Alternate titles for this post:

“It turns out, it is a little like a priesthood.”

“Join us. Join us. Join us. Braaainzzzzz”

“Imma gonna let you finish, but first I think you need to get your Wellies wet.”


In a library, there is a spatial relationship between knowledge and books or journals, and there is a sense of completeness about it. I’m thinking in particular of the Tozzer library, one I spent a fair amount of time in. I would go to the basement of the library and the entire ancient world (this is an anthropology library) was arrayed in a set of shelves to the left. There were big topics like “theory” and “origin of agriculture” and there were geographical areas, by continent and country. Virtually every single monograph or collection of essays not part of a serial were to be found on these shelves, sub-ordered by author or editor’s last name. So, you could look for a particular author in each region and subtopic and find every book that person wrote without knowing in advance that what books existed, or you could get all of the basic information about a particular region or major archaeological problem by going to the right location on the shelves. The card catalog was for wimps.

The “Learned Society” section (pronounced “Learn Ed Society”), two floors up, contained series and periodicals (even the periodicals not linked to an actual “Learned Society”). Here the topics and regions were divided differently because periodicals may be more or less topically or regionally specialized. But it was still easy to use the geography of paper on shelves to explore. If I wanted to find a few cites to crazy European racist physical anthropology, I’d saunter half way down the room and browse through 1930s issues of the journals “Man” or “Homo.” If I wanted to find out the latest paleoclimate information, I’d go to “Quaternary Studies” on the “Just received, not indexed or filed” rack. And so on.

It was all there. The body of knowledge that is Anthropology was contained within the walls, floors, and ceiling and there was virtually no established knowledge not present in this spatially organized corpus. (Yes, that is a tautology, but an appropriate one.)

I spent a lot of time in that library, but I also spent time in the lounge on the fifth floor of the building next door hanging around with a bunch of reproductive ecologists led by Peter Ellison (author of On Fertile Ground: A Natural History of Human Reproduction), and hearing about their research (and teaching it in tutorials). Whatever was written down on paper in the Tozzer Library about lactation or fertility was being re-written by these researchers, who were collecting blood and spit and various data in several regions around the world and testing/rejecting hypotheses and building better and better models of how and why a woman first ovulates, how and why a woman lactates, what causes either of these to not happen, and so on. At any given moment they had a set of reasonably well founded conceptions to stand on as they peered beyond the confines of a fictive ‘library’ of knowledge, observing, making sense of, and occasionally capturing new stuff for inclusion into the library. Or should I say the formerly unknown.

The geography, the spatial relationships of things in their laboratory and field sites, was different than in the library. It was like they were standing at far end of a room full of books and periodicals, with no walls separating the room from the outside, standing on the edge of an unfinished floor and observing poorly resolved things floating around before them that might or might not be useful data or other constructs. Shapeless forms of possible knowledge floating in the dark and cold unknown. Every now and then the scientist is able (using some tool or another) to grab on to one of these poorly defined forms in an attempt to wrestle it into a place where it could be understood. Sometimes, the thing they would grab would be reformed into books and articles to add to the shelves in their proper place. Sometimes (often) putting the new item on the shelf required tossing what was already there out into the vague abyss at the edge of the room, sometimes the thing they grabbed would wriggle free and escape before sense was made of it. Sometimes it would be thrown back because it was crap.

When I was not in the lounge or in the library I was in the field, either doing archaeology or working with living people in the rain forest, in Zaire (now Congo) or, sometimes, in the US. Every day, I was standing on the edge of this unfinished flooring, all the books behind me on their shelves, and all this stuff happening in front of me, standing there with my various colleagues like bears at the edge of an Alaskan stream trying to catch salmon (facts) as they sped by, or like the Hmong fisher people down the street from my house trying to gather random anadromous fish into some form they can use on the edge of the wide raging rapids that is the Mississippi at this point. Or like hapless fly fishermen wading into a …. oh never mind, you get the point.

Somebody would say something. Some people would do something. Somebody would dig something up. Some measurement would show a relationship between two things …. and a “known thing” would begin to form. I remember noticing a strange line of quartz rocks that ran along the ground through the base camp. At other times I noticed similar lines of rocks. A year later I noticed after I assembled some of my data that there were always extra quartz rocks at and down stream from places were foraging trails crossed streams. After collecting more data I noticed that certain kinds of quartz artifact-bearing archaeological sites were found in certain locations. Then, it all came together: The parent rock was a granite-like material with major faults running in a certain direction that had all been filled (about a billion years ago) with quartz. So, as the landscape slowly eroded down, lines of extra hard quartz caused narrow restrictions on the otherwise marsh-flanked streams, which made for ideal human crossing points. These crossing points were also loci for acquisition of the quartz to use for making stone tools, and above the crossing points on one side or the other of the stream were ideal places to camp. (The stream system, by the way, was officially “rectilinear” in form because of these faults and quartz veins.) Thus, there was a clear relationship between the region’s geography, geology, and human spatial behavior that was manifest in a certain distribution of archaeological sites as well as another interesting thing: A totally laissez faire attitude on the part of the people who lived there as to where one could find quartz rocks (which they rarely used but were quite aware of). “Oh, you can always find that kind of rock, down there by the stream” spoken in the specific way one speaks when referring to “any down there” in relation to “any stream” from where I am sitting in “any camp.” Like in any kitchen the silverware tends to be in a certain drawer, and in any grocery store the eggs tend to be near the milk, and so on.

