A Few Things Ill Considered

Fighting different battles

So the blogosphere has been abuzz over a recent Q&A Keith Kloor did with Judy Curry, the lengthy comment thread is where most of the interesting stuff is. I actually wish to opine on the whole sorry mess but that will be in a later post. Her biggest beef is about what she sees as “tribalism”, but I only want to highlight with this post a comment on a follow up thread that really jumped out at me:


Kate says:

This is the fight that will define the twenty-first century as either a time when mankind advances due to honest enterprise, quality science, and technical achievement…or we are subjugated by government micro-regulation from manipulative control freaks based on false and slanted data from grant recipients with no scruples.

Not only are we dealing with different “tribes”, but we are fighting completely different battles! The answer immediately following is apropos, IMO.

Skip? A comment about naratives?

I would like to finish the post highlighting a much more rational and substantive comment from the always eloquent and insightful Michael Tobis:

To respond to the events since Nov 19 by calling for regrouping and examining the contents of the WG I report, as Judith Curry recommends, is to me profoundly problematic.

I absolutely agree that it is a good thing that there is a burgeoning community of amateurs interested in WG I problems, and that an opportunity to improve the practice of science exists in their demand for openness. The amateurs are potential allies in moving science off a 19th century model based on tight social networks to a 21st century model based on openness and sharing of methods and data. On this I completely agree.

But it makes no sense to enforce this model retroactively and impose hoped-for future norms on past behaviors. Various groups of science insiders have concluded that both Jones and Mann have behaved according to the extant norms of pure science; these norms evolved in different technical and social circumstances. It’s possible to go on at length about expectations and it may be fruitful to do so, but I want to make a key point.

McIntyre, Hughes, Liljegren etc. may be perfectly sincere, and Mann, Jones, etc. may not be saints, but they are also sincere and well-intentioned. The implication that anything revealed by the emails rises to gross malfeasance is persistent in the comments in their blogs and often insinuated in the articles. This itself is an enormous problem in the amateur climatology blogs.

If we weren’t in such disatrous straits, it would be amusing to note how, as the work is slowly replicated in amateur circles, we find that station placement isn’t important, the observational record is more or less as reported, and presumably once someone gets a serious millenial reconstruction together it will fit right in the spaghetti diagram of AR4. In other words, the old fashioned and clubby version of science (of which, I want to say, I am far from a beneficiary) indeed comes up with the right results.

So, 1) normal behavior constrained by existing ethical principles and 2) broadly correct results.

Yet, we have this repulsive word “climategate”. We have press reports insinuating gross malpractive. We have lawsuits instigated at the gubernatorial level against EPA based on the purported malfeasance “revealed” by the CRU emails. And now we have retroactive investigations of some two bit grant (“almost half a million dollars” over seven years may sound like a lot to anyone who hasn’t put together science grant proposals; this might have been almost enough to support a grad student) by the Virginia state attorney general, egged on by the inexcusable Fred Singer.

And we have ” ‘Since it’s public money, there’s enough controversy to look in to the possible manipulation of data,’ says Dr. Charles Battig, president of the nonprofit Piedmont Chapter Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment, a group that doubts the underpinnings of climate change theory.”

http://is.gd/bQ3tq

Nothing in the actual record is used to support this repulsive witch hunt. There is merely “enough controversy”.

It is absolutely fine to try to reformulate the discussions of WG I matters in a less confrontational way. Zeke Hausfather is doing a good job of this over at Liljegren’s, for instance.

It is absolutely irresponsible to take this moment, the moment when the excesses of the critics of climate scientists are reaching their most extreme crescendo, to be bending over backwards to make peace with them, though. We cannot possibly ignore the completely disproportionate damage they have done and are continuing to do.

The key issue here is not scientific. That’s obvious. When things are done with increased formality and openness, they seem to regularly come to the same conclusions, albeit more slowly.

We should welcome the increased attention to science in detail, and not try to shut it down. But we shouldn’t allow that to distract us from the facts.

The facts are that the real issues here are 1) injustice to innocent individuals, 2) an attack on scientific practice, 3) the vulnerability of conventional science communication channels to deliberate distortion by political forces and 4) fodder for potent propaganda from those who would like to distract us from the real open questions.

It is urgent and crucial that we discuss policy, adaptation and mitigation, about the future of civilization and the sustainability of the planet. If people want to spend years of their lives arguing about two paragraphs in an obscure journal about bristlecone pines, that is a peculiar hobby, but if that sort of thing is used to displace discussion about the enormous systemic problems we actually face, that is a deep and fundamental problem.

