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Scientific Integrity is Constant Challenge: A Classic Historical Example

Written by Dr Tim Ball

A scientist is by practice a skeptic. As Douglas Yates said,

No scientific theory achieves public acceptance until it has been thoroughly discredited.

The public definition of skeptic is different from that for science, which is

Not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations.

For the public, it is more properly that of cynicism.

believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity:

This is why the epithet “global warming skeptics” easily marginalized those who questioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

It is difficult to challenge the work of others even as a scientist because it goes against the gregarious and collective nature of humans and Groupthink. It is more difficult today because of changing views in the society that spill over into science.

Four of these are:

· If you are not with me, you must be against me.

· The end justifies the means.

· I only broke the law if I got caught.

· It’s close enough for government work.

The disturbing insights into the thinking behind those at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) are on full display in the leaked emails. Remember the summary on the back of Mosher and Fuller’s book Climategate.

“The Team led by Phil Jones and Michael Mann, in attempts to shape the debate and influence public policy:

· Actively worked to evade McIntyre’s Freedom of Information requests, deleting emails, documents, and even climate data

· Tried to corrupt the peer-review principles that are the mainstay of modern science, reviewing each other’s work, sabotaging efforts of opponents trying to publish their own work, and threatening editors of journals who didn’t bow to their demands

· Changed the shape of their own data in materials shown to politicians charged with changing the shape of our world, ‘hiding the decline’ that showed their data could not be trusted.”

Although not part of the leaked emails, perhaps the most telling comment was the response by Phil Jones, Director of the CRU, to a request from Warwick Hughes for information. Hughes was looking at the 20th century temperature data produced by Jones that contributed to the ‘hockey stick’ blade in the 2001 IPCC Report. In a February 21, 2005, email Jones replied;

We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.

Yes, precisely, it is what every scientist must do. The comment underscores everything that is wrong with climate science. It evolves from scientists tempted and driven by a varying combination of career opportunities, funding, job security, power, political control of the agenda, and preferably with no accountability.

All these variables existed in the past, and it is illustrative and informative to examine a situation from the history of a scientist who struggled with them. He realized that compromise is often necessary, but he also realized that it is a slippery slope. The compromise must only be made in the context of determining whether it will allow achieving the larger goal.

The scientist in question, William Wales (1734 – 1798), was born in Yorkshire to working class parents. He moved to London and married Mary Green, the sister of astronomer Charles Green. It was to prove an important connection.


William Wales: A portrait like the man, very real.

He obviously showed mathematical ability because in 1765 he entered the employ of the Astronomer Royal, Sir Nevil Maskelyne. He began work on one of the two major scientific challenges of the day, the accurate determination of longitude. However, that was to become interlinked with the other challenge, testing of Newton’s Theory of Gravitation, published in 1687. Together they created all the dangers inherent in solving scientific problems when power, money, politics, and prestige are involved.

Two different approaches to determining longitude created the first conflict.

In 1714, the British Government offered, by Act of Parliament, £20,000 for a solution which could find longitude to within half a degree (equivalent to 2 minutes of time), and a group later known as the Board of Longitude was set up to assess submissions and offer rewards. These experts included the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich and other scientific, maritime and political leaders.

Notice that the Astronomer Royal is on the Board and he favored an astronomical solution known as the lunar distance method. This meant he lacked objectivity when confronted with the alternative method of using an accurate time keeping device. The story of watchmaker John Harrison his chronometer and struggle to have his work recognized and rewarded are well documented in book and film. The Board exercises the same control and power as the Summary for Policymakers group of the IPCC.

Once a theory is postulated, the skeptics begin their work. Such a challenge was created by the letter d representing distance in Newton’s formula expressing the force of gravity.


Sir Isaac Newton



F = the gravitational force between two objects.

m1 = mass of the first object,

m2 = mass of the second object,

d = distance between the objects,

G = Gravitational constant.

Before they could test the hypothesis, it was necessary to get an accurate measure of the distance of the Earth (m1) from the Sun (m2). They knew the mass (m) of the planets and the Sun and their orbital speeds, but the distance (d) was unknown, yet critical.

Former Astronomer Royal, Sir Edmund Halley (1656 – 1742), stressed the importance of an event known as the Transit of Venus. It involves the orbit of the planet Venus passing between Earth and the Sun. An earlier Transit occurred in 1639 and Halley’s work with recurring astronomical events meant he knew another Transit would occur in 1761. Great effort and expense, particularly by the French and English governments, were made to get meaningful results. They failed. However, they knew another Transit would occur in 1769 and so the determination to get positive results made the issue a political confrontation between France and England.

Success became a national competition. The Astronomer Royal, Sir Nevil Maskelyn, was in charge of the project and he persuaded King George III to donate £4000 necessary to establish over 150 observation points around the world and beat the French.

The major reason for the 1761 failure, inadequate instrumentation, was not resolved. Nobody knew this better than William Wales. In a parallel of today’s global warming fiasco, the scientists, who were effectively bureaucrats or relied on sponsorship, believed that political support and more money was the answer. So Wales faced a dilemma, keep your mouth shut and do what the King and his lackey’s like Maskelyne wanted, or face incarceration and possibly even hanging.

In my opinion, he charted a course of compromise based on his circumstances. His subsequent actions showed the complete integrity he retained, the integrity necessary to produce accurate uncompromised science.


Sir Neville Maskelyn holding a chart of the Transit of Venus calculations

The objective was to measure the time (T) it takes Venus to cross the face of the Sun. Orbital speed (S) of Venus was known from Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. With the simple trigonometry, they could compute the distance of the Earth from the Sun, and the size of the Sun.