So a set of seemingly unconnected and maybe not even important shapes, floating around beyond the edge of the unfinished floor, were drawn together to form a cogent, interesting if esoteric observation of science, and was ultimately manifest as a paragraph or two in my thesis. On the shelf behind me.

Doing science means working the edge of that flooring. If you really want to understand, at a deep level, the stuff on the shelves, you need to understand how observation made it into the established form as it becomes part of the body of knowledge (and I quickly add, by “body of knowledge” I do not mean “facts” but rather the broader range of facts, ideas, models, theories, methods, methodology, etc.). One need not work at the edge of the flooring to ‘get’ what is in the books, but it helps. Ask any teacher who has taught a subject for a while, then has the opportunity to work on the edge of the flooring, in a lab or field site somewhere, and then returns to teaching, if there is a difference between having done it and not having done it.

But there is actually a slightly different point I want to make here. We have been speaking about expertise, and trust, and so on. As part of this conversation, some are arguing that it is way better to engage in the factual argument and the logic behind a certain position in science than to just trust someone else who, as an expert, may have a valid opinion. I agree, of course. That is better. But I think that what a lot of people are NOT getting is that many non-scientists who THINK they are engaging in the direct assessment of facts and the personal engagement with the relevant rational thinking in a certain area may not really be doing so. They may know a lot about a topic, and that is good, and it is better to know a lot than to take someone’s word for it. But there is very often a great deal that goes into the making of the facts and the construction of the theories that people are not personally directly engaged in and individuals may in fact know very much less about a certain topic than they think they do.

I will give you an example. On a recent TV special on human evolution, a great deal was made of the presence of a nicely made hand ax (a stone tool commonly linked to the Acheulean Culture, which is in turn commonly linked to Homo erectus) in a European site. This was interesting because it was pretty AND made of a stone thought to be rare in the area, and made rather nicely. The curation of cool looking objects is a very human thing, and the hominids that lived in this area were not exactly humans, so the presence of this object makes us think maybe they were human-like.

To an Africanist such as myself, this is important and interesting, but not impressive. In Africa, for perhaps a few hundred thousand years prior to the date of that European sites, pretty hand axes made of raw materials from far away are known from a number of locations and during time periods when the hominids could not have been modern humans. This curation of pretty stuff (or, alternatively, really effective stuff that happened to be pretty to our modern standards) is important but the European site is just one of many data points like this. The producers of that special did not know that, apparently.

So the common knowledge one would gain from watching this special is inadequate for one to consider oneself an expert. So, perhaps the person should read a book or two rather than just watching TV.

The average American who has an interest in this area will have read a dozen or so books about archaeology or human evolution (or the evolution of the human mind, or whatever) most of which would also not have the African data points identified. Of all the popular books on this period of archeology that I’ve read, I can think of only a couple that mention the African data in this regard. The African data is well known (to experts) and well published, and there are dozens of references to relevant facts about the African Acheulean and its hand axes, but they are all in the “expert literature” and virtually absent form the “popular literature.”

Another quick example: There is not a single characterization of the archaeology of a given region in Jared Diamond’s popular book “Collapse” that is not questionable in its detail. Diamond is not an archaeologist and it shows. His overall point is probably valid, but if you want to have a nuts and bolts discussion on his key thesis, reading his book (and five or ten other popular books about world archeology) is only going to get you part way there.

In the recent post linked to above I compared a hypothetical person with multiple PhD’s and a good reputation and active research profession in a given area with an other person with no training or experience in the same area but who read part of a popular book on that topic. I suggested that all else being equal and with no further information, if both individuals claimed to have a groundbreaking new idea in that area, the former’s idea can be estimated to be more likely valid than the latter.

Astonishingly, several commenters disagreed. The disagreements ranged from people who did not quite get the starkness of the contrast I was making to those who thought that democratic voting on what is true vs. not is more important than actually knowing stuff. One reason someone might not get the starkness of the contrast is because they don’t know what it is like to stand on the edge of the unfinished floor in the virtual library of science. One reason that someone might think that several uninformed opinions can lead to more knowledge than doing the hard work of science is that they that person has never stood on the edge of the unfinished floor and thus can’t appreciate the value of knowledge discovered and considered over “knowledge” that randomly flies out of one’s backside.