These are the “issues and questions we should be talking about”.

To first order, the work of WG I is done. The Charney sensitivity is around 3 C, with a range of 1.5 – 6 C. Even on the low side that is worth worrying about. Risk weighted that range is more than enough to require action.

Going back to physical science is a perfect delaying tactic for those who are motivated by ideology or financial interest (often both) to want to delay, but the chances that S << 1.5 C are probably very low and in any case are not high enough to support such a delay. Those of us who are interested, myself included, should keep talking about it. But to take the uncertainty in WG I results as the key lesson of this fiasco is, (man, I'm casting about for an adequate adjective... um, is there a polite word for "toxic, perverse, hugely destructive and insane"?) no damn good.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Baumholder
    May 2, 2010

    Dubious presuppositions:

    The amateurs are potential allies in moving science off a 19th century model based on tight social networks to a 21st century model based on openness and sharing of methods and data. On this I completely agree.

    But it makes no sense to enforce this model retroactively and impose hoped-for future norms on past behaviors.

    You can have “tight social networks” and “openness and sharing of methods and data”. Furthermore, “openness and sharing of methods and data” is not a “21st century model”. The model dates at least to the founding of the Royal Society in 1660, and has always been a fundamental element of US Patent law.

    The use of the term “retroactively” in this context is therefore problematical, and I would suggest it’s a thin excuse for unscientific behaviour in the ranks of climatology.

  2. #2 barry
    May 2, 2010

    He’s wrong. They are bad scientists. He’s pretending otherwise.

    Your issue is that Tobis doesn’t condemn climatologists, is it?

    19th century science was done in ‘tight circles’, or do you think Darwin’s notebooks were freely distributed to a demanding public? Is it just climatologists, or does the pay wall in front of most online studies, the restricted access to intellectual property (data) in all sciences, suggest that “unscientific behaviour” is common throughout the science communities?

  3. #3 mandas
    May 2, 2010

    I am not sure who barry thinks is wrong, and I have no idea who he thinks are ‘bad scientists’. But I can also say that the ‘pay wall’ in front of most on-line studies has nothing to do with restricting access, and everything to do with paying for access to journals, just like subscribing to them or buying them off the shelf. And I can absolutely confirm that this NEVER restricts access to journals to scientists, because any organisation which includes scientists conducting research will pay the necessary fees to allow their scientists to access paid on-line journals. Certainly every university does (even students can access journals).

    But as coby has suggested here, there are two issues at stake here, and the science of climatology is NOT the core issue; despite which the denialist community is suggesting that, because they don’t have access to data to disprove the science, then the science is obviously flawed and there is a huge global conspiracy etc etc ad nauseum.

    Climatology and the ‘behaviour’ of organisations like CRU and people like Phil Jones are no different to just about every other scientific body in the world. You may complain that is a bad thing, and that things should change. But that does NOT mean that climatology is flawed and that scientists know that and are actively involved in a cover up and/or a conspiracy.

    I would argue that openness and access to data are important, but that also does not mean that every conspiracy theorist, blogger and amateur scientist MUST be given free and unfettered access to every piece of data ever collected. Firstly, because it would be impractical and extremely expensive, and secondly because most of the people who are complaining about non-access have no real need to have access – except for their own polticial agendas, and quite frankly, that is not a good enough reason.

    The internet has made fundamental changes to how data and information is shared. Research is so much easier than it was 20 (or even 10) years ago – can anyone remember trying to find papers from journals when it involved spending days and weeks in a library pouring over old magazines? Now, the same thing can be done with a few minutes in front of a computer. Coby hit the nail on the head perfectly about retrospectivity, and it is disengenuous to judge past activities by the standards of today. Things ARE becoming more open and transparent (and that is a good thing), and that is an evolutionary process which has been underway for some time. But the conspiracy theorists and deniers have no case with their continued attacks and agenda motivated cries of ‘climategate’ etc (why does every issue like this have to end in ‘gate’??). The only reason they do so is because they have lost the science battle and are focussing on the old illusionist’s trick of distraction. But like an illusionist, their whole case is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

  4. #4 coby
    May 2, 2010

    While I agree with Michael’s quoted comment I can not take the credit for writing it. mandas’ approval needs to be passed on to MT.