Imagine the following scenario. An atmospheric scientist makes a discovery that seems to challenge a particular model of sea level increase due to global warming. She expects her discovery will be refined through further research, and that, in the end, it will not refute the mainstream view. In the meantime, she wants to avoid giving ammunition to climate skeptics, so she postpones publication. But an ambitious postdoc surreptitiously informs the media about the discovery. The media accuse the scientist of a cover-up and report that key evidence for anthropogenic climate change has been refuted.
How would you react if someone concludes in the following way: 'The atmospheric scientist was not wrong to withhold the information from the public; she wisely foresaw the danger that it would be deployed in misleading ways and attempted to do her bit for the promotion of public freedom'.
This is not a scenario invented by myself, but by the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher, recounted in a review of his book by Mark Brown. (Science in a Democratic Society, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2011; review article by Mark Brown, published in Minerva (51:389–397; DOI 10.1007/s11024-013-9233-y). As Brown points out, Kitcher is a leading figure in the philosophy of science and has written, inter alia, Science, Truth, and Democracy.
In my view this comment exemplifies a problematic attitude not only in climate science but in the social sciences as well. The good cause which allegedly motivates much of the research puts the researcher in a special position. It allows them to dispense with essential standards of professional conduct. It is perhaps not remarkable that we see a 'leading figure' in the philosophy of science defend questionable practices which have been modelled (not by accident I suppose) after the famous climategate affair.
The risks for the credibility of science (no matter which branch or discipline) are clear. Anyone who comes across such commentary will take this as confirmation that science can be twisted according to the will of scientists (or elites); that science is constructed (in the vulgar sense of being 'made up' and 'fake'); and that scientists preserve the prerogative of making judgements which data are for public consumption and which are not.
As I pointed out in a recent talk (http://www.ichstm2013.com/) motivated reasoning (Leiserowitz et al) is a problem for scientists. It affects scientists as it does other groups in society, although it is often pretended that scientists somehow escape this predicament. The above comment from Kitcher ('the atmospheric scientists was not wrong to withhold the information from the public') is a powerful illustration of social scientists falling into the trap of motivated reasoning, justifying the questionable professional standards through recourse to alleged higher ethical standards.
Scientists will only be able to command trust in society if they follow basic professional standards. Prime among them is to publish the results of their research, no matter if they support a desirable storyline or not.
The fact that eminent philosophers of science have been recruited (or self-enlisted) by a dominant discourse eager to push a specific narrative is worrisome, albeit not surprising.