People need to engage in science by doing it. And, frankly, having done so increases one’s qualifications to understand science itself. Doing science in one area does not qualify someone to understand the body of knowledge in a totally different area, but it does allow one to understand what is involved in knowledge generation in ways that simply engaging in the end product does not allow.

What we need (among other things) is more opportunity for people to engage in the activity of science.

Comments

  1. #1 drmabus
    December 15, 2009

    First of all: Nostradamus demolishes “atheism”

    __________________________________________________ __
    wait, wait…

    I forgot something…

    you little shits even talk about me….

    GOATS ON FIRE….

    LIBERATION!

    Sing from the rooftops:

    “Atheism is dead!”

    BYE BYE ATHEISM

    you’re a DEAD MAN, greg laden…

  2. #2 Katharine
    December 15, 2009

    It is going to be very hard to find people to stand at the edge if they haven’t worked their way to it and they don’t have the background information.

    We have way too many uneducated yokels (for example, global warming denialists) in the world who try to drag civilization down and we’re going to have to do something about it.

    Nobody gets an A for effort, either.

  3. #3 mk
    December 15, 2009

    Those “yokels” I would argue, in most cases, are ordinary people of average education but are engaged in their daily lives and have little time for anything else. They catch a little of the evening news, read a newspaper headline or two, and are easily swayed by duplicitous politicians and sensationalism in the media.

    Even the IT professional running his own business out of his basement, who once had a great time in science class in high school, was totally enthralled with the teacher’s experiments and teaching style, is easy prey for the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins of the world. How do you reach this person…. and all the millions of others like him?

  4. #4 Dacks
    December 15, 2009

    You argue effectively for the value of expertise. The knowledge behind a given scientist’s opinion is not always obvious to the uninitiated listener.

    OTOH, expertise is not enough. Think of all the crackpot theories propounded by some anthropologist or other over the years. These loners cling to their ideas long after the rest of the profession has moved on.

    This is what’s happening now with AGW. The only difference is that coping with climate change is vital to everything we do going forward, so experts with wacky views get a much bigger audience than anthropologists with wacky views.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    December 15, 2009

    There are ways to stand at the edge vocationally. Teachers are often given this opportunity in their training. Citizen science programs exist (though I’m not sure how at the edge they all are). A carefully chosen Earthwatch expedition.

    But be careful!

  6. #6 Stephanie Z
    December 15, 2009

    I never thought I’d see academia porn, but this is it. Or maybe erotica.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    December 15, 2009

    Stephanie, it is a poor attempt. This is one of the crapiest things I’ve ever written, in comparing what I was trying for with what I got. I will obviously have to try again.

  8. #8 Aquinas Dad
    December 15, 2009

    I am a commenter in the other thread and do not disagree – I have questions about the intersection of science and politics and your opinions on them.

  9. #9 Aquinas Dad
    December 15, 2009

    Katherine,
    My wife has an MS in cell bio from Smith and does computer modeling – her research leads her to the conclusion that human action has virtually nothing to do with global warming – is she an uneducated yokel or just a yokel?
    I am a former intelligence analyst and cryptographer who does statistical analysis, data mining, and computer modeling, but only a BA – if I disagree with you, I mean AGW, am I an uneducated yokel?

  10. #10 Dacks
    December 15, 2009

    While I don’t do science, I have helped my SO, a geophysicist working in polar meteorology, on various occasions. Honestly, it’s a lot less exciting than holding an Acheulean ax in your hand – the meaning of the research only comes out through tedious processing of the data which, again, is only accessible by the scientists. But I have been able to watch the slow accretion of data over 25 years, convincing me beyond a doubt about the reality of climate change.

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    December 15, 2009

    That’s the joy of writing, Greg, but I look forward to your next attempt. And the one thereafter. And….

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    December 15, 2009

    My wife has an MS in biology with a concentration on cellular processes in muscle tissue, and is a science teacher and totally gets Global Warming. She does not “believe” in it. She does not “believe” in anything. But she knows AGW is real.

    I have a PhD in biological anthropology and archaeology with a focus on human-environment interaction, have taught in a graduate climate research program (the LRC at UMN) and have supervised MS, MA and PhD students in climate change studies, and have spent considerable time studying the issue. I am also a science blogger. Anthropogenic climate change in the form of global warming is clearly real.

    Anybody else want to confess?

  13. #13 Aquinas Dad
    December 15, 2009

    Sorry for the imprecise language – she has concluded the A in AGW is insignificant.

    That being said! We are both advocates of sustainability, clean energy, low/zero emissions, etc. Heck, I am a Distributist. Why? With or without the A in AGW they are good ideas and worthy of effort.

    I get tired of the hostility on both sides – indeed, I fear the yokel-type language hurts *my* goals because some will associate such hostility to sustainability in general.

