Talking to the layfolk

This from off in the comments at Slashdot, brought to my attention by planet30 (thanks VM). Yes, I kn ow I’m a layperson now myself, but some shreds of the old knowledge still cling. Related thought: just about everyone knows they aren’t able to understand, or make a meaningful contribution to, general relativity or quantum mechanics or number theory (except Cantors diagonal proof, of course, which every wacko knows is wrong). Somehow, however, people imagine that they understand climate science :-(.

Being a scientist but not of the climate variety, I’ve got to say ‘No’. In a lot of cases, if not most, dialogue on the merits of your scientific work is simply impossible with a layperson.

I work with this stuff. Every day. 40 (well more like 50-60) hours a week. It took years of study for me (and everyone else) just to get to the level where you can properly understand what it is, exactly, that I do. That’s what being an expert at something entails. Now when I get into a dispute with someone, they typically have the same level of expertise. They know more or less everything I do. I know what they’re saying, and they usually know what I’m saying.

Now you bring into that situation some layperson with their religious reasons or ideological reasons or crank personality, who wants to dispute the results of my work. So they pore over it, and they simply don’t understand it. (And ignorance breeds arrogance more often than humility, as Lincoln said) But they think they do. And then they formulate their criticism. Even if that criticism makes sense (often not), it’s typically wrong at the most basic level. And that will practically always be the case – because there’s virtually *nothing* in the way of criticism that a beginner would be able to think of that an expert hadn’t thought about already. You’re just not going to find a professor of physics having made a mistake of forgetting the first law of thermodynamics.

Now I’m happy to defend my science against legitimate, good, criticism. But a scientific debate is *NOT* where anybody should be TEACHING anybody science. What kind of ‘debate’ is it if every answer amounts to “That’s not what that word means, read a damn textbook.” It’s not the scientists who are being arrogant then. Hell, since when didn’t scientists bend over backwards to educate the public? We write textbooks, and popular-scientific accounts [And blog posts! -WMC]. Research gets published in journals for everyone to see, etc. It’s not like we’re keeping it a big secret – The problem is that some people are simply unwilling to learn, yet arrogant enough to believe they should be entitled to ‘debate’ with me, and that I should be personally burdened with educating them in the name of ‘open debate’!

(Just to pick one out of the climate bag. How often haven’t you seen someone say “Yeah but climate change is cyclical!” – What? As if _climate scientists_ didn’t know that?! Refuting someone’s research with arguments from an introductory textbook)

The fact that these climate-skeptics were prepared to take these e-mails, pore over them for some choice quotes (which didn’t even look incriminating to me out of context), blatantly misinterpret them without making any kind of good-faith effort to understand the context or the science behind it, and trumpet it all out as some kind of ‘disproval’ of global warming (which wouldn’t have been the case even if they were right), just goes to show that they’re simply not interested in either learning the science, or engaging in a real debate. And it’s in itself pseudo-scientific behavior in action: Decide there’s a big conspiracy of fraud behind climate change, and go look for evidence to support your theory, and ignore all other explanations.

Comments

  1. #1 caerbannog
    2009/11/28

    The worst of the emails (FOI stuff) appears to be related more to a personal dislike of McIntyre than of any attempt to hide fraudulent data/code from the public.

    You’ll find personality clashes, p***ing-contests, etc. of the type that produce all sorts of nasty email traffic in *any* organization. This, of course, doesn’t excuse Jones’ attempts to evade FOI requests, but it does put Jones’ misbehavior## in a more “conventional” context.

    ##Just assuming for argument’s sake here that Jones did misbehave (not attempting to come to a conclusion about that one way or another here.)

  2. #2 Arthur Smith
    2009/11/28

    Actually, as I happen to work at the Physical Review journals, a sizable percentage of submissions to a couple of our journals does consist of completely off-the-wall “contributions” to “general relativity or quantum mechanics”. “Theories of everything” are pretty popular these days too. At least they don’t really waste time, and are sometimes cause for amusement: the editors have a collection of standard rejection letters for such contributions.

