judgements.

This is a difficult question and like many other things in public life, it requires judgment. There are however valuable sources of constraint that are beginning to emerge:

  • The literature on querulous complainants has yielded a fairly good set of markers that administrators can use to differentiate between true grievances and vexatious agenda-driven complaints. It is important to recognize that every vexatious request ties up time that could otherwise be put towards resolving a true grievance—in that sense, vexatious complaints and requests are no different from prank calls to fire or police emergency lines.
  • There is a growing tendency, at least in the UK, to recognize the problematic implications of FOI legislation in the age of electronic communication, where private conversations among scientists are now considered to be “public documents” because the technology—but not the context or intent of the parties involved—has removed the right to privacy that citizens are entitled to in democratic societies.
  • In a recent judgment, the UK information commissioner seems to have recognized that scientists are entitled to a private space of debate that is not subject to FOI. We cite paragraph 34 of that judgment: “All too often such [FOI] requests are likely to be motivated by a desire not to have information but a desire to divert and improperly undermine the research and publication process–in football terminology–playing the man and not the ball. This is especially true where information is being sought as part of a campaign–it is not sought in an open-minded search for the truth–rather to impose the views and values of the requester on the researcher. This is a subversion of Academic Freedom under the guise of FOIA and the Commissioner, under his Article 13 duty must be robust in protecting the freedom of academics from time-wasting diversions through the use of FOIA.” (Emphasis added.)

Are we calling for lawmakers to act? We consider this to be an open question. As we noted in “Subterranean War”, daylight is the best disinfectant. The daylight should enable a public conversation about ways in which inconvenient scientists who are conducting research in the public interest can be protected from harassment and vexatious complaints, while they continue to be accountable to ethical and professional bodies as they already are.

We must not forget that science denial can kill. It killed thousands in South Africa because vital anti-retroviral drugs were withheld from AIDS sufferers by a government that considered Western medicine to be racist. It killed tens if not hundreds of thousands when firm medical knowledge about the effects of tobacco on human health was questioned by organized denial. And, yes, to the extent that climate denial delays mitigative action, it too will come with a cost that is measured in human lives as well as money.

This week’s typhoon that is now estimated to have killed 10,000 people in the Philippines might have occurred in the absence of climate change, although global warming likely put it on steroids. Nonetheless, right on cue, some individuals have already denied the strength of the storm by claiming that the typhoon was “another overhyped storm that didn’t match early reports.”

The issue of science denial and the attacks on scientists it provokes is thus too important to ignore or to put into the “too-hard” basket. The scholarly literature on denial—some of which is reviewed here— provides some initial criteria by which it can be differentiated from legitimate scientific or public debate. It is in the public’s interest to become conversant with that distinction so it does not confuse the noise generated by attention-seeking or agenda-driven individuals with genuine scientific debate.