  14. #14 JohnV
    December 15, 2009

    My confession:

    I have a PhD in microbiology and I often wonder if my current post-doc research involving a tropical disease pathogen will become more valuable (to me, career wise) as AGW increases the areas in which the bacterium might be able to cause infections. Assuming its just the temperature that keeps it from causing diseases in more places than it currently does.

    Does that make me a bad person? :p

  15. #15 Alex
    December 15, 2009

    Bless me Father, for I have sinned. For you see, I do not believe in your invisible deity.

  16. #16 Stephanie Z
    December 15, 2009

    I have a B.A. in Psychology with a good deal of background in experimental design but no particular qualification in the topic of climate change. I have a particular knack, but no accreditation, for watching arguments unfold and spotting omissions, contradictions and irrelevancies.

    The stories told by AGW denialists don’t hold together. Every denialist scientist has a pet theory that may be supported by a few people but is contradicted by data from other fields. Some say it’s happening but isn’t a big deal. Some say it isn’t happening at all. The only people who are being consistent are the group saying, “There isn’t enough data to act,” and they’re lobbyists, not scientists. I have participated in enough science to understand that a theory has to fit the data, and I watch the denialists do it all wrong way round.

  17. #17 Dacks
    December 15, 2009

    The problem with deniers is that they’re, um, deniers. They haven’t put forth an alternate theory that can account for all the changes we see – polar melting, warmer temps, species migration. They simply refuse to accept the best hypothesis that we’ve got: that all of these things are caused by the huge amounts of CO2 (and a few other gases) that we’ve pumped into the atmosphere over the past half century or so. D’oh!

    At least the creationists have an alternate theory, and it’s one that always works!

  18. #18 wazza
    December 15, 2009

    Would you say this same argument holds together in the area of religious studies? I’m an atheist nearing the end of a BA in that field and I’ve encountered considerable disdain for Richard Dawkins because his in-depth knowledge of religious phenomena was lacking (one classmate complained that he said he was attacking all religion, but all his examples were from fundamentalist Christianity).

    Is this a case where you need hands-on knowledge from the edge to be able to make a valuable argument?

  19. #19 Stephanie Z
    December 15, 2009

    But, wazza, Dawkins does have an in-depth knowledge of the science supporting the existence of any god.

  20. #20 Alex
    December 15, 2009

    Is this a case where you need hands-on knowledge from the edge to be able to make a valuable argument?

    Depends. If the question is a claim like “Does God exist?” then PZ Myers would say no:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharyngula_(blog)#The_Courtier.27s_Reply

    If however, there’s a debate within a religion over an issue e.g. Did St. Paul believe such and such, or is such and such an integral part of a particular form of religious worship, then I guess yes, knowledge of religious studies/theology is probably better.

  21. #21 Kevin
    December 15, 2009

    http://www.earthwatch.org/

    This is a pretty good start I think. It’s expensive, but a week of actual field work under the researcher who started it is getting to the nitty gritty as one might say.

    I can’t wait until my son is old enough to go on these with me.

  22. #22 IndieGirl
    December 15, 2009

    Sorry for the off topic remark (its still about science though) -
    Recently I came across this post on a comment thread denying AGW – http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/09/hockey-stick-observed-in-noaa-ice-core-data/

    Since I am unfamiliar with the science, I could not point out why this was wrong. I think it is (since if it was this simple, science would have pointed it out long time ago)but I dont know what I am missing – can someone point the mistake or the reading material on it so that I can resume my debate.

    Thanks.

    And Greg, I have been a long time reader but delurked for the first time here.

  23. #23 Stephanie Z
    December 15, 2009

    Yes, IndieGirl, it’s simple. Global warming means there will be more energy in the system, not that any one part of the system will be warmer or colder.

  24. #24 daedalus2u
    December 15, 2009

    I have a masters degree in chemical engineering from MIT, and I read a lot. I work for a cement company, and they asked me to look into global warming and do a presentation to senior management on how they should respond. I approached the problem like I do all problems, go to the literature, read a gigantic amount, and then see how it all fits together.

    I recommended that they start migrating assets to higher ground, but that there was probably at least 20 years before Greenland melted, but beyond that things were kind of iffy. They commented on how frightening my presentation was. I wasn’t trying to be frightening, just give them good advice.

    The problem with the unknowns in the models is that they are pretty much all in one direction, the direction that would accelerate warming and sea level rise. There are multiple positive-feedback mechanisms that are neglected in the models because it is not known how to model them. In particular how ice sheets melt. Every ice sheet that has been observed to melt and collapse has done so catastrophically. The reason for this is because water is denser than ice, so when there is a layer of melt-water on top of an ice sheet, it is unstable, the pressure at the bottom of a column of water is higher than at the bottom of an equal height column of ice. Once the pressure at the bottom of the column of water exceeds the strength of the ice, the ice fails and the water propagates all the way to the bottom. In Greenland, that is through 3,000 meters of ice.

