» Debate with Steve Easterbrook

Here is a fascinating exchange between George Monbiot and Steve Easterbrook exploring the larger issues behind the recent Swifthacking of CRU email (aka ClimateGate).

Steve makes an excellent presentation of the case for what happens to be my personal view on this mess, namely that the media has failed in a major and tragic way and that this is a tale of a successful propaganda campaign not scientific corruption. In my opinion, Monbiot seems to understand Steve's points but still does not get the real story.

Have a read:

The computer scientist Steve Easterbrook wrote an interesting critique of my approach to the hacked climate emails. This prompted me to write a column about the two cultures, and our inability to understand each other. Steve has now taken up the baton again, and I’ve responded to him. These comments were first published on Steve’s blog, where you can also read what other people have to say about the controversy and follow the links in Steve’s piece.

Steve writes


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Monbiot sure has been disappointing on the CRU matter, but rather than admitting he was wrong and caved in to the mob mentality, he's trying to talk his way out of it. Pathetic.

By Dappledwater (not verified) on 08 Apr 2010 #permalink

Well, I'm hoping George get's his act together. He can do some good.

On another note, what Steve E. notes in his paper is not unique to the scientific profession:

"...However, the personal email messages between senior academics in any field are frequently not very nice. We tend to be very blunt about what appears to us as ignorance, and intolerant of anything that wastes our time, or distracts us from our work. And when we think (rightly or wrongly) that the peer review process has let another crap paper through, we certainly donât hold back in expressing our opinions to one another..."

I have to say it's true of many professions. I've worked with lawyers, bankers etc. and they are even more damning (and use far more profanity) when they encounter "stupidity". They won't even bother with the coded language in persons: "Well, you a ". If someone was to "hack" their emails, well.. let's say it would not be flattering.

And agree: "Climategate" was pure propoganda.

Deep,deep down in George Monbiot he still has a tiny sliver of journalist iron in his soul. This resulted in a fit of righteous ire at the implications he took from the CRU emails.
Never dreaming it would happen,he has then been shocked and dismayed, and dare I say it, hurt by the firestorm of criticism directed at him by the Global Warming community as a consequence. RealClimate are being particularly beastly to him, and have now ,for the most part, also started to cease to regard the Guardian newspaper, in which he writes , as the firm friend and ally they once believed it to be.
He is shaking his head from side to side like the great wounded She-elephant and desperately misses his once adoring public. He cannot understand how he can so completely have fallen from favour for such a small (in his eyes) transgression. He keeps trying to explain himself in more and more weaseley ways but it is no use. He cannot redeem himself in the eyes of his flock.
Be warned. If you keep dissing the Moonbat he MAY TURN.
If you do not accept him back in the fold, he may just show the Persians the back way over the mountains and decide that the alarming predictions of catastrophe he has so faithfully relayed for so long might be, well, alarmist. And write about it.
That, as we say over here, would really put the cat amongst the pigeons.
His semi-dormant investigating journo instincts are telling him that there is something ever so slightly fishy going on and the more he fails to be able to convince the community to admit this even in the tiniest degree...the more doubts assail him.

By Jack Savage (not verified) on 11 Apr 2010 #permalink

"I've worked with lawyers, bankers etc. and they are even more damning (and use far more profanity) when they encounter "stupidity". "
I worked as a lawyer in the UK for 20 years and neither I, nor anybody in the firm, would EVER EVER pen an email or a memo or even a post-it note that they were not prepared for the whole world to see.
We were even very cautious about what we said in the office, conscious that a disgruntled employee overhearing could make life difficult.
Law west of the Pecos must be a very different thing.

By Jack Savage (not verified) on 11 Apr 2010 #permalink

@ 4 Jack Savage

Jack, I'm not defending such behavior: but I'm sure you would be very familiar with the behavior - all very well documented - that takes place in law, finance and allied industries:……

And this is but a sample.

I have witnessed, and have been the recipient of similar behaviour. The majority of lawyers/bankers etc. are professionals, so I'd hate generalise. Most are a pleasure to work with and for.

But I've witnessed the behaviour of the "big swinging d***'s" of finance personally. I've watched the head of an M&A department thump the desk and hurl abuse at his entire team in the most derogatory manner.

Again, I condemn such behaviour. But in high pressure situations, with big money and reputations at stake I've witnessed mall the foibles of human behaviour.

