The Intersection

I just got done with a great event at the National Center for Atmospheric Research here in Boulder, CO. I would estimate that 140 people attended, and I gave a talk that combined elements of my bookstore presentation on Storm World with a PowerPoint show and a number of Nisbet-Mooney slides and analyses. I spoke for about 45 minutes, after which many scientists asked questions.

i-e5f670ad9df6fd1286ad4dc186d27155-gray_satellites.jpg Among those scientists was William Gray, famed hurricane specialist from Colorado State University, who came down from Fort Collins for the talk. Gray is heavily featured in the book, and his name pops up in pretty much all the reviews of it. I must admit I spoke with some trepidation, having not only Gray but his onetime student Greg Holland, who directs the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division at NCAR, in the audience. Safe to say that both of these experts, who are featured in the book (and who disagree about hurricanes and global warming), know a great deal more about the science than I do!

But in the event, people seemed to think I got the science more or less right. The highlight for me (and for many in the audience, I think) came when Bill Gray got up and asked his question. If I can paraphrase, in essence he asked whether the scientists who support human-caused global warming are doing so in part because of government research funding–or in other words, doesn’t such funding create a strong incentive for researchers who apply for grants to assume that global warming is actually a “problem” in the first place, and build their research around that assumption?

I replied that there ought to be a strong contrary incentive: Namely, any scientist who unseats the global warming consensus, who proves that it isn’t a problem, ought to be able to win quite a lot of fame and renown for doing so. And so, once again, science ought to check itself…

In any event the exchange was quite friendly and I was honored to have both Gray and Holland–without whom this event wouldn’t have happened–in the crowd. (I’m also pleased to say that Phil Plait, of the great blog Bad Astronomy, was present.) It was certainly quite an experience to have people that you’ve written about giving their take on your book and asking you questions–but I think I’m a lucky author to have had that experience. And I would add that the folks who came out yesterday, many of them scientists, had a rare opportunity in that they got to see such a public interaction between a science writer and his subjects.

Anyways on to Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore tonight…..

Comments

  1. #1 Jen
    July 25, 2007

    Thank you for an interesting event. I agreed with most of what you said and I thought you did a really good job handling to q&a.

    The comments made by Bill Gray about science and financial incentives really annoyed me. The majority of the scientists that I know are more driven by curiosity and a sense of purpose than financial gain. In the professional choices that I have had to make in my life, choosing science over other disciplines and advancing my science career have always resulted in a lower salary and complicated moves around the country. I am not studying climate because it is a well-funded research area or an easy career, but instead because I think that climate change is a fascinating scientific problem of great societal relevance.

    One last thought — When the balance of the evidence suggests that we have a climate crisis on our hands, the funding should follow the science that is the most promising for helping us understand the most uncertain things with the most potential for devastating impacts, not unseating what we has been well-established and accepted by the climate community. If Bill Gray (or any other “skeptic”) had convincing scientific evidence that humans are not increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere or a better explanation for why the global temperature is increasing, I’m sure it would be on the front page of Science or Nature. Although I’m sure many researchers have thought about these issues (Scientists are a skeptical bunch!), an alternate scientific explanation hasn’t emerged.

  2. #2 Mark P
    July 25, 2007

    It’s odd that Gray’s question appears to demonstrate a (perhaps intentional) misunderstanding of the process of climate science and public funding. The fact is that every atmospheric scientist looks at essentially the same data, whether it’s from inferred temperature histories, atmospheric constituent monitoring, satellite observations or ground station measurements. The only way to argue against AGW from the data is to show an alternative explanation for the data, or to show that there are flaws in the data. There are — what, around 14 or so major climate models? Is he expecting someone to develop a new climate model that intentionally finds AGW not to be true? Is he suggesting that someone write a proposal to do that? I really don’t understand the thrust of his question, given that he surely must understand the process.