    The only reason the ice at the bottom of the 3,000 meter thick sheet is frozen is because there is heat conduction through the ice to the top. That conduction occurs because there is a temperature gradient. In the winter, the top gets very cold via radiation into space, geothermal heat from the bottom conducts up to that cold layer. At the bottom of the ice sheet, the ice is at the melting point. There is a great deal of “cold” stored in the 3,000 meter ice sheet; that is “stored” as sensible heat of ice at sub-freezing temperatures. The strength of ice declines rapidly as the melting point is approached and becomes essentially zero at the melting point. This is important because the only thing that keeps the 3,000 meter thick sheet from flowing to the sea is its structural strength, that and friction at the bottom.

    When melt-water flows down through the ice sheet, it only flows down until it reaches ice that is below the freezing point where the water freezes, depositing its heat of fusion and raising the temperature of that ice to the melting point. Heat can only flow down a temperature gradient, so ice at the melting point can’t absorb heat from ice that is below the melting point. When there is no temperature gradient for the geothermal heat to flow down, it doesn’t flow, it accumulates and melts ice.

    There have been estimates of the quantity of ice in the Greenland ice sheet, and how it is changing over time. At first they used aerial and satellite photography. Those measurements didn’t seem to indicate that there was that much melting. More recently gravity measurements have been done to directly measure the mass via gravitational interactions. Those gravity measurements indicate that the mass loss is higher than from the height measurements of the top. Exactly why there is a discrepancy isn’t clear, one idea is that the snow is not consolidating like it used to, so there is more light and fluffy stuff on top. I suspect that there is thermal expansion of the ice sheet due to warming, warming at depth due to melt-water run-down.

    Because water is denser than ice, when water flows to the bottom, it displaces the ice. At some point you get a transition from a 3,000 meter ice sheet with some water, to a river with a 3,000 meter thick layer of ice on top. Once the sheet starts to flow, it will be difficult to stop. The gravitational energy will be dissipated as heat at the bottom, generating more melt water.

    Everyone knows that the ice sheet isn’t going to melt like an ice cube, but they don’t know how to model it more realistically, so they assume “melt like an ice cube” and put the caveat that “this model assumes no catastrophic melting”.

    The other major positive-feedback issue is the melting of the permafrost. There is lots of carbon tied up in the permafrost, as carbon that can be metabolized by bacteria, and also as methane hydrates. When sea level goes up, what ever permafrost gets covered with seawater will melt. The new thermal boundary condition is the temperature of sea water which doesn’t get below freezing, not the extreme cold of the arctic in winter. There is lots and lots of methane hydrate that can be destabilized either by melting of permafrost or by the warming of the oceans. The only reason that the bottom of the ocean is cold, is because of the circulation of the ocean, water flows north via the Gulf stream, is cooled and sinks, then the cold deep water flows around the Earth eventually coming back to the surface. If something prevents the sinking of that cold salt water, for example a pulse of fresh water from melting ice from Greenland, the ocean circulation stops, geothermal heat raises the temperature of the bottom, the methane hydrates destabilize, methane comes to the surface. Methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than is CO2.

    CO2 in the atmosphere right now is enough that the Greenland ice sheet is not stable. Greenland will melt, the only question is timing. That will add 7 meters to sea level. CO2 is higher than it has been in over 10 million years. We are headed toward levels that were present when the Earth was ice-free, that is there were no Arctic or Antarctic ice sheets.

  25. #25 Lorne
    December 15, 2009

    @indiegirl

    The problem with those graphs becomes apparent if you look closely at the temperature scales used. The anticipated warming would push temperatures well off the top in every case.

  26. #27 Greg Laden
    December 15, 2009

    IndieGirl, thanks for delurking. One thing that may signal something wrong with that post is that it is purported to be data from “one greenland ice core” … so the possibility of cherry picking is real. Another clue is that ice cores do not provide temperatures. How could they? Temperature is not recorded in ice. SO, the cores must be the source of a chemical proxy of some sort. The person writing the post seems to not understand that. The third clue is that the post is on a well knonw denialist blog!

  27. #28 Dacks
    December 15, 2009

    daedalus2u,
    Nice recap of the Greenland ice sheet science. What you say about the positive feedbacks is what I hear from my climate scientist spouse. Apparently the most recent IPCC report originally planned to put the certainty level for anthropogenic climate change at a higher rate, but was persuaded that it would be politically better to leave the certainty estimate at 90%!

  28. #29 daedalus2u
    December 15, 2009

    Dacks, yes, that is a real problem. Making the models more “rigorous” means leaving out things that are not understood how to model, even if those things are known to be really bad.

  29. #30 sandman
    December 15, 2009

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=409454&c=2

    Here is an article I was looking at in the Times Higher Education

    It seems to suggest there may not be a consensus you are arguing about.

    Can you help help explain this to me?

