Morally Irresponsible Science

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


demographics_420Long ago and far away — that is, in August of last year and in the scientific field called Demography — a great controversy arose and sparked calls for a retraction and accusations of a scholarly paper falling “outside the bounds of scholarly decorum” and labeling its findings as being “morally irresponsible”.

Note:  This essay is not primarily about Climate Science per se but is more about the philosophy of science.  If your only interest is CliSci, you can skip this one.  — kh

While the findings and methods of the paper were subject to varying opinions and valid alternative views, the primary objections to the paper were not that its findings were incorrect — that is, not factual — but rather that they violated the long-standing worldview — the prevailing bias —  of the scientific field called Demography.

Before the necessary discussion on the morality of science findings, let’s look at the story that brought up the controversy above.

In July 2017, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, Daniel Goodkind, writing as an individual (not in his official capacity), published a paper in the journal Demography titled:  The Astonishing Population Averted by China’s Birth Restrictions: Estimates, Nightmares, and Reprogrammed Ambitions.   

China’s no-longer-in-force “One Child Policy” [Bias Warning: the Wiki page linked leans heavily to one side of the issue]  has been considered a coercive and draconian policy at odds with the values of the Western free world.  It was in place in communist China, in various forms, from 1979 until recently lifted in 2015, in an effort to prevent run-away population growth.  The government of China has gone on record claiming that the policy averted 400 million births — and Western (and some Chinese) demographers have consistently attempted to refute and disprove — debunk —  that claim.

Daniel Goodkind, in his paper states: ”Population experts have dismissed official estimates that the program averted 400 million births as greatly exaggerated (Basten and Jiang 2014; Cai 2010; Greenhalgh 2010; Wang et al. 2013; Whyte et al. 2015)”  — and points out that these very same authors are the ones in active advocacy —  acting from “a preoccupation with eliminating one-child restrictions”.

A report in the journal Science relates that  “Hania Zlotnik, former director of the United Nations Population Division in New York City, …. notes that the sheer size of China’s population can compound the effect of shaky statistics for the birth rate and other indicators. She says Goodkind’s paper could appeal to non-China specialists interested in “us[ing] it politically” to demonstrate the impact of quickly reducing the birth rate. That is precisely what Wang and Cai fear. In a 17 August email to Matthews, Wang blasted Goodkind’s paper as “morally irresponsible.” He and Cai called on Demography to withdraw the paper or provide the peer reviewers’ comments. In an email to Science in 2016, Goodkind wrote that an earlier paper had encountered “ferocious resistance” during peer review. Stephen Matthews, a co-editor of Demography and demographer at Pennsylvania State University in State College, noted that Goodkind’s latest paper “went through the standard double-blind peer review process” and underwent revisions before publication.”

Goodkind’s conclusions, in addition to the major finding that “China’s one-child program itself averted a population of 400 million by 2015”, included:

“Conclusion: On Science, Advocacy, and the Post-One-Child Era — In the last dozen years of China’s one-child era, most experts dismissed the government’s view that its birth planning program played a central role in controlling population growth. Greenhalgh (2003:166) went even further, claiming that the very “ideas about China’s population problem . . . were actively fabricated by Chinese population scientists using numbers, numerical pictures (such as tables and graphs), and numerical techniques (such as projections)” and that China’s “virtual ‘population crisis’” was a misconstruction of “scientizing rhetorics” (p. 163), the key objective of the author being “to clear the way for fresh consideration of policy alternatives [to one child restrictions]” (p. 166). Other experts seemed to agree, linking arms to dispute the demographic impact of the one-child program (Basten and Jiang 2014; Cai 2010; Gu and Cai 2011; Morgan et al. 2009; Sen 2015; Wang et al. 2013, 2016; Whyte et al. 2015; Zhang and Zhao 2005; Zhao 2015; Zheng et al. 2009).”


“These questions will be debated for decades to come. Reliable answers must begin with alternate scenarios of China’s population growth. Demographers have the honor of lighting the way forward given their ability to navigate this specialized realm of measurements and relations. With accusations of “bad science” being hurled so often at China’s birth planners in decades past, population experts should be more careful to ensure the soundness of their own science. Perhaps that ambition will be better achieved now that the era of one-child limits in China is officially, finally, behind us.”