  3. #3 Fred Bortz
    July 25, 2007

    Mark P:
    There are — what, around 14 or so major climate models? Is he expecting someone to develop a new climate model that intentionally finds AGW not to be true? Is he suggesting that someone write a proposal to do that?

    One of the most interesting points Chris makes in Storm World (click my name for my review) is the ongoing disagreement between camps of people who emphasis data collection, like Gray, and people who prefer to use such data to refine their theories/models.

    Gray, to oversimplify things, has very little faith in anyone’s predictive models, so he looks for trends in the data that might suggest future climates. It’s not a bad approach as long as natural effects overwhelm human ones. Unfortunately, with anthropogenic increases in atmospheric CO2, it’s pretty hard to justify looking at the data without accounting for what the models project.

  4. #4 MarkH
    July 25, 2007

    Hate to say it but it sounds like the classic crank attack. When they can’t win on the merits, they resort to saying the findings are part of the peer-review/grant funding conspiracy to keep dissenting views out. Peer review doesn’t work this way, and grant-reviewers don’t sit around thinking about towing the party line.

    You get this exact same argument from the HIV/AIDS denialists, the creationists, the cigarette cranks…It’s just another conspiratorial viewpoint.

  5. #5 Stephen Berg
    July 25, 2007

    I just bought your book and am really looking forward to reading it. The excellent review at RealClimate.org gave me quite a bit of extra incentive to get it, not like I ever doubted your talents!

    I hope all’s well and have a great summer!

  6. #6 Dano
    July 25, 2007

    Chris,

    The old pitcher is going to tell you what pitch I’m going to throw: what about scientists calling it a ‘climate crisis’ vs decision-makers calling it a ‘climate crisis’, and what this means in public discourse.

    Best,

    D

  7. #7 Mark P
    July 25, 2007

    Fred, the approach of looking for trends to predict future climate is like the persistence method of weather forecasting: it will do tomorrow what it did today. That also is a pretty decent forecasting method, but it misses all the important weather events, which are generally characterized by change rather than persistence. It is at best a naive approach. I am not familiar with Gray’s work, but it still sounds like he is ignorant of science. Let’s be generous and say he’s being disingenuous. How could he practice “science” for many years without understanding the process? Science is, after all, the process of developing a model of some system, wheather it’s climate or the cosmos. If there is no model, it’s just history.

  8. #8 Fred Bortz
    July 25, 2007

    Mark P.,

    I’m not defending Gray, but he certainly knows science and is a formidable practitioner. He takes an empirical approach and is mistrustful of models. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think he has allowed himself to get trapped in a mindset that is not very helpful these days.

    As Chris notes, he is a central “character” in Storm World, and, like a literary character, he has his strong points and flaws.

    My review (click my name) discusses that a bit, but it’s much better to read the book. You’ll get a nuanced picture of Dr. Gray that way.

  9. #9 Chris C
    July 26, 2007

    A note on Bill Gray:

    Prof. Gray is, more or less, the man when it comes to tropical cyclones (hurricanes for the Americans). He has a long and proven track record of exceptional research in the field.

    Bill Gray is the figurehead of the data-driven empiricists, who as other posters have pointed out, use analysis of observations to predict future events. This is different from persistence forecasting. It’s more along the lines of:

    -90% of event X are preceded by another event Y
    -80% of event X are also preceded by another event Z
    -we can conclude that something is going on in Y and Z that causes X to be more likely.

    Using these methods, you can guess when an event like a tropical cyclone is likely to occur, by watching out for the triggering events. It also gives you a good start in developing a more theory based approach. The field is, by nature, highly statistical.

    Gray is very skeptical of the more “first principles” based dynamical approach. And until quite recently, the empirical approach was much better in predicting genesis. However, it is my own opinion that the dynamic models are the way of the future, and they have recently gotten to be on par with the empirical methods.

    That doesn’t mean that the empirical methods don’t have a role to play, and Grey will likely be at the forefront.