  30. #31 Barn Owl
    December 15, 2009

    Sometimes I think that there’s an increase in the prevalence of a form of intellectual neoteny, in which egocentric and magical thinking persist into adulthood. For several years, I had a technician working in my lab who revealed himself to be a YEC. A friend insisted that I should get rid of him (“but he’s a creationist!”), but I didn’t think I could fire someone for this reason alone, if he was otherwise entirely competent, productive, and honest (he was actually very hardworking, and good at molecular and biochemical protocols). This YEC knew nothing about embryology or developmental genetics, and would respond with annoying incredulity to any mention of evolutionary developmental biology.

    At one point, I expressed my frustration with this technician’s stubborn godbag YECism to my mother, who has degrees in child development and developmental psychology, and years of experience working as a child life specialist at a large hospital. She thought that his incredulity, especially regarding the evo-devo evidence, was a form of egocentric thinking, and pointed out that you’re supposed to grow out of this intellectual conceit by late childhood. Since that discussion, I tend to attribute many instances of “I don’t know about that field or area of knowledge, therefore it doesn’t exist, or can be dismissed as bogus” to intellectual neoteny.

    Another variety of this intellectual neoteny is the persistence of magical thinking, often revealed on teh interwebz. One example is to dismiss the expertise or experience of someone you don’t like or who disagrees with you: “I don’t believe that you’ve done that/you know that, and my magical blog commentariat thinking makes that experience/knowledge go ‘POOF!’”

  31. #32 sandman
    December 15, 2009

    here is a quote:

    Historically, CO2 levels and temperatures have not marched in “lock step”. Over geological time, the only thing the two variables share is a random walk. The Late Ordovician period saw CO2 concentrations nearly 12 times higher than those of today – and it was also an Ice Age. In fact, over the past 600 million years, only on two occasions have CO2 levels been as low as they are now, at below 400 parts per million.

  32. #33 Stephanie Z
    December 15, 2009

    Sure, sandman @30, we can help you look at the article. Start with the premise: AGW is mass delusion. What evidence does the author provide for that claim? What characteristics that are common to mass delusion but not to correct consensus on scientific matters according to the author?

    How many scientific claims does the author make? Does he concentrate on the validity of the claims themselves or base his decisions about the strength of the theory on media presentations? Does he correctly state the consensus behind them, or does he choose, say, one person to represent the mass of climate modelers who agree on the current models and two to represent a model that isn’t endorsed by many more scientists than those two. Does he talk about the science behind the decisions of what to model?

    Does the author make fair comparisons, or does he compare modern CO2 levels to prior ones without any discussion of what the atmosphere looked like at those times? Does he compare motive reasonably, or does he try to put profit and concern for the environment on even footing for making the best decisions about the fate of the environment?

    Hope that all helps.

  33. #34 daedalus2u
    December 15, 2009

    Sandman, one of the comments by Andrew Peel has it right,

    “This isn’t brilliant, it’s anti-scientific drivel.”

    It is wrong in many ways, arguing from incredulity, arguing from this one speck is wrong, the whole mountain must be wrong.

    The problem for polar bears is that when there is no ice, they can’t catch seals for food. The only reason that polar bears can catch seals is because seals have to come up for air. If there is no contiguous ice sheet, the seals can come up anywhere, they are not forced to come up in the hole that the polar bear is standing next to.

  34. #35 IndieGirl
    December 15, 2009

    Thanks everybody!

  35. #36 Greg Laden
    December 15, 2009

    Sandman: Why should I be concerned about Philosopher Martin Cohen’s post structuralist philosophical analysis of a complex scientific issue? Jeesh.

  36. #37 sandman
    December 15, 2009

    Stephanie, Daedalus

    Thanks for trying to help me on this. I can see what you mean, sort of. Stephanie, I don’t really understand this sentence “What characteristics that are common to mass delusion but not to correct consensus on scientific matters according to the author?” I am trying to interpret this, but I don’t understand it. In what sense are you using “correct”?

    He does go after Al Gore mostly, in the article, not really the science itself. It appears that Gore, according to this article, is mostly exaggerating and using lies to underscore his arguments, and maybe not the best spokesperson to argue in support of AGW. Do climate scientists support his view of things, or do you/they disagree with Cohen’s assessment of Gore?

    What about Cohen’s claim of CO2 levels? Stephanie, you say that “he compare(s) modern CO2 levels to prior ones without any discussion of what the atmosphere looked like at those times?” So what did the atmosphere look like when CO2 levels were 12 times higher than today but we were in an ice age? Is his a misrepresentation of the facts?

    I must admit I have questions about the health of the Polar Bears. Are they really dying from starvation, or are they thriving as Cohen’s argues? So many questions. Is Antarctica actually melting? Apparently, Gore predicted the loss of the Ice at the north and south pole within five years, but others argue that it is bollocks. Is there somewhere that actually explains all these discrepancies?

