In the public sphere, where the various running debates on climate science and climate policy are most fiercely fought, the uncertainty factor is often downplayed or glossed over. Subsequently, it gets little attention in the media.
And that’s a shame, because in the decision-making sphere, the uncertainty factor is very much on the minds of everyone from water managers in Denver to national security planners in the Pentagon. And they have to make some hard decisions, regardless of what happens with the energy/climate bill in Congress or treaty negotiations on the international stage. That’s because for both water managers and security planners (even though they work in very different arenas), there are huge unknowns with respect to the projected localized impacts of global warming.
So I think it’s notable that Gavin Schmidt highlights this issue over at Real Climate, with a new post that draws attention to this paper, called, “Options for Improving Climate Modeling to Assist Water Utility Planning for Climate Change.” Despite the wonky title, the paper is well worth reading for anyone interested in how the uncertainty factor is being grappled with at the ground level in water management circles. It’s also notable that Gavin chose to spotlight this clever play on a famous phrase, which is taken from that paper:
The ability to reduce the uncertainties we can;
The willingness to work with the uncertainties we cannot;
And the scientific knowledge to know the difference.
As I pointed out last week, it seems that national security experts are mouthing that same prayer. This is a good place for me to mention a recent paper that I’ve been meaning to discuss. It’s called, “Lost in Translation: Closing the Gap Between National Security Policy and Climate Science.” Here’s one passage that jumped out at me:
For the past 20 years, scientists have been content to ask simply whether most of the observed warming was caused by human activities. But is the percentage closer to 51 percent or to 99 percent? This question has not generated a great deal of discussion within the scientific community, perhaps because it is not critical to further progress in understanding the climate system. In the policy arena, however, this question is asked often and largely goes unanswered.
we need to do a much better job of characterizing, assessing, and reasoning about uncertainty regarding this extremely complex system of climate science and the climate-science policy interface.
During some of this discussion, Judith laid out where she thinks people engaged in the climate debate line up on the uncertainty spectrum. Below is a slight modification of the categories she first mentioned here.
Regarding uncertainty, my take is that there are 5 different ways of dealing with it (an adaptation of Van der Sluijs):
1. Uncertainty denier ““ pretend it doesn’t exist, or underestimate it or try to keep the discussion away from the topic. Uncertainty denying or the “never admit error” strategy can be motivated by a political agenda or because of fear that uncertain science will be judged as poor science by the outside world.
2. Uncertainty reducer ““ “reduce the uncertainty” mantra, of the early IPCC reports and also the US CCSP Strategic Plan. A laudable goal, but reducing uncertainty will prove to be vain in the long run: for each uncertainty that science reduces, several new ones will pop up due to unforeseen complexities. Further there is a class of uncertainties (ontic or aleatory uncertainties) that are fundamentally not reducible.
3. Uncertainty simplifier ““ fit complex uncertainties into nice categories. The subjective Bayesian approach of Moss and Schneider (expert judgment) fits here, this has been the uncertainty recipe for the IPCC 3rd and 4th assessment reports, e.g. the likely, very likely stuff. Uncertainty simplifiers, while they definitely pay attention to uncertainty, they tend to be inadvertent uncertainty minimizers.
4. Uncertainty detectives ““ well, all scientists should work hard to understand, represent, and reason about uncertainty (climate scientists generally don’t do a great job at this). The conflict is when political opponents seize on this uncertainty as an excuse for inaction.
5. Uncertainty assimilator ““ include uncertainty information in rational decision support systems and policies.
We need to get to #5. This is not simple, since climate assessment (e.g. IPCC) is stuck in #3 right now. My efforts to move it to #4 are being met with apparent calls to go back to #1. We have to work our way through #4 before we get to #5. Will #4 result in blood on the floor and more polarization? On the contrary, it may actually enable the two sides of scientists to become less polarized, which will take some of the steam out of the political uncertainty embracers. Moving forward in the science requires #4. #4 will also improve the policy and decision making process.
If various decision-makers (such as those water managers and security experts) are grasping for a handle on the uncertainties associated with climate change, then maybe it’s only a matter of time before our fractious public debates pivot on the collaboration between (#4) uncertainty detectives and (#5) uncertainty assimilators.
But to even get to that point might require a constant invocation of that Uncertainty Prayer spotlighted at Real Climate.
With the climate change debate becoming increasingly hard-nosed and polarized, perhaps it’s time the main players in climate science reconsidered their tactics.