  10. #10 Chris C
    July 26, 2007

    As an aside, real climate has an article on Gray’s forays into AGW:

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/04/gray-on-agw/

  11. #11 Mark UK
    July 26, 2007

    It’s difficult to form a nuanced picture of people that throw around rubbish about scientists just supporting the theory of global warming because of funding. If that is the kind of argument you are using you can not reasonably be expected to be taken seriously.

    Come up with new data, theories or anything at all. Show where the current theory is wrong and do so convincingly considering all the available evidence.

    The skeptics are clutching at the last straws for some time now and this weird sense of giving respect where it is not due is out of date.

  12. #12 Fred Bortz
    July 26, 2007

    Mark UK:
    It’s difficult to form a nuanced picture of people that throw around rubbish…

    Gray is a human being. Human beings have nuances.

    But you seem to prefer a caricature.

    I, on the other hand, was fascinated to see how such a great scientist by many accounts has allowed himself to get caught up in advocating a view that does indeed appear to be rubbish.

    Science is a human endeavor, with all the positives and negatives that implies. If you allow yourself to accept caricatures, then you cast doubt on your ability to deal with nuance.

    Read Storm World if you want to understand the mixed feelings people have about Gray.

  13. #13 SLC
    July 26, 2007

    Re Fred Bortz

    1. Dr. Gray would be far from the first competent scientist to go off the rails. One could list such eminent scientists as Linus Pauling, Peter Duesberg, J. Allen Hynek, William Shockley, and Brian Josephson as examples of scientists who engaged in dubious pursuits after their productive periods ended.

    2. As somebody who has had substantial experience in computer modeling, I can testify as to the reluctance of people who got into a particular field before the advent of high speed computers to accept the results of computer modeling. I suspect that part of the reason is that they don’t understand the mathematical processes that underpin the development of computer models, nor do they understand concepts like calibration and validation (my experience indicates that the naysayers mistake calibration for fudging).

  14. #14 Mark P
    July 26, 2007

    I used the persistence model as a simple rather than an exact analogy. I realize that Gray’s approach is more complex than that. However, without the theory, it is essentially meaningless for climate-related predictions, however useful it might be for synoptic hurricane forecasting. Since theory = model, without the first-principles theory behind it, his approach is simply history. He may or may not trust the models, but that has absolutely nothing to do with his suggestion that the idea of AGW is pursued for monetary reasons.

  15. #15 Lance
    July 26, 2007

    Jen,

    You say

    “I am not studying climate because it is a well-funded research area or an easy career, but instead because I think that climate change is a fascinating scientific problem of great societal relevance.”

    It would appear that you have preconcieved notions about AGW that would preclude your being an objective observer. You seem to have already concluded that AGW exists and that it is a “problem of great relevance to society”.

    I became a scientist to follow the evidence wherever it leads and to leave questions of “relevance” to the likes of philosophers, political “scientists” and ethicists.

    I am much more excited to have my assumptions about the universe challenged than confirmed. That is where true scientific advancement takes place.

  16. #16 Jen
    July 26, 2007

    Scientists form and test hypotheses using observations and physical principles. The beauty of science is that it is objective, subject to change, and self-correcting. There are plenty of people who treat their “beliefs” in climate change with a religious and unquestioning fervor. There are also plenty of people with strong opinions about climate change who have not taken the time to educate themselves in the facts. I am not these people. I have invested a lot into trying to understand and question the evidence for/against climate change. I have formed my scientific opinion based on my assessment of the current state of knowledge.

    Taking my science hat off – I do believe that increasing greenhouse gases should be of some concern to anyone living on this planet. I certainly think that I am more aware of these concerns than your average citizen because I am surrounded by the science every day. When the evidence shows that humans are altering the climate, I think it is a “problem of great relevance to society”. I don’t think scientists can ignore questions of “relevance”. I think we have a responsibility to remain objective AND to discuss the societal relevance of our findings. Doing all of this requires a clear distinction between one’s scientific opinions and one’s personal opinions.