    Thanks again for your help.

  37. #38 Stephanie Z
    December 15, 2009

    sandman, these aren’t discrepancies in many cases, but misrepresentations. Try RealClimate’s answers to the common ones.

  38. #39 psuedoperson
    December 16, 2009

    Summary: Only experts may have a valid opinion upon matters relating to the invariably complex subject at which they are experts.

    You’re not the first person to write about technocracy Greg. But my unexpert opinion on the matter is that it will never catch on.

    There is a big difference between accumulating knowledge/understanding on a subject, and choosing a prudent course of action when dealing with the implications of that knowledge.

  39. #40 Stephanie Z
    December 16, 2009

    Wow, pseudoperson, way to jump from offering more hands-on opportunities to get involved in science to changing our form of government. Of course, our current form of government already has some elements of technocracy, in just about everything under the executive branch. It’s saved our butts on multiple occasions. Unless, of course, you prefer to vote on whether Zicam nasal spray will destroy your sense of smell or on our country’s defense plans.

  40. #41 VolcanoMan
    December 16, 2009

    I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of your argument Greg, and as someone who has stood at the edge of knowledge for a brief time in research, it is frustrating that the only way we perceive this to be possible is through academia. Scientists supposedly want to demystify science, to make it accessible to the general public, but they are afraid to actually open the floodgates and allow someone who doesn’t have a Ph D, maybe not even a Masters, to contribute to science.

    It would certainly be a rare lay person indeed who would have the ability to contribute something other than volunteer manual labour to a project that an actual professor of something was doing. But the universities, journals and professional associations aren’t making it any easier. Since most scientific research is funded by governments using taxpayer dollars, it follows that the publications that result from that research should be freely available to taxpayers. And yet even some universities don’t have access to certain journals, and the ones that have the most complete access pay millions for it. What does that say about scientists’ desire for the public to be kept informed? You mentioned that only experts would be aware of the African ax data because popular books didn’t mention it. Why is this? Why should the literature be inaccessible to the public at large, should they be interested in that subject? Isn’t is ultimately the scientists who are keeping it this way, and the scientists who complain that people don’t care enough about science.

    If Guy B in your empowering vs. ensmartening scenario hadn’t just read The Elegant Universe, but the most recent literature in peer-reviewed journals specific to theoretical physics, if he had been teaching himself about quantum gravity and string theory, and if he had slogged through the calculus necessary to calculate wave functions and space-time curvature, I might not pick him over Guy A, but I would certainly be more inclined to take him seriously. If science isn’t a culture of elitism, scientists need to start encouraging people outside of academia to be scientists.

    Theoretical physics was an extreme example though; I think it unlikely to have someone with no formal training revolutionise physics. But someone with no formal training could potentially revolutionise ecology, conservation biology or geography (physical or human), and probably many other disciplines. Nevermind revolutionising anything though – with the proper resources available and a strong desire to do science, anyone can stand at the edge of knowledge and add valuable content, in dozens of scientific fields.

    The other benefit of this attitude is that the “rules” of science…reproducibility, statistical significance, peer-review, etc….would be imposed on every crackpot trying to make a scientific claim. Right now, all the crackpots have is the claim that the scientific establishment is too elitist to consider their “findings”, something that plays well with the Fox News-watching crowd. Give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves.

    I guess it’s about attitudes people have towards science, and those won’t change overnight (scientists’ vs. non-scientists’ attitudes). But scientists can make an effort.

  41. #42 psuedoperson
    December 16, 2009

    Hey Stephanie,Sadly I am unable to recommend an alternative form of government, as I am hardly an expert on that subject.

    Looking into the vast abyss beyond the limits of human knowledge may be entertaining. But when it comes to the practical application of said knowledge overspecialisation can be just as dangerous as ignorance. In my uninformed opinion of course.

  42. #43 Greg Laden
    December 16, 2009

    Pseudoperson, you can take it like that if you wish, but that is not what I said or meant. Only people who have close -in hands on experience … have that experience … and it is very valuable . And that is generally felt to be true and understood by most people. This is why science teaching generally involves lab experience and most newly written science standards require it, and why the AP science curriculum is based on labs.

    The other part of the equation that I want to develop further over the next few days is that it is possible for people to get involved in projects that give them some of this hands on experience, a chance to go to the edge of the floor as it were.

    There is a big difference between accumulating knowledge/understanding on a subject, and choosing a prudent course of action when dealing with the implications of that knowledge.

    That is very true, and it is certainly not necessary (or a good idea, probably) for the only people who chose course on policy to be the people with the most experience. But you might have fallen into the trap here of fetishizing the democratic process to the extent that each person having one vote = each person having the same level of expertise on any topic that comes along.

