The Curry Agonistes

By Keith Kloor | August 3, 2010 2:40 pm

UPDATE: As with many of her previous appearances at this site, Judith Curry is an active participant in the comment thread below.

Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, has a knack for setting off tremors in the climate blogosphere. There was a lot of rumbling last week after Curry got into a rather contentious exchange with Gavin Schmidt and readers at Real Climate. Other notables, such as Joe Romm and William Connolley jumped into the fray. All this was precipitated by a review of Andrew Montford’s book, The Hockey Stick Illusion, posted at Real Climate. As Roger Pielke Jr. observed, these debates  over the hockey stick controversy “can be arcane, technical and simply impenetrable due to years upon years of perceived slights, a practice of in-group shorthand and a chorus of followers on either side cheering on the spectacle.”

Last week’s ritual bloodletting of Curry in blogland was remarkable for how unrestrained it was. I am struck by the phenomena of this respected climate scientist who is being met with increasingly derisive scorn from prominent members of her own community and from many climate advocates. I’m curious as to what drives her to keep engaging in what appears to be a very lonely battle.

Earlier today, we had an email exchange, in which I pressed Curry to explain what is driving her to keep banging away on certain issues and themes.

KK: Why do you feel the need to revisit the hockey stick debate? It’s not central to our understanding of climate science, nor does it factor into the policy debate. The general public is surely not paying attention to it anymore. So why do you feel so compelled to defend this particular book by Andrew Montford?

JC: I am not so much defending this book as recommending that people read it. Climate scientists can learn a lot from Montford’s book.  Not in terms of who is “right” or “correct” in terms of the science (that is still being debated), but how to avoid unnecessary conflict in the climate debate.  While the hockey stick is not of any particular scientific importance, Montford’s book explains why the hockeystick became a big deal, owing to the IPCC’s choice to make the hockey stick a visual icon for the IPCC in its marketing of the IPCC.  Therefore, in the public’s mind, challenges to the hockeystick metaphorically became challenges to the entire global warming argument.  And the Climategate emails, while not illuminating any actual scientific misconduct, provided a view into the underbelly of how the consensus was actually built: upon human judgment that was influenced by petty rivalries, a sense of self importance, a political agenda, and the brutal dismissal and even sabotage of competing viewpoints.  Not a pretty picture.The fundamental mistake made by the climate researchers involved in the hockey stick debate was to mistake McIntyre et al. as merchants of doubt (a la Oreskes and Collins), when instead they were motivated over a concern for public accountability of the research.   The response of the climate researchers to McIntyre and McKittrick, by attacking their qualifications and motives rather than trying to work with them or at least understand what they were trying to say, backfired big time and arguably culminated in Climategate.

KK: I’m still trying to understand what gave rise to this latest round of Curry bashing?

JC: My hypothesis is that the level of vitriol in the climate blogs reflects the last gasp of those who thought they could influence national and international energy policy through the power politics of climate science expertise. The politics of expertise is about how scientific information is used in the policy making process, including how diverging viewpoints are interpreted and how science is weighed relative to values and politics in the policy debate.  The problem comes in when the “power” politics of expertise are played.  Signals of the “power” play include: hiding uncertainties and never admitting a mistake; developing a consensus with a high level of confidence; demanding that the consensus receive extreme deference relative to other view points; insisting that that science demands a particular policy; discrediting scientists holding other view points by dismissing them as cranks, trivializing their credentials and say that they are not qualified to hold an opinion; and attacking the motives of anyone that challenges the consensus. Sound familiar?  In the case of climate change, the authoritarianism of “science tells us we should . . . “  could not withstand the public perception of scientists engaging with pressure groups, lack of transparency that meant people were unable to evaluate the information themselves, and then the climategate affair that raised questions about the integrity of the scientists.

Romm quickly honed in on the view that it was far more important to discredit me than Montford or McIntyre. Romm is “America’s fiercest” practitioner of the power politics of climate expertise, making brutal attacks on scientists and others that diverge from climate orthodoxy.  My comments rankle so much with Romm because I used to be in the stable of experts that he cited.  My putting the spotlight on uncertainties and too much confidence, plus listening to other view points and posting on rival blogs, and now calling people out on the power politics of science issue, has to be mighty uncomfortable for Romm.  Romm didn’t just stop with his “Shootout at the RC corral“ post.  Now he has dredged up an interview I gave a few months ago to a Brazilian reporter.  I wrote out my replies to the questions of the Brazilian reporter.  My answers were then translated into Spanish.  Which were then translated back to English.  Has anyone ever played the game of telephone?

KK: I question if there is really this breach of trust between the climate science community and the general public. Again, the average person is probably not paying much attention to these fractious debates between skeptics and a subset of the climate science community. I mean, every profession gets dinged by its share of controversies. The foundation for anthropogenic global warming rests on numerous solid pillars, which you agree with. So how is that a batch of intemperate emails and a decade-old scientific controversy over the hockey stick can rock this foundation, which is what you seem to be arguing?