    Jen

  17. #17 Dano
    July 26, 2007

    Lance, I went into my field because it was relevant and useful, and I expanded it to the applied side. It hasn’t affected my ability to practice. Nonetheless,

    You could possibly be a hard scientist, or you could be a troll, or a denialist. But there are many people who went into their field because of relevance. Following your logic to its conclusions, you obviously don’t take medicine.

    Best,

    D

  18. #18 Eli Rabett
    July 28, 2007

    Chris, it is not what Gray says about or to you when you are there. It is about what he says to others, including the media. Folk like Seitz, Singer and Lindzen have been playing these games for years without being called on it, sometimes because they have fooled people (that Bill Gray is such a nice guy), partially because people want to avoid confrontation.

  19. #19 Lance
    July 30, 2007

    Jen,

    Your response was thoughtful and informative. I would urge you to remember that skepticism is at the heart of meaningful scientific inquiry. I have also spent a great deal of time reviewing the literature on AGW although my feild is actually physics. I see no impending peril or great social relevance to the data, unless undestanding the natural workings of the climate system of our planet counts.

    I do not claim to be a science-droid that only became a scientist out of the love of the scientific method. I have political and emotional proclivities like anyone else.

    However, you seem to be saying that your whole purpose for becoming a climate scientist was in response to the threat posed by AGW. What if it turns out there isn’t one? What if it turns out nothing of the sort is happening? Kind’a takes the holy crusade aspect out of it doesn’t it? Suddenly its just so much weather your studying.

    Are you still going to be stoked to drill for ice cores or measure lake sediments if the fate of humanity doesn’t hang in the balance?

    I think folks like James Hansen and Gavin Shmidt like being the Indiana Jones of climate change. Are you still going to want to play if you’re not Laura Croft Carbon Raider?

    I must admit that my current research using electron spin resonance to investigate superoxides in rat blood doesn’t rate on the sexy scale with saving the planet. But I will not be looking for the results to justify my preconceived notions about the way the world works either.

  20. #20 Lance
    July 30, 2007

    Dano,

    Show me a convincing double blind study showing that CO2 will raise the planets temp to dangerous levels and I’ll take my carbon cap medicine.

    Would you take a prohibitively espensive pill that was based on a computer simulation of your body for a disease that they really couldn’t prove you had but would supposedly make you sick years in the future? Oh, and they would also insist you change your diet from the food you like and that was plentiful to food that was scarce, unappetizing and expensive.

    Silly question of course you would and you would insist everyone else take it too.

    No thanks.

  21. #21 Fred Bortz
    July 30, 2007

    Lance,

    This is a rather long post, with this bottom line: I wish you, Jen, and the other young scientists who visit here interesting careers where you can pursue your passions and change the world for the better. Right now, you need to focus on your specialty, but I encourage you to branch out later.

    As a fellow physicist, probably 35 years displaced from you but similarly ardent about my obscure graduate work, I found your comments to Jen interesting.

    It took me about 20 years and multiple job changes to realize that my choice of field was easy: I love physics and the peculiarly interesting way we physicists tend to look at the world, no matter what our specialties.

    But I also realized that working as a physicist opened many different paths. Conventional success lies in intense specialization, but that was not for me. I ended up in outreach capacities after a while.

    Then I realized my natural audience was not my colleagues but rather adolescents. Twelve years ago, with a job turning sour and my family situation allowing for a crazy leap, I moved to writing full-time, primarily for adolescents. It allowed me to explore anything in science I wanted to, and to reach out to kids–subversive work in the best sense of the word.

    In one of my recent books (click my name), I returned to my love of physics and wrote for an older group, adults included. I’m hoping to get out to colleges to talk about it, especially if they also have connections to local K-12 schools that pay for visiting authors.

    Then I can tell both college students and younger readers that I LOVE PHYSICS, and good things have happened because of that.

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