    The difference is not that there are cranks out there on climate but not in other fields. The difference seems to be that the cranks in climate science have somehow achieved a level of support, a cheering section, or perhaps actual material support for their work. In particle physics the Dunning-Krugerites are each off in their own little world with no media attention at all. Not so in climate. I wonder why?

  3. #3 Nicolas Nierenberg
    2009/11/28

    I agree there is absolutely no obligation for scientists to engage with anyone else including other scientists. I do think there is an obligation to make methods and data available.

  4. #4 Rosie Redfield
    2009/11/28

    People similarly imagine that they understand the science behind evolution, and vaccines. I can’t see any unifying property …

  5. #5 Steve L
    2009/11/28

    I don’t think this is a big deal. In some ways this is the best thing that could happen. Everybody gets worked into a lather and then someone decides to look outside at some glaciers (or something obvious) and says, “but it sure does *seem* to be getting quite warm.” Really, is there anything easier to refute? Emails don’t make ice disappear (maybe I should read your Antarctica post before I say that). This is so much a better situation than having to demonstrate “a change in kind” for evolution, or to perform controlled experimentation on humans regarding vaccination.

  6. #6 eddie
    2009/11/28

    I entirely agree, but read this;

    You’re just not going to find a professor of physics having made a mistake of forgetting the first law of thermodynamics.

    and thought; Hmmm. What about the Many Worlds thing?

  7. #7 Aaron Bergman
    2009/11/28

    and thought; Hmmm. What about the Many Worlds thing?

    Which pretty much validates the point (assuming this wasn’t a joke). The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in no way violates conservation of energy.

  8. #8 Eli Rabett
    2009/11/28

    How about the second law. Gerlich and Tscheushner do quite a job on that one. And, come to think about it, they don’t have too good a grip on the first (at the end of the post)

  9. #9 Benjamin Franz
    2009/11/28

    #2 A. Smith:

    In particle physics the Dunning-Krugerites are each off in their own little world with no media attention at all. Not so in climate. I wonder why?

    Because particle physics rarely threatens massive entrenched financial interests. There is a lot of money (trillions of dollars) invested in the fossil fuel economy. Anything that threatens that cash cow will inspire resistance from those who profit from it.

  10. #10 Russ Finley
    2009/11/28

    I made this same point in a post just today: “The Armchair Climatologist.

    We are often too ignorant to know how ignorant we are. I once made the mistake of using the Great Wall of China as an analogy for something and just my luck, an expert on great walls read my article and tore me to shreds. I had no idea there was so much to know about walls.

    I recently read Wilson’s book Super Organism. You never dreamed there is so much to know about ants. Never get into a pissing match about ants with E.O.Wilson.

  11. #11 Lassi Hippeläinen
    2009/11/29

    I want to know what kind of e-mails climate “sceptics” have been sending to each other. In fact, I want to see their full correspondence. Remember – innocent people have nothing to hide!

  12. #12 jay
    2009/11/29

    Because particle physics rarely threatens massive entrenched financial interests. There is a lot of money (trillions of dollars) invested in the fossil fuel economy

    Putting it that way trivializes it. It’s not just the dividends of some rich cats, it’s at the critical core or our society, top to bottom, from food production, housing, family income, and very much the financial energy that drives science and medicine itself (without students with parents with credible income, without the technology spilled over from industry of all kinds, without energy driven transport and communication, science, including university science, as we know it could not exist.)

    World food production has increased many times over in the last century, real price has dropped. Energy, transport and petroleum are a large component of that. Medical reasearch has made longer healthier life possible, an industrialized economy has made it possible for people to benefit from these effects. In the industrialzed world, many of the poor of today live far better than the middle class of a century ago.

    We’ve seen how many (non rich cat) people suffered when the housing market stumbled. Pull the rug too fast from energy and the suffering will be orders of magnitude higher.

  13. #13 dhogaza
    2009/11/29

    You never dreamed there is so much to know about ants. Never get into a pissing match about ants with E.O.Wilson.

    This is one of the best things I’ve read on the internet in a very long time. Not only is it true, but it made me laugh.

    Thanks!