JC: Evidence that the tide has changed include: doubt that was evidenced particularly by European policy makers at the climate negotiations at Copenhagen, defeat of a seven-year effort in the U.S. Senate to pass a climate bill centered on cap-and-trade, increasing prominence of skeptics in the news media, and the formation of an Interacademy Independent Review of the IPCC.  Concerns about uncertainty and politicization in climate science are now at the forefront of national and international policy. There is an increasing backlash from scientists and engineers from other fields, who think that climate science is lacking credibility because of the politicization of the subject and the high confidence levels in the IPCC report.  While these scientists and engineers are not experts in climate science, they understand the process and required rigor and the many mistakes that need to be made and false paths that get followed.

Further, they have been actively involved in managing science and scientists and in assessing scientists. They will not be convinced that a “likely” level of confidence (66-89% level of certainty) is believable for a relatively new subject, where the methods are new and contested, experts in statistics have judged the methods to be erroneous and/or inadequate, and there is substantial disagreement in the field and challenges from other scientists. The significance of the hockey stick debate is the highlighting of shoddy science and efforts to squash opposing viewpoints, something that doesn’t play well with other scientists. Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu made this statement in an interview with the Financial Times:

First, the main findings of IPCC over the years, have they been seriously cast in doubt? No. I think that if one research group didn’t understand some tree ring data and they chose to admit part of that data. In all honesty they should have thrown out the whole data set.

But you don’t need to be a Nobel laureate to understand this. I have gotten many many emails from scientists and engineers from academia, government labs and the private sector. As an example, here is an excerpt from an email I received yesterday: “My skepticism regarding AGW has been rooted in the fact that, as an engineer/manager working in defense contracts [General Dynamics], I would have been fired, fined (heavily) and may have gotten jail time for employing the methodology that [named climate scientists] have used.”

KK: Are you suggesting that the methodology of certain climate scientists rises to the level of a crime? Also, I have to ask you to defend this assertion that the failures of Copenhagen and the Senate climate bill are somehow tied to rising skepticism of climate change by policymakers. I don’t see the evidence for that, though I realize that climate skeptics make for convenient scapegoats by advocates such as Joe Romm.

JC: I am not suggesting that at all.  Scientists make mistakes all the time, that is actually how science progresses, provided that the mistakes are acknowledged and learned from.  If you want to understand the palpable impact of Climategate on European (particularly Dutch) politics, read this paper.

Skepticism has been rather unfortunately defined to be anyone who diverges from IPCC orthodoxy, not only in terms of the science, but in terms of accepting the policies that science “tells us” we must have.  The revolt is more in the sense of breaking this linear link between science and policy (see also this post by Pielke Jr.).

KK: The majority of comments at both Real Climate and Climate Progress were quite disparaging of you, which in my mind, speaks more to their readerships, since I have no way of knowing how the respective blog hosts chose to moderate the comments. After experiencing this latest blogospheric hazing, you have to wonder, what’s the point? Are any of your colleagues advising you to move on to a more constructive venue, and if so, what would that be?

JC: Well, first I have to comment on the moderation of RC and CP on this.  They chose comments that consisted of personal attacks, while rejecting many comments that were supportive of my viewpoints or asked challenging questions.  The reason that I know what comments were rejected because many of these people subsequently posted on climateaudit or emailed me.  In one instance, a comment was rejected by CP from someone who had previously made a guest post at RC.  So this reflects not only on their readership, but reflects specific choices made by the moderators at RC and CP, that I personally interpret as an attempt to discredit me.

The point is this. I have gotten hundreds of emails from practicing scientists and engineers in a range of different fields and holding positions in academia, government, and the private sector.  I have also had discussions with a number of climate researchers who are concerned about the politicization of the field and the overconfidence in the IPCC.   They are encouraging me to continue standing up for the scientific method and against the politicization of science.  I’m sure that there are some of my colleagues that don’t like it or wonder what the point is, but they are not talking to me about it.  I am getting feedback from scientists that like what I’m doing.

In terms of something more productive to do, I would encourage climate scientists to reflect on how to dig out from the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. Time to listen to some new ideas and some new experts. This time, I suggest listening to a plurality of viewpoints, and for scientists to make sure their data and methods are transparent to the public. And stop trying to simplify all this into a straight climate change science drives global energy policy strategy, which was misguided and naïve, to say the least.  The real problem is sustainability, which is a complex confluence of ecosystems, food, water, energy, population growth, finite natural resources, and the desire for economic development.  Sustainability is a value that nearly everyone can share.  The fundamental spatial unit of sustainability is the region, which makes it easier for people to identify their common concerns and secure their common interests.  Yes, there are global elements to all this in terms of climate change and finite natural resources, and the realization that regional instabilities can have global consequences.  It’s not a simple problem, and there is no silver bullet, but there are millions of little solutions that can all add up.  Climate change needs to be considered as but a single element in the context of all these issues.  And independently of the broader sustainability issues, we need rational energy policies that account not only for environmental issues, but also economic and national security issues.

Once you start thinking about sustainability and the broader issues of energy policy as the main challenges, and not climate change, then the overwhelming barrier of politics and economics becomes less monolithic.  And more importantly, climate science can get back to being science rather than being about politics.  My citations of Feynmann on the RC thread were to remind people of the difference.  Climate science is a fascinating and important scientific problem.  Lets step back and figure out how to do a better job so that our field can regain the respect of the Nobel laureates in physics, scientists and engineers from other fields, and credibility of the public. Most importantly we need to stop playing the power politics of climate science by saying “Here is what science says we must do” and start saying “Here is our best understanding, and here is where our uncertainties are . . .”


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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