Monday, January 17, 2011

Private Frazer was Right

Frazer was right!

(We're all doomed!)

(A note about climate change, the media and open science, January 2011.)

Last week NASA and others announced that 2010 was the joint hottest year on record. The announcement was almost universally ignored by the UK media. In wondering why that might be, several reasons come to mind:

First, the long-term subordination of media output to supporting the status quo (see much of Chomsky's work since Manufacturing Consent in the late 1980s; also more locally Edwards & Cromwell's Newspeak in the 21st Century). The status quo is, of course, dominated by oil (the 10 biggest companies in the world are often listed as 9 oil and car companies plus Walmart, owner of some of the world's largest car parks). Even more so we are dominated by profit: if it doesn't make a profit it isn't worth doing, no matter that this results in idiocy on a massive scale (from a market point-of-view, for example, it makes sense to ship all our manufactured goods from China, or to pay the bankers who caused our most recent crisis huge sums for their unproductive work, etc. etc. etc.).

This is, however, a general reason for the media to ignore climate change, and the NASA announcement about 2010 was actually quite widely reported around the world -- but not in the UK. A more specific and local reason can be found in Nick Davies' book Flat Earth News, which documents the severe reduction in the quantity of journalism (and of journalists) in the UK over the last 20 years (since Murdoch's relocation of his print operation from Fleet Street to Wapping). The majority of reporting is now supplied by organisations that aim for neutrality, not objectivity. (What's the difference? If two people report the progress of mowing a meadow and one says "we're finished" and the other "we haven't started", neutral reporting simply quotes both sides. Objective reporting goes and looks at how much grass is left. Clearly the latter is expensive and harder to make a profit at -- but the former is not journalism.)

Worse, more than 80% of the stories in our press have no journalistic oversight at all, let alone an objective appraisal. This is because they are the unmediated creations of Public Relations staff, either direct to the paper or via a press agency like PA, AP or Reuters -- and note that press agencies explicity define themselves as neutral, not as objective investigators. The old role of investigative journalist has retrenched so far that it is now a rare exception.

So far, so depressing, but there's another reason that UK media sources are using to ignore climate change at present, and that is the aftermath of the Climategate scandal that began in November 2009. It was sad to see the outpouring of unqualified censure and obfuscation that greeted the selective publication of a few emails between a few climate scientists that had been stolen from their hard drives by hostile critics. Several enquiries have since exonerated the scientists concerned and restated the underlying strength of their argument, but nonetheless a good deal of damage has been done and our chances of avoiding the worst of the risks that face us are lessened as a result.

The attack was, of course, disingenuous (and most reminiscent of Big Tobacco's tactics with respect to lung cancer research) but the amunition was also too freely available, and that brings us to the connection between climate change and the subject of this blog -- which is at least loosely focussed on information management, text processing and the like.

One of the contributing factors to the Climategate fiasco is a mismatch between technological capabilities and research practice. Scientists are habituated to a model where artefacts such as their intermediate results, computational tools and data sets are both transient and private. Repeatability, the cornerstone of empirical methods, is most often addressed by publication in peer-reviewed journals, but not by reuse of open data and resources. It is this culture that has proved vulnerable to vexatious freedom of information requests from climate change deniers. It is also a culture which is non-optimal with respect to openness and the efficient disemination of scientific knowledge equally across the globe.

This is not to say that all experimental and modelling data can become open over night -- but information management systems that support sharing between scientists can be built in ways that facilitate greater openness, traceability and data longevity.

To cut a long story short, open science is an idea whose time has come, and the question now is not if but when: how rapidly we will shift, how efficient the results will be, and what the experiences of individual scientists will be. The battle isn't over, of course; last year I went to a talk by James Boyle, one of the founders of Creative Commons and now Science Commons, and he showed very clearly how "to make the web work for science is illegal" -- the mechanisms that work so well for on-line shopping or social networking are prevented from working for scientists by restrictive publishing contracts and so on. But, as Glyn Moody points out, Turing's results imply the atomicity of the digital revolution, and its consequences are that the genie is now so far out of the bottle that all our human achievements will follow into the realm of openness and cooperative enterprise sooner or later.

How can we encourage openness in climate science, and reduce exposure to climate change deniers?

The technology we need falls into three categories:

  • Cloud computing and virtualisation. Server usage optimisation and scaleability via cloud computing now make it possible to address problems at the scale of every scientific research department in the UK (for example) within existing infrastructure budgets. Virtualisation makes it possible to store not just data but the entire compute platform operable for particular experiments or analyses.
  • Distributed version control repositories. Server-side repository systems that are commonplace for software engineers (e.g. Bazaar, Git or Subversion) have a large part of the answer for storing and versioning the data sets generated during collaborative research. They need to be integrated with on-line collaboration tools to make their use easier and more intuitive.
  • Open search infrastructure. Findablility is a key criterion upon which scientists base their evaluation of computational tools. Open source search engines are mature enough to perform very well when properly configured, and techniques exist for adaptation to non-textual data. The desktop metadata gathering facilities now available in e.g. KDE add exciting new possibilities, for example to make queries like "show me all the email I wrote around the time I edited the journal paper on tree rings".

Of course technology is only part of the picture, and has to be coupled with intervention at the cultural and organisational levels. The message of open knowledge and open data is becoming a powerful meme which can be exploited to promote new technologies and help change culture (and in doing so increase the effectiveness of climate scientists and decrease the power of climate change deniers).

Scientists are most often motivated by desire to do their work, and not very often by ticking the boxes that research assessment exercises demand, so if we can show a route to replacing "publish or perish" with "research and flourish" we can gain a lot of mindshare.

To conclude, the best hope for our collective future lies in cooperation, and after all that is the great strength of our species. Ursula le Guin makes this point very clearly:

"The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!"
"Yes; and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical. ... There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness."

Mechanisms for open discussion and consensus building in science can translate into mechanisms for promoting democracy and cooperation, and help light the path to a better world.