  14. #14 AMac
    2009/11/29

    Yes. But…

    This is the same variety of argument used by generations of surgeons to justify the radical mastectomy procedure to treat breast cancer (recent talk by Norman Wolmark, Chair of the NSABP, here.

    The same argument used by Wall St. quants and others to justify their sublime and sophisticated computer code, before they helped precipitate the 2008 financial plunge.

    I can’t cite a strong form of this argument from a physical science outside of dendrochoronology/paleoclimatology. Biologists don’t generally like engaging with creationists, but many do. They manage to win all the science battles on the merits.

    You folks are very alert to the policy implications, the politics, and the personal disputes. Foundational principals of science, not so much.

    Experiments and analyses have to be replicable by disinterested third parties.

    If the data and metadata aren’t properly archived, this can’t be done.

    If the computer code isn’t accessible, this can’t be done.

    Statistical and computational errors appear to be common in paleoclimate reconstructions. Why paleo, rather than, say, clinical trial analyses? I’d suggest that consensus-based collegiality and acceptance of lack of transparency have handicapped this field.

    I imagine that neither WMC nor any of the commenters on this thread (possibly excepting Nicolas Nierenberg) can name a single positive contribution that the much-loathed Steve McIntyre has made to paleoclimatology.

    That speaks to too much emphasis on emotion. The science suffers as a result. You, collectively, could learn a lot from your adversaries. So far, it doesn’t seem that you have.

  15. #15 Douglas Watts
    2009/11/29

    I imagine that neither WMC nor any of the commenters on this thread (possibly excepting Nicolas Nierenberg) can name a single positive contribution that the much-loathed Steve McIntyre has made to paleoclimatology. That speaks to too much emphasis on emotion. The science suffers as a result. You, collectively, could learn a lot from your adversaries. So far, it doesn’t seem that you have

    Do you have any evidence to support any of the above assertions?

    Can you name a single, “positive” contribution made by McIntyre to paleoclimatology?

  16. #16 Aaron Bergman
    2009/11/29

    It’s somewhat astounding to me (although perhaps not) just how ignorant these people are of how science is actually done. Nobody cares about other people’s codes, and no one would want to waste their time “auditing” them. It’s always much better to make you own code, do your own data analysis, and, whenever possible, get your own data.

  17. #17 bob
    2009/11/29

    I think many of you are missing the point. McI is an expert in applied statistics. As is Wegman. Jones, Mann, Briffa, et.al., are layman in statistics. The errors they have made are errors of statistical technique, not of climate science.

  18. #18 AMac1
    2009/11/29

    Douglas Watts @ Nov. 29 7:01pm —

    > Do you have any evidence to support any of the above assertions?

    Our host does not generally appreciate my longer comments, so let’s leave that under the rubric of “opinion.”

    > Can you name a single, “positive” contribution made by McIntyre to paleoclimatology?

    Yes.

    His efforts were key to persuading Kaufman et al (Science, 2009) to correct their upside-down usage of the Jarvykortta River proxy, prior to formal publication.

  19. #19 lumpy
    2009/11/30

    It’s somewhat astounding to me (although perhaps not) just how ignorant these people are of how science is actually done. Nobody cares about other people’s codes, and no one would want to waste their time “auditing” them. It’s always much better to make you own code, do your own data analysis, and, whenever possible, get your own data.

    Science has set up it’s own effective self-auditing process. Unfortunately it doesn’t provide for any 1984 type “Goldstein” moments.

  20. #20 sikiş izle
    2009/11/30

    On some less-detailed maps their layout looks similar except they’re inverted relative to one another and there isn’t always a sign telling you you’ve crossed the border from one to the other. I once was using a map to navigate.

  21. #21 Bob
    2009/11/30

    “In a lot of cases, if not most, dialogue on the merits of your scientific work is simply impossible with a layperson.”

    Planet30, what you suggest is an archaic structure popular in primative religions, ie., only the high priests are believed to be pious enough to see the sacred texts. Science rejects this concept and advocates the open diffusion of knowledge.