Mainstream demographers had been in an advocacy battle with the government of China in an attempt to bring about a change in the One-Child Policy — which they considered morally repugnant.  These policy-advocating demographers had spent years writing papers attacking the official figures issued by the Chinese government with accusations ranging from “actively fabricat[ing]” ideas, numbers and charts to “scientizing rhetorics” then descending to the level of naming them as “deceptive boasts”, “myths” and  “entirely bogus.” — all in the interest of political advocacy for the revocation of the One Child Policy.

When Goodkind validates the Chinese claims on population reduction success of the policy, his findings, even though they had been subjected to standard double-blind peer review and revision process of the leading journal of demographics, are labelled by the very same policy-advocating demographers as “morally irresponsible” and his criticisms of previously biased research as being “outside the bounds of scholarly decorum”.

In this incident, what I see is a field of study that has apparently taken a values-position on a research topic and allowed that values-judgement to bias and taint their work to the point that their findings are knowingly or unknowingly, intentional or unintentionally, skewed to agree with their political advocacy goals and support their value-judgement.  The prevailing bias in the field, in this case demography, thus leads to attacks on any research finding contrary to the bias — on moral grounds.

This situation may remind you of another field of study — Climate Science.

It is unnecessary here to detail the long, nearly endless, list of attacks on any and all that do solid science, find valid and important results, only to find themselves, because their findings or opinions differ from the prevailing view, labelled as immoral, even criminal, anti-science “Climate Deniers” with all the implications of moral bankruptcy associated Holocaust Deniers — those who deny that the Jewish Holocaust ever occurred.

Climate Science as a branch of science has become so closely associated with certain social values, political views and policy solutions that its current consensus view has been granted by its practitioners a [false] mantle of Moral Rectitude — a viewpoint that has become a socially enforced Moral Imperative.  Those who practice Right Thinking, or who at least engage in Virtue Signaling by appearing to agree,  are rewarded with professional acceptance and promotion.  Those who insist on simply following the science where it leads, who insist on questioning dogma and questioning findings of “Accepted Climate Science”, are condemned, vilified and labelled as moral degenerates.

Some skeptical scientists have been the victims of malicious professional character assassination.  Others are relentlessly attacked by those who should be their colleagues with public statements that in other countries would see them in court for libel.

Immoral Science?

Is it possible to perform unethical, immoral science?   Of course it is.  Intentionally harming human test subjects or withholding proven beneficial medical treatments as part of a medical trial have long been held to be unethical and morally wrong.  Universities and other research organizations have established Ethics Review Committees to make these judgements before research can be carried out.   In some segments of society it is considered immoral to experiment on animals without due regard for their suffering — and, again, there are Ethics Committees that try to sort through the values — the harms and benefits — of this difficult question.

Does Science, as an enterprise, have to address the issues raised in the Science report of the demography controversy?

At issue is “how scientists as human beings should ask questions,” Wang [Wang Feng of the University of California, Irvine] says. Goodkind says that demographers routinely attempt to estimate the impact of famines and other events on populations, and that the one-child policy should be no different: “Well-grounded estimates are what they are, and they go where they go.”

Others say that the debate over values sparked by the paper is long overdue. Population research “has political implications,” Riley notes.  [Nancy Riley, a demographer at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine] “Demography has to start owning up to it.” 

Should Climate Science researchers consider social values in “how they should ask questions?”   Are there climate questions that should not be asked? —  Or not asked that way?  — out of sensitivity for social/political/preferred-policy values?

Should the popularity of Environmentalism or Naturalism or Anti-Corporatism or Anti-Fossil-Fuel-ism in Western societies restrict or re-focus research into the causes or effects of the Earth’s climate, static or changing, so as not to arrive at findings that might offend prevailing social or political sensitives?

Should climate research limit its published findings to only those that support or agree with prevailing political viewpoints and policy preferences — in recognition that research “has political implications”?   Must researchers consider the political implications of the their findings before publication or, in the worst case,  alter their findings in light of political implications?

Should scientists such as Goodkind, Tim Ball, Willie Soon, Lennart Bengtsson , Richard Lindzen, Roger Pielke Jr., Susan Crockford or Judith Curry [and far too many others] be ostracized by their colleagues?  —  and be punished for their temerity of publishing honest, scientifically correct findings that “are what they are” and data that “go where they go”? — all on the basis “how the findings might be used politically?”  Some of those named here have been so punished and explicitly for that reason — their findings are “not helpful” to The Cause or might be “used by the deniers” to discredit or weaken The Consensus.