Right now, force meets force. This has largely deteriorated into a never-ending rhetorical battle of insults between climate scientists and skeptics. (Climate activists, taking their cue from the hostile landscape, are more transparent, with some calling for a “serious takedown” of one particular renegade scientist). I realize that caged fighting is all the rage, but I don’t think it’s going to change the dynamics of the climate change discussion. There are, however, other martial arts that could help break this ugly standoff.
For example, should climate scientists ever want to establish a better rapport with skeptics (and the public at large) they might consider taking up Tai Chi, a popular Chinese martial art that blends “soft” and “hard” techniquies. Why? Here’s one excellent reason via Wikipedia:
The philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan is that if one uses hardness to resist violent force, then both sides are certain to be injured at least to some degree. Such injury, according to tai chi theory, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. Instead, students are taught not to directly fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, meeting yang with yin.
Please do no think I am recommending that Tai Chi be used to outwit skeptics. Rather, I am suggesting that the philosophy may serve as a useful metaphor for more productive engagement with the public (though as an off-and-on-again student of Tai Chi, I certainly recommend it for both body and mind).
I started thinking about this after paying closer attention to the comment threads at Real Climate. These guys, I believe, are well intentioned and they perform a valuable public service. Over time, they have also come to represent the public face of climate science. They have to know this. Yet the way RC interacts with a segment of its readership does not reflect well on the communication skills of some of the RC contributors.
If you are familiar with radio jock Howard Stern (who can be crude but is also often hilarious), then you might know this classic bit he has shared with listeners countless times. It’s a twenty second exchange between a young Howard and his father, who berates his son with a classic one-liner. I think some of the guys at RC, either out of impatience or frustration, or just sheer contempt, employ variations of the same putdown. It’s probably not the best way to win people over to your side of the argument.
This brings me to an op-ed by Chris Mooney in yesterday’s Washington Post, titled
If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening
The column likely has some scientists scratching their heads, since Mooney is the co-author of the recent book Unscientific America, in which he argues that
Americans are paying less and less attention to scientists.
So who are scientists supposed to listen to if people have already tuned them out? Maybe Chris can smooth that one out in his next op-ed. At any rate, I would argue that the Real Climate guys who are the public face of climate science in the blogosphere (where much of the nasty debate plays out) are indeed listening to the public. It’s how they’re responding that strikes me as the bigger problem.
UPDATE: I think Mooney’s essay is worth taking up in a separate post. Meanwhile, have a look at Orac’s rebuttal. BTW (and this is off-topic, but hey, it’s my blog), some of you may be interested to learn that I agree with Orac that scientists can’t and shouldn’t be building bridges to the anti-vaccine movement. That said, I happen to think that Orac and other science bloggers unfairly lump in climate skeptics with creationists and anti-vaccine activists as part of the larger “denialist” anti-science phenomena. For example, here’s Orac in that current post:
Here’s the problem with Chris’ observations. As he clearly points out, denialists, be they anti-vaccine, creationist, deniers of anthropogenic global warming, or whatever, are indeed highly motivated “consumers of science.” That’s part of the problem. They are consumers of science, but do not understand (or necessarily accept) the scientific method or how science works.
If the more serious and science-minded climate sceptics don’t want to be painted with this broad brush (and make no mistake, they are), then I think it’s up to them to distinguish themselves from the anti-science types they are so often grouped with. I know they feel they shouldn’t have to, but hey, this is the world we live in.
Guess who’s asking the hard questions on climate science and policy. The U.S. military and geopolitical/security specialists.
Earlier this week, an array of of defense, national security and climate experts took part in a conference hosted by the Scripps Oceanography Center for Environment and National Security. This was the symposium agenda and here’s the opener from a story by Lauren Morello:
Tell us what you don’t know.
That’s the message military and national security experts gathered here want to send to climate scientists.
This follows on the heels of a panel event held earlier this month by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change Security program. That discussion, between environmental security scholars and policy experts, explored
the unintended security consequences of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.
The conversation there appears to have centered on the complicated interplay between energy policy, food security, environmental conservation and geopolitical concerns, among other things. Here’s a nice overview of the specific issues covered, and this summation:
The panelists stressed that taking actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change is necessary, but that we must evaluate the full range of potential effects of these strategies. “We need to blow open the box on how complicated these problems are,” [Cleo] Paskal said. “We need as many different people involved and as many different sorts of solutions as possible.”
Paskal is a climate security scholar, whose recent book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map, I reviewed several months ago for Nature. (I have a longstanding interest in the environment/security nexus; here’s an exchange with experts and a related interview I conducted recently on this blog.)
