We need to stop worrying and trust our robot researchers

The work of Francis Crick and James Watson gives us a vision of what's to come.

It’s now 60 years since the publication of the structure of DNA. As we celebrate the past, the work of Francis Crick and James Watson also gives us a vision of what’s to come. Their paper was not subjected to peer review, today’s gold standard for the validation of scientific research. Instead, it was discussed briefly over a lunch at the Athenaeum Club. In an editorial celebrating the anniversary, the journal Nature, which originally published the research, points out that this is “unthinkable now”.

However, peer review has always been somewhat patchy and it is becoming ever more difficult. This is the age of “big data”, in which scientists make their claims based on analysis of enormous amounts of information, often carried out by custom-written software. The peer review process, done on an unpaid, voluntary basis in researchers’ spare time, doesn’t have the capacity to go through all the data-analysis techniques. Reviewers have to rely on their intuition.

There are many instances of this leading science up the garden path but recently we were treated to a spectacular example in economics. In 2010, Harvard professors published what quickly became one of the most cited papers of the year. Simply put, it said that if your gross public debt is more than 90 per cent of your national income, you are going to struggle to achieve any economic growth.

Dozens of newspapers quoted the research, the Republican Party built its budget proposal on it and no small number of national leaders used it to justify their preferred policies. Which makes it all the more depressing that it has been unmasked as completely wrong.

The problem lay in poor data-handling. The researchers left out certain data points, gave questionable weight to parts of the data set and – most shocking of all – made a mistake in the programming of their Excel spreadsheet.

The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication. It was only when the researchers shared software and raw data with peers sceptical of the research that the errors came to light.

The era of big data in science will stand or fall on such openness and collaboration. It used to be that collaboration arose from the need to create data. Crick and Watson collaborated with Maurice Wilkins to gather the data they needed – from Rosalind Franklin’s desk drawer, without her knowledge or permission. That was what gave them their pivotal insight. However, as Mark R Abbott of Oregon State University puts it, “We are no longer data-limited but insight-limited.”

Gaining insights from the data flood will require a different kind of science from Crick’s and Watson’s and it may turn out to be one to which computers and laboratorybased robots are better suited than human beings. In another 60 years, we may well be looking back at an era when silicon scientists made the most significant discoveries.

A robot working in a lab at Aberystwyth University made the first useful computergenerated scientific contribution in 2009, in the field of yeast genomics. It came up with a hypothesis, performed experiments and reached a conclusion, then had its work published in the journal Science. Since then, computers have made further inroads. So far, most (not all) have been checked by human beings but that won’t be possible for long. Eventually, we’ll be taking their insights on trust and intuition stretched almost to breaking point – just as we did with Crick and Watson.

President Obama inspects a robot built in Virginia. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Artie Limmer/Texas Tech University
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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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