In Science, Data Rules

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Data are the facts scientists measure, while interpretations are the stories scientists tell to make sense of those facts and predict new facts they might measure. I believe that the failure to understand this important distinction lies at the core of much of the public confusion over scientific issues like climate change and evolution. Scientists argue over interpretations of data with a ferocity that can be startling. But data that have been reproduced by multiple researchers rule the roost, and an interpretation that ignores the data is bogus.

Politicians of all philosophies try to spin or suppress scientific interpretations that disagree with their agendas, such as the interpretation that the measured fact of climate change is due to human activities. But the very worst interfere with the collection of data that might lead to inconvenient interpretations, or even hide or destroy repositories of such data. Today, there is great fear in the scientific community that the US government may stop collecting the data that has documented climate change for over a century, and may even erase collections of such data.

It is important that the public strongly resist such actions. Changing climate helped make humans what they are. It could also wipe us out. For our own protection, it is important to be aware of what is happening, regardless of the cause. And if, as I believe, humans are responsible, and if, as I fear, our leaders are dithering away the chance to blunt or reverse human impact on climate, then it is important that history tattoos the responsibility for whatever happens on the faces of today's leaders in the indelible ink of data.

Hopefully, someone will still be around to learn the lessons.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Wolber.


Paul Wolber is a scientist and technical manager in Silicon Valley's biotech industry.