To me, the calls for better forecasting and additional voices and options at the climate policy table is a good thing. In some popular quarters of the blogosphere, though, where climate change is of paramount concern (and political calculations are always present), this plea for more information by military and security experts is likely to be considered “unhelpful.” Heck, on one influential blog, raising such nettlesome issues that draws undue attention to any limitations of climate science and a preferred policy prescription, is liable to get you pegged as an “anti-science, climate disinformer/delayer.”
Does climate science have a confirmation bias problem? Or is it the bias of climate skeptics that is the problem? I suppose how you answer that might reflect your own bias. And so, in light of recent posts that explored issues of trust and polarization, maybe it’s a good time for us to examine the bias issue.
Once again, it is an exchange between readers (one of them being Gavin Schmidt) that will take center stage, and hopefully serve as a springboard for a productive discussion on bias.
The solution to the existence of individual biases (which exist regardless of how many letters have been signed), are the multiple levels of review and collaborations across many people and voices. You don’t get rid of biases by pretending they don’t exist.
To which JohnB responded:
There is a subtle problem with bias. That is that it changes our perception of when to raise warning flags due to our expectations. The Vulcan scientist is a fantasy and everybody is prey to their own biases, you me, Judith, Keith, everybody. The problem with bias is that it clouds our ability to detect bias in our own actions.
Where this is relevant. Suppose you (or anyone) were running projections to 2100 and you expect a 4 degree warming. AS in 4 degrees is around what you think the temps in 2100 will be. You know your stuff and have done this before, so you will have a rough idea of what to expect.
If the answer comes in between 3.5 and 4.5 degrees, you’d shrug and say to yourself “Round about what I expected” and move on. If the answer came in at 5 degrees, you’d whistle and think “Higher than I expected, this could get bad” and then continue.
However, if the answer came in at 3 degrees, you’d most likely think “That’s a bit low, I’d better check my figures.”
Natural bias tends to make us more liable to doubt when the answer disagrees with our preconceived ideas. You will be more likely to suspect a problem if the answer is lower than expected than when the answer is higher than expected. I think it’s called “being human”.
The problem comes in when the next person builds on your research. He assumes your findings are right. Why not, they’re peer reviewed and he also knows that Gavin knows his stuff and is likely right. But researcher number 2 has the same bias. So if his figures come out under yours, they will be immediately suspect (by him for a start) but if they come out a bit higher, well, both still fall into the error bars of the other, so they should be right.
Hence the seemingly never-ending litany of “It’s worse than we thought.” The simple fact that it’s always “worse than we thought” sets alarm bells ringing to Joe Public.
This sort of “compounding of errors” has probably been observed by most people as it happens in all walks of life. Why should Climate Science be any different? Joe Public knows it happens everywhere else, he’s seen it happen, therefore he won’t accept “Trust me I’m a scientist” as an answer. He will have trouble with “It’s been checked by my peers” because he’s seen corporate plans checked and rechecked and still fail miserably.
Joe Public knows all this, which is why he is immediately suspicious when someone says, in effect “Yes, I’m biased, but it doesn’t matter because I’m right”. He just won’t believe you.
(I will add that a researcher whose bias is towards a low climate sensitivity has exactly the same problem as described above, but in the opposite direction. He will be more likely to check his figures if the answer is above his expectations.)
Responding directly to JohnB, Gavin countered:
You are imagining scenarios that match only your prejudgement of my thinking. You are in fact completely wrong. In the 1990s, the GISS climate model had a sensitivity of 4.2 deg C (or even 5 deg C in some configurations). For the new model that I contributed to for AR4 (Schmidt et al, 2006), the sensitivity was 2.7 C ““ and at no time ever in the development process did we act as if that was “˜problem’ to be fixed. For the vast majority of scientists (and indeed all of the ones I’ve worked with), the answer is what it is.
JohnB responded again to Gavin, which you can read in entirety here. This is the first graph:
Where did I say anything was a “problem to be fixed”? I was pointing out the fact that our own biases influence our initial reaction to results. Nothing more, nothing less. Physicists have told me that this is so in their field, why would it not be true in others, including Climate Science?
After reading JohnB’s initial comment several times, it sounds to me that he is suggesting a bit more than that, which someone more well-known than him seemed to be getting at here:
Because any study where a single team plans the research, carries it out, supervises the analysis, and writes their own final report, carries a very high risk of undetected bias. That risk, for example, would automatically preclude the validity of the results of a similarly structured study that tested the efficacy of a drug. Nobody would believe it.
Now that you’ve read that quote, here’s the source and the full context. Does that bias you?