    [As you know, the “sacred texts” aka peer-reviewed literature are open to all. You know that you can “read” but not understand Einsteins General relativity papers. Alas, you don’t know that you can’t understand the climatology papers -W]

  22. #22 Eli Rabett
    2009/11/30

    Bob, you really don’t want to argue religion with the Pope either. Unless you study the material all your life, you ain’t in his league.

  23. #23 WAG
    2009/11/30

    What kind of ‘debate’ is it if every answer amounts to “That’s not what that word means, read a damn textbook.”

    Great quote. This comment at Dot Earth, in which a skeptic who doesn’t understand the difference between absolute temperature and temperature anomalies, is a great example of this:

    http://community.nytimes.com/comments/dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/more-on-the-climate-files-and-climate-trends/?permid=87#comment87

  24. #24 wagdog
    2009/12/01

    What kind of ‘debate’ is it if every answer amounts to “That’s not what that word means, read a damn textbook.”

    Great quote.

    The whole “debate” over the last two decades is composed of almost 100% of examples of this. One of the most egregious is Mann having to give elementary school lessons in temperature conversion.

  25. #25 Phil Hays
    2009/12/01

    As you know, the “sacred texts” aka peer-reviewed literature are open to all. You know that you can “read” but not understand Einsteins General relativity papers. Alas, you don’t know that you can’t understand the climatology papers

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that things that I thought I understood I really didn’t understand. This is a direct consequence of learning. This has been the case both in what I do for a living as well as in things I’m just interested in, like climate.

    Dialogue with someone that knows a lot more about a subject than you do is best when you are mostly listening. However, if you do nothing but listen, you will not learn as much as if you question and/or challenge. Of course, they don’t have to answer. And their answer may well be “read a textbook”. If you are lucky, they might even tell you which one. Yet remember that experts are not always correct.

    Climate is an important subject as our society is making a decision to change it. Or perhaps more correctly, not making a decision not to change it.

  26. #26 thomas hine
    2009/12/01

    RE: #22 Eli

    Wrong, it can take minutes to get to the bottom of the Pope, where he will say “either you believe HE is who he says He was or you must conclude that HE was a lunatic” thus “how can so many people be wrong?” thus “know them by their fruits” thus “why martyr’s” etc.
    The learned fathers will toy with logic to a point, but it all hinges on that, and devolves from that. It IS a different set of assumptions, ground rules, “world-view”, not a “league” that all can play in. Sound familiar? Catholic?

    ps- hope we’re not going to hell whilst getting “hits” for William

  27. #27 bob
    2009/12/01

    “You know that you can “read” but not understand Einsteins General relativity papers.”

    I think many non-experts can understand that general relativity has problems that it can’t reconcile. This understanding comes from the fact that astrophysics tolerates competing theories (like HoYava) and dissent. As a result, I’m fairly well informed on the strengths and weaknesses of various theories because the advocates from each side work to distill their arguments into cogent and defensible forms that I can understand. Open, public debate improves the science.

    If I might respectfully say (without getting snipped) I think climate science pursued a disastrous strategy by trying to claim that all matters were settled and beyond debate. It undermined public confidence.

    [You could say it, but it wouldn’t be true. You could look at my most recent post, for example, which points out that the most recent SCAR report rather disagrees with the GRACE stuff. I think you’re looking for the wrong things to debate. It is true, beyond debate, that the recent rise in CO2 is anthropogenic – yet you will still find wackos out there who doubt this. Similarly, it is true that things fall if you drop them -W]

  28. #28 dhogaza
    2009/12/02

    If I might respectfully say (without getting snipped) I think climate science pursued a disastrous strategy by trying to claim that all matters were settled and beyond debate. It undermined public confidence.

    That might be damning, if true, but of course it’s not [cut]:

    That when scientists say that the sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 most likely lies within the range of about 2.5C-4.0C, they’re not saying that the “science is settled”.

    They’re saying, we have a lot of work to do, to narrow it.

    On the other hand, the fact that CO2 is a GHG, traps longwave IR, therefore warming the earth … that *is* settled. By physics. Relatively old physics.