I raise this in the context that Jones are human. That they may have said some harsh things in the emails, *especially* when taken out of context. However, their words can be understood within context. Who else has not fired off an angry email? Or blog post for that matter? Who else has not gotten frustrated?

IMHO, Jones is an honorable man unjustly attacked and abused by the denial industry.

RE the Moinbot/Easterbrook exchange - it is the very model of what debate can be. Incisive, erudite and while robust, respectful.

One can only hope more people adopt their approach.

As I watch the debate two things come to mind:

Firstly, the very different standards the general public and journalist apply to the concept of "failure" and "mistakes" (indeed they conflate the two concepts).

Secondly, the concept of accountability. That is to say: when mistakes happen, who is "responsible" (in popular parlance, where the buck stops).

Science is an iterative process, that tests hypothesis via experiments and the collection of data. Theories are developed and discarded accordingly. Mistakes are viewed as part of the process (or that's how I'm now reading the debate, especially from Easterbrook's perspective).

In the world of journalism, business and politics mistakes and/or failure are anathema. The minister who mishandles his portfolio is called to account by the press, and is chastised, resigns or is sacked. The CEO who tanks the companies share price, or makes a strategic blunder is likewise disgraced and sacked. How many disgraced ministers or CEO's go on to run additional ministries or companies?

Failure - even the hint of failure - is to be avoided.

That mistakes (read perceived failures) can be seen as a crucial component of a process, indeed improves the outcome, is highly counter intuitive to most people. Outside of science, most people spend their careers trying to ensure they appear almost infallible. An impossible standard I know (and a generalisation), but there you go.

Climatgate the so called Amazongate and Glaciergate affairs created an impression (created by the deniers) of mistakes and/or failure in the mind of the general public. In business and politics, the hint of mistake can call into the question the competence of an individual. Therefore, that same thought process and method of evaluation used by the public got applied to the guys at the CRU and the IPCC.

The idea that science is "self correcting" and thrives on new data challenging existing models is foreign ot most people. That this process weeds out errors is not understood.

In the popular mind "mistakes" are conflated with an individuals or organizations *basic* competence. "What, can't they even get that right?".

It is this great misunderstanding the denial movement exploits so well: what is a tiny, irrelevant error in IPCC's fourth assessment is to them, on the surface, evidence of incompetence.

Moinbot, seeing the harm being wrecked by Climategate, was I think horrified. Investigative journalists - such as Moinbot - spend their careers investigating issues and looking for those who *should* be held to account. Someone always is.

We can't sack Morono, Watts and the deniers so as to hold them to account. But surely someone should be held to account? That's the normal state of affairs when things go wrong in biz/politics. Unfortunately, Moinbot thought it was (wrongly) Jones.

Moinbot misunderstands science in that respect, but can I suggest the reverse is also true? Scientists also need to understand how people view "mistakes" - and how they make gross generalisations about competence - and that their knowledge of science as a self correcting system is almost non-existent.

I await criticism to refine my argument ;)

Watching the deniers :

You misunderstand me. You have pointed me to lawyer-on-lawyer lawsuits/tribunals.
My point was that our day-to-day correspondence with clients,staff,other lawyers and other institutions was always conducted as though at any minute it could be exposed to the public, either in the form of the general public or the Law Society.
No emails on the lines of " I sending you this client who is thick as a brick but fabulously wealthy and whom you can bill unmercifully without any complaint."
The cautionary phrase was : "How is that going to sound read out in front of the Disciplinary Tribunal on a wet Monday morning?"
Think such thoughts if you like,but be very careful where you say such things and never write them down. If Phil Jones had kept his "politics" to himself he would not be in this mess.
Monbiot does not castigate him for any "scientific" mistakes but for his attitude. When you say "who else have not?" are you saying all scientists have a similar view of FOI, other papers that disagree with their theories etc; but
do not get caught? I do not think Jones is a bad man but I do suspect he has let himself display ,however unconsciously , his results so that they satisfy the agenda of the IPCC and some of his climate science colleagues, who seemed to be expecting an unequivocality which the science may not have justified. That is my suspicion from reading the emails.
They are frequently quoted appallingly out of context by many, but not by Monbiot.
I frequently have found Monbiot smug and/or spiteful and dismissive so have no liking for the man and a lot of his ideas. Hence I am rather enjoying the battering he is getting for his criticism of one of the poster boys of climate science.

By Jack Savage (not verified) on 12 Apr 2010 #permalink

Steve has it spot on.