A brief word about JohnB. He is from Australia and a non-scientist. He told me via email that for the last six years he’s been
hanging out at a place called scienceforums. These guys are Particle Physicists, Astronomers, BioChemists, name a major science and there is an expert there, I mean one moderator studies Time for a living. You want to debate a topic? Fine. But you’d better be able to provide links to the actual papers and quote the relevant passages. Science debate there is hard science. You can perhaps imagine what some of our “Climate” debates were like.
In that email, JohnB also fleshed out how he became increasingly interested in climate science and the issue of confirmation bias:
I know about the bias thing because an Atomic Physicist told me about how sometimes he can throw out data because he knew it wrong by looking at the results, if it’s too far from expectation, or the wrong sign, you just know there’s something wrong with it. (We were debating tree rings BTW) But Climate Science isn’t Physics, is it? The hard and fast rules aren’t there and the error bars are far larger. Knowing it’s wrong becomes more of an opinion or educated guess so the possibility of bias effecting the results are larger.
When I got interested in modern Climate Science, one of the first things I came across was Phil Jones’ immortal statement “Why should I show you my data when all you want to do is find something wrong with it?” This was so far from what normal, hard scientists would say as to be not even in the same Galaxy. Pulling it in any of our forums would write you off as a crank there and then. Not willing to show the data? We’re not going to bother listening. Climate Science was not meeting the standards of proof that we ask of any poster in any of our science forums. Climate science wasn’t meeting the standard that hard, physical scientists had told me for years was the acceptable standard.
So I started reading and digging a bit deeper and frankly didn’t like what I was seeing. A climate scientist publishes a paper using a “new” statistical method. Who reviewed it? Statisticians? Nope, other Climate Scientists. But it’s in the literature and just gets cited and reused.
I was introduced to a form of scientific debate 6 years ago where it doesn’t matter who you are or what your education level was or how many letters you have after your name. Evidence matters, logic matters and proof matters, everything else is irrelevent. You can be a cowtown hick and argue with a physicist. If you’re right and can prove it, you’re right. Game over. If your theory or model doesn’t match the observations, then your theory or model is wrong. In Climate science, if your model doesn’t match the observations, the first assumption is that the obs are wrong and they get reworked until they match the model. Note the Allen and Sherwood paper in 2008. Tropospheric warming as measured by the thermometers on weather balloons didn’t match the models predictions. Do you adjust the model or decide that the airspeed of the balloon is a better proxy for temperature than the actual thermometer carried by the balloon? Your proof that airspeed is better? Because it matches the models predictions. I know which I would choose, and I know which one Climate science chose.
I’ll leave it to others to engage with JohnB on his grasp of climate science and the profession’s protocol. But I highlight his obvious efforts to educate himself about the discipline, which strike me as sincere, (perhaps he’ll want own up to any extra-science motivational biases in the thread), because I think there is a tendency to dismiss this kind of public engagment in the climate debate. The meme on skeptics seems fairly one dimensional and monolothic, as reflected in this Jeffrey Sachs op-ed.
On the other hand, Bart Verheggen acknowledges:
Undoubtedly climate skepticism comes in many shades of grey (as does climate concern). How can we distinguish between genuine skeptics and pseudo-skeptics? Undoubtedly, all self styles skeptics see themselves as genuine. I don’t really have an answer to that question.
Well, maybe the answer is to actually engage with them and their arguments. Obviously, Judith Curry is blazing that trail. But I also want to applaud Gavin Schmidt for coming over here and mixing it up with Judith, JohnB and other readers.
Now who can help shed some light on the problem of bias? Does it perhaps afflict both climate science and its critics? If so, what can be done about it?
UPDATE: In the comment thread, Judith Curry identifies what she considers to be “the big flaw” in the PNAS paper.
UPDATE: Real Climate officially weighs in.
There’s a new PNAS study out today called, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change,” that is sure to reverberate throughout the climate blogosphere. Over on the other thread, which had a relevant discussion, Judith Curry asked:
Does anyone find this a convincing analysis of credibility?
Let’s take her up and offer feedback. But do read the study first, which is freely available from that link above. (The PDF is on the right side of the abstract.) As Judith also pointed out, the data for the study can be found here.
It’ll be interesting to see mainstream media coverage and blogospheric reaction to the study. I’ll post the relevant links in an update at the bottom of the post as they come in.
UPDATE: 6/21, 11:15pm: Eli Kintisch at Science is among the first out of the box with this story earlier today. Unsurprisingly, Joe Romm lauds the results of what he calls an “important first-of-its-kind study.” (To fully appreciate how novel this “first-of-its kind” study is, you have to read the Science article.)
Meanwhile, Roger Pielke Jr. dissects the study’s methodology and adds some supplementary information on one of the authors.