Let’s ask these questions:

Which of the following two characterizes Morally Irresponsible Science?

  1. Science knowingly performed in the service of confirmation of the existing consensus of a science field, just to play it career-safe?


  1. Science performed to discover what is actually going on with the subject and simply and straightforwardly reporting the results?

Which of the two represents Immoral Behavior of Scientists?

  1. Defending a majority view against all criticism, regardless of the scientific soundness of that criticism?
  2. Defending the honor and integrity of Science by insisting on asking good questions and publishing honest, unbiased results, even if they disagree with the majority view?

Which of the two represents the Ethics Expected of a Scientist?

  1. Supporting all good (scientifically correct) science findings, even if they don’t agree with one’s personal opinions or the prevailing bias or consensus in a field?
  2. Attempting to shut down any competing scientific opinion and prevent its publication or discussion in the press? Or if that fails, attacking the competing researcher(s) on a personal level?

The controversy among the demographers raises good questions for all branches of science to consider.  In it, we see the adverse influence of policy-preferences polluting the application of good science and of cadres of experts “linking arms” in the support of a political or social goal resulting in the suppression of valid research results in their field.  Researchers in the field that buck the cadre and publish contrary findings are attacked, ostracized and labelled as being morally irresponsible.

The travesty of such a situation in Science is much more easily seen when looking in at someone else’s field than it is to see when one is surrounded by the same sort of controversy in one’s own field.

Scientific societies, rather than publishing Official Statements on Climate Change, in which they state their allegiance to a set of social/political dogmatic talking points, would be better served by clearly establishing Codes of Ethics for their members in support of strict adherence to the scientific method and the true values of disinterested, unbiased scientific research and to the requirements of collegial conduct that allow science to flourish and advance.

The AGU, which is the primary scientific society for climate researchers,  made a good start in this direction in 2017 with the issuance of a Code of Conduct to apply at its meetings and  with the issuance of an updated Ethics Policy based on these principles.  Judith Curry covered this in part at her blog Climate Etc.   Excerpts of the two policy follow:

Code of Conduct: Expected Behavior (excerpts)

  • All participants, attendees, AGU staff, and vendors are treated with respect and consideration, valuing a diversity of views and opinions.
  • Be considerate, respectful, and collaborative.
  • Communicate openly with respect for others, critiquing ideas rather than individuals.
  • Avoid personal attacks directed toward other attendees, participants, AGU staff, and suppliers/vendors.

AGU Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics: Principles (exerpts)

  • Excellence, integrity, and honesty in all aspects of research
  • Personal accountability in the conduct of research and the dissemination of the results
  • Professional courtesy, equity, and fairness in working with others
  • Freedom to responsibly pursue science without interference or coercion
  • Unselfish cooperation in research
  • Good stewardship of research and data on behalf of others

Seeming violations of many of these principles are common in Climate Science today.  Many of the Code of Conduct rules are reported to be routinely and gleefully violated at conferences in regards to climate skeptics.   At present, it is unclear whether the AGU Ethics Policy and Code of Conduct will be actually enforced for anything other than blatant scientific misconduct (plagiarism, falsification of results, etc.) or violations of standards affected by diversity issues.

Perhaps we, each of us, can do better — starting with our own conduct, extending our influence to our immediate associates and colleagues and working through our professional societies to encourage first, then enforce if necessary, expected behavior.

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Note:  The author is not a climate scientist — he is a science essayist, a writer, and his field, science journalism, has its own set of standards and codes of conduct.  Some of them are delineated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

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Author’s  Comment Policy:

I try to read all of the comments that follow my essays here and elsewhere.  If you start your comment with “Kip…” I will respond the best I can to your question or concern.

This essay, about professional conduct, may raise some blood pressures and tempt some readers to lash out at those they feel have acted unprofessionally.  Please try to rein in those emotions and remain constructive.

Like many who read here, I have had my share of being mocked and vilified at anti-skeptic websites….I have considered it a Badge of Honor.  Although my  amateur writing career has not been destroyed by The Climate Team and their cabal of character assassins, I do have the experience of losing an executive position and a career — hounded out of an organization for doing the right thing — and having to start over from scratch. I mention this only so that those who have been harmed by climate zealots know that I do understand where they’re coming from.

I’d prefer that the discussion focus on how we can act to reset the moral compass of science in general.

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via Watts Up With That?

February 7, 2018 at 11:35PM

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