The Intersection

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As I noted previously on this blog, while in Vancouver I did a radio show on global warming in which one of many “skeptic” callers used the example of noted MIT oceanographer Carl Wunsch, and an alleged quotation from him, to cast doubt on the latest science. Having come across Wunsch’s name several times in the context of working on Storm World, I was immediately suspicious that the caller was misrepresenting Wunsch, and in fact, eventually called him out on it.

Now I see (via the DeSmogBlog) that there’s an addendum to all this. According to the Guardian, Wunsch is

….considering legal action after he says he was duped into appearing in a Channel 4 documentary that claimed man-made global warming is a myth. Carl Wunsch, professor of physical oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the film, The Great Global Warming Swindle, was ‘grossly distorted’ and ‘as close to pure propaganda as anything since World War Two’.”considering legal action after he says he was duped into appearing in a Channel 4 documentary that claimed man-made global warming is a myth.”

Wunsch further elaborates on his complaint here.

I haven’t seen the film, but I do know this: It’s a typical creationist tactic to find a mainstream scientist, cherry pick something he’s written that discusses various technical complexities, or something that he’s said on that front, and so paint the scientist as a “skeptic” of evolution. It sounds as though precisely this may have been done to Wunsch on climate change with the latest documentary.

But now let’s turn the argument around, focusing on scientists’ communication skills and their political savvy. Consider this piece by Wunsch, which is extremely ripe for cherry-picking by global warming “skeptics.” The article piles on the doubts until the very, very end, only then conceding that despite these caveats and uncertainties, the mainstream understanding is probably right:

Thus at bottom, it is very difficult to separate human induced change from natural change, certainly not with the confidence we all seek. In these circumstances, it is essential to remember that the inability to prove human-induced change is not the same thing as a demonstration of its absence. It is probably true that most scientists would assign a very high probability that human-induced change is already strongly present in the climate system, while at the same time agreeing that clear-cut proof is not now available and may not be available for a long-time to come, if ever. Public policy has to be made on the basis of probabilities, not firm proof.

Intellectually honest people would read Wunsch’s piece til the end and thus not misrepresent him; but at the same time, by so deeply burying the lede, there’s no doubt that Wunsch very poorly framed his argument. Did Wunsch really have to write this article in such a way that it’s so incredibly prone to misrepresentation?

It’s not Wunsch’s fault that skeptics are now misusing him to advance their own goals. But in this highly politicized area, it would behoove scientists to become much more attuned to how their work is likely to be twisted, and their reputations abused. And knowing this, perhaps they should consider whether they can at least avoid making it so easy for the other side…..

Comments

  1. #1 Dano
    March 13, 2007

    And knowing this, perhaps they should consider whether they can at least avoid making it so easy for the other side…..

    Yes, Chris, but surprisingly folks are human, with short memories and naivete and some lack savvy or experience in such matters. Perhaps it is best that third parties who look for such mendacity should point out these transgressions. Some parties have a megaphone due to the success of their past pointing out of transgressions…

    Best,

    D

  2. #2 P.M.Bryant
    March 13, 2007

    That was a perfectly reasonable and informative article. If we start worrying too much about how people who are out to purposely misrepresent us are going to do it, then we will impede communication between those of us who actually care about the truth — which, I believe, includes most people.

    It is far more important to worry about communicating effectively to people willing to listen — and later take the misrepresenters to task. If the former job is done right, the credibility gained will help dramatically with the latter.

  3. #3 dhp
    March 13, 2007

    But, Chris, I can’t talk that way because I’m a scientist! I have role expectations to fulfill!

  4. #4 Dark Tent
    March 13, 2007

    I think it’s as good an example (perhaps better) of poor writing as it is of poor framing.

    My tenth grade English teacher would have been all over that piece. “What’s your thesis statement? Where is it? It should be right up there at the top”

    His last sentence should have been his first — but for some, his first sentence was his last.

    “most scientists would assign a very high probability that human-induced change is already strongly present in the climate system, while at the same time agreeing that clear-cut proof is not now available and may not be available for a long-time to come, if ever. Public policy has to be made on the basis of probabilities, not firm proof.”

    There’s nothing at all wrong with describing the problem of ferreting the human signal for global warming out of the noise, but one must be careful — and one is responsible for one’s own ambiguous and or/sloppy writing.

  5. #5 Greg
    March 13, 2007

    I agree with you, Chris. It’s all well & good to take the “high road,” aim for the “reasonable” “educated” (and therefore tiny) audience of the already converted (or rather “of the faith” from the beginning), but when dealing with issues of deadly seriousness like teaching evolution or global warming, it’s critical to get to the point up front and clearly, then lay out the evidence, consider opposing arguments, etc. Progressive thinkers have acted in a self-defeating, nuanced, complexity-admitting way and have paid the price of continual social & political defeats.

  6. #6 Dark Tent
    March 13, 2007

    Perhaps we need scientists to take a less nuanced — more caveman-like — approach to the problem…

    “Cave hot, ugh,
    We did, you, me”

  7. #7 David Roberts
    March 13, 2007

    I can’t add anything to this post but “hell yes!” A point that can’t be made often enough.

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