UPDATE: 6/22, 7:00am: Leo Hickman in the Guardian says the study “throws some new light on the ‘expertise gap’” between climate science factions.
Wow. Roger, you know I disagree with you on many things, but not on this. What the heck where they thinking? Even if the analysis had some validity — and from a first glance, I’m definitely not convinced it does — it’s not helpful, to put it mildly. I’m totally appalled.
12:30pm: On the study, Chris Mooney at his Discover blog writes, “that journalists who have given a lot of weight to climate ‘skeptics’ have some ‘splaining to do.” Over at Time, Michael Lemonick writes that what constitutes a top climate researcher is “laid out in detail” in the paper.
The BBC has a story up that quotes Stanford’s William Anderegg, a lead author of the paper, on what motivated the study:
We really felt that the state of the scientific debate was so far removed from the state of the public discourse and we felt that a good quantitative, rigorous comparison of this would put to rest the notion that the scientists ‘disagree’ about global warming.
In an effort to turn this blog into a pluralistic forum, you will on occasion see spotlighted contributions from individual commenters and excerpts of exchanges between readers.
Over the weekend, the who started this ruckus post has triggered an interesting thread on, among other things, the value of citizen scientists. Part of the discussion has keyed on how to determine if citizens are engaging with climate science sincerely or as politically/ideologically motivated actors. Another strong theme of the thread, as Judith Curry observed, is the contentious issue of “trusted sources” for citizen climate scientists.
I recognize this is a murky area to tread, which is why I thought that Jonathan Gilligan, an Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, helped shed some light with his contributions to the thread. (Gilligan is also the Associate Director of Research at the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network.) Below is one of his comments (slightly modified for new readers) that I thought deserved to be taken up more in full.
From Jonathan Gilligan:
I see two separate problems here: Establishing good faith and sincerity and establishing competence.
Good faith: Too many scientists have been discouraged by seeing the same people repeat the same disingenuous objections, first to the CFC-ozone connection and later to AGW, long after the objection was debunked. People are much more likely to take the time and effort to engage in a dialog if they feel the other side is willing to listen with an open mind and consider that it might be wrong (this problem runs both ways in these controversies, but it would be a mistake to set the bar for open-mindedness by mainstream scientists so high as to require that they be prepared to jettison decades of solid empirical and theoretical work on the basis of a new revelation by someone with little track record; more on this below).
One source of trouble is the tendency to stereotype or judge people by association: just because many people in the past have argued disingenuously about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) doesn’t mean a new interlocutor with similar opinions will do so, but it’s human nature to jump to that conclusion.
The water is poisoned badly at this point, and there is a real need for some way that sincere people in the scientific community and the general public can demonstrate their good will to one another.
The second problem is establishing competence. Scientists in certain fields regularly receive communications (often accompanied by lengthy diatribes) from sincere citizen-scientists purporting to refute special relativity, quantum complementarity, the second law of thermodynamics, and so forth. These days, proposals for carbon sequestration and clean energy are on the rise in my mailbox, including schemes to harvest unlimited free energy from magnetic monopoles or the quantum zero-point field. Sometimes it’s easy to fire off a quick email pointing out the flaw in the argument, but sometimes the correspondent has a lengthy tract with lots of mathematics and it’s not worth the hours it would take to find and explain the flaw.
Amateurs can also provide genuine insight and even advances, but when the signal to noise ratio is very low, it doesn’t pay off to sort through it all, hoping for a pony.
One thing sociologists of science have identified that separates earnest but misguided outsiders from competent practitioners is tacit knowledge””the unwritten practical good sense you pick up working side by side with a master. This is what graduate training or apprenticeships confer that simply reading books and journal papers cannot.
People who lack appropriate tacit knowledge often can’t figure out the context in which to put a single piece of research, the judgment to determine the quality of a new publication, and so forth. As Harry Collins and Robert Evans point out, “it can be shown that what is found in the literature, if read by someone with no contact with the core-groups of scientists who actually carry out the research in disputed areas, can give a false impression of the content of the science as well as the level of certainty. Many of the papers in the professional literature are never read so if one wants to gain something even approximating to a rough version of agreed scientific knowledge from published sources one has first to know what to read and what not to read; this requires social contact with the expert community.” (Collins & Evans, infra, p. 22)
A good example of this can be found in Thabo Mbeki’s attempt to do a sort of citizen-science regarding AIDS by reading and assessing primary research literature on his own. His lack of tacit knowledge led Mbeki to seize on a few papers by outlier scientists, rejecting the connection between HIV and AIDS and judging that drug-safety testing showed that AZT was a poison rather than a useful antiretroviral drug, albeit with serious side effects. This confusion underlay Mbeki’s decision not to provide AZT prophylaxis to babies born to HIV-positive mothers, a decision that cost tens of thousands of lives.
