Monbiot mistakes the specific for the general

Monbiot in The Grauniad: Our narrow, antiquated school system is at the root of the climate email fiasco

None of it made sense: the intolerant dismissal of requests for information, the utter failure to engage when the hacked emails were made public, the refusal by other scientists to accept that anything was wrong. Then I read an article by the computer scientist Steve Easterbrook, and for the first time the light began to dawn.

Easterbrook, seeking to defend Jones and his colleagues, describes a closed culture in which the rest of the world is a tedious and incomprehensible distraction. “Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives … to a scientist, anyone stupid enough to try to get scientific data through repeated FoI requests quite clearly deserves our utter contempt. Jones was merely expressing (in private) a sentiment that most scientists would share – and extreme frustration with people who clearly don’t get it.”

When I read that, I was struck by the gulf between our worlds. To those of us who clamoured for freedom of information laws in Britain, FoI requests are almost sacred. The passing of these laws was a rare democratic victory; they’re among the few means we possess of ensuring that politicians and public servants are answerable to the public. What scientists might regard as trivial and annoying, journalists and democracy campaigners see as central and irreducible. We speak in different tongues and inhabit different worlds.

This strikes me as totally the wrong end of the stick, as if it reveals an attitude towards FoI in principle rather than these vexatious FoI requests in particular. The scientists weren’t contemptuous of FoI requests because they thought other people had no right to hold them accountable, they were contemptuous because the data requested by those particular FOI requests was already available from other sources, so the requests showed both ignorance and belligerence. Why shouldn’t they be contemptuous of people sending request after request for data produced by somebody else, and sometimes for data that they already actually had anyway?

Monbiot’s way off target here.

Categories: culture wars, media, Science


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