The best location in the world for observing the Transit was Churchill Manitoba. As a result, Maskelyne couldn’t find astronomers with the necessary skills willing to risk crossing the Atlantic and spend 13 months on Hudson Bay, determined by the frequency of shipping. It is also likely that most knowledgeable astronomers knew the inadequacies of the instruments.

The important connection in the planning was Samuel Wegg who was both Vice-president and Treasurer of the Royal Society and Secretary-Treasurer of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). He arranged for passage and accommodation in Churchill. He also helped persuade William Wales to make the trip. Finally, Wales agreed to take up the challenge, but only after negotiating a generous contract that included provision for his family should he not return. Wales’ partner on the trip was Joseph Dymond, an assistant to Maskelyne, whose choice was apparently due to his unpleasant character. He caused much trouble when in Churchill.

Wales knew the accurate timing was essential to success. He also knew the problems of producing an accurate chronometer. One was specially constructed, and on the Atlantic crossing, he tested it rigorously only to discover it was losing several minutes every day. It was inadequate.

They took a prefabricated observatory with them and on arrival set it up on the SE bastion of Fort Prince of Wales (Figures 1 and 2).


Figure 1: Original Hudson’s Bay Company map of the Churchill River estuary

Source: HBC Archives


Figure 2; Fort Prince of Wales: SE Bastion is on the left side.

The challenge for Wales was to establish some way of determining time more accurately than with his failed chronometer. During the restoration of the Fort, a remarkable sundial was dug up at the base of the wall. They also found an iron spindle that allowed the user to turn any of 24 faces toward the Sun (Figure 3).

In a 1984 article “Observations of the Transit of Venus at Prince of Wales’s Fort in 1769” I identified the latitude Wales had calculated for the Fort. Leslie Ross, a researcher at the National Museum of Canada, was also doing research on the sundial. He asked where I obtained the latitude. I told him it was the one Wales recorded in his journals. He said the latitude matched his calculations for the latitude of the major sundial face (June 1983Stone sundial from Fort Prince of Wales. Research Bulletin #193). It was clear evidence that Wales made the sundial because both latitudes were different from the actual latitude by 11 minutes. I was skeptical that a sundial could be better than even a faulty chronometer, but Ross told me it could determine the time to within two minutes, which made it superior to the watch.


Figure 3; William Wales Sundial in Parks Canada Museum at Churchill

Figure 4 shows the method developed to try and increase the angle and therefore the accuracy of the angle subtended by the triangle of observation. Astronomers, including Wales, knew they could improve accuracy over a single sighting by observing from two different locations. This creates the baseline shown in Figure 4 and extends the point at which the angle is measured outside the Earth. Wales and Dymond were at one end of the baseline in Churchill, and Captain James Cook was at the other end in Tahiti.


Figure 4; Foreground gun battery at Cape Merry. Across the river the low profile of Fort Prince of Wales.

Source; Author.

The Transit occurred on June 3, and it took approximately 9 hours for Venus to cross the face of the Sun. Fortunately, it was mostly sunny, and they obtained measurements, but Wales knew all along they were completely inadequate. Besides the timing issue, he also knew of the black-drop effect created by the optical distortion caused when Venus touched the Sun on one side and departed the Sun on the other. This seems minor in an event of 9 hours duration, but it becomes critical when you know that the angle they were trying to measure is 9.57 milliradians or 0.54549°.


Figure 4;

Source; Author

On his return to England Wales demonstrated his integrity because he refused to submit his report. He said the results were of no value. The timing was imprecise, and the telescope optics were inadequate. Wales was finally ordered to submit a report that was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

We are fortunate he complied because Wales did not waste his time but carried out countless other experiments and made many observations. He brought the first barometers and thermometers, constructed to Royal Society specifications to northern North America. He produced an excellent instrumental record beginning in 1768. This continued after he left because he instructed the surgeon in their use.

We know his principled stand and integrity for insisting on accurate science, despite the demands of his political masters, did not damage his reputation. Two years after his return to England, the Board of Longitude commissioned him to sail as astronomer and navigator with Captain Cook. Wales job, in association with William Bayly, was to test Kendall’s K1 chronometer based on the H4 of John Harrison (Figure 5).


Figure 5: Chronometers used on Captain Cook’s second voyage 1772- 1775.

I know Wales would appreciate the fact that his efforts were not completely wasted. The weather and other information he diligently collected helps our understanding of the way the world works, but also to confront challenges to scientific integrity today.

Read more at drtimball.com

Comments (1)

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    Jerry L Krause


    Hi Tim,

    Thank you for this historical review of the efforts of ‘true’ scientists to make the best possible quantitative observations. But you wrote: “They knew the mass (m) of the planets and the Sun and their orbital speeds, but the distance (d) was unknown, yet critical.” This relative to Newton’s law of gravitation. I have to ask: How, did they know the masses of the planets and the Sun if they did not accurately know the ‘critical’ distance? For, these variables are all a part of one mathematical equation (scientific law).

    To me a most important statement of your review is: ” Finally, Wales agreed to take up the challenge, but only after negotiating a generous contract that included provision for his family should he not return.” Wales knew he was risking his ‘life’ to further our ‘scientific’ understanding. Just as Alfred Wegener and the men who attempted to establish a meteorological site on the high plateau of Greenland knew of the dangers involved.

    Yes, integrity is an absolute necessity in science, but to have it usually does not place the life of the scientist at risk; only the reputation. As has been most recently demonstrated in the case of Lewis Frank and his claimed observations of small comets. But, Galileo has been threaten with his life, yet he wrote a forbidden book. And you have reminded us there were less commonly known scientists who knew they were putting their lives on the line to further the science they obviously ‘loved’ (were devoted to).

    Have a good day, Jerry

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