Sociologist Harry Collins has conducted extensive empirical studies of scientific expertise and the acquisition and transmission of tacit knowledge. In his slim and very readable book with Robert Evans, Rethinking Expertise (U. Chicago, 2007, 160 pp.) he lays out a taxonomy of both expertise to use skills and expertise to judge others’ expertise (what Collins and Evans call “meta-expertise”).
The book is well worth reading for questions of how to figure out what makes someone an expert and different ways that people figure out how to establish someone else’s degree of expertise.
Two important things for this discussion are the observation that there are other ways to acquire the tacit knowledge necessary to understand complex technical science (Collins’s prime example is gravitational wave physics) without actually being a practicing scientist and that even within the scientific community, scientists often lack the direct expertise to judge one another’s competence, but use what the authors call “referred expertise” to judge scientists in other fields they are not themselves qualified to practice.
Collins and Evans conclude with a discussion of how all this might apply to interactions between citizens and scientists regarding politically contentious issues, such as vaccine safety, genetically modified (GM) crops, and global warming.
Collins and Evans hold out hope that members of the public can indeed acquire enough tacit knowledge through informal pathways (it would be very interesting to study how interactions on science blogs function at transmitting tacit knowledge from experts to layfolk) to understand and judge complex scientific questions, but that we should not romanticize this ability. Often (he offers the example of public rejection of mainstream scientific results on GM food safety) as a case where supporters of citizen science have judged that “the public “¦ are well informed about scientific advance and “¦ highly sophisticated in their thinking on the issues. “¦ [T]he public are ahead of many scientists and policy advisors in their instinctive feeling for a need to act in a precautionary way,” when in fact the public are generally confused and misinformed about the science.
Collins and Evans contrast this to the role of the ACT-UP citizen activist group in the 1980s at making sophisticated and useful contributions to the testing of early anti-HIV therapies. The way ACT-UP overcame Robert Gallo’s initial dismissive treatment and won his attention and respect is perhaps a good positive example of how to proceed here (see also, S. Epstein, “The Construction of Lay Expertise: AIDS Activism and the Forging of Credibility in the Refort of Clinical Trials.” 20 Sci. Tech. Hum. Val., 408 (1995)).
One problem with establishing competence is the asymmetry between experts and layfolks. We often use three attributes to judge expertise in others when we don’t have time or expertise to go through their work in detail: credentials, experience, and track record. For judging mainstream scientists, we can use all three but for judging citizen scientists, credentials and experience are absent and it’s hard to figure out what an amateur’s track record is.
If we believe in populist democratic governance, as opposed to rule by technocratic elites, better integration of citizens and scientists will be necessary. However, doing this is very difficult, and we should not oversimplify or romanticize the ability of outsiders to understand, judge, and contribute to research at the boundaries of knowledge.
UPDATE: Do browse the lively comment thread, especially where Judith Curry says of the famed Hockey Stick: “So I am laying down the gauntlet, this really needs to be discussed and rebutted by the paleo researchers and the IPCC defenders.”
Maybe we need to back up before we can go forward. A very interesting exchange between Bart Verheggen and Judith Curry took place while the comment system was being fixed. Tim Lambert also chimed in with a relevant comment. And for good measure, I’m throwing in a perplexed reaction (to Curry) from one reader.
I think the issue of who instigated this climate science war of attrition should be aired in full. So let’s have it out (but stay civil, please). And then can we move on”¦?
Bart Verheggen: In a newer thread Judith Curry suggested that it would be very worthwhile to figure out how to put this energy and expertise (well educated people delve into specific scientific details) to productive use, rather than dismissing. I would add that it should ideally be put to good use indeed, rather than it being put to destructive use, as a lot of it currently is. It looks like many of them have a deep felt contempt for climate science (fed in no small part by McIntyre) and often miss the forest for the trees (imitating McIntyre). That makes it very hard to see their energy (as currently used) as positive to the scientific and policy related discussions.
Michael Tobis said over at Climate Audit:
“The fundamental question is: Are you interested in improving the world’s and your own understanding the climate system as a physical system, a problem which in principle really ought to be at least partially resolvable? Or are you interested in demeaning and undermining the people who have made the most effort toward doing so.”