    As Stephanie touches on, the truth is that expertise is valued and used in our current system. Have you ever been to a public meeting that was part of the regulatory process? You should do so some time. Go to a meeting that you have no direct stake in so you can try to be objective. Learn what you can about the topic at hand before you go. Listen to what Teh Peoplz say about the issue …. they will have real, valid important concerns, but many will have close to zero understanding of when they walk in of the necessary technology, science, law and regulatory framework. It is very interesting to observe.

  43. #44 Greg Laden
    December 16, 2009

    VolcanoMan: Your comment makes me think you snuck into my house and read my next post on this matter (which is scheduled for tomorrow AM …. I’m delaying by one day for those of you who were expecting it today).

    DID YOU SNEAK INTO MY HOUSE?????

  44. #45 VolcanoMan
    December 16, 2009

    No Greg, I snuck into your brain…hahahahaha!!!

  45. #46 Albatrossity
    December 16, 2009

    Excellent post, Greg. I’ve long been convinced that the difference between a good scientist and the average layperson is that the scientist is quite comfortable out there on the edge of knowledge, while the average layperson is VERY uncomfortable with that level of uncertainty. Religion, denialism, Reaganomics all have in common that the adherents are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and thus prefer the sound-bite certain explanation to the nuanced uncertainty about reality.

  46. #47 Angel
    December 17, 2009

    Two parts:
    1. For us older folks, the memory of a library, the smell of old books the tactile feel of wondering the stacks – WOW, library porn. My mother used the university library as a babysitter for me when she was doing her MS in library science. Don’t miss card catalog searching; computer and internet much more efficient but you miss the “happy accident” discoveries. This is an image of pure joy to me.

    2. The edge. Because of time spent in libraries I was aware of “the edge of knowledge” since grade school. First hand standing there occurred while taking classes to fill in requirements to apply for a Master’s program. The professor took us to the basement and showed us an old SEM used for training students pulled up the image of the specimen in the chamber explaining that if was not published yet and our class was the only group outside of the lab that had seen it or knew it existed. That trill kept me going for quite some time. We called it “Star Treking.” Part of me misses that time now that my life is different. But knowledge that it exists and what it takes to stand there is priceless and I would not exchange it for the world.

    How you could belittle or deny it baffles me.

  47. #48 Anna K.
    December 17, 2009

    I used to be astounded at the number of highly educated people I met who didn’t seem to have a clue about what distinguishes science from pseudoscience. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the fact that I had ‘done science’ made such a difference.

    I see a lot of this when it comes to smart, well-educated people I know who don’t see why ID is problematic.

    Agree wholeheartedly that the way to broaden understanding and appreciation for science is to get more people involved.

  48. #49 Scotlyn
    December 18, 2009

    Volcano man took the wind out of my sails, too. There’s nothing I’d like more than to track a particular subject that’s bugging me through the scientific lit – but as I live in the country and have no physical library near, and I have no institutional access to peer-reviewed journals, I would have to have a very rich uncle or two just to be as well-read as I’d like to be. I’m a complete scientific layperson – but almost constantly overcome with curiosity. BA in Anthropology – but a drop-out from my PhD programme. There came a point – basically where my reading the work of others came to an end and my own fieldwork was supposed to start – when I realised I lacked some of the essential personal resources – persistence, patience, doggedness, etc. to pull it off. Through a chain of strange co-incidences, possibly where I was when I gave up on the field work, I became qualified in acupuncture instead, which I practice as a secondary therapy (ie not as a replacement for standard medicine), having taken comfort from Daniel Moerman’s “Placebo and the Meaning Response” and similar understandings of the role of non-standard therapies in the cultural meaning of illness and health. Whatever about the physiological underpinnings of acupuncture, which can only be said to be either uncertain or (if sceptics are correct) non-existent, the people who developed acupuncture did understand a great deal about how people work – and that has not changed a great deal in 2,000 years. It is also possible that the people who initially developed acupuncture were observers working on a different “edge” at the time – their development appears historically to have followed internal discoveries of the workings of their bodies when undergoing a type of training known as sexual cultivation – not unallied to modern Tai Chi and Qi Gong. (This last is a bit of a digression, but seemed to be necessary as a full and frank “confession” – I am well aware of the blog I am on and what people are likely to make of it).

    In any case, being a self-confessed dilettante with little of the doggedness required for primary research, I would nevertheless like to be able to go straight to the scientific source when I am curious about something – the work and publications of those who are currently working at “the edge”. At least I know those sources are there, enticingly, behind that pay-per-view firewall – I firewall I run into at least 10-12 times a month, depending on what I am trying to find out.

    But lots of people don’t even know that – they only know the science that appears in newspapers with a line like “science says” or “scientists now believe” and such wordings which in and of themselves perpetuate the falsehood that a) science is a monolith and b) science is about what to “believe” rather than about how to “know” and how to compare what is “known” to the evidence.

    Apologies for the length – I only meant to say – excellent post, and please help open up the archives of research to us ordinary folk.