Where’s the science? What happened to scrutiny, debate and dissent?

Oil IT Journal editor is miffed at being refused entry to two tradeshows this year and wonders just exactly what these illustrious software vendors are trying to hide. His puzzlement is only increased by the fact that both vendors’ websites vaunt their ‘openness,’ albeit from behind closed doors.

Living in France, one of my regular reads is the venerable Le Monde newspaper. Something of an institution, Le Monde prides itself on reporting from different parts of the political spectrum. Its coverage of science and technology is less of a forté, and it often makes nonsense of energy-related comment, mixing up kilowatts and kilowatt hours on a regular basis. A recent letter to the editor from a concerned reader led to a response from the illustrious daily—that its journalists mostly had a literary training and found this sort of stuff rather hard. So the kilowatts and kilowatt hours go on being jumbled whenever energy is on the agenda.

It is unfortunate that such lack of technical know-how plagues journalism and gives it a bad name. It also leads to a gut reaction from many against journalists as a race. Without making too much of a thing of it, I like to think that what sets out Oil IT Journal from some of the other trade publications is that in general, we write about stuff that we understand. That is at least what we are striving to achieve here. A ‘stretch goal’ perhaps...

But the journalist is only one part of the information processing food chain. Quality of the output is a function of, not just the quality of the processor, but also of the information coming in. As Phil Crouse notes in his eloquent contribution to the ‘two conferences’ debate on page three of this issue, even our learned society conferences are not immune from poor quality information—in the form of ‘blatant promotion of vendor products,’ and this under the guise of a ‘scientific paper.’ Even information emanating from non vendor sources is often suspect—the piece we ran last month on an IDC study of ‘high performance computing’ is a case in point as it was based on the most flimsy evidence and imprecise ring fencing of HPC.

This leads me to another reason that some folks don’t like us ‘journalists.’ This is not because we get it wrong, but sometimes because we get it right. Especially when ‘right’ is not exactly what the marketing department had in mind. How about this for a bold claim from a major upstream software vendor’s website ...

Openness is the key to next-generation interpretation workflows. With true openness, there is opportunity for all to derive more value through open technology and leveling the playing field of integration and innovation.

A bold claim indeed that positively cries out for scrutiny! But before I get down to the payload of this editorial I have to tell you about ... a fairground in a remote part of rural France...

On holiday in the Lot a couple of years back, I visited a fair with a buddy where I came across a big tent packed with folks sitting in front of a long table packed high with cuddly toys, cheap electrical goods, pots, pans and whatever. Neither me nor my buddy were really in the market for this trash, but curiosity made us venture in to take our seats for the show. It was not to be. A couple of big guys sidled up to us to intimate that this was not our place and that we should leave right away! And that if we didn’t like it, we should still leave. We left.

I can only suppose that the bouncers felt that somehow our presence would have adversely affected the pressurized selling of their junk to the old punters. Scrutiny of the proceedings was not on their agenda.

Rejection is a peculiar thing. Even when you know that it really doesn’t matter, it leaves a trace. I can’t say that I have since lost much sleep over this ancient trauma, but I had a couple of flashbacks to this event this year as Oil IT Journal was refused entry to two vendor tradeshows* on the trot. One of the vendors was home to the ‘openness’ snippet I cite above. The other has the following on its website...

[ ... ] announced a set of broad-reaching changes to its technology and business practices to increase the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability, opportunity and choice. These changes are codified into four new interoperability principles and corresponding actions: 1) ensuring open connections; 2) promoting data portability; 3) enhancing support for industry standards; and 4) fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities.

While this would be nice if it were true, but like the other vendor quote, it is in need of some critical scrutiny. The reality is that communication with customers and ‘communities’ are usually the subject of restrictive non disclosure agreements and, we have found at least, the tradeshows are not ‘open’ for us.

We really would like to get back in to the closed trade shows. We would like to think that there is still technical merit in what is being said inside the tent. But if the companies that run them prefer to run them like a fairground for country bumpkins that’s OK by us too!

But there is an issue here—even for the marketing department—and that is the extent to which you can maintain a position as a purveyor of scientific learning and at the same time, ‘sell, sell, sell’ your ‘science’ like soap powder. It is a complex equation that neither the vendors nor even the learned societies have solved. What makes a debate scientific—i.e. scrutiny, debate and dissent, is just what marketing departments spend their waking hours trying to avoid.


Writing this while reading of the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, of $5 gas in Houston, with the radio talking about a stock market crash akin to 1929 and with the oil price collapsing to a level near to the newly-inflated cost of production of some fields makes all this seem rather trivial. But to return to the topic of kilowatt hours and the like. If any of you out there relate to the notion that there is a place for informed journalistic comment on other facets of oil and gas technology—or indeed in other verticals, please get in touch. We are hiring...

* Squeamishness, rather than anything else, prevents us from naming them. But nothing is stopping you from googling (inside quotation marks) the first half dozen words from the two citations...

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