Judith Curry: Bart and Michael; the answer is that this group is definitely interested in moving the science forward. They feel that they have been disrespected by main stream scientists, and that mainstream scientists haven’t been playing by the rules, which raises their ire. And because their ire has been raised, then the main stream scientists feel justified in ignoring them. I originally viewed this as a chicken and egg problem, but after delving into this considerably, in my opinion it was not the bloggers that committed the first foul.
The climate researchers thought the situation with the bloggers was analogous to the war with big tobacco, and adopted the same strategies. This strategy was inappropriate since the bloggers are not politically or economically motivated, and it has backfired, and the current impasse is the result.
Tim Lambert: Judith, you are mistaken. Look at, for example, this post of mine from 2004. You’ll see that the same attacks on the science being made even before McIntyre and Watts and co started blogging.
Bart Verheggen: Judith, thanks for your reply. I very much want to believe that what you say is true, and I hope it is. But a lot of the CA minded folks seem to me politically or economically motivated. Perhaps I’m being blinded by the peanut gallery in my perception, and perhaps I’m throwing away the baby with the bathwater. I agree that it’s not constructive to dismiss the expertise and energy of the more scientifically minded critics. But then I would suggest that those sincerely interested clearly distance themselves from the contempt and suspicions raising crowd, since that are the public face of the critics, and it’s severely hampering communciation with mainstream scientists and their supporters. Problem is, McIntyre himself has had a major influence in instilling contempt and suspicions into his very wide following. It doesn’t just raise my ire; it’s entirely un-constructive to moving the internet discussion with critics forward (regardless of how it all started).
Judith Curry: Bart, I recommend that you read the “Hockey Stick Illusion“ by Andrew Montford. Note, this book was not written with any input from McIntyre (he was unaware of the book until he received a copy of the galleys), but documents the “hockey stick wars” from McIntyre’s first interest in the problem based upon blog posts and other pieces of documentation including journal publications. This book was nearly completed before the climategate emails, a chapter is appended at the end with emails that provide further information in completing the understanding of these events. The book is well documented, it obviously has a certain spin to it, but it is a very good book. If you read this book, which i think accurately lays out the perspective of McIntyre, you will understand why McIntyre comes across as suspicious and occasionally contemptuous. Taking what is in this book at face value, one is left wondering why McIntyre is as polite as he is. Note, McIntyre is not angry about all this (and he is often criticized for not being angry; particularly in the wake of climategate and also at the Heartland Conference).
Steven Sullivan: Judith Curry, given Bishop Hill’s (Montford’s) background and a level of scientific chops that has him saying, this year, “My gut feeling is still sceptical but I don’t believe it’s beyond the realms of possibility that the AGW hypothesis might be correct.”, why on earth would you take his book “˜at face value’? Do you seriously think the ‘spin’ is to be discounted here? The bigger question, why are you, now one of the public scientific faces of this debate, apparently *so deeply impressed* by the arguments of this cadre of articulate nonscientist skeptics, and so willing to go to bat for them? Is it some particular affinity for libertarian world-views?
One of the catch-phrases President Obama didn’t use in his much parsed Oval Office speech on Tuesday was energy security. He did, however, make a glancing, split-second reference when discussing the costs associated with a transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy (emphasis added):
And there are some who believe that we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy -”“ because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.
Obama’s reluctance to mention energy security in his speech strikes me as odd, considering how the term has become a central plank in his Administration’s energy policy and also a popular new Democratic talking point, which Michael Levi, an energy expert, notes in this recent Foreign Policy piece:
That two-word phrase — “energy security” — is an idea invoked frequently by everyone from oil company executives to green-energy proponents, and one that has taken center stage in the United States since the Gulf spill. Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited energy security in explaining the need to continue drilling in the outer continental shelf. Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman have argued that their new clean energy and climate bill will help the United States achieve energy security. Obama’s new National Security Strategy, published last month, invokes energy security no fewer than four times.
That Obama didn’t talk about energy security in his Oval Office address perhaps owes to the main point of Levi’s FP article, which is reflected in the subhead:
Politicians, oilmen, and green-energy boosters love to invoke the idea of energy security. None of them know what they’re talking about.
Levi includes himself in this clueless category. Earlier this week on his own blog at the Council on Foreign Relations, he wrote:
The phrase “energy security” is on my business card, yet whenever anyone uses it, I scratch my head.
I admire this humble tone from an energy scholar. Levi’s forthright attitude echoes the refreshing openness that a number of leading environmental security experts exhibited on this site during an excellent thread on the equally squishy climate security term.
Today I received an email from Gavin Schmidt, who said he was having trouble posting a comment. (Darn this new system which I’m alternately loving and hating.)
