There have been a series of posts on this blog and others about whether or not the climategate debacle means anything about global warming per se. Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen weighs in the debate by pointing out that scientific research is a decentralized process, which means that East Anglia University is not the only point of reference on global-warming issue. In other words, this mess doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t real:
It’s correct to claim that East Anglia is a “central player” in climate change studies and that the IPCC looks to its estimates, as most sources report. It’s no less important that other, competing models — in a competitive scientific framework — support similar perspectives.
Basically, he doesn’t think that “many scientific results depend on what comes out of East Anglia, even if you include its emailing affiliates from Penn State and the like. Even very, very simple climate models generate many of the basic results.”
I do agree that scientific discovery seems like a decentralized process. However, George Mason University’s Dan Klein offers an important comment and caveat to the idea that decentralized research automatically leads to independent results. He shows (in comment number eight of Cowen’s post) that in spite of the decentralization of the research process, some important biases exist that could result in centralized beliefs, what he calls groupthink. Good data to look at is the ratio between Democrats and Republicans in hard-science, especially earth-science, faculties at the country’s top research centers:
Please look at the Hard Science./Math breakdown of Dem:Repub ratios on p. 251 of the following:
At the 5 larger/more elite schools (UCB, Stanford, UCLA, UCSD, Caltech), the ratios are all in the range of 5 to 10. (Finer breakdown available in the Excel sheet here.)
Tyler’s remarks are a valuable tonic, and I hope he’s right.
But looking at Economics departments, which we know much better, it is just too easy to see how taboo, preference falsification, and the pyramidal structure of each discipline could yield groupthink and failure.
In Econ, the enlightened know that pre-market approval of drugs and devices is and always has been a terrible policy, yet the cultural ecology of professional economics does not advance that learning throughout the discipline. One survey shows that most economists seem to think the policy is a good thing. And in Econ the D:R ratio is about 2.5.
With respect to global warming, it seems to me so easy that the disciplines in question could be quite groupthink on the matter, top to bottom. Tyler’s appeal to science as competitive is untrue in a very significant sense. The discipline is highly pyramidal. Culture, especially specialized arcane knowledge, is really not like the market for waiters or barbers.
On groupthink in academia, see this.
I think Klein has a point. A good point. After I asked Klein, by e-mail, for more information, he suggested I look at the Democrat-Republican ratios for the overall categories hard sciences/math ratios at the five large/elite schools in the sample here. The breakdown of that category is given in the section “Department Mapping,” on page 251.
The results are the following:
UCB = 9.9 Dems per Republican
UCLA = 8.3
Stanford = 5.2
Caltech = 6.5
UCSD = 7.7
Digging deeper, we see that on the UCLA sheet, among earth-science faculty, there are 23 Democrats and 2 Repubicans.
That should make us wonder about the true decentralization of the research process.