    General relatively explains a lot of previously unexplained phenomena (and predicted new ones that were later observed). Any displacement of GR will have to be able to explain the same, i.e., it will include GR as a subset, much as Einstein’s work for all practical purposes decomposes into Newtonian mechanics when velocities are low.

    In the same sense, any new theory will have to account for the fact that CO2 is a GHG. That’s an observed fact. it’s data. not theory.

  29. #29 dhogaza
    2009/12/02

    I think climate science pursued a disastrous strategy by trying to claim that all matters were settled and beyond debate.

    Oh, and lastly, I’d say that denialists pursued a disastrous strategy by claiming that climate science insists “all matters were settled and beyond debate”, except of course, despite being a falsehood, it’s been a successful strategy in casting doubt among those who get their “science” from the denialsphere,.

  30. #30 thomas hine
    2009/12/02

    I wonder if you have a take on this:
    Trenberth (see his updated energy balance paper-which I read, no joke) and Raypierre (see similar comments on DotEarth, RPjr thread) are now in my mind “spinning” an angle that AGW is so real that our measurement techniques must be inaccurate.
    Isn’t this a fist in the eye to Pielke Sr who has rightfully said the same thing for some time now, but with different implications: the true “signature” isn’t there and it IS measurable?

    (I would put in links above, but a layperson has trouble with html . . .when it isn’t his own site)

  31. #31 dhogaza
    2009/12/05

    in my mind “spinning” an angle that AGW is so real that our measurement techniques must be inaccurate.

    Well, that would match history …

    1. UAH’s first MSU reconstructions (i.e. the satellite record) first showed cooling, which they touted – with an enthusiastic response by the WSJ and various other right-wing organs – as being the wooden stake through the heart of global warming. “The models are wrong! The surface record is wrong!”

    Well, eventually RSS did their own reconstruction which showed good correlation with the surface record and model predictions.

    Turns out that UAH had a series of very serious (and in one case stupid – sign error) bugs in their reconstruction technique. They now show warming, too, though still less than any other MSU reconstruction. Given the past history, I wouldn’t bet on UAH being right.

    2. “ARGO shows ocean cooling!” – instrument calibration error. Once fixed, it went away.

    I haven’t read Raypierre’s comments but Trenberth’s said that instrumentation is insufficient to answer the questions he raises, not that the instruments are necessarily *wrong*. We need better and more extensive coverage in order to answer the kinds of questions he raises, is his point.

  32. #32 Marion Delgado
    2009/12/06

    We don’t even have to play that game, dhogaza. “AGW is so real” because of measured data, after all. So when there’s a conflict between the picture of warming or cooling and causes that you’ve derived from measurements already, then two sets of measurements are in conflict. Therefore, you have to examine both sets, and only when you’ve established that both are, in fact, accurate and robust do you have to modify your model and perhaps your theories.

    The theory that the sun did it is inconsistent with all recent measurements of solar output. If we had been allowed to launch Triana, that theory would never even have been seriously raised by anyone. The crazy theory that we’re wandering through a spiral arm and that causes global warming was possible for an undergrad in physics to refute without getting out of his chair, since it inherently was at the wrong time-scale for measurements. The cosmic ray clouds theory was more chimerical, hence hard to refute, but it’s gradually faded as one path after another to fit a variety of measurements failed.

    All the denialist theories have failed to match measurements.

    Even Steve McIntyre’s theory about Briffa’s core studies failed on two counts: it was wrong about what a larger population without Briffa’s restricted set would show; and it established within itself criteria for a good subsection of the data that it itself fails to meet.

    the main denialist theories to account for warming are solar cycle, cosmic ray cloud reflection, and not-accounted-for ENSO. The best response to denialist trolls is to say, which theory do you have that accounts for warming, then point out which measurements falsify it. And if they’re “it’s not warming”-ists, show the lurkers, and them, which measurements falsify that.

    This is not a conflict of theory or models with measurements. This is theories and models arising from measurements and established physical science, and constantly corrected by new measurements.

  33. #33 thomas hine
    2009/12/07

    thanks for missing the point! not THOSE measurements, but energy budget/balance issues. I’d suggest looking in to what Trenberth said, that is where we are at, and it is open to interpretation.

    the troll

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