Rather than plop Gavin’s comment into the thread, I believe what he says warrants highlighting in a stand-alone post. In particular, I hope readers take up Gavin’s main issue (reflected in the headline I chose for this post), which relates to why he thinks scientists don’t engage more in blog comment threads. Be advised: I’m not interested in readers rehashing the “Tiljander” argument in this thread. Please be polite and stay on topic.
From Gavin Schmidt:
One of the pathologies of blog comment threads is the appearance of continual demands that mainstream scientists demand retractions of published work or condemnations of specific scientists for supposed errors or other sins. Most often the issue in question has been discussed dozens of times previously and is usually based either on an irrelevancy, or was acknowledged clearly in the original or subsequent paper or is based on some misperception of the science. [See Mann et al (2008) paper.]
Nonetheless, these demands are being used as some kind of litmus test for the kind of scientist one can respect and they clearly resonate with people who don’t know anything about the subject. However, for those that do, it serves only to signal that there is no reason to engage since the first explanation should have dealt with the issue. How many times do you need to correct someone’s misperception of a point of science? If they were sincerely looking for truth, the answer would be once. If instead they are trying to find issues with which they can bash scientists for another reason, the answer is apparently infinite. No scientists have time for that, and this kind of continual low-level insinuation is simply too tiresome to deal with.
The tweety and bloggy opiners who care most about climate change and energy policy were mostly left cold by President Obama’s big speech last night. Here’s an arbitrary round-up that captures the varying reax:
MoJo’s Kevin Drum panned it. The Atlantic’s Joshua Green said it was a “decent speech, but he [Obama] wimped out on climate change.” Kate Shepard, also with MoJo, called it “disappointing” and said Obama “largely avoided the issue of climate change.” Indeed, said Bill McKibben:
I was struck by the fact that he didn’t mention climate change, except as a reference to the title of the house bill, and that he didn’t mention carbon prices.
Concludes Time’s Byran Walsh:
It may be time to bury cap-and-trade.
So did Andy Revkin, it seems, who called the speech “workmanlike” and said:
Obama has left open the prospect of pivoting to energy and climate as a top priority in coming months, but chose (wisely) not to use a moment of national unease, built on a backdrop of unchecked pollution, as a launching pad.
That Obama did not seize this “moment,” though, is precisely what pissed off many progressive climate watchers, so it’ll be interesting to watch the reax to Revkin on that score.
I’ll update additional responses from other notable commentators throughout the day.
11am: A quick and dirty scan of some mainstream media columnists also reveals an interesting spectrum. In the Washington Post, David Ignatius detected a”glimmer of leadership” in the speech, and said Obama got it just about right:
Call to arms. Three-point plan. End our energy addiction. God bless America.
while he spoke eloquently and specifically of his faith in America’s ability to innovate in the long-term””a faith I share””he was vague when it came to the specific, short-term steps the organization he runs can take. As John Dickerson notes here, there was little mention of tough, controversial, but necessary initiatives such as placing a price on carbon, or sharply raising the tax on gasoline, or instituting a cap-and-trade regime. Obama’s speech was like a PowerPoint presentation with the last few slides missing.
For its part, The WSJ, in its lead editorial, wrote that Obama
naturally took the opportunity to put his moribund climate legislation back in play.
Based on the dominant assessment of most observations I’ve cited thus far, you have to wonder what speech the WSJ editorial writers were watching. Or are they just on automatic pilot over at the editorial page?
4.20:pm: Ezra Klein probably speaks for a lot of dispirited greens today, with this observation:
I’m just not sure how you do a response to climate change if you can’t really say the words “climate change.”
Brad Plumer over at TNR certainly agrees and adds, for good measure:
If the president can’t make that case in a major prime-time address in the midst of the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, then who can?
But Roger Pielke Jr. argues that President Obama deserves credit for admitting he doesn’t have all the answers [when Obama asked for "other ideas" on how to tackle climate change and decarbonization]. Roger adds:
For too long “I don’t know” has been taboo in discussions of climate policy. But understanding the limits of our policy proposals is a first step toward wiser policies.
On this note, Roger’s take echoes Andy Revkin’s, whose post headline on the speech read:
Obama Seeking New Ideas on Climate and Energy
In stark contrast to the many climate watchers who have slammed the President’s speech for its timidity and half-measures on energy policy, Roger is laudatory:
Obama showed policy leadership in his speech, which will likely have partisans upset. Nonetheless, it is policy leadership that this issue needs, not political posturing.
4:45pm: And finally, Alexandra Fenwick at CJR has an excellent roundup of the national press coverage of Obama’s speech, which is carried under this clever headline:
All Talk and No Oil Cap Makes Barack a Dull Boy